Sunday, May 31, 2009

Mad Geopolitics

He who knows pain is dangerous, as he burns within for revenge.
-- Till Lindemann

In the beginning of the 20th century, there was Europe, the Americas, and other countries which belonged to one of the first two. In Europe, an elaborate system of alliances was established, on the grounds that this would prevent the horrific wars of the previous age, the Napoleonic.
But in the massive Austrian empire, numerous groups yearned for freedom. Sure, Austria shared its crown with Hungary, but it also contained the various groups of the Balklands, who had no representation in this government. And one of them made a point of shooting the heir to the throne as a big middle finger to the monarchy.
Austria blamed tiny Albania for this, and war was mutually declared. In the modern world, this would probably been the end of it, but each side pulled in their alliances. Which pulled in their alliances. And the next thing anyone knew, pretty much the entire world had been sucked into it. This was World War I.
World War I proved so horrific that everyone assumed that it was the last war to ever happen in history. It ended with victory for the Entante of the UK, France, Russia, and the United States. The Central Powers of Austria, Germany, and the Ottoman Empire were totally destroyed, with Austria split up into its component nations, Germany losing large amounts of land to its neighbors, and the formation of Poland out of its borders. The Ottoman Empire was completely destroyed, shattering into some hundred minor countries. The Entante suffered quite a bit as well. Germany had snuck deported radicals back into Russia, leading to the collapse of its government, and the establishment of the Soviet Union in its place.
Between losing the war, losing international prestige, losing loads of land, and being fined obscene sums of money, Germany and Austria seethed inside for revenge, which pretty much lead directly to World War II on the European side.
So when the Allies won World War II, they learned from this lesson of history. The defeated Germany and Japan were not punished or fined in any way, over Dutch objection. The US passed the Martial Plan to rebuild the ruined Europe, fearing the influence of both internal radicalism and hostile foreign powers like the Soviet Union.
In the modern day, the US is in two wars. One with Afghanistan, one in Iraq. The old governments are mostly defeated now, but the rebuilding proves difficult. Both countries have resistance movements bent on sabotaging the whole thing. In Iraq, there is both the remnants of the old government, and an "Al-Quida in Iraq" that sympathizes with the (dying off) terrorism movement. Both are practicing asymmetrical guerrilla warfare, which is a very very difficult tactic to counteract. The "guilty" blend in with the "innocent." Any attempts at purges generally only strengthen the resistance movement by encouraging recruiting. In Afghanistan, various warlords jockey for position, some are in favor of the US plan, but others sympathize with the old government, or see themselves as a potential great king of Afghanistan, and want to defeat us to make their goals happen.
While it is possible to defeat an asymmetrical opponent, it is a massively frustrating process, and none of the traditional markers of warfare apply. One must be more police officer than warrior, more social worker than bomb thrower. One must work with propaganda, not only to look good, but to have as much as possible have it backed by fact.
And ultimately, wars must end. War makes military recruitment more difficult, costs boatloads of cash, makes people die, and generally drains national resources.
I'd say that the two wars are 95% done, and we should avoid starting another one. We can join another one if alliances demand, but ultimately this should be the time to withdraw, retool, and rebuild.
Also, the war has made a number of interesting effects. The US is badly in debt, but the Iraqi government is riddled in money. Perhaps they could buy US bonds? It would be a good reason to end the war, especially if more "kickbacks" can be had in the future.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

An Age Paradox

My hard drive is one year old. I bought it in 2008. But the oldest file on it dates back to November 24th, 1997. How can I have a file that's 11 years older than the drive? Good question.
For you see, in the past 11 years, I've upgraded several times. Sometimes it was because I had money and a newer, faster, bigger, better hard drive was for sale. Other times it was because the drive was in imminent failure, and I had to upgrade or lose my files forever. My newest drive is 1 (manufacturer's) terrabyte, which is larger than anyone could have even dreamed of in the past.
But as for my file, I have kept it all these 11 years by copying it. Each time I got a new drive, I would format the new drive, copy over all my files, and then erase the old drive. Depending on how good the old drive was, I could move it to another computer, use it as a scratch drive, or just destroy it and throw it away.
So how did I get a file older than the hard drive? Well, when I copied the files over, they kept their times. After all, copying the file doesn't create it all over again, it makes a new file last modified at the time of copying, but created at the time as the original file. This makes sense, right? The copied file is not new information. So because of this, I can have a file back from 6 copies ago. Or 100. Or several million.
In related news, people are worried because of how information is stored on hard drives and CDs, which will all be completely dead within ten years. Unless this is archived, there is a good chance that it will be lost forever, and future historians will have a massive gap with this portion of history.
This need not be the case. Egyptian stonework, 4000 years old at this point, is as legible today as when it was carved. (Although it has deteriorated slightly. It used to be much prettier.) 4000 years is quite impressive in the face of 10.
I do have to wonder about what to chose to preserve. Everything ever posted on the Usenet networks has now been preserved by Google, using massive effort to save every last byte of it. And while some of it is significant history, much more of it is pointless trolling, flaming, and spamming. This is also being preserved at great expense. Perhaps Google does not want to appear biased in their preservation.
I mean, we do not have every, say, medieval manuscript ever made. Many were erased as a way of recycle paper, or tossed in the fire because some lord decided it was useless, or left in a warehouse until it rotted away. Would it impoverish future historians to not have some of the lamer groups (Hypothetically let's say: alt.flame.picard-is-better-no-kirk-is-dammit) to read and see how much excessive free time some 20th century humans had?

Friday, May 29, 2009


There is a class of medications that claims to be able to boost your intelligence in various ways. These have been named the Nootropics, after the greek "Noos," meaning Mind, and "Tropos," meaning "Bent" or "Turned."
Most of these drugs have been developed to deal with mental conditions like ADD, Depression, and burnout. That they can increase productivity in normally healthy people has been the surprising result.
While intelligence is a complicated subject, the most common results are reduction of fatigue, increased ability to concentrate in the face of distractions, and increased confidence. With these three effects are combined, a person seems smarter and wittier.
Like all chemical modifications, there are side effects. Most of the stimulants make people jittery, and in high doses, encourage paranoid thinking. Not to mention the tendency towards exhaustion and depression when the drug wears off. Excessive doses of anything can alter heart patterns up to and including failure. Seratonin and other brain chemicals can become unbalanced.
In one instance, a drug produced a journalistic effect. The medicine Modafil, developed for treatment of Narcolepsy, a disease causing people to fall asleep at random and inopportune times, was discovered to "cure" the need to sleep entirely. Under the new name "Provigil" (drugs typically have a chemical name and a more memorable marketing name), commercials were launched for a drug that took the need for sleep away. Instantly, pundits of all kinds feared a coming culture in which people operate 24 hours a day. Sleeping would soon become seen as a waste of time, and all other cultures would wind up economically devoured by people who were magically 1/3 more productive.
This ended up not happening. Provigil users are urged not to stay awake for more than 48 hours at a time for safety's sake. Still, it is curious that unlike people who stayed up without chemical help, their sleeping does not increase on their sleeping days.
Off-label drug use is getting increasingly strange. Why'd biochemistry have to be so complex?

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Homework is an old ball and chain

In England, as in the rest of the world, parents fight with their children about homework. The children don't want to do it, but the parents insist that future freedom is at stake. (Since chronic failure is no way to go through life, son.)
However, an English inventor decided the best way to emphasize the loss of future freedom was to take away existing freedom until the homework is done. British slacking children now can suffer being literally attached to a 21 pound ball until either their homework is done or 4 hours have elapsed. The heavy ball makes normal procrastination tasks like walking to the refrigerator and getting a snack, or walking to the phone to call your friends, much much more difficult.
This idea is not new, by any means. I've heard of American parents who tie their homework-refusing offspring to a chair as a way of insisting on homework time. And the ball at least has a time limit and safety key.
Also, the ball is apparently a joke invention. A chindogu, essentially. The tying to a chair, that was serious. Yikes.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

I get spam

I get such strange email sometimes. Here's one sent to my blog's new address:

From: mr aliu (address redacted)
Reply-To: (address redacted)
Date: Mon, 18 May 2009 08:58:45 +0000

Good day to you,
I am the manager of Bcb Bank in Burkina Faso,my name is Mr Aliu Medena. i have a business which will be beneficial to both of us.The amount involved is ($20.5 million us dollars) which i want us to transfer out to your account.Please if you are willing to work with me,kindly reply to me for the deal.
As to your benefits,you shall be entitled to 50/50% of this fund for your co-operation in this deal while 10% will be set aside for expences both of us may incure during the completion of this business.Please have no fear and let me know if we can work things out,i hope my mail
will meet your favorable consideration.
Call me (Phone number redacted)
Yours Sincere
Aliu Medena

Gee, thanks for sending me this, Mr. Medena. I sure would love to commit wire-fraud over a supposed $10 million that I'm quite sure doesn't exist in any form, since that's not totally illegal in both the United States and Burkina Faso, and I'm quite sure that you can't just invent a bazillion little "fees" that you'll want me to pay to get this supposed money. And no, the $20 million can't be used towards the fees, naturally.
Also, I'll totally agree to this, since as an American, I must clearly be a principle-free greed-bag, and clearly have enough for you to ride the gravy-train for the rest of your life. And Burkina Faso is clearly a paragon of African honesty, where the police would totally give a wet slap were you to try to scam me on this.
And lastly, if you actually had access to that kind of money, transmitting it to any country on earth would be no problem whatsoever. You would not need to work with a native person of any kind, just call a bank and tell them that you'd like to open an account with wired money.
Nice try, Mugu.
PS: There seems to be something wrong with your keyboard. I think the problem is dust. You might want to, I don't know, clean it or something.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Exercise by Cheating

If you want to grow your muscles, which almost everyone does, due to the ease of weight loss and increase in good-looking-ness, you need to do two things to make it happen. One, you need to stress and slightly tear your muscles, usually from exercise, and two, you need to rest and sleep so that your muscles can rebuild slightly bigger (which your body does to prevent that from happening again.)

