How people can affect technology

Future Tense for Mar. 06, 2006

I wrote last week’s column about something trivial — when he heard about it, Jim’s first reaction was, “How can anyone write this much about buying a toaster?” — so I could write this week’s column about something serious: how people can affect technology.

I’m not talking about a specific technology, such as computers or CAT scanners or cell phones. No, my friend, I’m talking about Technology with a capital “T” and that rhymes with “P” and — with apologies to “The Music Man” and Meredith Willson — that stands for Problems, not pool (which, except for replacing the [read more]



In an irrational world, 3.14 is close enough for fun with p

Future Tense for Mar. 14, 2006

Put another spritz of pneapple juice in the pna colada and pass the pzza. Today is Pi Day.

People who follow this column — I know your names and I know where you both live — may have wondered why it wasn’t published on its usual day, Monday. I saved it for today, because — drum roll, please — the date is 3/14!

Ah, did a mental lightbulb just click on?

Pi, as your middle-school math teacher tried to pound into your head, is the near-mystical (and emphatically irrational, as well as transcendental) number that relates the [read more]



Tripping over the small things in life

Future Tense for Mar. 20, 2006

In love and life, it’s the small things that’ll getcha.

Those end-of-the-world disaster shows on TV and in the movies always focus on huge calamities: a comet striking the earth, a megavolcano erupting in Yellowstone Park, a California earthquake that breaks off L.A. and sends it out to sea (which might be an improvement, now that I think about it).

But what really kills people by the millions? Malignant cells too small to see without a microscope. A pin-head-sized clot in a blood vessel. A 62-grain bullet. A breakdown in a 10-ounce pump called a heart.

Speaking [read more]



Do dust bunnies hide flea eggs for nanobots on Easter?

Future Tense for Mar. 27, 2006

“Seeing is believing.” “I trust my own eyes.” “Let me see for myself.” We’ve all heard such phrases. They linger in the language because they help cope with lots of things we encounter in life. But how do we deal with things too small to see? Nanotechnology is one of the hottest new sciences. By definition, it manipulates objects so tiny that people can’t relate to them. One reader, responding to last week’s column, asked in an e-mail, “What are the smallest things people can see?”

This is like questions kids ask innocently and scientists spend years trying [read more]



Let’s put technology to work on spring cleaning chores

Future Tense for Apr. 03, 2006

If I wasn’t sitting here in front of a computer, writing this column, I would be helping my wife with spring cleaning.

Honest, I would! I’m not fond of housekeeping chores, but someone has to do them and there’s no reason why my wife should have to work alone. Of course, I wouldn’t mind if technology could take on some of the load.

Why don’t we have more robots designed for simple household tasks?

The late Isaac Asimov, one of the grand masters of science fiction, described consumer-level robots more than 60 years ago in a series [read more]



The end of the war

Future Tense for Apr. 10, 2006

I grew up in the war years.

Not the shooting wars.

The computer wars.

Usually, I fought on the losing side.

IBM vs. Digital Equipment Corp.? I learned programming on an IBM machine in the late-1960s. We punched software code into a stack of cards. Remember those “hanging chads” from the 2004 election in Florida? I used to hate them.

The first time I saw a DEC system that let me to type program instructions on a video terminal, I turned my back on IBM forever. The first computer that truly warmed my heart was [read more]



Time for music

Future Tense for Apr. 24, 2006

It’s a good thing I don’t have a cell phone.

Verizon Wireless, Sprint Nextel and a new company called Amp’d now offer services that send the song of your choice to your cell phone. Not a ringtone, mind you. The real recording from what Verizon, for one, claims is a million-tune library.

In the mood for Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood”? Dial Pennsylvania 6-5000.

Feeling blue? “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Want an instant replay of “Replay”?

Just punch the right buttons and, for the price of a minute’s airtime (the estimate for an average download; [read more]



What does it take to make a nuke?

Future Tense for May. 01, 2006

One of the scariest books I’ve read is “The Curve of Binding Energy” by John McPhee, my favorite non-fiction writer.

In the early 1970s, McPhee became acquainted with physicist Theodore B. “Ted” Taylor, who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1948 to 1956. Dr. Taylor designed some of the smallest (W54), most efficient (Hamlet) and largest (Super Oralloy Bomb, or “SOB”) nuclear fission weapons ever built. Taylor later worked as a consultant to, among other agencies, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, for which he studied the International Atomic Energy Agency’s capability to stop nuclear arms proliferation.
read more]



Counting gas profits on 11 fingers

Future Tense for May. 08, 2006

As a general rule, people in my profession, journalism, do not have an outstanding reputation for their command of science, technology and mathematics.

We even celebrate that lack of knowledge in some of our professional folklore.

Some years ago, the managing editor of The Chicago Tribune heard that scientists at University of Chicago had created a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. In other words, they built the world’s first nuclear reactor. In other other words, as the M.E. explained to a Trib photographer, “They split the atom.”

Arriving at the former racquetball court beneath the old Staggs Field [read more]



Moonshining may make a comeback

Future Tense for May. 15, 2006

With the world running out of oil, some old jobs may make a comeback in the next 50 years.

It may be awhile before we see a big demand for buggywhip and harness makers, saddlers, farriers and wheelwrights, but I see growth opportunities in moonshining.

