Monday, August 31, 2009

Blog ethics

Now that blogs are popular, they're also gaining some unwanted attention. The FTC has taken a special interest in bloggers endorsing products or services, since for a while this was seen as free PR by the companies selling them, and the bloggers enjoyed the pay and free booty. The FTC, however, sees this as advertising, and insists on establishing the usual standards. Although bloggers dislike the end of a free ride, I do think this is an important piece of evidence in the shift of blogging from being simple online diaries to important opinion and journalism writings. This is a sign that blogging is now serious business. Bloggers have wanted to be serious business for years, and one can't have it both ways.
Also in the news, a supermodel working for Vogue,a Ms. Cohen, is outraged that a blog called her a skank. She's suing the blog in question, "Skanks in NYC," (or rather, the anonymous owner, since it's people who get sued, not things) for libel. So far, this is understandable, and the owner of "Skanks in NYC" is unlikely to win that case. However, bloggers are very nervous that she's also demanding that the identity of the blog's owner be publicly revealed, beyond what is required to collect. They're nervous because people can and have been fired for blogging, with varying degrees of justification. A term has been made, "Dooced," after the owner of who was fired for mentioning her workplace in her blog. (In the most justifiable firings, workers blog under their own name, and publicly badmouth their employer, thereby biting the hand that feeds them. In the least, they're under a pseudonym, avoid mentioning work, but are outed and fired anyway on the grounds that they might turn into the first category, or that the company doesn't like what they said, like if a blogger makes pro-Democrat comments when the company owner is a Republican. Or, rarely, just on the principle of "internet=bad")
I can only hope that as a society, we come to a sane definition of what blogs are, what rules apply to them, and what the responsibilities of a blogger are.

BREAKING NEWS: Since this writing, "Skanks in NYC" has disbanded.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Disaster resistant house

There are four kinds of disasters that people in the United States have to worry about for the sake of their house: Wildfires, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Each occurs in certain regions only.
In wildfire prone areas, use steel and concrete instead of wood, and have a pool in case there's a problem with the water supply.
Earthquakes are trickier, but ancient Asians found a solution: The Pagoda is a completely earthquake-proof building. You need to have a loose beam in a chamber, attached to the roof of the first floor. This absorbs most of the energy from the quake. When an earthquake strikes, the building shakes like a gelatin dessert, but is not damaged. Japanese engineers have adapted this technology to modern buildings.
Hurricanes offer two challenges: wind and water. The windows are generally the first thing damaged, due to flying debris. Authorities in hurricane zones advocate attaching plywood boards to windows, to avoid damage. Most houses built in hurricane zones are strong enough to survive it, but it is also a good idea to seal the house watertight in case of flooding.
Tornadoes are the big challenge. A tornado can easily rip a house out of its foundation and fling it hundreds of miles away. Authorities in the region advocate going underground, which is the only thing that protects people. Everything above ground level is instantly assumed lost. In which case, I suppose a redundant house, in which every room above ground has a nearly identical counterpart below ground, is the only solution. In the event of a tornado, move everything to the basement and continue your life as before.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Brains and Time

I've been thinking about employment, and much of what we pay people to do is actually a waste of money. At the wages one pays, say, an engineer, it's a waste of money for them to empty their own garbage can. Any second that you're paying them and they're not designing some machine to save you money is wasted money. Same deal for chemists, it's a waste of money to pay them to wash their own glassware. In fact, maybe chemists should just watch recordings of experiments done by other, cheaper, people, or machines. Let's call this "the butler principle."
Yes, I can see it now. Chemistry experiments are done by machines, that record the entire process, and chemists just watch the video and take notes. The machines also rise the beakers clean down to the last molecule.
Nah, that's too crazy.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Rotating Closet

Remember that old tacky gift, the rotating tie rack? It would help men select a random tie, powered by an AA battery, and then sat unused in his closet because he didn't give a wet slap?

I have a closet with lots of clothing. I want to wear something different every day. Unfortunately, the layout of the closet encourages a set of "favorites" that get way more usage than another. This is because the edges behind the door are hard to reach. If I want to put the recently washed clothes there, I have to take everything out, put in the freshly washed, slide them to the end, and then put everything back.

So going with the "tie rack," and a thing I once saw at a dry cleaners, the closet is now a loop of chain, that gets pulled by a 5 watt motor when I press a button. I press this button when putting in freshly washed clothes, thereby moving them to the back. This way, I wear a variety of clothes -- the mad engineering way!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Doping League

All the news about Caster Semenya has got me thinking. In sports, the use of chemical alterations to players is banned for just about every sport. It's seen as unfair to boost yourself chemically when other people get their prowess by difficult and demanding training. In short, drugs or hormonal treatments are cheating, k'thanks-for-playing.
I'm thinking, what if there was another league, where 'doping' was permitted? The records would probably be higher, but would it be interesting to watch? What is the true limit of human athletic performance? The 'Doping' league would consists of teams that were permitted to use such substances, which would be banned from the existing leagues, which by retronym are now the 'natural' leagues.
The league would also do medical research on the forensics of doping, so as to enable to natural leagues to better detect it.
The only objection I can think of is ethical. Steroid use does have a negative effect on the athlete's health. While athletes who dope do so of their own free will, I can definitely understand the position of needing to protect them from their own selves -- that victory is not worth ruining one's health. I shall read up on medical ethics.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Day Labor

