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Alchemy

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Welcome to the preview release of codename "Alchemy." Alchemy is a research project that allows users to compile C and C++ code that is targeted to run on the open source ActionScript Virtual Machine (AVM2). The purpose of this preview is to assess the level of community interest in reusing existing C and C++ libraries in Web applications that run on Adobe® Flash® Player and Adobe AIR®.

With Alchemy, Web application developers can now reuse hundreds of millions of lines of existing open source C and C++ client or server-side code on the Flash Platform.  Alchemy brings the power of high performance C and C++ libraries to Web applications with minimal degradation on AVM2.  The C/C++ code is compiled to ActionScript 3.0 as a SWF or SWC that runs on Adobe Flash Player 10 or Adobe AIR 1.5.

Alchemy is primarily intended to be used with C/C++ libraries that have few operating system dependencies. Ideally suited for computation-intensive use cases, such as audio/video transcoding, data manipulation, XML parsing, cryptographic functions or physics simulation, performance can be considerably faster than ActionScript 3.0 and anywhere from 2-10x slower than native C/C++ code. Alchemy is not intended for general development of SWF applications using C/C++.

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With Alchemy, it is easy bridge between C/C++ and ActionScript 3.0 to expand the capabilities of applications on the Flash Platform, while ensuring that the generated SWCs and SWFs cannot bypass existing Flash Player security protections.

Adobe is providing some example libraries, and developers are encouraged to share their ported libraries.

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201107051535

My friend and MAKE contributing editor William Gurstelle has written a new book: The Practical Pyromaniac: Build Fire Tornadoes, One-Candlepower Engines, Great Balls of Fire, and More Incendiary Devices. It has instructions for 16 fiery projects. Bill and his publisher kindly gave us permission to run the introduction to the book here.

THE PARADOX OF FIRE

Fire is the most important agent of change on earth. It makes our cars and airplanes move, it purifies metals, it cooks our food. It also destroys forests and pollutes the atmosphere. Fire is also one of the most paradoxical forces in nature. Sometimes it's incredibly difficult to light a much-desired campfire and keep it going, while at other times unwanted fires start far too easily.

To Greek philosophers of the Classical era, fire was a tangible, material thing. The legends they repeated held that noble Prometheus purloined fire from Mount Olympus and secretly gave it to human beings, much to the chagrin of an angry Zeus.

As Greek civilization progressed, legends became insufficient; people sought to understand fire on a more scientific basis. The first major nonmythological theorist was the Greek scholar Empedocles, who devised the earliest well-known explanation of the nature of the world. Everything, he said, was made up of four elements: earth, air, water, and fire. This was called the Four Element hypothesis. Aristotle refined that a bit, and for the next 2,000 years it was accepted with only minor modifications as the cosmological basis for the entire universe.

The hypothesis stated that everything in the world is composed of these four elements; the only difference between all the things we see or touch is the relative abundance of the four constituent components. Wood, according to Aristotle, is a composition of earth and fire, as evidenced by the way wood burns. Nonburning rock is mostly earth, with perhaps a bit of water added.

In the Middle Ages, this explanation no longer fit the results of many experiments that involved fire. Many alchemists had excellent experimental technique and analyzed a number of chemical processes in their quest to turn base metals into gold. But when fire was involved, their experiments yielded results that didn't jibe with the classical Four Element worldview. The pillars of cosmological doctrine were crumbling away. The alchemists were beginning to suspect that the world was more complex than they had been taught.

In the 1700s, a new way of thinking called phlogiston (flo-jis'- ton) theory came into fashion. This theory, which was promoted by many of the leading scholars of the age, held that fire was caused by the liberation of an undetectable chemical substance -- phlogiston -- which was bound up inside all things that could be made to burn. Those items that possessed phlogiston ignited and combusted; those without it did not. Phlogiston theory made sense for a while. But like the Greek notion of matter, phlogiston was merely an expedient, a theory cobbled together to describe the things that even close observations of the world could not otherwise explain.

At the end of the 18th century, improvements in experimental technique combined with the astute observations of a new generation of enlightened thinkers led to a much better understanding of the world in general and science in particular. It started with important discoveries by Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, Joseph Priestley, and Henry Cavendish. The work they did laying the foundations of modern chemistry was built upon by others, notably John Dalton and Antoine Lavoisier, until a new and correct interpretation of the phenomenon of fire emerged. At the turn of the 19th century, scientists were finally beginning to truly comprehend fire.

At that time there was a lively, collegial, and incredibly productive community of scientists fascinated by fire. During a fairly short window of time, a few years on either side of the year 1800 and centered around the Royal Institution in London, a surprisingly small but interconnected community of scientists solved the mysteries and banished the superstitions surrounding fire, finally allowing scientific understanding to take hold.

It was not a direct path. There was plenty of meandering and zigzagging through half-correct theoretical deductions and unexpected laboratory results. But eventually, a body of true and practical knowledge was accumulated. It was these turn-of-the-19th-century "natural philosophers" (the word "scientist" was not coined until the 1830s) who paved the way for modern scientists to understand the true nature of fire.

Isaac Watts was one of the key contributors to the advancement of pre-Industrial Revolution science, but he wasn't a scientist. He was a 17th-century English logician and musician, best known as a composer of Christian hymns. (His most famous work is "Joy to the World.") More than that, he was an important theorist on the nature of learning, a father of scientific and logical pedagogy. His influence on the scientists and experimenters who appear in these pages was immense.

Watts shared his philosophy on understanding the world in several highly regarded books, his most famous being The Improvement of the Mind. Written in 1815 toward the end of his life, it had tremendous influence on generations of students and teachers. It is still in print and popular even now, 200 years after Watts wrote it.

Watts's books were standard issue to generations of Oxford and Cambridge University students. His ideas served as one of the foundations for learning logical thought, shaping European society for more than a hundred years. Many suggestions for bettering oneself flow through the pages of Watts's books. Foremost among them, Watts urged his readers to improve their minds in five different ways, which he called his "five pillars of learning." Through the technique of the five pillars, Watts hoped to improve the lot of the world.

There are five eminent means or methods whereby the mind is improved in the knowledge of things, and these are: observation, reading, instruction by lectures, conversation, and meditation.

All of these methods, wrote Watts in the pedantic, pointed, yet elucidating style of 18th-century English self-help authors, are important and useful in improving the mind. But of all the methods, judged Watts, observation is the foundation upon which all other learning methods rest. As Watts explains, "We may justly conclude, that he that spends all his time in hearing lectures or pouring upon books without observation . . . will have but a mere historical knowledge of learning, and be able only to tell what others have known or said on the subject."

Reading a book like The Practical Pyromaniac is one of the five Wattsian ways in which knowledge can be acquired. What sets this book apart from others, however, is the integration of all of the methods Watts recommends, including lecture and personal observation.

Besides providing the stories of great scientists, experimenters, and practical geniuses -- those who played with fire and in so doing came up with new and important ideas and inventions -- The Practical Pyromaniac contains numerous peripatetic projects and experiments. Further, there are video demonstrations on the Internet designed specifically to integrate with the information.

While it is not necessary to view the videos, undertake the experiments, or read the other books listed in the bibliography, if you do attempt a few of the projects and view some of the video lectures and demonstrations developed in conjunction with this book, your experience will be enhanced.

Copyright 2011 by William Gurstelle. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Chicago Review Press.

The Practical Pyromaniac: Build Fire Tornadoes, One-Candlepower Engines, Great Balls of Fire, and More Incendiary Devices

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