By any other name — ’shine, corn liquor, mountain dew or white lightnin’ — the moonshiners’ product is nothing but water, flavorings and alcohols. Most of the alcohol is ethanol. If I can replace a couple of gallons of gasoline in every fill-up with ethanol, the oil sheiks of Araby can go kiss [read more]



40-year-old (om)bud(sman) has yet to flower

Future Tense for Jan. 16, 2007

John Robinson, editor of the Greensboro News-Record, posted some thoughts Jan. 14 about ombudsmen and public editors ("Ombudsmen: To be or not to be"

Over the past 40 years I have watched recurring debates about newspaper ombudsmen, dating back to the first time the word entered journalism's lexicon.

In March 1967, journalism teacher Kay Keefe, who established the Lyons Township High School Lion in LaGrange, Ill., as a continuing powerhouse among student newspapers, read Ben Bagdikian's Esquire article ("The American Newspaper is neither Record, Mirror, Journal, Ledger, Bulletin, Telegram, Examiner, Register, Chronicle, Gazette, Observer, Monitor nor Herald of the day's events). [read more]



An old toy for a new generation

Future Tense for Dec. 26, 2007

My youngest son this year received a 15-year-old Christmas present from his long-dead grandfather.

Even before Michael unwrapped it, the gift gave unexpected pleasure and delight to me and his older brothers and also, I suspect, to some of our old friends and new acquaintances.

Jewell Davis, my late father-in-law, who died in 1994, probably never guessed what a wonderful legacy he gave to the future when he bought a Yugoslavian-made Mehano model train set back around 1990.

The HO-scale kit includes a locomotive, caboose and three cars; enough track for a figure-8 layout that should fit on a 4- by 8-foot sheet [read more]



Dumping today's trash on the future

Future Tense for Jan. 02, 2007

People in England and many of the British Commonwealth nations, including Canada and Australia, observe Boxing Day on the day after Christmas. They give gifts to the poor and donations to charity.

Many Americans observe Dec. 26 by rushing to stores with returns or exchanges, by buying items with gift cards and Christmas cash and by stocking up on heavily discounted holiday items for next year.

I observed the day — St. Stephen’s Day, by the way — by hauling trash out of the house for Wednesday’s pickup. Christmas wrapping paper, boxes, other packaging material and normal household trash made up [read more]



Time-sharing condos on the high seas

Future Tense for Feb. 05, 2007

Want to get away from it all? How about an ocean cruise? Oh, you say you're worried about catching a sea sickness? Just this month, Holland America's Volendam cut short a 10-day cruise after 112 passengers shared a less-than-fun-filled vacation and symptoms that included diarrhea and vomiting.

Perhaps you and up to four friends would prefer a solo cruise in your own floating condo.

In May 2002, on PBS Television's Scientific American Frontiers, Dr. Robert “Bob” Ballard briefly floated the idea of creating free-roaming ocean-going condos. He may have talked about the same idea during a “Talk of the [read more]



Hand over the chocolate

Future Tense for Mar. 27, 2007

By Steve Welker

My dad, an engineer, usually got off the train at the depot in LaGrange, Ill., from which he’d walk a half-block and turn south on Ashland Avenue. There, more often than not, I waited to walk him home.

The walk gave us 10 or 15 minutes to talk about what had gone in our day — precious minutes before my two brothers could compete for his attention.

On holidays like Valentine’s Day and for my mom’s birthday and their wedding anniversary, however, Dad and I took a detour east on Burlington Street to the Fannie May Candies shop at the [read more]



This is your brain on chocolate

Future Tense for Feb. 12, 2007

By Steve Welker

My dad, an engineer, usually got off the train at the depot in LaGrange, Ill., from which he’d walk a half-block and turn south on Ashland Avenue. There, more often than not, I waited to walk him home.

The walk gave us 10 or 15 minutes to talk about what had gone in our day — precious minutes before my two brothers could compete for his attention.

On holidays like Valentine’s Day and for my mom’s birthday and their wedding anniversary, however, Dad and I took a detour east on Burlington Street to the Fannie May Candies shop at the [read more]



Robots rumba through spring cleaning

Future Tense for Apr. 30, 2007

By Steve Welker

MOUNT AIRY -- Sitting here in front of a computer, while writing this column, I'm also helping my wife with spring cleaning. How? By looking for a robot.

No person I know enjoys housekeeping chores, so why not turn over the work to a nonperson?

The late Isaac Asimov, one of the grand masters of science fiction, described consumer-level robots between 1940 and 1950 in a series of short stories published in “Super Science Stories” and “Astounding Science Fiction.” He compiled them in the sci-fi classic “I, Robot” published in 1950, one year after I was born.

Asimov’s fiction inspired thousands [read more]



Waiting for the new genius

Future Tense for Mar. 14, 2007

By Steve Welker

Albert Einstein was born on this day, March 14, in 1879. He died more than 50 years ago, in 1955.

Physicists are still waiting to greet Einstein’s successor: the man or woman who will create the “theory of everything” that unifies and explains the interactions of four fundamental, universal forces: gravity, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force and electromagnetic force. It’s said that only 12 people on the planet understand the current front-running theory, “M theory,” and they can’t agree on what the “M” stands for.

Physicists probably would be happy to find someone who could tie together [read more]



Why I don't want an iPhone

Future Tense for Apr. 23, 2007

By Steve Welker

We're on the final countdown to Apple's release of the iPhone.

Apple hasn't confirmed a shipping date -- CNet back in March quoted a Cingular source who said June 11; Apple CFO Peter Oppenheimer in April promised "late June" -- but the iPhones should arrive in time for my birthday, June 29.

The iPhone probably will be the "cell phone of the year" and every gadget geek's must-have new toy, but I don't want one.