Work in the US tends to be a long term proposition. You put out huge amounts of documentation showing that you're worth the money you'd earn, your qualifications, your lack of obnoxious traits, and the favor of people who vouch for you. After much weeding, you're extensively interviewed, and if preferred over the thousand or so other candidates, then to work with you. It will last until either you quit or they get mad and fire you, and the expectation is that you will last at least long enough to promote you several times.
Or, there's temporary labor agencies that will lend you an employee for the day. This is good for when your star worker suddenly calls in sick, because a child's playmate sneezed on them or whatever. They'll demand a cut of the worker's daily pay, and certain other favors. After all, the agency did the hard part of sorting the wheat from the chaff, just so you could have someone at a moment's notice.
However, I think there's quite a bit of market for even more temporary kind of stuff. Way more temporary. I need help moving, say. I want 4 hours of labor to haul this impossibly heavy sofa. A temp agency would want me to hire them for the day, which is overkill.
This will also help with the other big employment problem, lack of experience. Too many companies expect their new hires to come with experience, which would be tolerable from one company, but it quickly leads to the unproductive pattern of the ideal employee expected to have burst fully developed from the head of Zeus. Getting the necessary experience becomes impossible, and companies endlessly whine about how hard it is to get good help these days. Everyone leaves angry at everyone else.
So now people can get experience doing one-day-at-a-time jobs, and their contract can be extended if it works out well, or thrown away if it works out poorly. Now what?
I'm invisioning this as a board, where one makes a post, and candidates respond. All sides should allow 24 hours window, which hopefully will make for enough overlap for the two sides to meet.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Water Plan

Okay, let's imagine two houses. One near the sea has a city water supply, the other on the top of the mountain does not due to its remoteness. Here's a crappy drawing.

The house painted green has a city water supply, the house in orange is a remote house in the mountains where land is cheap. The orange house has a solar-panel and battery water supply, a rain condenser, and other engineering supplies, but is still short on water. While I suppose the most cost effective solution is to pay the nearest city to build pipes to the house, this blog is all about the awesomer, but less practical solutions. We're going to pipe jack all the way to the freaking ocean.

The pipe will be straighter than that, of course. We install a fine mesh filter at the bottom, water processing equipment like a storage tank, a desalination machine, and so on in the basement, at which point the basement will look something like this:

We can then insert the large (and extremely long) screw , attach a gear to it, and attach the chain to an electric motor.

For cheap, a small piece of the sea is pulled up into the basement every second, where we can pipe it through the desalinization machine. Now we have a ready supply of fresh water and brine. We can drink the fresh water, bathe with it, wash the dishes, and water the lawn. As for the brine, we can discard it through the nearest sewer, where it will flow back to the ocean, or we can boil it and sell it as sea salt, which fetches quite the price these days.

The main issue with this is legal: land ownership deeds traditionally describe the landowner's property as extending all the way to the center of the earth. I would need to get permission of every landowner that the pipe traveled through, which makes it a tad impractical for the places that could really benefit from this.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Archimedes' Water Lifter

In ancient times, the philosopher, mathematician, and general mad scientist Archimedes invented a machine to lift water an unlimited distance, using only it's tendency to flow downhill and a crank. The water screw is incredibly useful for any situation where water is down and needs to be brought up, be it for supplying an uphill foundation with water, or to drain a downhill location, like a mine. (The uphill site will want to drain in a different downhill direction.) In Archimedes' time, the crank would be turned by a slave or cheap laborer, but since then we've found the electric motors work way better. Motors don't get tired or bored, to say nothing of the absolute immorality of slavery.
This gives me a brilliant idea, which I will describe in detail tomorrow.

Sunday, August 23, 2009


When I think about it, insurance is a really strange industry. It's betting on unlikely outcomes, to rebalanced risk. Take buying life insurance. That's basically this:
Me: Hey insurance company, bet you a million dollars that I'll die.
Insurance Company: We bet you $250 per month that you won't.
Me: You're on.

Thereafter, every month that I don't die, I give them $250, and if I die, my heirs get $1,000,000. This is most useful if I am a young father, and my family will be devastated without the income that I earn. After all, my hypothetical baby is expensive, and my hypothetical wife quit her job to raise hypothetical baby. This is not useful if you're like the actual me and just starting out your career. The risk to my family if I should suddenly die would be their immense sadness, not a financial problem.

Or take driving insurance.
Me: Hey car insurance company, I want to drive a car, but I don't have $30,000 (or whatever the hell it is in this state) to deposit at the DMV, will you cover me?
Car Insurance Company: Hum, well, let's look over your record, we see that you've had one accident and one speeding ticket in the last ten years, which puts you in that particular risk category, which means we'll provide the money for $300 per month.
Me: Nice
Car Insurance Company: Oh, and if you have an accident or we catch you doing anything stupid with your car, we'll quintuple that rate. We don't need to pay out unnecessarily.
Me: Eep.