However, the traditional way of doing the first step, repeatedly pushing against a major resistance, such as a weight, strikes me as a tad inefficient. Many repetitions must be done to cause the necessary micro-trauma, and this must be done on a semi-daily basis or myostatin will reabsorb the growing muscle.

This will hurt, but what say we inject ourselves with Activin Type IIB receptors to block muscular re-absorption, and then just before the workout, papaya or pineapple juice, straight to the muscle? The sugars should boost performance, and the enzymes will make the muscle more tear-able under the strain. (Use slightly less heavy weights.)

Nah, that's crazy.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Energy Paradox

On one hand, I keep hearing about the need for cheap energy, and a shortage of good materials to get it from.

On the other hand, there's things like This Is Why You're Fat, a cornucopia of calorie-dense, self-indulgent, carnival-type food.

The efficiency's not great, even if we tossed the carnie food straight into the reactor, but if there was some way of making extracting energy from people fun? Like, say, a stationary bicycle that was part video-game. Or that blood-sugar-extracting system?

Also, it frightens me how much of the food on "This is Why You're Fat" seems oddly delicious to me. Clearly must not lead myself into temptation.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Gold Market

I've been seeing a lot of commercials for gold, as an investment lately. They're really stupid. "Gold is worth so much money, it'll probably go up even more! Buy some, it has never been worth zero!"
Okay, what they're saying is technically true. Gold's price has climbed to over $800/oz due to psychotic libertarians and republicans buying the crap out of it to outmaneuver what they see as the imminent collapse of the federal banking system. If I believed them, this would be one of the less stupid currency exchanges to go for.
However, gold's price isn't guaranteed to go up, and the commercials always neglect to mention that sometimes gold prices go down. Especially if the supply increases (due to finding more reserves, or more people selling), or if interest decreases (who would want gold if they could collect, say, 14% interest on a sweet, sweet bank cd?). And that "it never has been worth zero" will be of little comfort to the investor who buys it at $900 per ounce and then has to sell it at $20 per ounce because they needed groceries.
No, I think now is the time to be SELLING gold. Anything golden that you have and don't want anymore, sell it. You'll get ludicrous amounts of money for a metal whose primary selling points are that it's shiny, noncorrosive, and conducts electricity well.
This situation is, of course, made worse by "gold is money" libertarians who slobber over the idea of paying for their necessities with solid gold coins that they mint themselves. The federally backed dollar annoys the living crap out of them on the grounds that it would be valueless without the government, which they hate.
For the sake of national sanity, I think somebody has to crash the gold market. You can do that by introducing huge amounts of gold into circulation. How? Let's say you've already sold all your unwanted stuff.
There are flakes of gold in seawater. Boil away the water, sort away the other minerals (mostly sodium) by chemical means, and collect the gold. This would work well with previously described desalinization machines. There is gold in some soils, extracted by complicated cyanide chemistry. Much of this is in California. The 1860 gold rush only removed half of California's gold, and now the other half is being extracted now that it's worthwhile. And there's gold in space.
According to NASA, our solar system is rich in gold. The four terrestrial planets should have gold at around the same rate as earth, as should the solid moons of the gas planets. NASA should get a good geologist, and start harvesting Martian gold. It'd pay the year's budget, a definite cause to rub it in Congress's face.
There's gold in the deep crust, but that's kind of hard to work with. Shift through volcanic lava? No thanks.
All the gold ever produced by humankind would, if melted and cast together, be a 14 foot cube. It would fit in the average American living room, but be so heavy as to shatter the concrete slab, or, if there is a basement, rip through the floor and fall through. It's about time that a 15th foot be added. Not because gold is wonderful, but to end the insanity.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Riddle me this

I remember a short rhyme from my childhood:

As I was going to St. Ives,
I met a man with 7 wives.
Each wife had 7 sacks,
each sack at 7 cats,
each cat had 7 kits.
Kits, cats, and wives,
how many were going to St. Ives?

Let's ignore the polygamy and animal abuse for the moment. Before you get out the calculators to multiply, there's one big gotcha here. Let's see if you notice it.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Worldwide Hypothetical Nations

Across the world, there are many groups who yearn for independence. Many of these are unlikely. Let me list all of the ones I could get decent research for:

Currently part of: United States of America
Population: 24,326,974
Economics: $1.09 trillion
Military Strength: Moderate
Most likely fates: Reconquest by America, Economic languishing, Conquest by Mexico.
Prestige: Independent nation

Conservatives around the US, unhappy about Obama's election, have repeatedly bounced around the idea of Georgia or Texas succeeding the union, giving them a new playground to express their hatred of taxes, welfare, and whatever the hell it is that they're mad about this time. Georgia isn't happening: It's wedged between several other states, and would start surrounded, outnumbered, and could be choked to death easily with a dam or two.

Texas's chances of survival aren't great either. The US is going to want its territory back. Texas was originally Mexican, and Mexico would ALSO like it back. Texas would have to very quickly raise a very large fighting force, as both nations would likely attack at the same time.

* Wales
Currently part of: United Kingdom
Population: 3,004,600
Economics: $85.4 billion
Likely Fates: Obscurity
Prestige: Independent Nation

Wales was once an independent kingdom, but was conquered by England in the 1300s, and was incorporated into the successor state the UK. The heir to the throne of the UK is styled as "Prince of Wales" by tradition.

* Basque
Currently part of: Spain
Population: 3,007,661
Economics: $93 billion
Military Strength: Very Low
Most likely fates: Reconquest by Spain, Obscurity
Prestige: Independent nation

The Basques are an ethnic group that has fought Spain for independence, so far unsuccessfully.

* Kurdistan
Currently part of: Iraq, Turkey, Iran
Population: 28 million
Economics: $ 29 billion
Military Strength: Bad
Most likely fates: Conquest by Turkey
Prestige: Joke nation

The Kurds are an ethnic group living in the border zone between the three countries. They have a bad reputation in the area and have done very poorly militarily in the past.

Also, the declaration of independence would lead to all Kurdish regions in the area attempting to join, which would lead to a declaration of war by Turkey within the end of the day. They are unlikely to survive that.

* The Confederacy
Currently part of: United States of America
Population: 89 million
Economics: $900 billion
Military Strength: Good
Most likely fates: Reconquest by America
Prestige: Joke nation

In 1860, southerners angry with the election of Lincoln declared themselves to be an independent country, and attacked the American fort at Fort Sumter. Although initially it did well in the ensuing civil war, it continuously lost military, moral, and economic ground in a series of increasingly moronic blunders.

It would today be despised as a symbol of American racism (as the first incarnation insisted on keeping numerous African-Americans as slaves), a symbol of backwardness (the original confederacy was completely agricultural, and strongly Luddite), and the United States would clearly resent the large loss of territory in a way that it might forgive from Texas, California, or Alaska. War would be declared certainly, and while the confederates were very tough fighting people, they sucked at diplomacy, naval warfare, and economics. A repeat of the original American civil war would ensue, complete with the humiliation of the confederates for a second time. All involved would certainly be put to death, and the involved states disenfranchised until all memory of the confederacy was forgotten.

Also, they would not enjoy the prestige they had from England and France last time, as both nations would remember both the racism and the loserishness.

* Quebec
Currently part of: Canada
Population: 7,782,561
Economics: $243 billion
Military Strength: Unknown, presumed poor
Most likely fates: Conquest by Canada, Languishing in Obscurity
Prestige: Independent Nation

Quebec is the subsection of Canada with the most French speakers. Though numerous groups itch for independence, this would be a clear and obvious disadvantage to the people in the region. Canada would resent the loss of territory, it's surrounded by Canada and the United States, and Quebecois (That is, the people of Quebec) are stereotyped as having the combined negative traits of French people and Canadian people, so little respect would be forthcoming. Independence would also impoverish the region economically.

* Lakotah
Currently part of: United States (regions with high populations of Lakotah native americans)
Population: ~27 million
Economics: $270 million
Military Strength: Nonexistent
Most likely fates: Conquest by United States, Joke nation
Prestige: Joke Nation

The Lakotah were a tribe that inhabited the regions around what is now Montana, North Dakotah, South Dakotah, Nebraska, and Wyoming. Like most of America's native tribes, they were first promised peace by the coming United States, and then promptly booted from their lands when they became inconvenient. While they had a few impressive victories against the US army, they ended up just as conquered as all the other tribes.

Some tribe members want to declare independence to return to their traditional way of life, but that would mean a great loss in economic standards, and likely military loss. Probably not happening, and likely resented by both sides if it somehow did.

* Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus
Currently part of: Cyprus
Population: 265,100
Economics: $2.85 billion
Military Strength: Unknown
Likely fates: Absorption by Turkey, Absorption by Cyprus
Prestige: Bad

The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus is de-facto independent, but this is only recognized by Turkey. So in the eyes of the world, it's still legally part of the southern half of the Island, which is culturally Greek. This kind of diplomatic insanity happens all the time, unfortunately. No solution would satisfy all parties, which is why the status quo continues.

While Cyprus is nearer to Turkey than to Greece, both parties are easily capable of interfering militarily.

* Åland
Currently part of: Finland
Population: 27,210
Economics: $1.08 billion
Military Strength: Weak
Likely Fates: Micronation
Prestige: Unknown

Åland is legally part of Finland, but is halfway between Finland and Sweden, speaks Swedish, and is already "autonomous" and divorced from Finish law. I'd have to ask a number of Finnish people to be sure, but I don't think Finland would care very much if it left.

However, the people of Åland are growing increasingly Finnish themselves, and increasingly want to remain part of Finland.

* Chechnya
Currently part of: Russia
Population: 1,103,686
Economics: $1 billion
Military Strength: Low
Likely Fates: Certain reconquest by Russia
Prestige: Bad

Chechnya is a Muslim-majority federal subject of Russia. It's made two attempts at independence, both abject failures that decimated their male population and left them with immense polygamy. There's some noises about making a third, but I doubt it would go any different this time.

* Korea
Fusion of: North Korea, South Korea
Population: 71,044,737
Economics: $1.35 trillion
Military Strength: Strong
Likely Fates: Prosperity
Prestige: Respected Independent Nation

Korea is currently divided into a Stalinist North Korea and a democratic South Korea. However, the citizens of both consider themselves part of one nation, and there is pressure to combine the two. This is foiled so far mostly by the completely incompatible forms of government that the two have chosen.

Also, the US insists that the South government be dominant, China insists that the North government be dominant, Japan despises North Korea for abducting citizens, and North Korea insists that the interference of outside parties is sabotaging the entire process.

* Khalistan
Currently part of: India
Population: 15 million
Economics: $1.5 billion
Military Strength: Bad
Likely Fates: Conquest by India, unpopular nation
Prestige: Bad

Khalistan would be made of the parts of India that are majority Sihk. It's strangely popular with right-wing US politicians (who perhaps see it as a way to weaken India, which loves socialism).

Though the Sihks are unpopular in India itself, they're respected elsewhere in the world, and the separation would likely damage that, as the extremist Sihks's preferred tactic is terrorism. Most Sihks prefer to stay in India, as their prestige is rising. The current prime minister is a Sihk, the first in recorded history.

* East Turkestan
Currently part of: China
Population: 19,630,000
Economics: $61.6 billion
Military Strength: Poor
Likely Fates: Certain conquest by China
Prestige: Hated Joke Nation

Currently China's Xinjiang province, it has an independence movement that dislikes that Chinese for not being fundamentalist Muslims like they are.

China considers this region a core part of their country, and would immediately declare war. In addition, the independence movement is far too aligned with Al Quida to have any sympathy with the rest of the world. (Not even the most radical Muslims give Al Quida credence anymore, as they've caused too many Muslim deaths.) Lastly, that "Economics" figure would go way, way down.

* Ossetia
Currently part of: Russia, Georgia
Population: 140,000
Economics: $15 million
Likely Fates: Conquest by Russia, Conquest by Georgia
Prestige: Unknown

Georgia has gone to war with Russia over South Ossetia. The Ossetians seem to prefer independence, but lacking that, prefer Russia over Georgia.

* Bosnia
Currently part of: Bosnia and Herzegovina
Population: 1,500,000
Economics: $20,000,000,000
Likely fates: Perpetual war
Prestige: Unknown

The former Yugoslavia is a powder keg of angry nationalists.

* Alberta
Currently part of: Canada
Population: 3,632,483
Economics: $220.83 billion
Likely fates: Conquest by Canada, absorption to United States
Prestige: Bad

Various Canadian tracts that I've read give me the idea that Albertans are thought of in Canada as what would be a cross between a Mississippian and a Texan in the US: Basically an oil-powered hick.

While people advocate the independence, the details are very unclear. Albert by itself, with British Columbia, or with Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and if it should be independent, absorbed by the US, or some other fate.

Probably not going to happen.

* Cornwall
Currently part of: United Kingdom
Population: 531,600
Economics: $39 billion
Military Strength: Unknown
Likely Fates: Obscurity
Prestige: Forgotten

Cornwall is that little peninsula on the southwest corner of the British Isles. It was conquered by England in the 1100s, and has been part of England and its successor state, the UK, ever since. Cornwall is famous for its tiny chickens.

In other news, the traditional pirate accent is actually Cornish. ("Yar, me hearties, fetch me a flask o' grog! We gots us a landlubber, let him walk the plank!")

* California
Currently part of: United States of America
Population: 36,756,666
Economics: $1.812 trillion
Military Strength: Laughable
Most likely fates: Reconquest by America, Economic decrease, Reconquest by Mexico
Prestige: Independent nation

Most declarations of Californian independence have been jokes. However, it does have the capability, if it somehow raises a very large army before being attacked, to survive. It has the world's 7th largest economy or so, loads of people, and lots of universities.

* Tibet
Currently part of: China
Economics: $20 million
Military Strength: Nonexistent
Most likely fates: Immediate reconquest by China
Prestige: Joke Nation

Tibet is the darling of media-celebrities and disaffected college radicals. But what's its real history?

Tibet has had periods of independence, periods of Chinese rule, and periods that could be described as both, or neither. The most recent independence was in 1912, taking advantage of the 1911 collapse of the Qing government. The subsequent Republic and other Chinese forces refused to recognize the independence. So when the dust finally settled in 1949, no time was wasted. China successfully reasserted itself on Tibet in 1950.

Since then, all kinds of accusations fly. Each side accuses the other of being a barbarous abomination. Credibility, from the outside, is very low, as both sides are incredibly secretive and propaganda prone. The Tibetan authorities allowed maybe 5 outsiders total in their entire independence, and asking the Chinese authorities for access tends to be about as successful as asking the US authorities to please give you a billion dollars. (They'd laugh at you. To your face.)

I'd say that independence just isn't happening. The ostensible leader, the Dali Lama, is outright against independence, preferring to lobby for local autonomy within the government structure of China. The young people of Tibet are the driving force for independence, more out of some sort of nationalist pride than anything else. This independence would pretty much end the economy (Tibet's main industry is Yak farming), Tibet has little to no infrastructure, and an independent Tibet's only real friend would be Mongolia, which they have religious ties with. Not to mention that unless China somehow magically ceased to exist, they'd steamroll the place in about a week.

* Ryukyu
Currently part of: Japan
Population: 1.1 million
Economics: $ 900 million
Military Strength: Nonexistent
Most likely fates: Reconquest by Japan, Conquest by China
Prestige: Forgotton

The Ryukyus are a chain of islands connecting Japan and Formosa. At one time, they were a kingdom, but an expanding Japan conquered them all in 1879. Briefly taken by the US in World War II, they've been returned to Japan. There's a few noises about independence, but it would probably be better both for economics and reputation to be linked to Japan.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

My Craziest Desire

The strangest thing I've ever wanted for myself is a head computer. A cyberbrain, if you will. It's technically possible, I believe Dr. Kevin Warwick will have one for sale within the next ten years. It's too early to be sure of the details yet, but let me talk about what I assume the advantages and disadvantages would be.
On the plus side, I should be at least able to offload all mathematical operations onto it. Let's say I'm shopping at the supermarket, and I want to know which can of corn is a better deal. One can is $0.90 for 8 oz, one is $2.50 for 30 oz. When this has actually happened, I am lost in thoughts for minutes as I attempt to make the necessary divisions. But using a computer (and my fingers), I can have an answer in 30 seconds, using a calculator program, "bc":

~ $ bc
bc 1.06.95
Copyright 1991-1994, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2004, 2006 Free Software Foundation, Inc.
This is free software with ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY.
For details type `warranty'.
.9 / 8

The second option is the better deal, at 8 cents per ounce. This would be even faster, since I wouldn't have to bother typing it, I would just think it and it would happen. I would also be able to write my blog from anywhere, and interface computers with no human interface devices. Don't need keyboards, mice, or monitors anymore.
In the event that brain-calculations and computer-calculations are compatible (which is dubious), I would gain a thousandfold increase in mental capability, sharpening my senses by significant amounts, and generally being a superhuman genius.
On the downside, this would involve the most invasive surgery possible. The device would need to be wired to my nerves, possibly even implanted in my brain through a large sawed hole in my skull. (Which I need like, well, to pardon the pun, a massive hole in my head.) Also, massive software security would be needed lest it be useful as a torture mechanism. It might be possible to control me through the device, or if not, drive me insane through incessant voices in my head. It may, depending on the construction, be possible to use the device to read my very thoughts. I don't give myself the pretension of thinking that anyone would give a crap about my personal thoughts, but if this becomes common, I can definitely imagine entities that salivate at the thought of being able to instantly read the mind of anyone they deem to be their nemesis.
Lastly, I don't know enough about medicine to know about how the immune system deals with foreign bodies. Would it grow scar tissue around the computer? (I don't want scar tissue in my brain!) Would the immune system attack the computer, ignore the computer, or attempt to cordon it off? Would an electrical malfunction in the computer result in me suffering an epileptic attack? (I don't have epilepsy now, but computers involve stronger currents than the brain usually has, and should they "leak...") If the computer's code should malfunction, could I be stuck with an annoying input that never goes away, or would I have some way to reset or turn off the computer?
Maybe this isn't worth it.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is the excellent idea that energy should come from sources that can be counted on to continue to exist even after a great deal of use. Solar is renewable, because the sun will almost assuredly be shining next year, but coal is not because there is a limited supply, after which it will take millions of years to make more. Let me list some kinds of renewable energy.

