Just got back from the opening weekend of the newest exhibit at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA. The museum's in the old SGI building, for locals, and it's a lovely little place. The exhibit is a working Babbage Difference Engine! The following is based on my memory of what transpired, so if there are errors in this posting, blame me, not the display. Also, all photos are thumbnails you can click on for a larger version, which will open in a new window.

The Difference Engine we saw is only the second ever built, and it was built to prove (or disprove) the validity of Babbage's design. Consequently it was constructed very precisely according to Babbage's instructions, or according to other projects Babbage had done. So (for example) where the current engineers discovered they needed a system of springs at the bottom of the machine to support the weight of the gears, so that the individual turning the hand crank wasn't required to do so, they used a spring system which Babbage had used on other machines he'd built. The only other change they made was to include a printer, and that also was crafted according to a printer designed by Babbage to use on one of his later machines.

A lower rear view of Difference Engine #2, showing the cast-iron springs (from 4 to 5 o'clock; the printer is partially visible on the right)
Apparently Babbage first created a set of plans for the Babbage Difference Engine #1, and built a prototype that was only a seventh of the size of the intended completed machine. It would do (effectively) addition and subtraction up to, I think, a seventh level polynomial. He called it the "Beautiful Fragment," and that's what Ada Byron Lovelace saw and was entranced by when she was only 17 years old. It was only she, in fact, who understood the Engine could do more than simply play with numbers mathematically — she saw the Engine's potential for manipulation of symbols, such as in algebra, music, and language, as well. Alas, her ideas weren't really listened to or understood, and the government never really comprehended the true potential of what they had on their hands.

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1 Aug 2006 In: LIBRARY, Movie review

directed by John McTiernan
1 August 2006 movie review
by Collie Collier

Credits: For Dave, who brought it over — you know me too well! ;)

This is apparently a movie with a very mixed reputation. I came to it unsure as to whether it would be any good, since I'd heard both that it was really excellent, and that it didn't make sense in the end. After having seen the movie, I can understand (but not agree with) the latter accusation. The movie is a murder mystery set as an action flick, deliberately designed to thwart common expectations. If you're not paying attention you can easily miss critical plot points, and things won't make sense to you.
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The "Silk" Series

20 Jul 2006 In: Book review, Feminism, LIBRARY, Writing

by Mary Jo Putney
20 July 2006 book review by Collie Collier

Credits: For my kind-hearted and thoughtful recommender, who I hope will both find this review interesting; and understand that while I didn't care for the books, I was quite touched at her efforts to help me.

Also for Lou, who helped me remember my desires aren't the same as everyone else's.

I recently had a book recommended to me due to its subject matter: a woman overcoming horrifically thoughtless and emotionally scarring abuse from her father (she was the 5-year-old discoverer of his messy suicide). In fact, all the author's works were recommended to me, as she apparently is a romance writer who takes the time to create relatively accurate historical stories. The book in question was Veils of Silk, the third of the Silk series.

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July 2006 Firestarter column
by Collie Collier

I recently spent a long weekend in the not-really-uncharted wilds of the Northeastern US, for a family gathering. This was a very mixed event for me, interestingly enough, as the family was thrilled and I had a great time. On the other hand, I managed to spend much of the weekend and the next two weeks struggling with being quite sick. Also, I am seriously not happy about making a trip on my credit cards — having to pay that interest annoys and worries me deeply. However, once again my anthropological fascinations got the best of me, and I've written down some of the interesting things I noticed while there.

