No, Columbus Wasn’t Worried About Falling Off the Edge of a Flat Earth

I think it’s fair to say that most Boomers (and some who came afterwards) were taught that one reason Columbus sailed west to determine whether the earth was flat.  But this won’t wash, as BizzareVictoria notes:

Everyone knows that in the medieval era, everyone thought the world was flat, and Columbus discovered the Americas in part because he was trying to circumnavigate the globe, to prove it was round, and to end up in India, right?

Except all of this is wrong. 

Eco tells us that people have known the world was spherical since ancient Greece. “Parmenides seems to have guessed its spherical nature, while Pythagoras held that it was spherical for mystical-mathematical reasons [and] subsequent demonstrations of the roundness of the Earth were based on empirical observations: see the texts by Plato and Aristotle. Doubts about sphericity linger in Democritus and Epicurus, and Lucretius denies the existence of the Antipodes, but in general for all of late antiquity, the spherical form of the Earth was no longer debated” (11).

In addition to providing additional backup to this claim, BizzareVictoria goes on to detail how Victorians, frustrated at the opposition of the church to evolution, spread the idea that the medaevals, following Lactantius, thought the earth was flat.

To all that I’d like to add the following:

  1. The Bible does not teach that the earth is flat (cf. Isaiah 40:22.)  There was a great deal of knowledge interchange amongst the civilisations of the Middle East, including the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians and Greeks, a fact that was better appreciated in ancient times than it is now.
  2. Dante certainly conceived the earth as round, which is closer to Columbus’ time than the Bible.
  3. If there was a central fault in medaeval science, it was an over-reliance on the ancients for scientific fact.  That’s why Galileo butted heads with the schoolmen of his day. In this case, however, that reliance was correct.

As for Lactantius, he wasn’t exactly in the top shelf of Patristic writers, a fact also recognised in medaeval times.  One thing he was dead right on, however, was the rapacity of Late Roman tax collection methods, which doubtless hasn’t endeared him to the bureaucrats.

HT Tim Harding.

Catholic and Christian, the Sweet Combination

Evident in the obituary for a Texas A&M classmate (we both were engineering majors) of mine:

Thomas Craig Kohutek, 63, was called home to be with the Lord January 1, 2018…A faithful servant of the Lord, Tom was an active member of St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church as well as the Knights of Columbus.

I’ve written before about the revolutionising experience my years at Texas A&M and the effect it had on my life.  That experience was as a Roman Catholic; you can see a video montage of that here.

Somehow I think that directness of commitment has gotten lost between the obsessive churchianity of #straightouttairondale or the loosey-goosey veneer of faith in liberal Catholicism.  To see this and to know some of its roots is refreshing.

But what really tugged at the heartstrings was this, at the end of the obituary:

For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:17)

That sums it up.  So what about you?

Sometimes Science Takes a Detour

And it’s not the detour we’re told happens, either.  Consider this example from J.E. Gordon’s Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, during a discussion of Robert Hooke and the development of the theory of elasticity:

In fact, throughout the eighteenth century, remarkably little real progress was made in the study of elasticity.  The reasons for this lack of progress were no doubt complex, but in general it can be said that, while the scientists of the seventeenth century saw their science as interwoven with the progress of technology–a vision of the purpose of science which was then almost new in history–many of the scientists of the eighteenth century thought of themselves as philosophers working on a plane which was altogether superior to the sordid problems of manufacturing and commerce.

It’s worth noting that the eighteenth century is frequently characterised as  “the Age of Reason,” when Europeans (at least, along with their cousins on this side of the Atlantic) began to shed their “superstitions” and move into “the Enlightenment.”  It’s one thing to say that we’re “enlightened” or “guided by reason” but it’s quite another to actually take all of this reason and put it to the solution of present problems.

Today people insist on us “believing in science” or whatever scientific thing they want us to agree with.  The minute we put the question as a subject of belief, we’ve not only missed the whole point; we’ve undermined any claims of our thought processes being guided by reason as well.  And if we simply make our goodness a product of our belief, we may feel better about ourselves, but leave the problems at hand unsolved.

Why did Gondor not move the Palantir at Minas Ithil before it was captured? or, what Tech People Wonder About When Not Thinking About Tech

Check out this interesting thread at Stack Exchange, one of the premier sites for programmers of all kinds.   There are at least 2,400 other questions on Tolkien topics, and you can check them out, too.

Revisiting the Adventure of Offshore Oil

It may seem that posts on this blog are slowing down, but elsewhere it’s another story.  There are actually four sites to this “family” and one of them, vulcanhammer.info, is being moved to WordPress hosting.  (The other two, vulcanhammer.net and Chet Aero Marine, were moved around the first of the year.)

