Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Auto Diaper Change

Some of my classmates have had offspring. (Yes, I know this is an awkward tense. I don't have the same classmates every semester.) I don't. Quite a lot of people really want to have babies, but it seems like so much work. Which is another opportunity for making something insane, again, to save new parents from the massive workload.
Diaper changing is a simple task that a new parent must do several times per day. I did it exactly once while helping one of my parent's friends. It smelled, but wasn't terribly difficult. Mostly I was afraid of screwing it up, because we were using the old fashioned pin-diapers. (Velcro diapers seem to be the rage now.) Baby would not like to be poked with a pin, I'm sure of it.
Okay, so place baby on a table. Table has scale, to detect presence of baby. Articulated arms lift baby's legs, remove old diaper, and provide powder, in case of excessive moisture. (Probably better to overpowder than underpowder. Diaper rash is sure to make the baby miserable, which makes the parent miserable.) New diaper is taken from compartment, and baby is slightly lifted. Place diaper under baby, and close flaps to attach new diaper to baby. Place old diaper in old diaper compartment. Parent should now remove the cleaner and slightly better smelling baby.
Machine should track diaper usage to keep supplied, and should at no time ever mix new and old diapers, because, yuck. Old diapers should be dealt with by material. There are cloth diapers that can be washed and reused (but are often too thin to be effective, so you want to double up), there are disposable diapers that should be sealed and thrown away, and I think there's a third kind at this point, but not being a parent I am not familiar with it. Rather than identify diapers mechanically, I think diaper disposal should be the machine owner's (ie: the parent's) job. Disposal should be made in such a way that the parent need not actually touch the diapers to dispose of them if possible.
Since the machine can diaper faster than a human, this will lead to a slight increase in baby-hugging time, which is good for the baby's development. I also imagine hospitals enjoying this invention. You know, the maternity ward that current changes hundreds and hundreds of diapers by hand?

Monday, June 29, 2009

Webtop software and connectivity

My university has been heavily, heavily pushing the idea of "Webtop" software, in which the computer that the end user uses consists only of a basic operating system and a web browser. All other functions are performed by surfing to a website that has a web-application appropriate for the task at hand. If you wanted to, say, produce a spreadsheet of today's sales, you would go to www.examplespreadsheetprogram.com (or whatever the URL is), and use it from there.
There are a number of advantages to this, most notably the removal of the need to maintain and upgrade anything but the web browser (which is simple enough), and the automatic upgrade to the best version, which "examplespreadsheetprogram.com" will do for you. However, I immediately saw one large, glaring disadvantage to this. And a few others later, but my university has continued to reject all criticism of their beloved plan. "It's the wave of the future!"
While the Internet itself is built with impressively redundant connections and would survive the destruction of 70% of its nodes, connections to 1 particular site, like your company, tend to be more fragile. My own connection to the internet revolves around a shoddily buried cable that goes to my ISP. If an animal were to chew through this cable, I would lose internet access until it was repaired. If I accidentally cut this cable while trying to, say, mow the lawn, no more internet for me. If my ISP were to lose power, or get bandwidth jammed in a DDOS attack, I would also lose access. And with the webtop scheme, the loss of internet access means my terminal is totally useless. Not only can I not send email, read webpages about my job, and so on, but I can't put together spreadsheets, type text, or compose my email either. (Many email clients allow you to queue a message to be send later, a helpful thing to do if internet access goes down. You can write and queue it now and send it when access is restored.)
Now perhaps a company relying on webtop software would do the smart thing and have several ISPs, routed through a local machine that can easily switch between them if one should fail. Even so, there are other disadvantages to webtop setups.
Another one is inability to control upgrades. Many computer users deliberately like to use older versions of software, because newer versions changed the features in a way they dislike. Maybe the new version is more confusing, or it interprets input in a way they find more confusing, or it handles formulas in ways the users no longer understand. If you use webtop software, you use the newest version all the time. If they changed formulas on you and you don't like it, too bad. The old version is just gone forever.
The last issue is storage and control. When I make a spreadsheet at "examplespreadsheet.com," where is it stored? Do I save it to my terminal's hard drive, or does "examplespreadsheet.com" store it? If they store it, and my boss gets tired of paying "examplespreadsheet.com"'s fees, does that mean it's lost to us forever? Worse, what if they then offer it to a competitor to spite us? (Although this may be against the law, I can imagine a more corrupt company doing this.)
I can see why companies would chose to use webtop software, but if they ask me for my opinion, I would argue it is a bad idea. Webtop is probably best for very small companies that cannot afford even a part-time IT department, and don't have any established habits yet. When you get larger, it's probably best to have your own expertise and maintenance on staff. When accounting's complex formula abruptly fails, it pays to have someone who can immediately identify why and start on a fix.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Many Benefits of Solar Power