That has little to do with the price ($499 or $599 depending on storage) or being obligated to sign up with Cingular.

No, I don't want a [read more]



It's too easy to make an a-bomb

Future Tense for Apr. 30, 2007

One of the scariest books I’ve read is “The Curve of Binding Energy” by John McPhee, my favorite non-fiction writer.

In the early 1970s, McPhee became acquainted with physicist Theodore B. “Ted” Taylor, who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1948 to 1956. Dr. Taylor designed some of the smallest (W54), most efficient (Hamlet) and largest (Super Oralloy Bomb, or “SOB”) nuclear fission weapons ever built. Taylor later worked as a consultant to, among other agencies, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, for which he studied the International Atomic Energy Agency’s capability to stop nuclear arms proliferation.

McPhee and Taylor visited nuclear [read more]



Better cameras; worse pictures

Future Tense for May. 07, 2007

Watching the tourists clutching their cell phones on Main Street and at the Andy Griffith Playhouse, I’m never quite sure whether they’re talking or taking pictures — or both.

Camera-equipped cell phones are rapidly replacing standard cell phones and digital cameras, too. They’ve become one of the hottest segments of consumer electronics in less than five years.

Sharp introduced the world’s first “camera phone,” the J-SH04, just in time for Christmas in 2000. Produced for the Japanese company J-Phone, the cell phone came with an integrated, 110,000-pixel CMOS image sensor for taking digital pictures. Sharp quickly followed up with a color [read more]



GPS tells me where I'm lost

Future Tense for May. 14, 2007

By Steve Welker

DANBURY — If it hadn’t been raining Saturday, we would have gone to the Birthday Bash in Morotock Park.

Reading the logs from those who attended, it sounds like everyone had a great time.

Honeychile, MissAngele and Bartacus set up the Birthday Bash to honor David&Diana of Winston-Salem, who turned 3 on Valentine’s Day and who, on Saturday, found their 1,000th cache. David and Diana work in an office processing mortgage insurance records during the week, so a desire to get outdoors probably explains why they have become legendary North Carolina geocachers.

Lost? Confused?

Perhaps a little explanation will help you navigate [read more]



Can a wine be fine with a plastic cork?

Future Tense for May. 21, 2007

By Steve Welker

I’m not really a wine snob, but I play one in real life.

When I tell old friends about the joys of living in North Carolina, I often rhapsodize about our area’s wines. They think I’m knowledgeable. Truth is, I’m a rank amateur, but the turnip truck that dumped me seems to be receding in the distance while I become oriented to the Yadkin Valley Viticultural Area and its products.

Many years ago, my dad often traveled abroad and picked up the European tradition of serving wine with meals. Not every night, but often enough, my parents would have a [read more]



Biofuel ain't nothing but moonshine misspelled

Future Tense for May. 28, 2007

By Steve Welker

With the world running out of oil, some old jobs may make a comeback in the next 50 years.

It may be awhile before we see a big demand for buggy-whip and harness makers, saddlers, farriers and wheelwrights, but I see growth opportunities in moonshining.

By any other name — ’shine, corn liquor, mountain dew or white lightnin’ — the moonshiners’ product is nothing but water, flavorings and alcohols. Most of the alcohol is ethanol. If we Americans can replace a couple of gallons of gasoline in every fill-up with ethanol, the oil sheiks of Araby can go kiss [read more]



Sons of the moonshiners talk biofuel

Future Tense for Jun. 4, 2007

By Steve Welker

Last week’s column about making ethanol into auto fuel brought an outpouring of information, tall tales and low humor from more than a handful (probably how their wives describe them, too) of men who, though they’re spread across northwest North Carolina and southwest Virginia, all seem to have the same father.

Mr. No-Last-Name’s “sons” include Harve, Chick, Bobby, Hiram, Jimmy, Nack (sp?) and Darko in North Carolina. I also heard from some Virginians with foreign-sounding names, such as Billy d’ Oth’rside-o’-Lambsburg and Bill — “I’ve already got one Bill. How do I identify you?” — von Stuart d’or Franklin.

E-mails, [read more]



If Google's so good, why can't it find my keys?

Future Tense for Jun. 11, 2007

By Steve Welker

My colleague, Angela Schmoll, wrote a column last week about a frustrating search for her keys.

Coincidentally, I recently saw an ad about a remedy for her problem. Not much larger than a cigarette lighter, the device combines GPS (global positioning system) and cell-phone technology. You attach it to your key ring. When you lose your keys, call the device’s cell-phone number and it tells you where it is. All for only $395. Or was it $295?

Darn it, I lost the web site where I saw it.

Well, fortunately there’s Google. I typed in lost key ring gps and hit [read more]



The piano man and all that jazz

Future Tense for Jun. 18, 2007

By Steve Welker

While my middle son attends summer school in Savannah, I may have his piano tuned.

He might play more.

And I might begin playing piano again.

Yes, and the next day I might try climbing Mount Everest.

I took piano lessons from second grade until I entered high school. I must have had incredibly patient teachers, because I had no talent for the instrument and an erratic sense of rhythm. Also, throughout baseball season, I much preferred playing stickball and running the bases to running scales on the piano.

However, pianists rank high among my favorite musicians, probably because of listening to my [read more]



Can science make us happy?

Future Tense for Jun. 25, 2007

By Steve Welker

What makes you happy?

Science would like to know.