Insurance policies are good at distributing risk to allow things that would otherwise be intolerable, like allowing me to drive as a 20 year old, when most people my age were doing stupid things like ghost riding the whip, street racing, drifting, and driving with whackjob friends who think startling the driver is hilarious. (Male and 16-25 is the category most expensive to insure, because they're the group most likely to have an accident. For the four reasons I listed above.) However, insurance does cost money, and probably isn't worth it for scenarios that one could recover from without. Some things can't be insured against, especially some of the scenarios that scare me the most.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Kerela's Coconut Problem

Kerela, in southern India, is an interesting place. Coconuts are everywhere, everyone has names out of the bible (due to the influence of an early Christian church that came proselytizing around the 2nd century AD), and now, it's offering money to automate the coconut harvest.
Apparently, young Kerelans now aspire to white collar jobs in the city, and labor for coconut harvesting is so rare that coconuts are rotting on the tree. They need a new coconut picking machine, one that could operate from the ground, or better yet, remotely from a distant office. It will need to be able to reach up 30 meters (About 100 feet?), it must be inexpensive to build and operate, because Kerela is a tropical area where mechanical breakdowns are constant, and it must be very mobile, because coconut plantations are mind-bogglingly huge.
The prize is a million Rupees. It sounds like a lot, but after the exchange rate, it's about $22,000. However, the immediate cash prize isn't the most lucrative part. The most lucrative part is that every coconut plantation in Kerela will want to buy your machine, probably a whole bunch of them for each farm. That adds up to some serious Rupee.
For my own attempt at it, I'm glad that they don't want full automation of this, because that would make it a million times more complex. I'm thinking a cart that has a control panel on one end, a telescoping claw at the other, and a large basket in between. When an "extend" button is pressed on the control panel, the claw's arm expands upwards, with twenty sections of about five feet each, for the maximum height. The claw would be raised up to the coconut, then a "close" button would clench the coconut. One could then pull it down by mechanical force by lowering the arm. When the claw returns to earth-level, it can be opened, and the coconut put in the basket. Next coconut. When it's time to move on to the next tree, a small electric motor can be operated from the control panel to push little wheels in the direction one wishes to go.
Here's a crappy illustration of how I see it driving about...

And here's how I see it picking a coconut:

Tomorrow, we return to insurance discussions already in progress.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Automation Irony

Why is it that we have robots for vacuuming, but filling out insurance cards, which is far more annoying, still has to be done by hand?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Under the sea

Darling it's better, down where it's wetter take it from me....

What's that, Mr. Iger? Stop singing from your company's musicals? Fine.

361 million square kilometers of the Earth's surface are covered in salty water. This represents 71% of the total area. They are contiguous with each other, and the only area on earth not claimed by any nation yet. (Well...the area near some countries is claimed, but if you want unclaimed area, you'll need to go deep into the ocean.)

While aspiring libertarians talk about utilizing this through a fleet of little boats, a more permanent, and less nauseating, form of living could be established through enormous domes built on the seafloor and then pressurized with air. An airlock would allow access through submarine, and if the roof of this dome were made of transparent materials, it would be absolutely spectacular. Some farming, or water electrolysis, would be necessary to keep up the supply of breathable oxygen. Farming is probably the best strategy, as it neutralizes waste, produces oxygen, and produces food, thus making the habitat self-sustainable.

Of course, if the habitat is more than 200 meters deep, likely considering where it would have to be to be independent of other countries, it will also need independent lighting, electric power sources, and a whole mess more of complications.

Now if you need me, I'll be listening to Bach's Wachet Auf...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Turing Complete

Also way back in the 1940s, computer pioneer Alan Turing determined that having developed a certain minimum requirements, any computer can simulate any other. It has to be able to address, store, retrieve, and execute. Also, loop. Once able to do enough things, it can simulate other kinds of computers, even ones with more complicated instructions, although it will be slow as cold molasses.
This has many implications. Your fancy playstation (or whatever) game can be played on your desktop PC. Old software can be run on modern computers, with a slight performance penalty, for historical accuracy. Hardware platforms can go obsolete, but their software can still be run forever. (Although the process will get more and more aggravating with time.)
A perpetual software installation would involve moving to newer, faster machines, with a proper simulator rewritten every time there was a major architecture change.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Project Orion

Way back in 1947, a rocket was designed that would be able to accelerate as fast as 80% of light speed, and worked better with larger masses (thus making space travel freakishly cheap) and would cost about the same as the smaller rockets we now favor. It was called Project Orion, and was only scrapped because of nuclear paranoia. For you see, Project Orion's main propulsion was essentially nuclear bombs.
Orion would now be illegal to build under the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which requires that all nuclear detonations be done in underground bunkers. Detonations in space would be right out, to say nothing of detonations in the open atmosphere. The safest possible launches would have been from the poles, where radiation would not have been magnetically drawn back to the earth.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Build it to the sky

Why don't we have cities with a massive subway system, apartment complexes a thousand stories high, and office complexes the same? So many people could live there...

Well, in the past, the issue has been transportation. Everyone needs food, water, and consumer goods to take in, but waste and heat must be removed. The average municipal water-grid only pumps the water to enough pressure to lift it up four floors. All of these mega-apartment buildings would need massive pump-rooms so that people higher up could still drink a glass of water and flush the toilet.

Beyond that, there are emergency evacuation issues. Should the building catch fire, how can everyone run to safety? Ladder over to the next building from the roof? Metal fire-escape stairs? Parachutes? A hang-gliding escape, while hilarious, might not work safely.

The last issue is that people probably won't like it. Experiments with rats showed that if you crowd them together too much, all the rats go insane. They attack each other. Their sexuality malfunctions. Their social cohesion completely goes out the window. I have no reason to believe human people would also have a limit, beyond which they suffer from want of privacy, and a crowded, crammed feeling.