Moving a site that large is a major task, especially with all the photos and documents.  It’s had to be done pieces; the piece that’s just been completed is Vulcan: the Offshore ExperienceMy brother said that it was the “experience of a lifetime,” and I’m inclined to agree with him.  There’s a lot of history in offshore oil, history that’s not well-known, and that was one of the reasons the series was first put up in 2003.  I want to focus on two aspects in particular: offshore oil as a form of “inner space” and how years in the industry is a cure for much of the conventional wisdom that plagues our “deep state” types and their hangers-on these days.


To its credit, the oil industry likes to recount its history.  There’s an entire museum in Galveston dedicated to the history of offshore oil, and it’s definitely worth the visit.  The involvement of my family business, Vulcan Iron Works, was primarily in the platform installation segment of the business, and for a long time it got the short shrift in the story.  That’s been remedied to some degree, and I think the contribution of the construction side of the industry is getting its due.

It’s easy, with all the really large coastal projects out there, to forget just what a challenge it was to fabricate and build platforms to extract oil offshore.  Onshore oil had advanced technologies such as deep drilling and geophysical exploration methods, and these had spin-offs in the construction industry.  But offshore, with conventional platforms sometimes exceeding 300 m in depth, it was necessary to develop advanced fabrication and installation techniques.  Without the benefits of directional/horizontal drilling and underwater completion, that meant lots of platforms to the surface, and the Gulf of Mexico–on both the American and Mexican sides, I might add–was a busy place in the 1960’s and 1970’s.  These projects helped to advanced the technology of construction in many ways which still benefit construction not only of large onshore and marine projects but also for offshore wind farms.

The Gulf, however, along with Southeast Asia and the Persian Gulf, were relatively easy places to build and install platforms compared to the North Sea.  The Europeans “drew the short straws” in finding oil in a place as challenging to do anything as the North Sea, especially in the area between Scotland and Norway where much of the oil was located.  But thanks to their lack of easily accessible onshore oil deposits (before fracking) and the unstable situation in the Middle East, they had little choice.  Facing a harsh environment coupled with a short construction season, another set of new technologies were developed or improved, including gravity platforms, improved safety equipment in marine environments, quick connectors for pile add-ons, finite element analysis for earth structures, and underwater pile driving.

Although most of these technologies are unfamiliar to most people, they contribute to the improved standard of living that many take for granted.  The outer space program contributed to the advance of general technology and science, and so did the “inner space” program of offshore oil.


Bringing up the Europeans leads one to consider the relationship of their governments to the enterprise.  Like most industries in the US, the oil industry operated in the legal framework with a minimum of government direction.  The Minerals Management Service was the chief agency of interest, but otherwise the enterprise was pretty much self-funded and directed.  When countries such as the UK, Norway and the Netherlands got involved, it was a different story.  We’d see their national exhibits at the Offshore Technology Conference, we’d wonder why this was necessary and sometimes thought their method was mad.

But there was method in their madness.  For one thing, as Dr. Adel Rizkalla of McDermott explained to my brother and me in 1980, their idea was to stretch out the extraction of oil and not only prevent overwhelming their economy with the revenue (something we’d soon learn the virtue of the hard way,) but also to offer benefits from that revenue for a longer time and for a great good to the country.  For another, their approach was part and parcel with the European concept of industrial policy.  Implicit in that approach is that the oil industry was of value to the country.  We’d soon find out that this was better than the alternative, a country whose ruling elites believed that the oil industry was an existential threat to them.

Vulcan 3100 hammer installing piles for Exxon’s Hondo platform off of Santa Barbara, California. In 1752 Bishop Erich Pontippidan noted that “The North Sea has a curious property. In addition to its salinity it also possesses oiliness. It is likely that here or there the sea, just as the earth, ejects oil flows, or streams of petroleum, naptha, sulphur, coal tar and other bituminous and oily juices.” Similar things were noted off of California, without the offshore drilling that is supposed to be the sole cause of this.

Offshore oil came into the big picture in the 1960’s, at the same time that the American left first let out the primal scream which has echoed down the halls of history to the present time.  They first tried to put the stall on the leasing process, an on-again, off-again process that only delayed the advance of offshore oil in Louisiana and Texas.  They did manage to keep it out of the rest of the East Coast and eventually got it shut down in California.  The environmental movement was a large part of that; as happened with manufacturing, the oil industry has had to improve its techniques to prevent environmental impact, and that’s another place where the North Sea experience was helpful.