Seriously, if someone could figure out a way to put happiness in a pill or patch — a painful injection seems contrary to my idea of happiness — they could sell it and become richer than Bill Gates. Look at how many people already buy drugs both legal and illegal in a futile pursuit of happiness? A happiness drug might be generate more money that alcohol and tobacco combined.

But so far, in its pursuit of happiness, science has come up sadder, but wiser.

To begin with, it’s hard to define happiness. If [read more]



A Bigger Bang in your future

Future Tense for Jul. 02, 2007

By Steve Welker

Growing up, I wanted to be a chemist. Other kids wanted to be cowboys, firemen, cops or robbers. But I had discovered the secrets of chemistry:

• Chemists make stinks worse a skunk’s sweatsocks.

• Chemists make dyes so permanent that jeans fall apart before the stains fade.

• Chemists make stuff that goes “Bang!”

I my youth, the homemade explosive of choice was black powder. The Chinese invented it around 1042 A.D. All you need is potassium nitrate, sulfur and charcoal (connoisseurs say willow wood produces the best charcoal). Combine the ingredients by weight in a specific ratio, add a little [read more]



'War of the Worlds' in Maybury

Future Tense for Jul. 09, 2007

By Steve Welker

“The War of the Worlds” began near Maybury in Surrey County.

No, I’m not kidding, I’m not misspelling the names and I’m not making this up.

And yes, I live in "Mayberry" in Surry County.

In H.G. Wells’ classic science-fiction novel, the Martians’ first spacecraft lands on Horsell Common about a mile and a half from Maybury, home of the novel’s narrator. All in Surrey County, England.

When I read that the other night, I couldn’t have been more surprised if someone told me a flying saucer had landed at Creekside Cinema (which, come to think about it, is about as close [read more]



How long until we go so far again?

Future Tense for Jul. 16, 2007

By Steve Welker

Thirty-eight years ago today, July 16, a Saturn V rocket blasted away from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, beginning the Apollo 11 mission.

Three days later, the Columbia command module entered lunar orbit and on July 20, 1969, at 3:17 p.m. in Mount Airy, the Eagle lunar module landed in the moon's Sea of Tranquillity.

Six and a half hours later — during which time pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin, a devout Episcopalian, took communion — the astronauts opened the module and mission commander Neal Armstrong wriggled out (NASA redesigned a hatch's size to save weight, but forgot to also [read more]



Drawing lines in the shifting sand

Future Tense for Jul. 23, 2007

By Steve Welker

“Where you stand on the death penalty comes down to one question,” one of my old editors insisted. “If someone brutally raped and murdered your wife, how would you want him punished?”

What results can we get by reducing other public-policy questions to such simple, highly personal terms?

That old editor is one of the few people I’ve ever met who majored in philosophy in college. He came to the newspaper world with a razor-sharp mind that sliced through fallacious arguments (many politicians hated him, but just about all of them respected him), probed fearlessly into painful ethical questions and [read more]



High-tech help for aging outdoorsmen

Future Tense for Jul. 30, 2007

By Steve Welker

In his youth and well into my teens, my father remained an avid outdoorsman.

He grew up roaming the Appalachian mountains near his home in Millersburg, Pa., learning woodcraft and camping skills, identifying native plants and trees and finding berries, nuts and medicinal herbs like pennyroyal. He and his brother fished up and down the Susquehanna River and in its tributaries. After moving to the Midwest, he enjoyed hiking along pastures and fence rows, as well as in the state and county forest preserves, and he changed his fishing style and tackle to take advantage of ponds, sloughs and [read more]



The best input device of the past and future

Future Tense for Jul. 6, 2007

By Steve Welker

Hand me a pencil. I need to make a note of this. School starts Aug. 27.

Last week, a Mount Airy News story reported on school preparations for the start of classes, prompting me to download the supply list for my high-school sophomore. That same day, the new L.L. Bean catalog promised a free pencil case with every backpack, reminding me to check my son's book bag.

My son will need a backpack -- or perhaps a wheelbarrow -- to move his supplies to school. Among other things, he must have a Texas Instruments calculator, highlighters in multiple colors, two [read more]



Vinegar has a sweet future in foodies' pantries

Future Tense for Jul. 13, 2007

By Steve Welker

My wife and I had a nice supper the other day at Pilot Knob Park, where Tom Gibson’s crew served up barbecue pork and chicken and sides including two kinds of slaw. All four dishes had sweet/sharp vinegar accents.

The way vinegar flows through North Carolina, I’m surprised there’s not a vinaigrette creek or balsamic brook burbling down from the mountains (there are two Vinegar Hills, but they’re both down east, according to my gazetteer). Some recipes for eastern-style sauce begin, “To one gallon of apple cider or white vinegar add....” The other day I counted 31 different vinegars [read more]



Tea-making technology steeped in tradition

Future Tense for Jul. 27, 2007

By Steve Welker

My wife’s favorite beverage is tea. She prefers it unsweetened, but she’s from Missouri and friends here in North Carolina have learned to accept her eccentricity, even if they don’t understand it.

There’s always a jar of freshly made sun tea on our kitchen counter and a teapot on the stove. Look around our pantry and you will find bags, boxes and cans of Tazo and Lipton’s, Earl Grey, Irish Breakfast, Constant Comment, etc. and even a few herbal teas.

Despite tea’s constant presence in our household, I can’t remember ever thinking much about teapots until Californians Sonny and Gloria [read more]



Is America prepared for cyberwar?