If we keep expanding, we may have to take up such a mega-project. They're not making any more land, and no one is bothering with terraforming, space stations, or undersea biomes (hey, now there's an idea). If we don't keep expanding, though, the economy collapses, business suffers, and nations bemoan the dearth of citizens, as they do in many countries in Europe and Japan.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ininite Monkey Source

The Infinite Monkey Theorem states that given an endless source of random letters (such as, say, a monkey tirelessly hitting keys on a typewriter), eventually all kinds of useful things will be found within the garbage, purely by chance. All of human literature, surprising solutions to world problems, interesting medical, philosophical, and mathematical ideas are all possible, just absurdly unlikely. This of course can be compensated with more data sources (more monkey and more typewriters) and more time.
Mathematicians determined that this would work because while the chance of producing anything useful out of a random pile of letters is minuscule, it is not nonexistent. One gets a barn-megaparsec effect, which I'm naming after the totally insane unit of measurement. A barn is a ridiculously tiny measurement of area, used to measure the area of atomic collisions, and a megaparsec is an absurdly long measure of linear distance, thousands of light-years long. Multiplied together to form a measurement of volume, you get 2/3rds of a teaspoon. Practical for human use, but measured in the most ludicrous form possible. Same here, a tiny thing is multiplied by a huge thing to produce a moderate result.
The network working group even put out an April-Fools document describing how to do this on a computer: the infinite monkey protocol suite. Well, I can't put together an archiver, a literacy-recognizer, or an idea critic, but I can get you the monkey. In the C language, as I like it. Computer science readers, feel free to translate it into your own language.

#define CONTROLCHAR 32
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <time.h>
char monkeytype()
char output; // The output character chosen by the monkey
srand(time(0)); // Randomize timer
srand(rand()); // Rerandomize. Definitely a random character now.
ouput=CONTROLCHAR + rand() % ASCIIMAX; // Produce an output character.
while(output > 126) // If it's "Delete this letter" or an other unprintable....
ouput=CONTROLCHAR + rand() % ASCIIMAX; // Reroll. Unprintable is not allowed.
return output; // When satisfied, return the letter to the main program.
int main()
char letter; // Expect a "letter."
while(input!=ctrl+c) // Okay, I forget how to really say "Until the user hits ctrl+c."
letter=monkeytype(); // Type a "letter."
printf(letter); // Print it out.
} // Repeat.
return 0; // All went well? Good.

Presumably the protocol maintainer would modify the main block to instead first connect to the storage-handler, then monkeytype at it, listening for signals asking it to stop.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Fish Breeding

In the ocean, more and more schools of fish are decreasing in number. They will become unprofitable to fish before they become extinct, but either would be a disaster for both the fishing industry and the people that this feeds.
What if we bred common fish in saltwater tanks, tanks that occasionally flushed to the sea? This could improve the wild stock's genetic diversity, increase their numbers, and stabilize the fishing stock. We feed them on cheap things while they're in the tanks, thereby building up the ocean's biosphere.
Also, hypothetically, information is biology. Having complete knowledge of an organism's genome allows you to create one. We could make many variations of fish in the tanks, and see how they work out before introducing them to the wild. Traits like fast growth, large growth, and rapid reproduction would keep the wild stocks in better shape. They would likely breed into the wild population.
Funding is the key. Maybe some of the stocks could be sold to the market instead of flushing out to sea, maybe this would be a government conservation project, publicly funded.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Operation Fabrication

There's a number of projects out there that offer things...that can build things, including copies of themselves. Such as the Reprap, a machine made of plastic parts that builds machines made of plastic parts. It is a plastic extruder, it melts plastic according to shapes given to the little tiny computer attached to it. Shapes are specified with CAD files.
Someone else found that too big, and a machine that they call the cupcake, because it vaguely resembles a cupcake oven. It works similarly, if somewhat smaller.
Of course, not everyone knows how to put together the CAD files, so there's a repository at ThingIVerse, storing loads of designs. All of this together got me thinking.
This got me thinking that this is as close as we're getting to a sci-fi-esque replicator without being able to teleport things. Open source hardware, it's a beautiful thing.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Space Based Waste Disposal

When you never, ever, ever, ever want to see it again, take my railgun system and shoot it off into space. Time it so that it avoids big star systems, and accelerate it faster than 11km/s, and it's gone forever.
Trash is a problem because we have it sitting around in landfills. The landfills smell. The landfills require a lot of work so as not to seep toxins into the water supply. The landfills attract unwanted animals and hobos that want to eat the decaying sandwich and pizza crusts. Some of the more toxic waste requires more elaborate procedures to keep it contained. But if it were far enough away in space, it wouldn't be anyone's problem ever again.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Synthetic Meat

Meat is a big industry. Millions of dollars of meat are sold hourly worldwide. Meat costs more than vegetables, and there is a big environmental cost too.

So a big drive in biology right now is to grow meat in a test tube. This could automate the feeding and waste elimination, and the meat would never be aware of its state. There would be fewer waste issues, less loss to disease, it would cost less. One big problem:

Cells live upon an extracellular matrix of carbohydrates and proteins. Outside an animal, cells tend to fill one layer, and then stop growing. Only cancerous cells can grow arbitrarily large, and no one wants to eat cancer-burgers. (Except me, and I'm only debatably sane. I also wanted to eat artificial food, which most people would find abhorrent.)

It is possible to grow many single layers and grind them into burger, but I think people will be the most satisfied if an artificial matrix can be developed. This way it could grow entire steaks and chops. We'd need a new matrix for each one. This makes it more expensive than traditional animal rearing, until it gets automated.

Whether this counts as vegetarian or vegan is debatable. Cells can be extracted without harming an animal, which is the traditional objection to meat-eating. It still has an animal origin, which would freak out most existing vegans.

I look forward to cheap steaks cloned from a cow's cheek cells.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Domestic Violence PSA

I've decided that the thing I was going to show today was stupid, so instead I'm showing a commercial filmed by Amnesty International, and featuring Patrick Stewart. Mr. Stewart is a Shakespearian actor, but is most famous for roles in nerd-things, like his depiction of Jean-Luc Picard of Star Trek, as well as his depiction of Dr. Xavier in the film version of X-men.

