Thursday, May 29, 2014


I was recently fooling around with Wolfram Alpha, especially in regards to the whole feed the oceans thing I wanted to do. The following preposterous things were discovered:

  • The cost would be about $100 million for the first run, then $50 million after that
  • Getting the carbon levels down to the way they were when I was a child would triple the biosphere
  • Reversing the carbon to pre-industrial levels would increase it to ten times
These numbers give me a headache. By tripling the biosphere, I mean that imagine every fish there is in the world. Now imagine three times as many. Three times as many seagulls. Three times as many whales. Three times as many squids. Three times as many sea cucumbers. And sooner or later, it works back to the land, and you have three times as many crows, and three times as many snakes, and three times as many owls, and mice, and cows.

Meanwhile for me, an unexpected expense that came up that amounted to my entire paycheck for a two-week period threw everything through a loop for a month.

The big numbers are discouraging, but the journey of a million miles begins with a single step. Even stopping things from getting worse makes it that much easier to get around to making things better.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A critical shortage

Recently we have run out of a critical supply. No, there's still enough oil for the moment, the electric grid is working fine, at least in my area of the world, and there's no shortage of food where distribution is not being deliberately sabotaged. We're short of IP addresses.
When the current familiar IP scheme that you're used to was invented in 1981, networked computers were kind of rare. It was though that the 4 billion addresses possible under the system could never possibly be used up, since networked computers were primarily owned by governments and major educational institutions. In the early days, addresses were handed out like candy, with groups getting a class A (everything starting with one particular number, like all addresses starting with 12".) all to themselves just because. In addition, the entire 127 block (from to were all allocated to "loopback" meaning "Don't actually use the network because it's right in this computer right here." You should only need one address for that.
Later, when more and more countries were going online, it became apparent that since there were 5 billion people in the world, who all wanted to go online, and only 4 billion possible addresses, that something would have to give. More justification had to be given to be assigned large blocks of addresses instead of small ones.
This was then made worse by devices, as well as individual people and servers, also wanting IP addresses for projects like an Internet-connected refrigerator. (The refrigerator can report its state to, say, the grocery store, so instead of you ordering milk, the refrigerator does it for you.)
By last year, justification had to be given to get any sort of IP address at all. Groups with large allocations were asked to give them back. This faired poorly -- generally the response was to come up with dumber and dumber schemes to "prove" why ownership of their entire allocation was "necessary." Some organizations did in fact give their blocks back, most notably Stanford University.
So next month, we run out completely. If you want to go online -- well, too bad, all slots are full. Now what?
Thankfully, this whole thing was seen well in advance, and a new specification, IPv6 was written in 1998. (version 5 was a beta that turned out to not be very useful.) IPv6 increased the address size by four times, which due to the way that computers stores numbers, exponentially increases the possible addresses. IPv6 has enough addresses to give every atom in the solar system, if not the visible universe, its own unique address. I won't say that running out is impossible -- I suppose that in the deep future we could develop some sort of teleportation and quantum entanglement technology that makes us have a galaxy-spanning empire of hexadecitellions of people, but it won't happen anytime soon unless we're REALLY stupid about how we allocate addresses.
To use IPv6, your operating system has to support it, your software has to support it, and your ISP has to support it. Generally the las step is the sticking point. My company offers browsing customers a hybrid stack, where you have an IPv6 address, but IPv4-only websites will see you as this one address that the ISP has reserved. That address is a node that understands both protocols, and can route between the two.
China is the most excited by this news, as when IPv4 was first written, most of China didn't have electricity, much less computers, and so they were allocated extremely few IP addresses. Since pretty much everyone in China wants to go online, they need to go IPv6, or it's just not going to happen.
Everyone should try to go to IPv6, but there are some transition costs, and I think we're going to have to struggle with it for quite a while, and the pain is higher because we waited so long.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Solvay Environmental Fix

I just found out that with unlimited energy, it would take me only two chemical processes to end global warming forever.