Future Tense for Jul. 6, 2007

By Steve Welker

This month's (15.09) issue of Wired has a fascinating article about the botnet attacks on Estonia in April and May and an accompanying commentary by former intelligence officer Ralph Peters titled, "Washington Ignores Cyberattack Threats, Putting Us All at Peril",/a>.

It amazes me that the U.S. government seems to be investing so little in defense against cyber attacks, despite many warnings from IT professionals. The problem is not new; the countermeasures should be. This "Future Tense" column appeared two years ago in August 2005:

---

Two worms feasted on Caterpillar and The New York Times last week.

They also dined [read more]



Saving the past's photos for the future

Future Tense for Jul. 13, 2007

By Steve Welker

If your family is like mine, it has scads of old photos tucked away in scrapbooks and albums, in the original envelopes from the film processor and possibly in some old suitcase handed down from your grandparents, aunts or uncles.

Nowadays, everyone uses digital cameras. Better and less expensive every year, these new cameras’ only drawback is that the photos are, well, digital. That’s fine if you want to browse through the past summer’s pictures on your computer or e-mail copies to your friends, though not so good if you want to make a paper print. The bigger problem [read more]



Trust me, you can tell me your password

Future Tense for Jul. 20, 2007

By Steve Welker

What’s your password?

It’s OK, you can tell me. I’m a network systems administrator. We have all the passwords and I could look it up, but I’m in a hurry. Honest, you can trust me.

———

There was a time when that kind of “social engineering” — using psychology instead of hardware to unlock people’s computers — worked pretty well on everyone from bankers to school secretaries.

Nowadays, most people know they shouldn’t give passwords to strangers.

However, people still take candy from a stranger — chocolate eggs and Hershey bars work well — and some people give away their passwords in return.

Just [read more]



You can throw that skillet, but don't throw it away

Future Tense for Jul. 27, 2007

By Steve Welker

I need a new frying pan. Should I buy high-tech or low?

Last Wednesday’s spaghetti sauce — sauteed onions, crisp bacon, chopped tomatoes and garden-fresh basil — had a distinct metallic taste. The next night, the pan-roasted potatoes’ crust stuck to the "non-stick" skillet.

You don't have to hit me over the head with it to convince me I need new cookware.

As much as I enjoy cooking, I have owned only three or four really good frying pans. The first slipped out of my mother’s pantry when I went to college. The second was an expensive, but much-appreciated wedding gift: [read more]



Will all our future summers be like this?

Future Tense for Jul. 3, 2007

By Steve Welker

I pulled some weeds and replanted some basil on the last Saturday in August. It was nothing very strenuous, but I gave up after less than an hour, soaked with sweat and feeling light-headed. The thermometer read 99 degrees. Yes, I know was August, but 99?

On Saturday, Sept. 1, one week later, the high was only 75. Thank heaven for the relief. I couldn't have taken much more of this summer.

Even if this cool spell doesn't last, I'm glad to see August gone. The National Climatic Data Center in Asheville says this past month in North Carolina was [read more]



Past and future memories of Katrina

Future Tense for Jul. 29, 2007

By Steve Welker

Two years ago today, Aug. 29, I watched Hurricane Katrina bear down on the Gulf Coast and tear apart Louisiana and Mississippi while thousands of people fled their homes. And then, on Tuesday, I saw the first reports of levees collapsing, the waters rising in New Orleans, looters breaking down doors and people’s growing fears that they might drown.

I wasn’t watching television.

This news all came across the Internet.

And the most compelling stories, the most shocking photos and the most heart-wrenching, emotional appeals weren’t on Google News or Yahoo.

The news was in blogs.

Mathematician and psychologist Jorn Barger coined the [read more]



Speak into the computer, please

Future Tense for Jul. 10, 2007

By Steve Welker

There’s a scene in “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” when Cmdr. Montgomery Scott, chief engineer of the Enterprise, visits a company named Plexicorp to buy “transparent aluminum.”

Its president, Dr. Nichols, never heard of transparent aluminum, so Scotty offers to give him the formula. Dr. McCoy objects, warning that this might change the future. Scotty replies, “How do we know he didn’t invent the stuff?”

Scotty then leans in to Dr. Nichols’ Apple Macintosh Plus and politely says, “Computer?”

McCoy hands Scotty the mouse.

Scotty, speaking into the mouse, says, “Hello, computer.”

Dr. Nichols: “Just use the keyboard.”

Scotty: “A keyboard. How quaint.”

Well, [read more]



Why can't science stop hurricanes?

Future Tense for Jul. 17, 2007

By Steve Welker

Hurricane Humberto surprised everyone.

Last Wednesday, Sept. 12, Humberto was a tropical storm whipping up waves with 35-mile-per-hour winds in the Gulf of Mexico.

By midnight, Sept. 13, after only 14 hours, Humberto was a Category 1 hurricane. It slammed into Beaumont and Port Arthur in Texas with 85-mile-per-hour winds.

Meteorologists said hurricanes have grown so quickly only four times since 1851 and never before so close to landfall.

Scientists say it's also unusual for a hurricane to start in the Gulf of Mexico. Most form off the coast of Africa and travel for days across the Atlantic, building up energy and [read more]



Drought lengthens, but Mount Airy Clear remains

Future Tense for Jul. 24, 2007

By Steve Welker

The N.C. Drought Management Advisory Council will have its monthly meeting this coming Thursday in Raleigh. Tomorrow, though, it will publish the newest drought monitor map.

My forecast: The map will show at least eight N.C. counties, mainly in the southwest tip of the state, suffering "exceptional drought" (also known as a D4 condition, the worst, which may require water rationing). Another three-fourths of the state's 100 counties will be classed as "extreme drought" (D3).