Mr. Stewart plays the part of the unseen charming man, who after acting pleasant and charming, suddenly blows up into a furious tantrum, only to backpedal and again lay on the charm. This is the unfortunate pattern of domestic violence, and why the authorities are usually useless against it. They usually arrive after the backpedal, at which point the victim is unwilling to take any action.
Mr. Stewart has a lot of important things to say on the topic, as well as speaking out against bullying, and on being a bald actor. Truly, a hero of love.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Towers of Hanoi

The Towers of Hanoi is a classical computer science problem to demonstrate recursivity. Both how it can help by being the simplest solution, and how it can hurt by massively sucking resources. Recursive programs refer to themselves, each time growing larger and larger until the end conditions are met. The recursive version is always simpler, but uses more memory because it has to be loaded over and over. The non-recursive version is harder to write, but will only need to load up once and will operate efficiently after that.
The problem of the Towers posits a Buddhist temple, in Hanoi, Vietnam, that has system of three giant poles, and an enormous stack of 64 stone (or gold) disks, each larger than the other. The monks are given the task of moving all of the disks from the first pole to the third one, with two rules. One, they can only move one disk at a time, and two, they cannot place a larger disk on a smaller one. (Oh, and three: disks must move to one of the poles. No fair holding them between moves.) Legend has it that the world will end when they finish their task, so no hurry, guys.
In any case, mathematicians have proved that all cases with an even number of disks, it takes a minimum of number of moves to solve, where "n" is the number of disks.
2^n-1 moves are required
Wikipedia's mathematicians have determined that if the monks move one disk per second (which becomes increasingly unlikely as the disks get larger), it would take 600 billion years to solve. Exponents grow very very fast. Wikipedia's article on the subject also includes a picture of a simplified wooden version, for visualization, which is nice.
In any case, the proper solution is recursive: First move the top section to pole three, then start moving the end, then stack everything on pole three, moving back and forth as to not violate the second rule. Yes, a good programmer can rewrite a non-recursive version of this that will not use a ridiculous amount of memory, but the increased complexity is mind-boggling.
So why is this important? Well, back in the 70s, the very best way to sort lists of information was discovered. It's called quicksort. Quicksort sorts long lists faster than any other method, with one problem: It's by default recursive. Any list long enough to be noticably sorted faster by quicksort would suck up all memory long before it finished sorting. Yes, a good programmer can rewrite it so as not to be recursive, but it's harder.
I suppose this also exists in other fields, where a difficult simplification makes things run better, and one must consider if it's worth doing that.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Mirror House

I have always lived in regions where air conditioning is considered required during the summer. In the US Southwest, temperatures often exceed 100F (40C?) on a daily basis, and there have been deaths when the power blacks out or the A/C fails, mostly the very ill, the elderly, and the extremely young. (All people who have some difficulty with thermal regulation.)
If we make the entire outside surface of the house out of mirrors, including the roof, the house will be distinctly lower in temperature, and thus will require less energy to keep it cool. This is the good side of this plan.
The bad sign is that the immediate outside will be painfully bright. It will literally hurt to look at your new house during the daytime. Oh well.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Sleeping on the Job

Throughout the world of work, falling asleep at your post is a grave offense. With one exception. I had a friend in my freshman year who worked the night shift at a hotel. Few people showed up at night, so he could sleep most of the time, but he had to wake up in a hurry if someone did show up wanting a room. He was quite alert, even in his sleep. He would fall asleep in class, and when the professors angrily woke him up, they were surprised when he could recite the lecture, verbatim.
However, other studies have shown that sleeping while under the stress of a problem actually helps solve it. When Russian astronauts have an insurmountable problem, they take a 15 minute nap. The solution usually occurs to them by the time they wake. Businesses should definitely harness this phenomenon
In Japan, a cheap form of hotel is available that they call a "capsule hotel." A room at this hotel is actually just a bedded tube. For a comparatively cheap deposit, one may sleep in the tube. Such a hotel uses very little space, which is at a premium in Japan. People appreciate it when they're stranded, because it may not be luxurious, but it does give you a good night's sleep for a low low price.
I think businesses should have a small capsule hotel built into them, and send people there for a 15 minute nap anytime an insurmountable problem arises. Workers will awake partially refreshed, and possibly with a solution at hand. If they don't have a solution, they will at least be in better shape for finding one.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Vacuum Fire Extinguisher

So I've been thinking about fire suppression lately. When things catch fire, that's a hazard to all people and property nearby. Fire, like a triangle, collapses without one if its three supports. For fire, that's fuel, heat, and oxygen.
Removing the fuel is hard to do. Take yourself, anything paper, wood, foam, or pretty much anything but stone and steel, out of the area. Too much work in an office environment. Removing the heat is hypothetically possible, with some sort of cryogenic nitrogen system abruptly chilling the burning materials well below their combustion points. (This has safety issues. Any human hit by such cold liquids would get at least massive cold burns.) Then, removing oxygen has been the traditional technique, using water, or carbon dioxide, or inflammable foam, or something that displaces the oxygen.
Well, how about I take that idea to its illogical extreme? When a fire erupts in your office, you haul everything alive outside, lock the doors, and pull a switch. This switch, noting that the door is locked, sucks 99% of the air out of the office, which leaves not quite enough oxygen for the fire. It quickly burns out. When unlocking the door, air once again bursts in, making the office once again habitable.
This would probably have the same problems as old-fashioned halon extinguishing systems, minus the environmental damage. Namely, people could die if the system is falsely triggered, as they are suddenly without the oxygen they need to breathe. I can't find any records of such an accident with halon, but I would like the safety features of this reviewed.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Sociological Fat Reduction