* Solar
Various types of panels absorb the radiant energy of the sun, and product electricity from them. Panels must be replaced every 20 or so years, as their production declines over time
Pluses: Most common during peak usage hours, awesome looking, little environmental impact, silicon is super abundant.
Minuses: Available an average of 12 hours per day, no production at night, fragile materials

* Wind
Windmill turns when the wind blows, producing power.
pluses: Cheap, awesome looking, lasts a long time
minuses: Unpredictable, damage to birds

* Bio
Grow plants, harvest them, dry them out, then burn them.
Pluses: Easy, uses existing coal infrastructure
Minuses: Smoke, excessive use of farmland

* Microwave
Like solar, except collected in space and then beamed down
Pluses: Higher availability version of solar
Minuses: Insanely expensive, severe problem if the beam ever misses

* Human
Get many people to ride stationary bikes really really hard.
Pluses: Excellent for fitness, Increased employment
Minuses: Not cost effective, financially, thermodynamically, or in any other way

* Radioisotope
A block of nuclear waste is encased in a jacket that makes power from the thermal difference between the waste and the surrounding environment
Pluses: Recycles nuclear waste, produces heat for cold climates, guaranteed for hundreds of thousands of years, portable, works underground, constant
Minuses: You have a block of nuclear waste in your house, and should the jacket be damaged in any way you are probably now a superfund site. Also, incredibly heavy (125 pounds produces 300 watts.)

* Compost
Agricultural unwanted byproducts, like dead diseased turkeys, are thrown into a big pit and the methane from their decay is captured, and burned when power is needed
Pluses: Recycles what would otherwise be garbage
Minuses: Only practical near the farm, smells bad

* Stupidity
If only this could be turned into a power source.
Pluses: Practically infinite supply
Minuses: No way of actually producing power.

* Tidal
Capture seawater as it flows up during high tide, then during low tide, it must flow through a water wheel to return to the ocean, producing power
Pluses: Will exist as long as the moon does, free after initial construction
Minuses: Only available on seashore, only produces power during low tide, need to remove sea life from captured pool

* Gravity Plate
Plate on sidewalk or street compresses when stepped on or driven over, producing power as it decompresses back into place.
Pluses: Interesting, unexpected
Minuses: Probably annoying, difficult to maintain

* Arc Plasma Gasification
Complicated system in which garbage is run through a plasma torch, converting it into a flamable gas.
Pluses: Garbage is now fuel, supply of garbage is extremely large and currently worthless. Will probably be garbage for as long as there is civilization.
Minuses: Complicated, hard to maintain, expensive to set up

* Hydro
Dam up a river, whose water must now flow through a water wheel to get downstream, producing power
Pluses: Easy, cheap
Minuses: Area behind damn floods, damage to stream's wildlife.

* Geothermal
Earth's immense internal heat is used to boil water, which makes power.
Pluses: Free after initial setup, Abundant, perfectly clean
Minuses: Super expensive outside of plate boundary zones and near volcanoes.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Martian SteelWorks

Mars is covered in rust, and would benefit from additional carbon dioxide. Coal, when burned, produces carbon dioxide. Coal + Rust = Steel. Steel could be made into rockets, which we could fly to anywhere in the universe. Plus, the carbon would be gone from the earth, eternally.

Oh wait, the cost of moving the coal. Damn it.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Worldwide Mad Transportation

In many of the developing countries, they want to get around, but cars are so expensive, and walking's such a drag. What do you do?
You take an abandoned western car (of which there are many in the developing world), and you chop it into a working vehicle, and bingo, taxi. You can now drive people about for income. Take that, entropy.
From the Malian Climatise, which boasts its own air conditioning (which is quite a necessary feat in Mali), to the Philipino Jeepney, which are made of abandoned World War II era jeeps, converted into a small bus, all kinds of developing countries are doing this. And if there are no cars whatsoever to be found, Africa is now full of motorcycle taxis. After all, riding behind somebody on a motorcycle gets you there much faster than walking, and the motorcycle guy probably charges less than a car taxi.
This is even used in Afghanistan. Often times, all that is left is the car's shell, since all usable motors have been taken. The car gets hitched to a mule. Why not just ride the mule? Well, the car has a comfortable seat, and often times actual working air conditioning. Anyone who's ever ridden an animal knows that it's a jostly, annoying experience. It's also better for the animals back to not have a human riding on it. The weight is borne on the cars wheels instead, and the wheels can take it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Chindogu: The mad engineering of Japan

I could write this entire blog on Japan alone. They have a long history of unusual invention, unusual perspective, and general oddness in the eyes of the rest of the world. This was made further manifest in 1995, when an inventor, Mr. Kawakami, came up with the idea of mocking the pop-culture tendency to make gadgets to solve problems with gadgets that were so utterly bizarre or impractical that no one in their right mind would use them. He calls this "Chindogu."
"Chindogu" literally translates "unusual tool," but they're more than just unusual. They're playfully un-useless. That is to say, they're technically useful, but so odd or embarrassing that they cannot be used. The inventor speculates that a proper chindogu is not patented, and is not satire, but it's hard to imagine many of them being anything else.
Commonly listed Chindogus are Chopsticks with attached fan for excessively hot noodles, some kind of toilet paper hat so that you're never far from a usable tissue (which might be practical for someone with a severe cold or hayfever), a feather-duster whose handle contains a cocktail shaker (since one should be rewarded for cleaning diligently, right?), and a drysuit for the aquaphobic (which I'm fairly sure is missing the point of aquaphobia). And yes, some wag has indeed put together a solar-powered flashlight, which appears in many jokes about stupidity.
Truly, Mr. Kawakami is a master of mad engineering, even if his ultimate goal is to mock it. He also succeeds as a conventional engineer. An interview with him plugs a DVD that he made to strengthen weakened eye muscles, since eye-strain is at an all time high with the constant reading and working at computer screens and other close-range precision irritations.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Litter Collection Bot

The city in which I live is clogged with litter. As far as I can tell, some moron gets drunk and decides that throwing crap out his car window is disposing it. Also, I occasionally find tires where somebody has decided that since disposal costs are so high, that the best thing to do with their worn out tires is to toss them where no one will notice. Someone does eventually notice, but by then the perpetrator is long gone.
Mobile robots exist that can find their way around independantly. Let's build some to roam the city, picking up all unattended objects, and throwing them into a built-in container. After a certain run, it should return home to empty the bin, and charge itself up.
Objects should be classified as either garbage or lost objects. Lost objects should have their owner determined, and be returned to their owner. Garbage should be further sorted as recyclable, burnable, or neither. Objects that are neither should be taken to landfill.
The robot should be strong enough to lift a tire, but not strong enough to lift a car. (Taking parked cars is asking for trouble.) The robot must be waterproof in case of puddles or ditches, able to move across grass, sand, and slopes up to 45 degrees, and able to rescue itself from falling into a ditch. If not rescue itself, then somehow call for human rescue. (Yes, I can imagine the robot using a cell-phone-like system to tell me in a synthesized voice that it has fallen, again, into a ditch, at such and such location, and would I please come rescue it. I can further imagine that this would be the twelth time this happened that day.)
Lastly, the robot must not wander into traffic. I doubt it would survive impact with a moving car. It must have some means of telling apart "road" from "sidewalk," and preferring "sidewalk." Bonus points if it can successfully taught to cross the street.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Purpose of Paint

I used to think that paint was a purely aesthetic thing whose only purpose is to make things be pretty colors. Haha, wrong.

Even in a world with no art, paint would still exist, albeit with a significantly shallower palette. For paint provides a corrosion proof covering, provides resistance against ultraviolet radiation, is easily maintained even by completely untrained people, and visually demonstrates the condition of the object in question, because the paint is the first thing damaged.

White paint, colored by titanium oxide, would be the most common shade, and other colors would be discovered on a "when we get around to it" basis. A documentary I saw recently reports that the first colors were literally just ground up rocks, making some colors very expensive indeed (blue and purple only came from expensive gemstones). Chemistry cheapened those colors over time.

Of course, since art exists, there's pressure to develop more and cheaper colors. Artists make all kinds of colored objects, but only make money if they get famous for it. Anything that reduces their costs, they're naturally all in favor of.