Throughout this hot, dry summer, Surry County has been one of the few counties in the "severe drought" (D2) category. This week it could fall [read more]



Hear better with a babel fish in your ear

Future Tense for Oct. 01, 2007

By Steve Welker

Mount Airy Planning Director Jeff Coutu told me about a project in France where scientists used geo-magnetic imaging to find archeological sites.

Geo-magnetic imaging is somewhat like combining a metal detector with a computer to build up images of what's underground. In geo-magnetic imaging, however, an airplane tows a magnetometer over a large area to create survey maps -- something that might be useful here in Surry County where we have a number of historic sites such as Rockford.

But this column is not about geo-magnetic imaging. I'll save that for another day.

Jeff Coutu knew about the project in France [read more]



Keep watching the MacArthur Fellows

Future Tense for Oct. 7, 2007

By Steve Welker

According to my calculations, Amy Smith could buy 1.89 million pounds of flour to feed the starving people of Africa.

Instead, the “MacGyver of MIT” improved an ancient tool so women could make their own flour. Amy Smith’s improved hammermill flour-grinder costs one fourth the price and uses only 70 percent of the energy of devices it replaces and can be built (and repaired) locally in places like Senegal and Botswana.

To paraphrase an old saying, you buy a person a loaf of bread and feed him for a day. Amy Smith helps people make flour to feed themselves for [read more]



Where have all the typewriters gone?

Future Tense for Oct. 25, 2007

By Steve Welker

Where have all the typewriters gone and when did they go away?

It occurred to me, over the past weekend, that it might be a lot faster to address envelopes with a typewriter than my computer. When I need to address an envelope, I bring up Microsoft Word, go through the rigamarole involved in typing an address, load envelope stock in my printer and tell the printer routine on my computer to adapt its output for a No. 10 envelope. That's not hard, but it's nowhere near as easy as scrolling an envelope into a typewriter. And what do [read more]



It's the small things that getcha

Future Tense for Oct. 22, 2007

By Steve Welker

The current health scare in America concerns drug-resistant staph germs called MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus bacteria).

The Surry County Schools system announced last week that an unnamed staff employee had been diagnosed with MRSA. Today the school superintendent's office announced the employee had been treated successfully and will return to work.

It's a happy outcome, but you can bet nobody will pay as much attention to that announcement as they did to the words "flesh-eating bacteria" and "Superbug" in print and broadcast last week.

In love and life, it’s the small things that’ll getcha.

Those end-of-the-world disaster shows on TV and in [read more]



Exploring the smallest universe

Future Tense for Oct. 29, 2007

By Steve Welker

“Seeing is believing.”

“I trust my own eyes.”

“Let me see for myself.”

We’ve all heard such phrases. They linger in the language because they help cope with lots of things we encounter in life.

But how do we deal with things too small to see?

Nanotechnology is one of the hottest new sciences. By definition, it manipulates objects so tiny that most people can’t relate to them. One reader, responding to last week’s column, asked in an e-mail, “What are the smallest things people can see?”

This is one of those questions kids ask innocently and scientists spend years trying to answer, [read more]



What a difference a century makes

Future Tense for Nov. 05, 2007

My grandmother died two years ago tomorrow, on Nov. 6, 2005. She was 104-1/2 years old and had witnessed almost all of the 20th century.

Doris Corinne Lantz Moschel was born on April 27, 1901, on a farm on northeast Missouri.

Her heritage was Scots-Irish on her mother’s side, German on her father’s. They eventually had nine or 10 children. When Doris was born, her family had been in Missouri for several generations. Doris’ personal papers include a uncle’s letter written just before he joined the Confederate Army. Lantzes were well-established, though not prosperous.

They grew most of the food they ate, including [read more]



The future of transportation has two wheels

Future Tense for Nov. 12, 2007

Scrupulously observing posted speed limits and respecting all traffic signs and signals, I can drive my mini-van the 1.9 miles from my house to Lowe’s Foods (the closest grocery store) in 6 minutes.

I can make the same trip in 5 minutes, 45 seconds by riding my bicycle on the greenway trail along Lovills Creek.

This is not bragging. I am — as regulars on the cycling and walking path can attest — a plodding pedaler. As a gimp-kneed, overweight desk jockey carrying a spare tire instead of riding one, I sometimes amaze myself when I swing a leg high enough [read more]



Old-fashioned stubbornness can kill you

Future Tense for Nov. 19, 2007

I have school-aged sons, so our family usually sees a sampling of whatever illnesses circulate each winter. In fact, one of my boys came home from college this week with an infection that caused a nose bleed lasting hours and he's still suffering from an ear ache. I just hope it's not contagious.

The boys bring home these infections, but I don’t get sick very often and, when I do, the illness rarely lasts more than two or three days. Stubbornly, I usually work right through it.

The last time I got sick I ignored the symptoms as I've done in [read more]



Can U.S. schools supply the engineers we need?

Future Tense for Nov. 26, 2007

My grandfather, J.I. Marshall, was a building engineer and one of two civilian construction superintendents who built the Pentagon — then and still the world’s largest office building.

My father, C.H. Welker, was a civil engineer. He helped oversee construction of Mangla Dam in Pakistan, at the time the world’s largest earth-filled dam and still the 12th largest in the world. He also helped design Greece’s national hydroelectric system.