It's been apparent for years now: Increasingly, Americans are fat. It's hard on the health care, the economy, the sidewalk, and couches nationwide.
The most popular finger-pointing is at the fat people themselves. Calories in, calories out, these people have a large positive balance. "You chose this." complain the critics. Well, yes and no.
Yes, people that are fat would be less fat if they exercised more and ate less and better food. However, lousy food is cheap (and subsidized), transportation is laid out to favor cars over walking and trains, and manual labor is mostly replaced with office jobs. We're paying people to gorge and not move. And being fat doesn't make one a horrible person.
Encouraging mass transit, walking, and biking would improve health in the country, and furthermore, would make us slightly wealthier. Wealth is not just money, gold, or a big house, but also the power of life and health. A healthier person can do more to make money, and will live longer to enjoy it.
So why haven't we done that? It conflicts with our ideology of private powers. Mass transit would have to be paid by everyone, through taxes, and operate everywhere, to be really effective. Taxes are unpopular. "Why should I have to pay for other people's choices?" people gripe. Meanwhile, roads are subsidized for cars, which people tolerate because cars are privately owned.
On the food end, a set of subsidies have encouraged the production of some crops over others, and a large business complex is dedicated to getting people to eat as many of these as possible. (More eating equals more dollars.) A physician working for the FDA points out that snack foods are researched carefully to be hyperpalatable. It tugs at every instinct we have to accumulate resources for a famine that will never come. It encourages a cheap high that wears off in an hours time, and disrupts all signals that say that you are full and to stop.
And further, marketing is often designed to confuse people's instincts to look for healthier food. The term "organic," assumed by consumers to mean a higher quality food grown without synthetic chemicals, has been found to be not any more nutrious, and in some cases, completely meaningless altogether.
In a world where one practically needs a chemistry degree and a culinary arts degree to eat smarter, and exercise is pushed as something you need an expensive gym membership to do properly, is it any surprise when people shrug, open up another bag of chips, and go watch TV?
Expecting this to change just because you said so is insanity: expecting different results from the same input. Park the car and walk instead. Flex at your desk. Encourage walking, city density, buses and trains. (Buses and trains help if you walk to them. They don't go to your house, and they don't totally go to your workplace, but they bridge the gap, and you walk the rest of the way.) Encourage people to eat more raw vegetables instead of chips. Encourage home cooking. If you own a business, set up a bike-locking area in the parking lot.
To some degree, we're in this together. Policy has implications, and if you give what you always give, you'll get what you've always got.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What were you interested in?

Once again, I consult Google Analytics to tell me what my readers are thinking, because they leave next to no comments. However, Google's tools do tell me what keywords they searched to reach me, and I can therefore determine what they most wanted to hear about. I am grouping similar entries.

#1 Ultimate Computer Setup
#5 Build Ultimate Computer
#6 Ultimate Computer Setups
#12 Basic Computer Setup
#20 Cut I Beam for Basement Stairs
#35 mad computer setups
#58 Ultimate Computer Room
#60 Ultimate Computer Setup

These people are presumably interested in my unlimited budget computer center construction idea, in which I discuss building an insanely expensive facility with a major supercomputer, out of parts that, alone, aren't terribly expensive. Not sure why they were interested, especially the one mentioning my stair construction. Why? There are probably better ways to build stairs.
Why that is my most popular article is a mystery to me.

#2 Railgun Space Launch
#47 Railgun Space Travel
#48 Raingun for Space Lunch(sic)
#49 Railgun Space
#50 Railgun Space Launches
#51 Railgun Space Travel
#52 Rails for Space Lunch(sic)
#55 Space Launch Railgun
#56 Space Rail Gun

Yes, give yourself enough energy in the right direction and you will go to space. I'm assuming the people with "lunch" were misspelling "launch" instead of just planning to eat their mid-day meal in outer space, which is probably not the most cost effective way to do it. You need a lot of energy to reach the escape velocity of 11km/s.

#3 Mad Engineering
#33 M.A.D. engineering
#35 Mad Engineer
#36 Mad Engineering, M.D.
#37 Mad Mechanical Machines
#39 madengineering

These people seem to have heard of my blog before, but can't remember the address. I'm sorry to say that I don't have a Medical Doctor ("MD") degree, and probably never will. It was my childhood dream, but as an adult I realize that I'd never survive medical school. I hope my machines were insane enough for the person interested in "Mad Mechanical Machines."

#4 Diamond computing
#21 Diamonds and cpu
#22 Diamonds computing

I think diamond computing will be awesome, too.

#7 Air Filter Engineering Google Ads

You want what now?

#8 Automated House Construction
#9 Automated House Design
#10 Automatic House
#11 Automatic Houses Construction

I described the steps possible to automatically construct a house, given the already designed plans, but all these went to that article. Scott Addams has an idea of Automated House Design, which I'm not going to work with because I have a terrible understanding of art and aesthetics.

#13 Benefits of Solar Power

Solar Power produces some carbon emissions when the panels are initially produced, but after they're installed, they generate power when the sun is shining, half as much when it's cloudy, and none at night. The panels incur no additional expenses after being placed. If the sun ever stops shining, we'll have bigger problems than where our electricity comes from.