  1. Haber-Bosch Process
  2. Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch's chemical process revolutionized modern agriculture by making endless amounts of Ammonia, thus taking away the limitation that agriculture used to have of the supply of Nitrogen in the soil, formerly limited to various animal poops, and maybe possibly composts. This has vastly increased the carrying capacity of the earth, and one fifth of the food on your pantry's shelves is directly due to this.

    Most industrial versions use natural gas for the hydrogen, but I'll be taken Haber's original, less polluting version (since I'm using unlimited energy as a conceit), electrically split water.

  3. Solvay Process
  4. The Solvay process makes baking soda. If you're not from the US, the baking soda in your local grocery store was made this way. It uses Ammonia to split up salt water, then absorbs CO2, resulting in Ammonium chloride and baking soda. Most commercial uses of this process then reclaim the Ammonia, because it is more expensive, and because Calcium chloride draws less attention when you throw it out, because it doesn't smell like solidified pee. I'll be using Hou Debang's variation on the process, which doesn't bother with the Calcium step.

With these two processes combined, I can solidify air, and both of these processes are automated, so once set up, they would continue to run no matter what I was doing. To truly end global warming, I'd have to send the baking soda off world, and I can use part of the components to do this.

An old recipe for "Heavy duty" batteries was to put a carbon rod between two plates of Zinc, and fill the difference between them with Ammonium Chloride. Each individual cell is fairly weak, but you can chain them together until you can produce huge amounts of power. Getting several pounds of Zinc, I produce enough batteries to power a railgun, and rocket the baking soda off to Mars, or some other place in need of Carbon.

And should I need to recover the carbon, I will get the cheapest plonk that I can get a hold of, bubble it for 3 months, and then pour that vinegar onto the baking soda. Presto.

Monday, March 31, 2014

CEOs and Free Speech

And lo, suddenly politics hijacks everything.

A major story brewing in the US news is about the Mozilla foundation, who just hired a new CEO. They then had a massive shitstorm over that CEO's political activities, which included large donations to California's Proposition 8, a political measure to ban gay marriage that ultimately was found to be against the state constitution and thus discarded.

Most of the stink came from the Mozilla employees, who are quite diverse, and some of them are, yes, gay. The project exists in Silicon Valley, a very competitive environment where recruiting talent is bitterly contested, and companies need every advantage they get to keep employees, as well as not piss them off too badly. Once this became public, though, various business libertarians, gay rights activists, gay rights opponents, and a million other interest groups weighed in.

I'm of two minds. On one hand, I thought that Proposition 8 was an abomination, brought forth and paid for by hostile interests outside the state, (especially from Utah) that it was a step backwards for society, back to when people wanted to pretend that gay people didn't exist, and that any sexuality other than married sex for the explicit purpose of creating children was unacceptable. It also drew questions about the fairness of a person who supported that, though to his credit the CEO has stated that he does intend to treat his gay employees just like his straight employees.

On the other, it irks me the way that businesses are treated as personal fiefdoms with wanky personal interests enforcing orthodoxies. I know I would be personally outraged to be discriminated against, passed up for promotion, or fired, merely because of a private opinion. Is someone's politics truly relevant to the running of a company, and is even asking a step back to the bad old days of nepotism?

Another issue is that the position of CEO is largely seen as the public face of the company. Unlike most positions, the work doesn't stop when you go home for the day. Even after your time in the offices, you're writing press releases, you're doing charitable works, you're doing everything in your power to make everyone like you, and to be seen as someone who can be trusted. It's a deficiency of freedom that most of us would find completely unacceptable, but that's why you make the big bucks. I will never be a CEO, because aside from my general odd-ness, my lack of Christianity makes me unacceptable to the American public.

Your thoughts would be appreciated, though this is a sensitive topic, and a large amount of tact will be required.