My aunt, Mrs. G.L. Morrison, retired from IBM Corp. as a senior systems analyst — at the time, one of the few women in that position — and then started her own software [read more]



Where's the promise of better education?

Future Tense for Dec. 3, 2007

My father was the first person in his family — and our family traces its genealogy to the late 1600s — to graduate from college. He became a civil engineer.

My aunt, who’s about 15 years younger than Dad, but in the same pre-World War II generation, also finished college and became one of the first female senior systems analysts at IBM.

Their succeeding generation has about 40 sons and daughters, nieces and nephews and our spouses and their siblings. All but three men (one a spouse; one who died soon after high school) and one woman graduated from a four-year college [read more]



Did technology almost defeat the U.S in Iraq?

Future Tense for Dec. 10, 2007

I once believed the U.S.-led coalition stomped Saddam in 21 days because of our superior military technology.

Turns out, I was wrong, both up one side of the facts and down the next. Superior technology was not the deciding factor in Saddam's defeat and, later in the war, superior technology almost led to our own defeat.

According to a study from the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. military won the opening stage of the Iraqi war mainly because the coalition forces fought an inept enemy.

Since 2003, according to a fascinating article in the December issue of Wired magazine, the United States [read more]



Caucus fever gives pollsters a headache

Future Tense for Dec. 17, 2007

By Steve Welker

I'm five years and 1,000 miles away from Iowa. Nonetheless, I've caught Hawkeye caucus fever. Neither time nor distance provides prophylactic protection against this quadriennial infection.

I hit RealClearPolitics.com every morning and check the latest polls. I already read political news in the North Carolina newspapers, Google News and the New York Times. Now I've added the DesMoinesRegister.com, IowaCaucus.com (from the Cedar Rapids Gazette) and the Quad-City Times' Elections 2008.

I conducted my own straw poll in Mount Airy and Dobson. "How much time do you spend each day reading about the Iowa caucuses?" The average can be stated in [read more]



Swamped by a sea of plastic and paper

Future Tense for Dec. 26, 2007

By Steve Welker

Mount Airy's sanitation workers must dread Boxing Day.

Call it Boxes Day instead.

People in England and many of the British Commonwealth nations, including Canada and Australia, observe Boxing Day on the day after Christmas. They give gifts to the poor and donations to charity.

Many Americans observe Dec. 26 by rushing to stores with returns or exchanges, by buying items with gift cards and Christmas cash and by stocking up on heavily discounted holiday items for next year.

I observed the day — also St. Stephen’s Day, in honor of my patron saint — by hauling trash out of the [read more]



Guess who loves libraries now

Future Tense for Dec. 31, 2007

By Steve Welker

More than half of all Americans visited a library in the past year and -- surprise! -- the biggest users were young adults, aged 18 to 30, the group known as Generation Y.

"These findings turn our thinking about libraries upside down," said Leigh Estabrook, a professor emerita at the University of Illinois and co-author of a report on the survey results. "Internet use seems to create an information hunger," she said, "and it is information-savvy young people who are most likely to visit libraries."

In fact, Internet users were more than twice as likely to patronize libraries, compared to [read more]



Gadgets forever

Future Tense for Jan. 07, 2008

By Steve Welker

Six remote controls sit, gathering dust, in a basket in my den. We use two other “zappers” to control the TV, VCR, DVD player and other gadgets.

Downstairs in my workshop, I've strewn parts and pieces of computers and other consumer electronics gadgets across a 5-by-10-foot plywood table. It’s not my workbench. That’s covered with tools, hardware, fasteners and, yes, more gadgets.

I noticed the other day that we’ve recently filled a second kitchen drawer with cooking-related utensils and gadgets — egg slicers, digital and analog thermometers, olive and cherry pitters, etc. Compared to some people’s collections, that doesn’t seem [read more]



Running and running for a better battery

Future Tense for Jan. 14, 2008

By Steve Welker

My wristwatch keeps ticking, my mini-van’s keyless remote keeps clicking and that drum-banging Energgizer bunny keeps running and running and running.

So why does my digital camera eat batteries faster than I can wolf down a California Burger at Leon’s? Why does my CD player choke before Siegfried croaks in Wagner’s “Die Götterdämmerung”? And why can’t Detroit supply a car battery that won’t run down twice in the same month?

Science is solving my problems. Batteries are getting better.

The science of batteries is old. Some archeologists in the 1930s found a battery-like device in Iraq that dated to sometime between [read more]



Panasonic pushes battery's life into the future

Future Tense for Jan. 21, 2008

By Steve Welker

We were talking last week about batteries and how long (or short) they are and they last.

The dual concerns about batteries' size and lifetime has grown in lockstep with the growth in shrinking consumer electronics. Engineers standardized the now-common AA size only 60 years ago. In the past 20 years the smallest commercially available batteries have shrunk to as little as about 1/16th of an inch thick and less than a quarter-inch wide.

As for improving battery life, the alkaline batteries appeared in the 1960s and, as their prices dropped, quickly began replacing the older, shorter-lived zinc-carbon batteries. Today [read more]



I'm burned up about toaster technology

Future Tense for Jan. 28, 2008

By Steve Welker

We only wanted to buy a toaster.

My family has purchased cars, computers and entertainment centers with less research, discussion, debate and delay.

You see, I’ve never bought a toaster. And in this Age of Consumer Electronics — when almost every device comes in a rainbow’s range of colors; made from exotic metal alloys, plastics and ceramics; equipped with digital controls, LCD screens and, as often as not, an Internet interface — buying something as simple as a bread-toasting device can be a mind-bending proposition, not to mention a major headache.