But it was more than the environment that drove the left against the oil industry; it was their other pet peeve, suburbia.  Suburbia wouldn’t exist without oil, not only because of the automobile and commuting, but also because of the economic development that made suburbia possible.  The two were part of a fork that has stuck in the left’s craw for more than half a century, and as the left oozed its way into the nation’s intelligentsia, the potential for the oil industry to hit the wall in the US increased.

Not that there weren’t alternatives.  The most serious was nuclear power, which if it had been implemented on a relative scale to the French, could have solved most of the balance of payments problem and avoided the costly wars we’ve fought in the Middle East.  But that was (and is) unacceptable to most of the environmental community, and in any case would only perpetuate suburbia.

The left’s hope of high prices for a commodity in short supply–the shortness enhanced by their regulatory and legal efforts–never quite panned out; the oil and gas industry has proven more resilient than they thought.  And the forward march of technology, even in the industry’s lean years, has helped.  We got directional drilling and subsea completions, which reduced the cost of offshore oil.  But the biggest game changer has been fracking, which found the left “asleep at the switch” to stop.  It has shifted hydrocarbon based energy towards natural gas, at one time a “luxury” fuel, which is much cleaner to burn.  As a result the need for coal or offshore oil has been reduced, turning the U.S. to become a net fossil fuel energy producer for the first time since the days of the primal scream.

Offshore crews generally worked twelve hour on/twelve hour off for two weeks at a stretch. There was thus some idle time offshore; one favourite pastime was fishing. Derrick barge crews discovered what environmentalists hate to admit: offshore platforms are natural habitats for all kinds of fish and other marine life, which made for good fishing. Welding wire was a favourite type of fishing line, though other materials would get the job done too.

Today we find Europeans following the siren sound against nuclear power and fracking, leaving the wisdom of the past generation behind and embracing yet another American neurosis.  Many of the platforms which helped bring this oil out of the sea floor are being dismantled, their field lives ended; some are left as artificial reefs for fishing, another one of those unintended consequences.  Offshore oil isn’t what it used to be, but it set the stage for better things, and made life good when it was possible, and for that it should be remembered positively.

Another Good Reason Why They Filmed Lord of the Rings in New Zealand

It seems that it, too, is the residual of a sunken continent:

In a paper published in the Geological Society of America’s Journal GSA Today in February, researchers made the case that it should be considered a new continent.

They said it was a distinct geological entity that met all the criteria applied to Earth’s other continents, including elevation above the surrounding area, distinctive geology, a well-defined area and a crust much thicker than that found on the ocean floor.

Covering 1.9 million square miles, it extends from south of New Zealand northward to New Caledonia and west to the Kenn Plateau off Australia’s east.

Readers of The Silmarillion will recall that, after the First Age, most of the western land mass of Middle Earth sunk into the sea.  Places like the Grey Havens, a port for the departure of the Fellowship to the Undying Lands, were very landlocked in the First Age.

So, when Peter Jackson and his troupe were filming the Lord of the Rings, they too were closer to a sea coast then they would have been long ago…

New Series on vulcanhammer.net: STADYN Wave Equation Program

We’re starting a new series on the companion site vulcanhammer.net about the STADYN wave equation program.  This may be a little arcane for most readers of this blog, so it will be over there.

The first installment, however, concerns using a very old language (FORTRAN 77) to generate HTML code, which of course appears on just about every web page out there that isn’t a pdf file.  So the interest may be a little more general…for now.

Enjoy!

Prevention is Still the Best "Kill Switch" for Malware

A very ingenious solution to a very serious problem:

An “accidental hero” has halted the global spread of the WannaCry ransomware, reportedly by spending a few dollars on registering a domain name hidden in the malware.

The ransomware has wreaked havoc on organizations including FedEx and Telefonica, as well as the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), where operations were cancelled, x-rays, test results and patient records became unavailable and phones did not work.

However, a UK cybersecurity researcher tweeting as @malwaretechblog, with the help of Darien Huss from security firm Proofpoint, found and activated a “kill switch” in the malicious software.

But it’s important to note that Microsoft had released a patch against this malware back in March.  Microsoft, for all the jibes it takes from the digital community, has made updating its software just about as seamless as it can get.  And I haven’t run into the dreaded “this software worked until the update and then…” problem in a long time.  (I actually run Windows, MacOS and Linux on my various machines.)  Either the NHS’ admins didn’t have their machines set to automatically update or they’re still running XP and Vista.  As good of an operating system as XP is, it’s just too vulnerable to keep it online, especially in a network situation.

Lesson: make sure you’ve got your automatic updates working, in addition to the anti-virus software.  Backing up is also important, but with ransomware the hostage files can get into your backup system before you can stop it.