So, paint, use it to make stuff pretty, and it'll keep it safe, too. This has been my 12^2th post.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


So the creators of the game Strategic Domination needed a way to tell people about it, but didn't have the budget for a billboard. Then they noticed all the homeless people downtown and came up with an idea: Staple a mini-billboard to the hobo's own cardboard sign, making both more noticeable.
They call this concept "Bumvertising." (A note on dialect differences: "Bum" in American English is a homeless person, but in British English is a butt. We mean the first kind here. A "bumvertisement" in the UK sense would probably violate several of their laws about public nudity. All further "bum" references in this article are in the US sense.)
I love the win-win aspect of this project. The advertiser gets something about a quarter as effective as a billboard for less than 1/100th the price. The bum gets additional income for something he or she was doing anyway. While the added income isn't quite enough to lift the bum into a studio-apartment, it is enough for clothing-replacement, and maybe a better meal. Maybe that's enough to finally go out and find a real job, but probably not. People don't live in the street for fun, mostly.
The only downsides I can think of are: 1, enforcement. How does the advertiser know that the bum stayed on his corner, and 2, chance that another bum will mug the bum that accepts the advertising. (I don't want the advertising sign to mean "Hey, I've got money, feel free to rob me.")

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Use For Mercury

When I study why people come to this blog using Google Analytics, I find out some odd things about my readership. For one, something like 3/4ths of the searches are for things I specifically wrote about. Perhaps these people half-remember something they read here and wanted to see it again. Or perhaps my reputation somehow proceeds me, and they've somehow heard of me through non-internet means. Or perhaps they think strange thoughts like I do.
I also learn interesting things about where they are. Most of my readers are American like I am, and the most common hits are New York and California, the two most populous states, and Texas, where I'm physically located. (Some of those Texan hits may have been me, up to all of them.) And then there's the weird parts. One person in Trondheim, Norway, reads my blog 7 times a month. It does not tell me what he or she is looking for, other than the read time is very very fast and that it's one distinct person. I hope he or she finds whatever it is that he or she wanted to read here. I also have hits elsewhere in Europe, Asia and Australia, but they've mostly seemed to have left quickly after a few seconds. Not quite what they wanted, I suppose. But I'm getting off topic.
One person apparently read my article about terraforming Mars and Venus, and was trying to find a plan to terraform Mercury. It was a very interesting idea, and I've thought it over, and I regret to say that no, Mercury cannot be terraformed. For several reasons. There is one bright spot, but first the reasons why it cannot happen.
The first reason is that Mercury is too close to the sun. Powerful solar winds strike mercury at all times, and any atmosphere brought to it would quickly be blasted into outer space. Also, any humans brought to the surface would be dead of skin cancer within a year's time even if the atmosphere was continuously magically replenished.
Two, mercury is semi-tidally-locked. It orbits the sun in a 3:2 resonance, such that 1.5 mercurial days make up a mercurial year. Any plants brought along would die during the 44 day long night. Unlike Venus, if spun up, it would spin back down due to the gravitational effects.
Three, even if we somehow magically solve the first two problems, mercury is smaller than mars. It would have difficulty retaining the atmosphere even without the solar wind, and gravity would be incredibly low, which would have unpredictable results on human health.
And lastly, the vastly closer sun provides 10 times the sunlight that the earth receives, resulting in temperatures about 20 times higher. If you think the desert is hot, wait until you see weather that can melt aluminum. Oh, and if you don't bake to death, you'll dehydrate to death sweating.
However, Mercury is not completely useless for us. In the early 1900s, Nikola Tesla discovered that power could be wirelessly beamed about. So we send in a probe to work on the cold, night side, and have it endlessly construct solar panels that wire together to a beaming station. We have it continuously move along the axis of rotation, staying perpetually on the night side where it is cold enough to operate. On the poles, we build the beaming station that receives all the energy from the panels.
When the panels are rotated into the day side by Mercury's natural rotation, they produce lots of power. Mercury gets 1370 watts per square meter, of which we can hope to capture about 10%. The station changes it into a wireless form that we can pick up elsewhere in the solar system. We can pick this up on Mars for heating, on the ISS for powering scientific tools, or hypothetically even on earth to power our cities. The panels should be replaced every 20 or so years.
Downsides: How to build the power-transmitting station such that it doesn't melt down when in the day side. How to deal with rotation, as Mercury is not perpendicular to the solar system plane, but slightly tilted. (About 6 degrees.) Oh, and getting thousands of square miles of solar panels and hundreds of thousands of feet of power transmitting cable not only into space, but onto Mercury's surface without being damaged. Also, the robot probably needs to be able to build everything without human intervention, which could take up to 12 minutes depending on the distance of our planets at the time. (Speed of light limitations are a bitch, aren't they?)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Shanxi Automated Brickworks

Fact #1: Bricks sell in China's Shanxi province for 3000 yuan per pack. (~$438?)
Fact #2: The Chinese government has shut down numerous slavery rings in Shanxi, in which people were imported to produce bricks. There is apparently a labor shortage in Shanxi.
Fact #3: Steel and machine tools are now quite common in China.

Hm, hypothetically there's money to be made on this.

Step #1: Enter China on business visa.
Step #2: Fill out Foreign Owned Corporation paperwork. (Machine translation of the company name is "山西自动化砖砌."
Step #3: Rent cheap land. (In a nod to the official communist policy, one may not buy land in China, merely lease it for 99 years, with possible renewal.)
Step #4: Build rail-furnace, calibrate belt speed such that bricks emerge fully fired.
Step #5: Clay harvesting machine. (Probably involves clay-knife, scoop, and storage bin.)
Step #6: Brick shaping machine. (Say, 5 or 6 plates that squeeze the clay into a rectangular shape.)
Step #7: Hire some workers to operate the clay harvesting machine and to move the hot bricks into containers using tongs.
Step #8: Sino-fy the company by selling shares until you own none of it.

If you are Chinese, you can skip steps 1, 2, and 8.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Email Access

In order to further communication without compromising my privacy, I have opened a new email address: It has cost me nothing, and allows me to send mail as "The Mad Engineer," rather than my legal name.

Feel free to comment on my stories, or suggest new ones, or complain about how my themes aren't perfect, or whatever it is that you want to tell me.

The Rules of innovation

Over in White African, the author, a Kenyan who is Caucasian (yes, they exist), describes principles that drive innovation in Africa in general. The "White African" is his personal blog, he has another one, AfriGadget about African inventions in general. Technically, this is a reposting of Ethan Zuckerman's expose on the innovation that he routinely sees.
Africa is rather different from much of the rest of the world. It has been bled white of resources in a series of wars, after a long history of colonial rule, often kleptocratic. Many of its natural resources have grotesquely deteriorated. The northern part was, in ancient history, a lush forest, but is today the Saraha desert, a burning wasteland of sand and little else. The Savannah to the south is likewise difficult for human habitation.
Africans have generally been described as hungry for education and jobs to pull themselves out of desperate poverty. These things are not readily available, as the people are poor, the government is poor, the infrastructure was all destroyed in the last war, and even if the resources were available, many people are afraid to help out because the wars could restart at any minute now. (The less stable countries tend to abruptly collapse into a coup, which then decides that a border war would be an excellent idea.)
That said, apparently lots of Africans own cell phones, which they buy from Latin American companies. (Land lines? Long destroyed.) When there's no schooling to be had, Africans feel that owning a cell phone is prestigious. You can make calls, transfer money, even make some money. Apparently Africans will forgo eating for a week to afford a good phone.
Anwyay, I see these rules as relevant not only to Africa, but to me, here, in wealthy America. Innovation proceeded poorly in many of the wealthier eras, which had a remarkable lust for snake-oil, Veblen goods, and the most comedicly wrong thinking of all time. It was during the poorer and more threatened times that the real innovation shines through. Incidentally, my home state was initially populated with a gold rush, but guess who actually made the money? It wasn't the gold miners, it was the people who sold them things. (Forgot a pickaxe? Want eggs for breakfast instead of those iron rations? Need a pair of jeans that doesn't have a huge hole in the knees? I accept gold nuggets!) This is a wealthy time currently, so much of the discourse is bitching about how expensive everything is and wondering how to offshore more of it.
Working with culture is important because it's the basic framework of people's lives. It defines their sense of time, space, good and evil. Working against culture will make people find your work pointless, stupid, evil, or some combination of the three.
Use market measures. Giving stuff away encourages people to just take all they can until your resources are exhausted. People better respect what they have to pay for.
Start with what you've got. To build a train, you'd need rail, fuel, trainyards, train station, and a train engineer, but a bicycle fleet can be put together with what you've got.
Problems are not obvious from afar. The framework that applies to me does not apply to the various frameworks of Africa, nor would any of their frameworks apply to me. Tanzanian children love stationary bicycles and can use them for power generation because it's a fun novelty. American children probably have their own bike, yawn, boring. Many Africans are surviving on $1/day, an amount at which I would be homeless and on a starvation diet.
Infrastructure can produce more infrastructure. If trains are really important to you, you will find a way to build the rails. Cars are important to America, since we like the idea of a vehicle that obeys our personal individual will, so roads and highways are built up at great expense. In Africa, cell phones are quite common, so a network of solar powered car batteries have been developed to recharge them, and a young genius has a system to use cell phones to prevent grand theft auto. (Note to self: Find way to fund this.)
Most importantly, I want to see how running lean might work out. Anything of which I can reduce the expenses is a thing that can sell for cheaper, and hence more. Muhahaha.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