EDIT: Somewhat after this occurred, the CEO resigned from his position.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Weather control

I recently read that trees planted in an alpine environment benefit twice.   Once from the tree's normal metabolic habits, and twice because the roots reach into previously sealed rock, exposing oliveine and similar minerals to weathering.   This gives me an idea.
We dig massive holes into the mountains.   After a year's time, we fill the hole back up, ending with a sapling.   This maximizes weathering, resulting in the best possible carbon sink for the area.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Tommy Edison's questions for sighted people

Film critic Tommy Edison hasn't actually seen a single movie in his entire life, although he's heard lots of them, due to the fact that he is blind, and has been since he was born.   He also enjoys photography, thanks to assisting technology.

On his youtube channel, he recently asked a number of questions for sighted people. Though people have already provided him with answers, I also thought it would be a good idea to answer him as well.

Hello, I am Professor Preposterous. I am 33 years old, and have vision, albeit with somewhat severe nearsightedness. This means my vision is distorted past the range of my hands or so if I don't wear glasses.

How do you remember all those colors?

In general, I would say that there are millions of small variations on a small set of colors. A fashion designer might be able to tell the difference between "aquamarine" and "periwinkle," but to me both are just "blue." I can tell that they're a different shade of blue, but I don't see the point in differentiating further. To make a metaphor, I would compare colors to textures. A wooden object feels different to the touch than say, a plastic one, or a felt one, and if you pay a lot of attention, you might be able to tell if the wood is, say, pine, instead of spruce.

Color is actually due to the frequency of light that bounces off an object, light being an electromagnetic radiation that vision detects, the way that hearing detects compression waves in the air. There are seven basic ones:

  1. Red: 700 - 635 nm
  2. Orange: 635 - 590 nm
  3. Yellow: 590 - 560nm
  4. Green: 560 - 490nm
  5. Blue: 490 - 450nm
  6. Purple: 450 - 400nm

There's also black and white, which depend on if it is described with an additive color system (like a spotlight or a computer monitor) or a subtractive one (like paints). With additive systems, all the colors make white, and no colors make black. With a subtractive system, all the colors together makes black, and white has to be prepared separately. My computer monitor uses an additive system that can make basically every color there is from three: red, blue, and green.

Also, I would be very surprised if you were unable to provide me a similar level of detail about texture, or sound.

What's it like to be able to look at a room and know exactly where everything is? My god, that's genius.

Extremely orienting. Except that vision only shows you where everything is in a room if the room is sorted first -- vision is blocked by the first object with color that it encounters, so if something is behind something else, a sighted person can only see the thing in front. Sight also only works forward -- we see what's behind us about as well as you do, which is to say not at all. For what's behind us, we have to rely on hearing, or perhaps mirrors.

While in theory, vision's distance is unlimited, closer things provide more detail than further away things, any obstacle blocks further sight, and some of the things vision tells us are just plain outright lies. For example, the sky is not actually a thing -- there's air over our heads, but vision tells us that it's a large dome-shaped object at a large distance away, maybe 20 miles. Or the horizon, where the sky and the ground seems to touch if there are no large objects blocking it, which appears to be about 8 miles away, but moves with us if we move.

So, how come you stop and look at a hot chick? Guys at a red light, they'll stop traffic!

Vision provides a lot of information at once. Sometimes this is kind of distracting, especially with our lower brain, the one we got from lizards, hijacking everything else to think up pickup lines until we realize that we've been staring and have lost all chance of relating to her normally.

How do you remember what things look like? I mean, there are so many things. Like cars. How do you know the particular make of a car? Or vegetables? Fruit? Food?

Things don't really change all that often. If I were to hand a random object off my desk to you, you would probably recognize it instantly, because it feels the same as the other ones that you've encountered before. Let's say that I hand you an apple. The moment it touches your hand, you'd probably recognize it. Vision is the same -- seeing an object gives us the general shape, the color information, and hints at the texture of the object. Having seen similar objects before, we recognize them.

If you were somehow able to touch and feel every car extensively, every time you passed them, I think you would start to recognize particular models after about a month. Every car of a particular year, make, and model is shaped exactly the same. The color is different due to auto paint, but the texture is the same and the shape is the same. We recognize them because we've seen them before.