Of course, I’ve owned toasters and used them. I simply [read more]



Will Baby Boomers fight technology?

Future Tense for Feb. 04, 2008

By Steve Welker

We only wanted to buy a toaster.

My family has purchased cars, computers and entertainment centers with less research, discussion, debate and delay.

You see, I’ve never bought a toaster. And in this Age of Consumer Electronics — when almost every device comes in a rainbow’s range of colors; made from exotic metal alloys, plastics and ceramics; equipped with digital controls, LCD screens and, as often as not, an Internet interface — buying something as simple as a bread-toasting device can be a mind-bending proposition, not to mention a major headache.

Of course, I’ve owned toasters and used them. I simply [read more]



High-tech tools lack low-tech aesthetics

Future Tense for Feb. 11, 2008

By Steve Welker

Working on a community-built playground project called "Build A Dream," Mac, Charise, Joe and I had a problem.

We had installed some newel posts and handrails, but one post was about an inch too high.

Mac is a dentist and — I’m sure this news will comfort his patients — very surehanded with power tools. Using a Sawzall reciprocating saw, Mac neatly cut off the excess.

However, he couldn't reshape the 45-degree backside slope. There wasn’t room for the power saw.

The right tool for the job was a 26-inch crosscut hand saw.

Amazingly, Joe found the only one on the job site. [read more]



Will spelling survive the Internet?

Future Tense for Feb. 18, 2008

By Steve Welker

I’m very proud of my son who we saddled with a hard-to-spell name and who's more than lived up to the challenge of spelling not only Michael but my wife's name, Sheila (frequently misspelled Shiela around here); enough words to almost win the Iowa State Fair Spelling Bee championship; and more than enough to win the Mount Airy Schools’ city and Surry County district spelling championships.

His command of the English language's spelling eccentricities gives me hope that at least a few people in the next generation will be able to spell “social” (as in “Social Security”), “dollars” and [read more]



Is technology passing you by?

Future Tense for Feb. 25, 2008

By Steve Welker

Depending on your age and memory, a “party line” is:

(a) A telephone line shared by several different families. Depending on the number and pattern of rings, you know whether it’s you being called. It’s considered impolite to listen in to other people’s conversations on a party line.

(b) A political organization’s doctrine. For example, the GOP party line might be “shrink government and reduce taxes.” Note: The Party line may bear no resemblance to reality and, as we've seen over the past seven years in Washington, often does not.

(c) An Internet site where you can announce your party and [read more]



A fair chance for finding future scientists

Future Tense for Mar. 03, 2008

By Steve Welker

Shivani Sud, a 17-year-old student at Jordan High School in Durham, will be among 40 high school students who present their science projects this weekend at the Intel Science Talent Search finals in Washington, D.C.

Formerly known as the Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math Science and Technology, it's the largest and most prestigious science research competition for high school seniors. One million dollars in prizes will be awarded. All finalists will receive laptop computers and scholarships for a minimum of $5,000. One grand-prize winner will receive a $100,000 scholarship.

If you're ever wondering where the United States will find its [read more]



Saturday is Pi Day

Future Tense for Mar. 10, 2008

By Steve Welker

Put another spritz of πneapple juice in the πna colada and pass the πzza. Saturday is Pi Day.

March 15, 2008. Or 3/15!

Ah, did a mental lightbulb just click on?

Pi, as your middle-school math teacher tried to pound into your head, is the near-mystical (and emphatically irrational, as well as transcendental) number that relates the distance around a circle to its diameter. In math formulas, it’s written as π.

Millions of schoolchildren have made near-endless calculations from the general equations for circumference (C=2πr) and the area of a circle (A=πr2). For many people, that may have been their last [read more]



Building today for tomorrow's health-care needs

Future Tense for Mar. 17, 2008

By Steve Welker

When Northern Hospital of Surry County was built 50 years ago, some farsighted people envisioned the changes coming in health care, but few anticipated the pace of change.

Northern Hospital has kept pace with those changes by expanding and renovating its facilities several times since the 1980s.

Its latest project started a few weeks ago. At a cost of $32.8-million, the hospital will add nearly 64,000 square feet of space and renovate almost 38,000. From the outside, people will see a new building adjoining the existing facility, a new parking ramp and, across South Street, a new service building.

But the [read more]



Spiking the guns in the PC war

Future Tense for Mar. 24, 2008

By Steve Welker

I grew up in the war years.

Not the shooting wars.

The computer wars. First "big iron" vs. desktop computer and later PC vs. Apple Macintosh.

Usually, I fought on the losing side.

IBM vs. Digital Equipment Corp.? I learned programming on an IBM machine in the late-1960s. We punched software code into a stack of cards. Remember those “hanging chads” from the 2004 election in Florida? I learned to hate them when John Kerry was still a shavetail lieutenant.

The first time I saw a DEC system that let me type program instructions on a video terminal, I turned my back [read more]



The 'distant' past in the Internet's Middle Ages

Future Tense for Mar. 31, 2008

By Steve Welker

Pope John Paul II died three years ago this week, on April 2, 2005.

I'm not a Catholic, but John Paul left a lasting impression on my mind. Every time I watch a television documentary or read a book or article about new threats to the Earth's environment, I remember John Paul's message in Iowa nearly 30 years ago.

Pope John Paul II came to West Des Moines about one year after his elevation to the pontificate in 1978.

Think back to that time if you can. Microsoft was only three years old and IBM wouldn't introduce its first PC for [read more]