Keeping in mind I saw only parts of Connecticut and Boston, Massachusetts, and that generalizations are fraught with peril, I shall nevertheless throw myself on this grenade for the fun of it. Avast, ye lubbers! Generalizations and mixed metaphors off the port bow — man the torpedoes and full speed ahead!
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Memoirs of A Geisha

1 Jul 2006 In: Feminism, LIBRARY, Minorities

by Arthur Golden
1 July 2006 book review by Collie Collier

Credits: For Casey, who always encourages me to think.
Also, I so want the beautiful soundtrack! ;)


The fictional story of Sayuri, the most celebrated geisha of her time, and how she came to that position. The story's emphasis is more on the "exotic" Japanese cultural habits and subcultural geisha rituals, rather than on the personality of the girl herself.
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A Million Little Pieces

15 Jun 2006 In: Ethics questions, LIBRARY

by James Frey
15 June 2006 book review by Collie Collier

Credits: For my book club, without whom I would not have read this peculiarly fascinating book.

Note: there are quotes from the book in this review, which contain foul language. Please consider yourself warned.

This is the gripping story of Frey's painful but ultimately triumphant battle with alcohol and drug addiction. The title derives from Frey's reflections on a comment made by the drug treatment center's doctor, who had never previously seen such pervasive and consistent damage to the body of a 23 year old. He bluntly informed Frey if he ever started using drugs and alcohol again, in a matter of days Frey could expect to die, as his body could no longer stand up to the prolonged pattern of abuse it had been subjected to. As Frey put it, he would shatter into a million little pieces.
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Angels & Demons

12 Jun 2006 In: Ethics questions, LIBRARY, Religion

by Dan Brown

1 June 2006 book review by Collie Collier

Credits: For Greg, because he gave me my first ever specifically-requested book review. Woohoo, I feel so official! He even sent me the book — what a sweetie! ;)

There is detailed plot information in this review. Please do not read if you don't like spoilers!


The prequel to Brown's better known (and somewhat better written) The DaVinci Code, concerning Langdon's first encounter with the Vatican. This time the Church is the victim, under humiliating public attack by the Illuminati. A desperate cross-Rome treasure hunt ensues in an effort to rescue innocent clerical hostages and prevent a destructive technological holocaust.
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What don't we see?

1 Jun 2006 In: FIRESTARTER, Ethics questions, Feminism

June 2006 Firestarter column
by Collie Collier

For my readers: All the images in this Firestarter are thumbnails which can be clicked for larger versions of the graphics. Please use your "Back" button on your menu bar to return to this page.

Cultural beliefs and taboos are, by their naturalized imprinting into the brains of those raised in the culture, invisible. It's always easier to see the taboos of another culture, and it can be rather startling and unpleasant to clearly see your culture through the eyes of a foreigner. Further, it is frequently very hard for people to even see the failings of their native culture.

In the US, we're supposed to be a society dedicated to the belief that all humans are created equal. It's one of those depressing realities that this is not actually true, but it is a goal to aspire to. It is, therefore, an unpleasant shock when you stumble across harshly obvious examples where not only is a particular group being treated unfairly and differently — but also, when you point it out you are either mocked for being over-sensitive, or regarded with bemusement because they can't even see what you're talking about.
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Testing this out

30 May 2006 In: Random

No, it's not 'hello, world.' Little by little, the coding monkeys eat my brain… but I will eventually triumph, and have ALL my old web site loaded up here so I can take advantage of the nifty blog code which will save time previously spent coding and updating and all that blather which will facilitate me moving up the timetable for my eventual Conquest of the WORLD!!

*sigh* I need to get out more… ;)

Why not torture?

1 May 2006 In: FIRESTARTER, Ethics questions

May 2006 Firestarter column
by Collie Collier

Short answer: acts which deliberately inflict pain and damage, in an effort to denigrate human dignity, are wrong.

Long answer: Like most of the difficult ethical questions in life, my path to this decision came slowly, with quite a bit of soul-searching and long discussions with patient friends. A review of that path follows.

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Bestiaries depict mythical, moralizing animals, but are also potential allegorical sparks that can bloom into brilliant mental bonfires. My bestiary is this mythologizing animal's fascinated exploration of beauty & meaning in the wonder of existence -- in the hopes of inspiring yet more joyous flares of intellectual passion.



Collie’s Bestiary