The same with food. Apples have the same general shape as other apples. Bananas have the same shape as other bananas.

Fashion blows my mind. I mean, you choose to wear something that looks good rather than feels good?

As someone in the applied sciences, fashion doesn't work well with me either. But people who wear things that look good usually like the attention that they get for doing so enough that they're willing to put up with a surprising amount of discomfort.

What's it like to go somewhere all by yourself?

On one hand, liberating. On the other, lonely. I was kind of surprised with the idea that you couldn't travel alone.

What about driving?

I learned to drive 17 years ago. When I first started, it was unbearable -- having to keep track of everything and do so many things at once took more brainpower than I had available. Over time, I got used to it as more and more things became habit and could be relegated to the unconscious, until I could drive and listen to the radio and muse about philosophy all at the same time. Cell phones are a bad idea though. And texting -- texting is just asking for trouble.

What's it like to walk around in the snow?

Snow doesn't support your weight and sinks when you step on it, with an annoying crunching sound. It's also super easy to get lost, the massive amount of reflected light gives sighted people a headache, it's wet, and it's cold. In my opinion snow can go die in a fire.

How do you not see something that happens right in front of your face?

Vision uses a huge amount of brainpower all by itself, so if you do it, your brain takes a lot of shortcuts. A sighted person can see something and not recognize it, or could be facing the wrong direction, because vision only works in front of you. Anything above or below, or behind, will just not be seen at all. If your sighted friend is facing the wrong way, his vision is just not going to help.

How do you lose sight of something? I mean, like you drop money on the floor and lose it?

Sight only works one layer deep, as it were. If the money goes under or behind something, sight will tell us that nothing's there. If money falls into the sofa, and we look at the sofa, we'll only see the sofa, not the money. Sometimes moving around can give us new information, like putting our head to the floor before looking at the sofa (oh hey, there's that quarter!)

How do you lose your car in a parking lot?

Unfortunately, cars are not all that unique. One particular make, year, and model of car, in a particular color, is as specific as it gets. There's at least three cars in any particular lot that exactly match the description of my car, so I'll walk to one and....this is somebody else's car. Damn it!

How do you miss the exit while driving? Wouldn't that be blatantly obvious?

With distractions, usually. You have to look at quite a lot of things very quickly, and the recognition step of vision sometimes comes too late due to the speed. Okay, avoid that car, check the rear view mirror, check the side, see the sign, avoid that other car, wait, that sign was indicating my exit. Damn!

Thanks for the questions, Tommy. Tommy maintains both a channel about his experiences with blindness and how he deals with it, and his reviews of movies.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Solid Tires

When I think about tires, the more I realize how completely weird they are.   Our roads are full of vehicles that ride on inflated air.  Why?  A completely solid tire would cause too much wear on the road, but they're also vulnerable to puncture, deflation, and so on.

There's a number of reasons that we do this.  Tires need to be soft enough to not damage the road that you're driving the car on, provide enough friction to prevent the car from sliding, and hard enough that the engine doesn't get overtaxed by pushing them.  (Deflated tires have a greater resistance to actually turning). 

So the usual solution is to have inflated tires, filled to a set pressure.  (Mine is 35 PSI, about twice atmospheric pressure.)   If driving conditions change, you can inflate it more, for greater gas milage, or less, for more traction.  For instance, in a very sandy road, I might want to deflate my tires to 20PSI to make sure that I don't skid.

However, since basically 100% of my driving is on cement or asphalt roads, which change very little, and puncturing a tire is a severe problem, I was thinking, as a longer lasting solution of a tire that instead of being inflated, was filled with a memory-foam like substance.  This tire could not be punctured, would perpetually remain balanced, and could be used until the treads physically wore off.

On the downside, if you did ever need the characteristics of the tire to change, you'd have to pretty much have to remove all four tires and put on four new ones.
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