One more thing: the Guardian told us that the UK based researcher “spent a few dollars” registering the domain name.  Have some pride in your currency; “dropped a few quid” would have been better.  (Unless, of course, he was a Remain supporter and used Euros, or a Bitcoin fan…)

So What Will We Do When We Don't Have to Think?

In this article about my friend Ethan Hereth, the following:

Like others before me, I have the perception that the education of quality engineers in the field of CFD has been falling short recently. It feels to me like there are very few engineers in this arena that grok CFD like many of the founding fathers and engineers of CFD did before us. I feel that the latest generations of CFD engineers have become used to applications that do much of the work, often shielding them from having to really understand the underlying concepts.

That perception has been around a long time.  Forty years ago when I was in the aerospace industry and working for Texas Instruments, I developed some software (had to write the code for it in this language) which automated some of our analysis work.  My boss was impressed with the results, but asked the question: what will happen when we just let the computer do all the work and we dummies just look at the results it spits out without knowing how they were produced?  My answer was that those of us working on the code know, but those who come after are the ones we have to be concerned about.

Well, as we used to say at Texas A&M, next year is here.  Most people who use technology today–and that includes some people in the STEM fields–have no clue how computers do their work, how the answers are arrived at, the theory behind their methods, or how easy it is for bugs (and security flaws) to get into the code that makes the software work.  The result is that, while the computer should make us smarter, the reality is the opposite effect.

The place where fixing that problem starts is in STEM education and the way we look at computers.  We need to get away from the accepted point of view of STEM education as people learning to push buttons in software they use, and we need to teach people how to code, even at the most elementary level.  One of my math professors observed that coding was a form of mathematical proof, and that in turn teaches you how to think.  But that skill is in short supply in our educational system, and if you think the results are not pretty now, just wait until “next year.”

Losing Our Edge in High Performance Computing?

Our Department of Energy and National Security Agency would like for you to believe this:

As China, the US and Japan near the finish line in exascale race, the DOE and NSA are sounding the alarm that the United States is at grave risk of losing its dominant position in high performance computing. According to the assessment of the two agencies, “absent aggressive action by the US – the US will lose leadership and not control its own future in HPC.”

That is the primary conclusion of a report based on a technical meeting between representative of those two agencies held in September 2016. The document, titled U.S. Leadership in High Performance Computing (HPC), A Report from the NSA-DOE Technical Meeting on High Performance Computing, describes how the United States has been losing ground to the Chinese, who appear to be determined not just to win the race to exascale, but to usurp the role of the US as the global leader in high performance computing technology.

But it’s not quite that simple:

As we recently wrote in an article about the state of Chinese supercomputing, they are not as advanced as their top systems would lead you to believe. In the US, there seems to be a distinct tendency to over-hype Chinese supercomputing achievements. Whether that is a reflection of a “grass is always greener” syndrome, is the result of losing supercomputing hegemony in a rapidly democratizing industry, is a tactic to draw in more US government investments into HPC, or is a legitimate analysis, remains to be determined.

HPC is an important part for scientific and technological advance.  Probably the US’ falling behind in this field has its greatest general interest in weather forecasting, as I discussed in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, where we have taken a back seat to the, er, Europeans for some time.  It’s interesting to note that the previous Occupant didn’t do much to change that situation, although he was labelled the “scientific President.”

That, of course, is part of the problem: we don’t elevate people with scientific backgrounds to leadership positions in the government. (The Chinese, and many others, do.)  That’s ingrained in our culture, and fortified by the distinctly Luddite 1960’s.  As long as that is the case, we will be forced to present our ideas as dogma and not science, which is what’s taking place in today’s “March for Science.”

Relative to that, there are other questions.  What’s unscientific about the Chinese (or anyone else) getting advanced capabilities?  Isn’t it reasonable to assume that the Chinese, who have pushed STEM education with their people to degrees unimaginable here, would get this result?  Or anyone else?  Why should we have a monopoly on this?  Why don’t some of our people just emigrate like theirs, if this place is so “unscientific?”  Perhaps the “March for Science” should be called the “March for Academic Patriotism,” although the rest of the campus would go bonkers if they did that.

The road to dominance in HPC is a long one, and not particularly straight.  It’s like my description of the arc of justice: it is not necessarily smooth, continuous, or differentiable.  For a field which is all about binary thinking, the results of change can be complex and have unexpected outcomes.  But if we spent as much time inducing significant systemic changes in our own system and not constantly playing the “blame and shame” game, we’d be further down the road to solve our HPC “fading glory” problem.

HT Pointwise.