My own cranky beliefs

I've been enjoying and the wacky people profiled within. Except that yesterday I noticed that I have a cranky belief myself. Ooh, the hypocrisy, it burns.
I reject Euler's equation, which I will explain below.
e^xi=cos x + i sin x
So if you take Euler's own constant, e, and raise it to a power involving "i," which is the square root of negative one, you get a complex number based on the variable "x." This of course gives you every mathematician's favorite equation ever:
e^pi*i + 0 =1
Since this equation connects five important mathematical constants, so many mathematicians proclaim this the most beautiful equation ever invented.
Mathematical beauty is another idea that I reject. To be rude about it, it's pretty much jerking off over numbers. Oh god, yes, pi and e, so beautiful! Wank, wank, wank. My interest in math is mostly about correct measurements. Poets may claim that beauty is truth, but I expect my numbers to represent something in the physical world, and base my assumptions of their correctness on the correspondence to fact. And besides, the truth is often hideous. People are inhumanly cruel to each other, the universe doesn't care if you live or die, people have done monstrous things to each other for no good reason, and everything in the universe, you included, will eventually die. The universe itself will eventually die.
The "Beautiful equation" revolves around the cosine and sine functions. Cosine and sine are trigonometric ratios first found in triangles. In a right triangle, cosine is the ratio of the side adjacent to the angle to the hypotenuse (the long side). Sine is the ratio of the side opposite to the angle to the hypotenuse. The ratios are the same for any particular angle. Later, the metaphor was extended to circles, allowing for angles greater than 90 degrees.
In high end math, radians are used instead of degrees. In radians, the circle is divided into 2*pi sections. So 2*pi is the entire circle, pi is half the circle, and 1/2 pi is one quarter of the circle. Radians are dimensionless.
Remember Euler's equation?
e^xi=cos x + i sin x
Plugging in pi would result in the complex number -1 + 0i. Anything times 0 is 0, removing the imaginary part.
However, from goofing off with a calculator, I know that without the imaginary part, e to the power pi is slightly greater than 23. (It's irrational.) Throwing in imaginary numbers seems to be causing an abrupt, inexplicable change.
In fact, raising numbers to an imaginary exponent is so poorly defined that neither calculator nor amateur mathematician can explain how to do it. Natural numbered exponents are "Multiplying a number by itself that many times." a^2 = a*a, a^3 = a*a*a, and so on. Fractional exponents involve roots. a^1.5 is a times the square root of a.
So if "i" is the square root of -1, what would a^i indicate? Would it's result be real, like a, imaginary like i, complex, or something completely different?
Also, I would expect "e^xi" to be linear as x. As x increases, larger and larger results should return. If not larger along the real axis, than in total distance from the origin. However, Euler's equation is cyclical. Sine and Cosine go around in a circle, first increasing, then decreasing, then increasing again, back and forth forever. There should be a reason for this discrepancy.
Mathematicians often have a strange relationship with their numbers, and grow quite attached. When a Greek mathematician discovered irrational numbers, he was thrown off a boat for ruining their sense of mathematical order. That the other mathematicians could not disprove the existence of irrational numbers drove them absolutely crazy. It was proof that mathematics was not the pure orderly truth that they thought it was, and that it also involved messy generalities, just like real life.
I likewise suspect that Euler put together his equation on the grounds that he liked its structure, not because it actually corresponded to anything. Moreso, modern mathematicians love the idea that many of their fundamental constants are closely related. I kind of hope that I'm the one who's wrong about this, because I could take being wrong way more than they could.
I would like any commentators to describe what I got wrong, or describe a proof. A graphical proof would be the easiest to understand, but those are the hardest to construct in the first place. If someone does prove me wrong, I will add the "Stupid" tag to this post and describe their proof.
EDIT: Dr. Phillip Spencer of the university of Toronto's math department proves Euler's equation based on the Taylor series, and therefore this entire post is wrong. Having proved Euler's equation, all else follows. Well done, Dr. Spencer.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Education is Slow and Shoddy

I think we do education all wrong in America.

I remember, as a young boy, getting the same lesson multiple times. I remember being so far ahead that I was in the top 3rd percentile. I remember doing decimal calculations 2 grades before being taught. I remember some teachers were very good indeed, encouraging the students under their tutelage to be the best people they could be. I also remember some teachers were power-tripping morons who apparently took the job because they got immense pleasure out of ordering small children around.
I've been in some kind of schooling since I was 4, and at least half of it was a complete waste of time. Now, the stated purpose of education is to prepare one with the facts and figures that one needs in postgraduate life. There is some liberal-arts that everyone is expected to know, and some specialty knowledge specific to your chosen field. You know the facts, you're ready to go.
Lots of time was lost to "discipline problems." Meaning that someone in the class would not STFU and the teacher had to stop and yell at them. Lots of time was lost to suddenly the professor just had to make a 30 minute rant about whatever was pissing him off that day. Lots of time was lost to circular questions in which neither student nor professor understood each other on any level.
I wonder if it is possible to complete secondary education (US grades 1 - 12) before one turns 12 years old. Currently, a 12th grade graduate is typically 18 years old. Would a longer day, or more intense instruction get it done faster? Or is brain maturity the bottleneck?
After all, I had classes up to my university sophmore (~14th grade) that were similar to my high school freshman (~9th grade) classes. Complete with the "CHRIST WHAT ARE YOU PEOPLE, FIVE?!?!" rants when the students would not STFU and listen.
Mostly I'm disturbed by pundit-articles that claim that the actual purpose of the upper-level of education is to keep teenagers off the street. If they get an actual education out of this, is a secondary concern. It scares me because I think it may have been true. I've spent 1/3rd of my predicted lifespan in school, and much of it was, for no good reason, effectively the same as a prison sentence.
Although on the other hand, these articles also proposed replacing high school with apprenticeships. This would not work in every field. Of my two hypothetical careers, one, system administration, would work well as a master-apprentice relationship. The other, computer programmer, would not. Programmers need more education, and if you handed me a 12 year old, yes, they could write code, but it would hurt my productivity because I would have to rewrite everything my apprentice did. I would have to rewrite it because it would be inefficient and incorrect. My hypothetical apprentice just wouldn't be educated enough to do the job right.
I confirmed this with a psychologist friend of mine. A psychologist would not benefit from an apprentice, who would just lack the education to do anything other than schedule appointments and play secretary. Unless the apprenticeship consisted mostly of the psychologist helping the apprentice with the apprentice's homework, but that doesn't exactly help the psychologist, does it?
I think as a society we should educate faster to increase our productivity, if at all physically possible.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Neurological Legacy

We humans like to see ourselves as unique among the world. We are the only animals to invent things as distinct as opera and pneumatic hammers. We come up with things like candy, religion, and the Internet, and it makes us feel very special and different.
But if you ask a neurologist, you'll see leftovers from previous brain developments. We like to think of ourselves as a solidly different mind, but the civilized human is just the top layer. It's bolted onto a social-climbing, tribal, fang-baring, poop-flinging, chimp. And the chimp is bolted in turn on a territorial, furious, horny lizard. And the lower levels often show through routinely.
If you've ever shaken a fist in fury because someone cut you off in traffic, that's the lizard. It sees the space as yours and resents this other jackass's intrusion. It's wired to pick a fight with your competitor to force him or her to leave your space. The reasons vary by your gender (a female lizard wants a safe place to raise her eggs, a male lizard wants to show how well he can defend his mate's nest), but it will do little good in a car. After all, you're both in a big steel cage, moving at high speed. Attempting to fight will at best only injure yourself pointlessly. (That and both of you will have literally vacated the spot in 30 seconds if you just wait anyway.)
If you've ever had the urge to have a big party on Wednesday night despite having work on Thursday, you have the lizard to thank for that piece of impulsiveness too. Lizards don't really benefit from planning ahead, so they want to get all their impulses done NOW. And they aren't complex impulses. Stuff your face with food, find a mate and make some more lizards, and maybe modify your mind a bit with some fermented fruit, or that interesting cactus. That we humans have many more ways to modify our mind, usually to our detriment, doesn't help matters.
If you've ever wanted to throw up because you have to give a speech (be it for school, or a business presentation), hey, it's the lizard yet again. It's saying "Hey, don't do this status grab, fool, you might get killed." That the social consequences will be worse for not doing it doesn't occur to the lizard. After all, lizard social options are kind of limited. (Mostly to "bite that asswipe," "Ignore him," "Hey, check out my bod," and "mine, MINE MINE, back off or I'll kick your ass")
If you've ever blown your paycheck, it's the lizard yet again. Lizard doesn't grasp why you shouldn't just leap into the trough and eat until you can't move, or whatever it is that you want to do and it only kind of understands. The idea of "saving" doesn't really make sense to it. And "planning for the future?" Ridiculous, if you don't go get yourself a huge stash of bugs in your belly you clearly won't survive the inevitable famine. What do you mean food costs "money?" Clearly you should trade this "money" for more food, else what good is it, right human? What do you mean this "i-pod" thing cannot be eaten? If you can't eat it, why else would you want it so badly?
If you ever leered at a person until they got pissed off, ruining any chase you had with them, guess who's back? The lizard wants to make more lizards. Lots more lizards. Too much is not enough. This gives men the urge to check out the rack of every woman he can see, just to make sure if she'd make good kids with him. Women might be more discrete about this, but I've heard many a rant on a guy having a "spankable ass" and "awesome muscles." Somebody's leering.
If you've ever put off something until it was much too late and then had to stay up a week to do it, hello again! This doesn't feel good, why are we doing it again? See, to the lizard, everything that feels good directly influences their survival. Shoving everything edible into your face? Awesome, you survive the famine. Making more lizards? Awesome, once the eggs are laid they take care of themselves. Getting totally blitzed? Well, you didn't have anything to do until this evening anyway, and this will make the daily sunning much more fun. Consequences? Consequences are for mammals, who have to RAISE their offspring, whose veins will clog if they get too obese, and so on. And that term paper? Lizard cannot even grasp such a concept.
Now, these might sound like the lizard part is a bad thing that should be eliminated as soon as possible, but we didn't keep it for no reason. If you have a gibbering fear of death, that's the lizard. Being dead sucks, but if you weren't afraid of it, you'd step in front of a bus the moment things got hard because corpses have no problems. Same for the urge to reproduce. It's a lot harder for us humans, who don't just lay eggs and leave like they do. Without a little baby-craze, humans would be a rather uncommon and embattled species.
Now the monkey is a tad more complex. It understands the idea of having relationships with others of your own kind besides picking fights and mating. It grasps that cooperation is the best way to survive, so it encourages you to form a tribe. The tribe will help each other find food, develop a guard shift so that everyone can sleep but there is never a time when everyone is asleep, and smooth over some of the fighting. It gives you the more complicated emotions, like happiness, shame, and affection. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, the monkey often has strange ideas about the purity of the tribe. Any outsiders show up? Scream and hurl poop until they run away. In us humans, the poop-flining is now metaphorical, thankfully with invective and rude hand gestures. (Man, wouldn't it be horrifying if you angered somebody and their first response was to take off their pants and poop into their hands?) Anyone contradict you? Scream and hurl some more poop, that'll teach them. Someone too different from you? Kill, kill, before he affects the others! Rrarrrgh!
You see, the monkey started with the correct idea of mutual defense, but it's incredibly stupid and impulsive. In nature one must make snap decisions, but in any decent society, these decisions are the very avatar of wrong. Monkeys have no police, we do.
The monkey is also responsible for moronic dare taking. From an objective viewpoint, almost all peer pressure revolves around unbelievably stupid crap. If a complete stranger dared you to, let's say, cram a broken bottle containing a firework into your anus and then light it, you'd rightly tell him to go fuck off. But if your best friend dares you, hurrr, okay! This is because the monkey is all about status, and will do any moronic thing to keep it. Oh man, if I don't drive this car off a cliff into the jagged rocks below, my friends won't respect me anymore. I can't be a wuss in their eyes, I'll do it!
Now, all of this is not to condemn humankind to eternal stupidity. Since the lizard and the monkey are seperate, you can play them off each other for best results. If someone pulls a gun on you, the monkey will scream "fight! Fight!" whereas the lizard will tell you "run, moron!" Go with the lizard. If you have a term paper due next month, the lizard will be like "Meh, this isn't fun," but the monkey will insist "Do it, it's important!" Go with the monkey.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Lessons of Simulation Systems