#14 Building Custom 19 Inch Rack

19 inch racks are a standard for servers. So named because they are 19 inches wide. They have slots so that the servers can be slid in for operation, and out for moving or maintenance. All of this is standardized so that any 19-inch server fits any 19-inch rack. Customize this, are you mad?

#15 Building a Computer How to Setup Wires

I'll assume that you've already connect the non-wires, like RAM, CPU, and the like. Fans have three-pin wires which connect to marked sets of three pins on the motherboard. All drives (hard drive, floppy drive, CD-ROM, etc) must connect a data cable to the motherboard. All drives require a power connector, from your power supply. Your motherboard gets it's power from that big bundle of 20 or 24 cables that ends in the big rectangular plastic thing. Plug that into the plastic slot with 20 or 24 holes. There's another four-hole pastic connector, which has a four-cable connector. All of these are keyed so that they cannot be inserted backwards. Push, but do not force, as bent pins are extremely bad. Now close your computer and turn it on. If it doesn't, open it back up and check your connections.

#16 Carbon Dioxide Absorbing Air Filter Auto

Almost any hydroxide chemical absorbs some amount of carbon dioxide. This is why they are used in re-breathers and the like. Did you want some sort of machine that automatically changes your hydroxide filter, or what?

#17 Carnivorous Clock Produce Energy

Well, kind of. The bacteria-pit inside the clock produces the energy. Not much, all it can run with it is a clock.

#18 Crayfish Eat Mussels
#19 Crayfish Eat Zebra Mussels
#23 Do Crawfish Eat Zebra Mussels

Yes, they do, if they can get the shell open.

#24 Engineering Blogspot

Sorry, I'm an amateur engineer, as I'm sure I described in my first post. There are engineer blogs, I'm sure of it. I even know a comic strip written by a professional engineer, Wasted Talent. I highly recommend it.

#25 Engineering Riddle
#26 Engineering Riddles

I don't think there are any of those, as such.

#27 Extracting Energy From Gravity

I can think of three systems that do that. Hydroelectric dams take energy from falling water, Tidal dams take energy from High-Tide water falling back into the ocean during low tide, and compression springs take the energy from a falling weight. (You don't get much from that.) All are quite conventional engineering at this point.

#28 Gravity Mesh Field

Viktor showed me how this could work if I shape the field in a conservative vector. In Science Fiction, they usually posit some sort of means of artificial gravity, but shape it in distinctly non-conservative ways. It's been 2 years since I've had to work with this kind of calculus, and I can barely remember how to do it anymore.

#29 Greenhouse Engineering Firms

A greenhouse is easy to build, any construction crew should be able to do it. You may be more interested in "Geoengineering," in which massive projects are made to assist the environment.

#30 Harvesting Zebra Mussels

Put something in one of the Great Lakes, remove it the next day. Scrape off the Mussels. I suggest against eating them now, as they are filter feeders and have no doubt absorbed considerable pollution.

#31 Impossible Diaper Change

I wrote an article on automatic diaper changes, and get this person's interest. The only impossible diaper change I can think of would be for a baby that is somehow tens of feet tall and weighs over 400 pounds. And even then, I could probably pull something off with a series of cranes.

#32 Jewish Shibboleth

The ancient Hebrews were the first one to come up with the idea of a Shibboleth, which it is why it is named after the word they used for it. Shibboleth is Hebrew for "ear of corn," or "torrent of water," my sources are unclear on if either or both. It was chosen because the enemy tribe was unable to pronounce many of the sounds in it, namely the "sh" and "th." I asked if anti-American shibboleth's were possible. Apparently so.

#30 Material Engineer Blog

Google brought you here by mistake, you will be sorely disappointed. I talk about material engineering maybe once, and don't really have much to say about it.

#41 Midi Reverse Engineer

I don't think my article about a midi-controlled orchestra is of any use to this person, but they probably ended up there because Google's robots got confused. They were probably interested in the midi standard for programming, instrument control, or any of the other things it does. A man named Chris has the information that I think that person wanted.

#42 Minuses about Hydro Power

Hydroelectric dams flood the region behind the dam, and are made of grey concrete. It costs money, does some damage to the environment, and is mind-bogglingly difficult to paint. Also, prime terrorism target, as you've seen in multiple movies.

#43 Most Profitable Crustation

I don't know, ask a fisherman.

#44 Nootropics Blog

Nootropics are drugs that make you smarter. The best people to ask about them are medical doctors and chemists. Not blogs.

#45 Old-Fashioned Diaper

Layer 5-6 layers of cotton cloth. Or more. Cut a "U" shape in the middle at both sides. Sew the layers together. Wrap around your baby, and pin together on both sides. When baby wets it or soils it, remove the pins and wash it as you would a really dirty shirt. Is reusable. Is not used today on the grounds that it is a major pain in the ass.

#46 P Trap Placement Laundry Room

After the appliance, but before the wall. A P-Trap is a "P" or "U" shaped pipe that stores some water, preventing your drain pipes from reeking like the sewer.

#53 Reverse 10 Keyboard

This probably lead to my "tube keyboard" idea, but "10?" What?

#54 Sakiyama-Elbert 2009

Apparently, this is a Doctor of Biomedical Engineering at Washington University. I'm not her. Her page is here. Good luck with your research, Dr. Sakiyama-Elbert. Why looking for her lead to me, I don't know.

#57 The Art of Smuggling

They were either interested in my article on insane narcosubs, or want to get something somewhere where it's not supposed to be. Think of anywhere you'd look if you thought someone was sneaking something past you. Don't put it there.

#61 Union of Mad Engineers

We have a union now?

