# The Universe of Discourse

Mon, 30 Jan 2006

Now that I have a reasonably-sized body of blog posts, my blog is starting to attract Google queries. It's really exciting when someone visits one of my pages looking for something incredibly specific and obscure and I can tell from their query in the referrer log that I have unknowingly written exactly the document they were hoping to find. That's one of the wonders of the Internet thingy.

For example:

	   1 monkey rope banana weight
1 "how long is the banana"
3 monkey's mother problem
1 "basil brown" carrot juice
1 story about diophantus,how old was diophantus when he got married

(Numbers indicate the number of hits on my pages that were referred by the indicated query.)

And this visitor got rather more than they wanted:

	   1 what pennsylvanian can we thank for daylight savings time

I imagine a middle-schooler, working on her homework. The middle-schooler is now going to have to go back to her teacher and tell her that she was wrong, and that Franklin did not invent DST, and a lot of other stuff that middle-school teachers usually do not want to be bothereed with. I hope it works out well. Or perhaps the middle-schooler will just write down "Benjamin Franklin" and leave it at that, which would be cynical but effective.

Although you'd think that by now the middle schooler would have figured out that questions that start with "What Pennsylvanian can we thank for..." are about Benjamin Franklin with extremely high probability.

I think this person was probably fairly happy:

	   3 franklin "restoration of life by sun rays"

The referenced page includes the title of a book that contains the relevant essay, with a link to the bookseller. The only way the searcher could be happier is if they found the text of the essay itself.

Similarly, I imagine that this person was pleased:

	   1 monarch-like butterfly

Perhaps they couldn't remember the name of the Viceroy butterfly, and my article reminded them.

Some of the queries are intriguing. I wonder what this person was looking for?

	   1 spanish armada & monkey

I'd love to know the story of the Monkey and the Spanish Armada. if there isn't one already, someone should invent one.

	   1 there is a cabinet with 12 drawers. each drawer is opened
only once. in each drawer are about 30 compartments, with
only 7 names.

This one was so weird that I had to do the search myself. It's a puzzle on a page described as "Quick Riddles: Easy puzzles, riddles and brainteasers you can solve on sight"; the question was "what is it?" Presumably it's some sort of calendrical object, containing pills or some other item to be dispensed daily. I looked at the answer on the web page, which is just "the calendar". I have not seen any calendars with drawers and compartments, so I suppose they were meant metaphorically. I think it's a pretty crappy riddle.

Sometimes I know that the searches did not find what they were looking for.

	   1 eliminate debt using linear math

I don't know what this was, but it reminds me of when I was teaching math at the Johns Hopkins CTY program. One of my fellow instructors told me sadly that he had a student whose uncle had invented a brilliant secret system for making millions of dollars in the stock market. The student had been sent to math camp to learn trigonometry so that he would be able to execute the system for his uncle. Kids get sent to math camp for a lot of bad reasons, but I think that one was the winner.

	   1 armonica how many people can properly use it

This one is a complete miss. The armonica (or "glass harmonica") is a kind of musical instrument. (Who can guess what Pennsylvanian we have to thank for it?) As all ill-behaved children know, you can make a water glass sing by rubbing its edge with a damp fingertip. The armonica is a souped-up version of this. There is a series of glass bowls in graduated sizes, mounted on a revolving spindle. The operator touches the rims of the revolving bowls with his fingers; this makes them vibrate. The smaller bowls produce higher tones. The sound is very ethereal, not like any other instrument.

I had the good fortune to attend an armonica recital by Dean Shostak as part of the Philadelphia Fringe Festival a few years ago. Mr. Shostak is one of very few living armonica players. (He says that there are seven others.) The armonica is not popular because it is bulky, hard to manufacture, and difficult to play. The bowls must be constructed precisely, by a skilled glassblower, to almost the right pitch, and then carefully filed down until they are exactly right. If you overfile one, it is junk. If a bowl goes out of tune, it must be replaced; this requires that all the other bowls be unmounted from the spindle. The bowls are fragile and break easily.

The operator's hands must be perfectly clean, because the slightest amount of lubrication prevents the operator from setting the glass vibrating. The operator must keep his fingertips damp at all times, continually wetting them from a convenient bowl of water. By the end of a concert, his fingers are all pruney and have been continually rubbed against the rotating bowls; this limits the amount of time the instrument can be played.

Shostak's web site has some samples that you can listen to. Unfortunately, it does not also have any videos of him playing the instrument.

	   1 want did an wang invent

This one was also a miss; the poor querent found my page about medieval Chinese type management instead.

An Wang invented the magnetic core memory that was the principal high-speed memory for computers through the 1950s and 1960s. In this memory technology, each bit was stored in a little ferrite doughnut, called a "core". If the magnetic field went one way through the doughnut, it represented a 0; the other way was a 1. Thousands of these cores would be strung on wire grids. Each core was on one vertical and one horizontal wire. The computer could modify the value of the bit by sending current on the core's horizontal wire and vertical wire simultaneously. The two currents individually were too small to modify the other bits in the same row and column. If the bit was actually changed, the resulting effect on the current could be detected; this is how bits were read: You'd try to write a 1, and see if that caused a change in the bit value. Then if it turned out to have been a 0, you'd put it back the way it was.

The cores themselves were cheap and easy to manufacture. You mix powdered iron with ceramic, stamp it into the desired shape in a mold, and bake it in a kiln. Stringing cores into grids was more expensive. and was done by hand.

As the technology improved, the cores themselves got smaller and the grids held more and more of them. Cores from the 1950s were about a quarter-inch in diameter; cores from the late 1960s were about one-quarter that size. They were finally obsoleted in the 1970s by integrated circuits.

When I was in high school in New York in the 1980s, it was still possible to obtain ferrite cores by the pound from the surplus-electronics stores on Canal Street. By the 1990s, the cores were gone. You can still buy them online.

An Wang got very rich from the invention and was able to found Wang computers. Around 1980 my mother's employer had a Wang word-processing system. It was a marvel that took up a large space and cost $15,000. ($35,000 in 2006 dollars.) She sometimes brought me in on weekends so that I could play with it. Such systems, the first word processors, were tremendously popular between 1976 and 1981. They invented the form, which, as I recall, was not significantly different from the word processors we have today. Of course, these systems were doomed, replaced by cheap general-purpose machines within a few years.

The undergraduate dormitories at Harvard University are named mostly for Harvard's presidents: Mather House, Dunster House, Eliot House, and so on. One exception was North House. A legend says Harvard refused an immense donation from Wang, whose successful company was based in Cambridge, because it came with the condition that North house be renamed after him. (Similarly, one sometimes hears it said that the Houses are named for all the first presidents of Harvard, except for president number 3, Leonard Hoar, who was skipped. It's not true; numbers 2, 4, and 5 were skipped also.)