So far I have four parts of this project detailing the requirements for jobs. I've noticed some patterns about what traits are more valuable than others. I will re-describe the traits here rather than redirect you to the first post. The traits come from three sources. One is Dungeons and Dragons, as a way of simulating a person very different from the player who controls him or her. (D&D games would be kind of dull if you had to play as yourself.)

The second is the Meyers-Briggs personality test, that notes four dichotomies in human behavior and classifies people by their preferred positions on this. In an MB test, all people have all eight traits, but express four of them more and in preference to the other four.

D&D Traits, by value:

* Charisma
The term Charisma comes from the ancient Greek idea that people with a lot of this traits were specifically blessed by the gods, and the term is Greek for "divine gift." People with lots of Charisma are charming, influential, witty, and make friends easily. Although it is a function purely of personality and mind, visual media often make use of a standard of depicting high-charisma people are more attractive to demonstrate its influence. (Strange-looking people may actually be charismatic in real life. Case in point, Adolf Hitler moved enormous crowds despite being not only bizarre looking, but a complete weirdo to boot. Plus questionably sane.)

Charisma is valued because of the way that it allows one to influence people. A primary need of companies is to influence people into giving money to the company. (By, say, buying something.) Failing that, Charisma is also useful for convincing other people that your ideas are right and should be followed. Even technicians must convince their boss that they are in fact working as best they know how and that the project they are working on is indeed a good idea.

Failing THAT too, few projects are the result of one person. Employees are expected to be "Team Players," and operate with other people without fighting or arguing. Even if the other person is wrong, obnoxious, stupid, or insufferable. Don't be insufferable, or firing you will seem like an excellent idea.

* Wisdom
Wisdom is poorly defined in D&D, but it seems to consist mostly of being observant, detail-oriented, and prudent. Having poor wisdom makes a person oblivious and impulsive. Both obliviousness and impulsiveness are bad traits in the working world, as they create additional work for at least your boss, and quite possibly more work for yourself too. Companies prefer self-directed employees that do necessary tasks without being repeatedly reminded.
Most tasks also benefit from observing the details as they fill out, to note for small problems before they become big ones. Also, like Charisma, Wisdom is purely mental. One cannot assess this trait merely at a glance.

* Intelligence
Intelligence measures a person's ability to reason and learn. Very important for white collar positions, or where training is important. Beyond a certain level, it ceases to provide benefits to something like 75% of all positions. Again, this doesn't mean that one can ignore this trait, as an ignoramus is not an attractive candidate for anything.
Most people would imagine that this trait would be very important, but that is not the case.

* Constitution
Constitution is a measure of a person's general healthiness. Medical insurance is getting expensive, and all else being equal, a person with a better constitution is preferable because they will make fewer claims and cost less. Also, they can safely work more hours, which doesn't go unnoticed.

* Dexterity
Dexterity is about being able to move both quickly and accurately. One measurement in D&D, but at least five or six different ones for real life. Most people would be fine with a moderate score in this. (But not too low. Clumsiness equals injury, equals insurance claim, equals lost money for them.) Some jobs do require higher levels, mostly those requiring precision work. Moderate dexterity should be sufficient for 75% of available jobs.

* Strength
Strength, the having of muscles and ability to use them forcefully, is actually the least useful trait for modern work. The need for muscle is mostly replaced by machines. Some athletes need it, and anyone who must physically overpower someone needs it, and anyone who needs to haul things needs it. But most modern work could be done by somebody weak as a kitten.

And now for MB traits. Again, from most valuable to least valuable for getting a job. Both Meyers and Briggs would tell me that I'm doing it wrong, that all people actually have all eight traits but that the test measures preference, and that all types are equal, but I have noticed a trend to prefer certain traits over others. Still, as a nod to Mr. Meyers and Ms. Briggs, I will note what would happen if a company was devoid of one particular trait.

* Extroversion
An extroverted person loves to talk to people and meet them and discuss things. They feel sad and unimportant if they have no one to talk to. The highest paying position require this trait. It is countered by Introversion. A company that lacked this trait entirely would be a dysfunctional group that navel-stared excessively. Marketing could not function, leading to a quick financial death.

* Sensing
Sensing people prefer to look at the little details instead of the big picture. This helps them maintain accuracy, and avoid error. Sensing people are called that because they tend to prefer to have direct tangible evidence for a proposition, instead of the indirect logic preferred by their counterpart, the Intuitive. A company that lacked this trait would be bogged down by series of small errors that quickly grew into massive problems because nobody noticed.

* Feeling
Feeling people are somewhat empathic, concerned with the feelings of other people and themselves. They tend towards artistic natures, and work hard to maintain group morale. The opposing trait is Thinking. A company lacking this trait would degenerate into perpetual office politics and trolling, and nothing useful could get done. Also, everyone would drive each other completely insane.

* Thinking
Thinking people prefer a detached style, logically considering every situation from the outside. Their style is quite useful for detecting maladaptive patterns. The opposing trait is Feeling. A company lacking this trait would waste all its time on touchy-feely exercises and never contribute useful work. (Although the workers would be remarkably sane.)

* Intuitive
The Intuitive like abstractions, the large picture, and eschew details. This helps them stay on track, as the little details would drive them mad from micromanagement. They are best convinced with an abstract and logical argument for a proposition, revolving around principles. The opposite trait is Sensing. A company lacking this trait would be unable to see a project through, as it obsessed on the small details to the detriment of the rest of the project.

* Judging
Judging types want to come to a snap decision, now. If it is the right decision, awesome. If it is the wrong decision, uh oh. A company of pure judgers would be massively impulsive, probably pathologically so. It is opposed by perceiving.

* Perceiving
Perceiving types want to delay decision making until all the information is available to them. This decision will therefore certainly be right. A company of pure perceivers would die of analysis paralysis. It is opposed by judging.

* Introversion
Introverted people want to reflect and do things by themselves. It may come last on this list, but a company starts to need introverts when it has more than 5 or so people. Pure extroverts would die of boredom doing the kind of things that introverts do. Accounting and research especially. A company lacking introverts would be easily out-competed.

For my readers: If you dislike your trait-measurements, how would you adjust them?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Mad Engineering Illustrated, Badly

I think that some of the things I write up on this blog would be easier to understand if I drew them up. I'm not much of an artist, but I do have a CAD program that should display a reasonable approximation of layers, and later programs to add color for contrast. QCAD, ho!

First, the implantable glucose testing device. The device is planted in the arm, with the vein and the arm-bone shown.

It would live in your arm

Hm, that didn't help much Then, the artificial heart idea.