#62 Why Subway Systems Only in Large Cities

Stop number 3338238: "Corn farm." Please wait for Stop number 3338239: "Oh hey, it's yet another vacant field." This cost a lot to build, so stop complaining. After that, please stay on the line for Stop number 3338240: "It's yet another vacant field, please don't scream in frustration."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Sound Proof House

Why aren't houses more sound proofed? All it takes is loads and loads of expanding foam in the walls. Distance plus separation equals quiet. The less walls touch, the less heat and sound conduct through them.

We should build houses and apartment buildings with lots of expanding-foam-filled walls. (and floors and ceilings.) Never again will you be woken up because your neighbor, the one who loves loud stereos turned up to 11 and no taste in music, decided that 4am was a great time to drive up and down the block with his stereo maxed out. In fact, if someone in the apartment complex decides to throw a big noisy party, you'd never notice.

I know this is possible because Victorian houses are built this way, and they are famous for being very quiet. And also nice in a thermal way, if you retrofit them with air conditioning.

One other advantage is the disruption to thermal transfer. This means that when you air condition it in the summer, it stays cold, and when you heat it in the winter, it stays warm. No sense air conditioning the entire world, you know.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Null Pointer

In programming, a null pointer is an error caused by using a structure called a pointer without pointing it anywhere first. See, when computer programs need information, you have to give it to them. Only, instead of giving it to them, you can also pass them a note that says "Look over here for the information you want." This is useful because it allows you to access things that you otherwise wouldn't, like a library book in the other town. The "look over there" thing is called a pointer.
However, if you don't tell it where "over here" is when you do this, it doesn't have the ability to question you. It just goes "Oh, okay," wanders off, searches around for the information, and sooner or later gets gunned down in the bad part of town. This kind of error is a segmentation fault.
It's probably bad to send it anywhere outside of your immediate control, because there's a lot of bad parts of town in a running computer system. Other programs tend to have paranoid police, and the operating system is especially out of its mind, because it's been reading Stalin's writings while drinking.
Anyway, I'm straining this metaphor awfully thin at this point, but when you see that damned "illegal operation" box, or the words "segmentation fault" on your computer, and you lost hours of work? This is what probably happened. Yes, it's annoying. Yes, we're trying to make it never happen again.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Intoxicated Communications Prevention

Google has an interesting feature on their email clients that they call "email goggles." On certain times of day, especially times when the writer is likely to be tired, drunk, or both, Google requires them to do simple math problems within a strict time limit to show they're still with it enough to write an email that won't be regretted tomorrow. After all, after you've had 15 shots of whiskey is no time to tell your boss about how dumb you thought his new product idea is. When you're sober or not at all, if you plan to keep your job.
Well, I think maybe we should extend this idea to other lines of communication. After a long bender, a hypothetical man dials his phone. The phone instructs him, quick, you have 30 seconds to factor 52, and if you get it wrong, I won't let you call your ex-girlfriend. After all, it's 3am, and your dialing patterns suggest that you may be intoxicated. After 3 failures, he gives up. Sparing himself the embarrassment, because he's quite an idiot when he's blitzed. The next morning, he remembers that his ex has a new boyfriend, and that she's probably not going to be impressed with his shoddy drunk poetry. So, crisis averted.
Fax machines and cell phones are hard to operate while intoxicated, so I think I don't have to worry about those. (The buttons on a cell phone are smaller.) As for drunk trips in person, can't help you there. Any other communication forms I need to consider?

Saturday, August 1, 2009


Hardtack is the world's first MRE, invented so that it could be carried on boats or quartermaster's backpacks for miles and miles for years and years without rotting. I want to feed the hungry, so I made myself a batch.

This was supposedly a naval recipe, and despite all the complaints I've read in historical records about how it tastes horrible and "oh god I'd rather shoot myself in the face then eat that again," I think it tastes pretty good. Probably the sailor's were complaining about how this was all they had to eat, because I can see how this would get real old, real fast. Especially when it's been a year and it's starting to develop weevils and other nasty things.
Here's the recipe, thanks to Ken Anderson:

A Sailor's Diet

  • 2 1/2 cups old-fashioned or quick oats.

  • 3 cups unbleached flour.

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons salt.

  • 1 teaspoon baking soda.

In a separate container, mix:

  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk.

  • 3 tablespoons honey.

  • 1/2 cup melted bacon drippings or shortening.

Combine the two sets of ingredients. When the dough is thoroughly mixed, roll it out on a floured board to a thickness of about a quarter inch. Cut out circles of dough with a large drinking glass dipped in flour and put them on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake for about 5 1/2 minutes at 450° F. Let the hardtack cool on a wire rack before serving with jam or jelly.

I had to make a few substitutions. I didn't have buttermilk, so I substituted whole. There wasn't any honey in the house, but there was agave nectar. I didn't have any bacon drippings, so I substituted coconut oil. And I don't think I managed to roll it thin enough. Also, I don't own a wire rack, so I balanced the pan on my sink. Still, delicious. I wouldn't mind eating it for a few days. Reminds me of KFC's biscuits, actually.

The next part of my project will be to give this food to a starving person somewhere in the world. It will last for between one and three years without refrigerating, so I can mail it to whoever needs it the most. If you know such a person, please notify me by comment, email, or some other means.

LATER EDIT: Wow, that photo's worse than I thought. I have a crappy camera. It came in washed out, and I tried to fix it. Key word being "tried."

Still later in August: I left them in the refrigerator overnight and now they taste kinda bad. That's a failure for them: they're too sensitive to the cold.
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