Rotary pumps and glucolysis makes it work

QCAD, you're fired. Clearly not the tool for the CAD-inexperienced
user. GIMP, can you clean it up?

Parts identified, although not well

...Gah. You're fired too, GIMP. Hire artist.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Diabetic Monitoring Implant

One big problem for people with diabetes is having to monitor their blood sugar. If it gets too high, there are massive problems, but if it gets too low, that's even worse. Severe diabetics must always carry around with them a syringe full of insulin in case of the first, and a candy bar in case of the second. They need to avoid sugar consumption when not having a low-sugar attack, and would benefit from weight loss.
So I propose a monitoring implant. Vampirically powered, it would constantly record the glucose concentration of the blood flowing past it, harvesting a tiny amount of that to power itself. Using RFID technology, the records could be downloaded into a wristwatch-like device for display or transfer into a computer. Alternatively, it could signal the person in case of excessively high or low readings by some means that I have yet to determine. A friend of mine says to put it in the watch, which would be smart because the watch could have more complex and sophisticated circuitry.
The glucose use of the machine would treat the underlying problem of uncontrolled glucose use, and the stored information would eliminate the need for the constant finger-prick tests that a diabetic person has to undergo as it is. Since it would read continuously, the person would have a record of their blood sugar levels through the day for further management. If the person has a good memory, this could lead to the identification of patterns that would lead to better health.
As a secondary benefit, if the owner is overweight, this may lead to a slight weight loss.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Swine Flu

I've been asked many questions about Swine Flu, since the media and the populace is in uproar about it. I am not a doctor, this is not medical advice, and if you are told otherwise by a doctor, listen to the doctor and not to me. Please see a doctor if you have any medical concerns.

Influenza is a family of viruses. If you are infected with one, you typically feel feverish, nauseated (read: barfy), sore, headachy, coughy, and uncomfortable. They come in many strengths, most of which you can recover from in one day. There have been especially strong cases in the past, which have proven an epidemic health problem. It is not that bad yet. The most notorious case was the 1918 "Spanish" flu, which further compounded the suffering of a world deep in the first world war. Viruses are a form of life consisting of a protein jacket that must exploit more complicated life forms to reproduce. It reproduces by hijacking cells into a virus-factory until the cell dies. It then attempts to spread to other life-forms to ensure the presence of fresh cells.

Swine flu is not spread by touching pigs or eating pork. To explain why this newest batch of severe flu is called "Swine Flu," I have to talk about it's origins.

"Influenza" is Italian for "influence." Ancient Italian doctors believed that this was brought about by "influence of the cold." This was long before germ theory, so anyone telling them that the disease was actually caused by very small life would have been considered a crazy person. Since then, we have discovered that it is a virus, and that it has three subfamilies. One normally infects only humans, one infects only birds (especially chickens in filthy conditions), and one infects barnyard mammals, mostly pigs. Now, viruses and bacteria have developed, long ago, a system to exchange useful genetics with similar bacteria or viruses, in which they trade a genetic ring, the "plasmid" with each other to get useful genes to survive harsh conditions.

Plasmid exchange is most famously used for spreading antibiotic resistance genes, but in this case, somewhere in Mexico, a pig-flu and a human-flu did a swap to produce a human-flu that was very different in profile than the usual human-flus, and therefore less likely to be destroyed by a human immune system. It then spread through Mexico, and with the modern globalized and connected world, to other countries within days.

If you believe you are infected with swine flu, try to minimize your contact with other people, as flus are massively contagious. Viruses are harder to destroy than bacteria, but there are anti-viral treatments available. If you are seeing a doctor, there are drugs that make your body more hostile to viruses. If you can't get to a doctor or insist on herbal treatment, try a combination of Echinacea, elderberry, astragalus, garlic, and extra supplements of zinc and selenium.

No matter what you are treating it with, you should also rest much more, drink lots of fluids, and eat a balanced diet. Sleeping is better than sedentary couch-sitting, but definitely a bad time to be exercising. If you are not a vegetarian, chicken soup is a an excellent idea.

Swine flu is unlikely to be a danger to you if previous flus weren't. To my knowledge, 120 Mexicans and 5 Americans have died from it so far, which sounds scary, but previous flus kill 15,000 people in the North American region every year. It is mostly a worry for the very young, the very old, the immunocompromised, and the chronically ill. Also, a booster shot is under development. If you need it, take it.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Economics of Replicators

Everyone as nerdy as I am knows about the TV show Star Trek and its wondrous technology. For those of you that don't, it's a sci-fi series about the space-navy of the future. And on it goes from there.
Since it's set in the future, it has technology that makes nerds drool with envy. Faster-than-light travel. Energy weapons. Nanotechnology. Beam-medicine. Voice-operated computers. Teleportation. And the obvious spin-off of teleportation, the replicators, which teleport together pretty much anything you can request. Money doesn't exist in the world of Star Trek, because anything you need can be teleported together. People now work for prestige, self-improvement, and to brag about how awesome they are.
Now, teleporters and replicators can't happen in the real world. Heisenberg's uncertainty principles makes the necessary information discovery impossible. So the writers have a part for these machines called the "Heisenberg Compensator," as an acknowledgment of this. Asked how it works, they respond "Very well, thank you." And smile sarcastically as the geekoid who asked them stares daggers.
But let's say that somehow Replicators did get invented, Heisenberg compensator and all. How would this change the economic layout of our world? I'm going to make certain assumptions about this. One of which is that the show's internal explanation of the materials being produced from raw energy being wrong, as this would involve more than the entire energy output of the earth for even small objects. (remember my antimatter article where I showed current energy use to be about a gram per year?) I instead assume that it teleports a stash of pre-collected atoms from an internal storage, and can refill this by recycling other things.
Humor magazine Cracked correctly predicts that this would lead to the abolition of almost all jobs, and money. Where this goes from there depends on the ideology of the person who gets the first one.
In the most dystopian scenario, Replicators are the rare toys of immensely rich people, who nonetheless have abolished all non-service jobs. Most other people do their menial labor, which mostly involves shoving things in and out of replicators. You could use money, certainly, but it's only really good for replicator time anyway. Rich people's expenses are electricity, materials, labor, and Veblen-good-design. Now if you'll excuse me, my boss wants me to bring him another tray of martinis and depleted uranium bullets, as he and his moron friends want to go drunk-shooting again. And when I'm done, he has another toxic waste disposal contract that will involve my personal shoveling. Into the replicator for recycling. At least it's not polluting the environment anymore.
In the most utopian scenario, the original owner has a noblesse oblige (or similar) ideology, and the first thing he or she replicates is a kit to make more replicators. Non-Service Jobs disappear as in the above scenarios, but replicators are easy to come by and practically everyone has one. Those that don't are generally given one by those that do, just for asking. Service jobs still exist, and money is now mostly for buying energy, raw materials, and new object design. There are still rich and poor people, but the only real difference is that "poor" people's things are mass designed and "rich" people's things are designed just for them. "Poor" people often raid garbage dumps for raw materials, which the dump owners encourage because it frees up the space. (New garbage presumably comes from people who don't want to bother recycling it.)
The Free Software Foundation (or someone like them) now has GPL'd plans for food, computers, clothing, transportation devices like bicycles, and pretty much everything that people need, and more stuff that people want is released every day.
Jobs may be rare, but they are largely unnecessary. It is an age of hobby, where people largely do what they feel like after a quick foraging. Or perhaps a quick shift at a fast food restaurant, whose non-labor costs are stripped ridiculously low. Burger costs $0.02 at most. The restaurant could pay in hydrocarbons, metals, and energy coupons.
I imagine that blogs, webcomics, and fanfiction would all be really really common in this era, since people have lots of free time and material prosperity. It would also be wise to work on colonizing other planets to increase the available supply of materials. It would be easy with replicator technology to build yourself a bubble-city, especially with NASA's guidance. If they demand something in return, it shouldn't be too difficult to achieve. (Sample the rocks? Photograph surroundings? Chemical test that they can presumably walk me through?)
The biggest problem that occurs in this is rent. How will people determine where they can live? If I rent an apartment, how would I pay the landlord, who has anything they want anyway? (Perhaps landlords would require as rent a newly designed object, so such a position would accumulate useful inventions for you.) If I want land, how would I pay for it? Energy coupons? Or perhaps this will be the primary drive for space exploration -- earthly land is just too expensive.

Friday, May 1, 2009


EDIT: Google fixed this problem. Is it because they heard me, because they changed their mind, or some other reason? In any case, I can now log in with my favorite browser and this whole posting is completely moot.

But I'll keep it here in blockquotes, for history's sake.

Mad Engineering will slow down in the near future. Why? I have to blame Google.

Google deliberately broke support for my particular browser yesterday. If I log in, absolutely nothing happens. I can still log in if I use firefox, or if I install chrome. I can tell this was deliberate on their part, as this worked yesterday and their help mentions requirements that were not there before.

Since I have to log in to write posts, and am not typically using firefox, and don't have chrome, this does add yet another step to the whole process. Firefox often has behaved bizarrely on my computer, and working with it's quirks isn't always easy.

Posts that I pre-wrote on a binge earlier will go through for the next few days will continue for the next few days, but there will be a slowdown in posts when the queue is used up that which you may notice. I was not hit by a bus.

We apologize for any inconvenience this might cause you. Please enjoy the next few posts as they come. We also apologize for this whine.
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