Solar power is constantly in the news these days. Electricity made from the bright light of the sun, granted to you free of charge once the basic infrastructure is set up. The grid would benefit immensely if you would install one on your roof right now. Let me explain why.
As is, the electrical grid distributes power from various electricity producing plants to your house, millions of other houses, and businesses. If more electricity is demanded, then the plants have to ramp up the power production. If less is demanded, then they can slow up, maybe shut some things down for maintenance. Plants have to be ready for huge bursts of usage at certain times, like noon in the summer, when almost all the air conditioning goes on at once. Or at 9am when all the workplace computers are switched on all at once. However, they can't maintain that redline all the time.
If you put a solar panel on your roof, it will make power when the sun shines, and distribute it first to your home. When all the demand in your home is met, the excess power leaves through your electrical meter, turning it backwards. (Yes, this means that if you make enough power, the power company pays YOU.) This lessens the demand on the grid, allowing power plants to spend more time in lower-production, casual mode. Of course, for safety, you will need a 3-way switch that allows you to disconnect from the grid. Don't want to fry the technicians that work on the lines, now.
As is, there are some line losses involved. Some of the power sent to you is lost as heat from the resistance in the wires. If everyone put a panel on their roof, power would be made where it is used, lessening these losses. Some power plants would be needed, for institutions that used more power than they can generate, and at night when the panels do not produce power, but some electricity is still used. (Like refrigerators, a little night lighting and so on). Less power is used at night than during the day, because businesses are mostly shut down and less gadgets are in use at night.
A panel network would reduce the spikes in demand by increasing supply, since "daytime" and "high peak demand" are pretty much simultaneous, distribute the load to make the grid more resilient, and produce power without too much environmental trouble. (Coal makes smoke, hydro dams cause flooding, and nuclear power scares people and dumps hot water into the environment).
For safety, all installations need the following: Diodes between panels and the building electrical grid, so that a malfunctioning panel doesn't consume grid current. A 3-way shutoff switch so that wires can be safety de-powered for maintenance. Electrical workers deserve a workplace free from electrocution and death. Anchoring to the roof in case of hurricane or tornado, should they occur in the area, or detachment, that they might be safely put in the basement until the storm is over.
The panels will, as they age, produce less power over time. They should be periodically be replaced with new panels. They will also benefit from a weekly cleaning with window-cleaner, as dust and dirt tend to accumulate on the roof.

Saturday, June 27, 2009


Harvard's business department has an interesting article about how many things that businesses tout as wonderful innovations are actually nothing of the kind. The article calls them "unnovations," because for all the claims of being innovative, they're not.
All economies depend on innovations to produce the continuing growth that businesses demand. Innovations solve human problems in ways not thought of before, therefore expanding the market. Without a continuous stream of innovation, the market stagnates, producing depressions. The depressions suck for businesses, whose profits painfully decline, and for the people, who often get laid off, compounding the problem.
Take shaving. People have long had unwanted body hair, and it's typical in American society for men to shave off their facial hair, and women to shave off leg hair. The first razors had one blade. When a second blade was added, this was an innovation because it shaved better, when the second blade caught hairs missed by the first one. Also, shavers with disposable heads were an innovation because they were less wasteful than disposable razors. (No need to throw the handle away just because the blade is dull.) Since then, however, the usual tactic of razor companies to differentiate from their competition has been to add more blades. The third blade was delayed for 20 years because of a Saturday Night Live sketch, but I can now go out and buy a razor with 5 blades, and a 6-blade is almost assuredly under development. The extra blades add nothing, (5 blades shaves as well as 2 blades) so they're not really helpful.
A real successful product solves an actual need. Cars, planes, trucks, and boats solve "I need to be over there instead of here," portable music players solve "I want to listen to music, but I'm out for a walk or otherwise away from what I usually use," shovels solve "I need a hole in the ground," hoses solve "I need to put water here, away from the faucet," and computers solve "I need to manipulate information." Products can replace existing ones if they solve the problem better. Before cars, people got around in horse-drawn wagons. The car replaced the wagon, because it was smoother, faster, easier to operate, and cheaper. (Horses are expensive and the care and upkeep of them is difficult.) Also, cars don't poop in the street, so the streets were cleaner post-car. (Society benefited too.)
So real innovations are harder than most people thought. Windows 95 was an innovation (easier to use, eliminated many driver problems, etc), but windows after that generally wasn't. (The main user benefit is...it looks shinier?) Slapping "new and improved" on things doesn't help, people honestly expect a better way to get things done.
Probably there is some idea in your head somewhere about a better way to solve some problem you've had. If more than 1000 people have this problem, you can probably sell the idea, and the business that pursues it will make money. If millions of these ideas are persued, the depression will lift, benefiting everyone.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Tinfoil Hat

A common trope of paranoid people is the wearing of a hat made of tinfoil, in order to sabotage attempts to control their mind. MIT did a study proving that actually trying tinfoil hats would make all effects worse instead.
Assuming telepathy and mind control operate with electromagnetic waves, the best defense against them would be a Faraday Cage, preferably with a ground. A brass mesh seems to be the best material for a hat, but since it is uncomfortable to the touch, it is probably best sewn into cloth that makes up the final hat. It can be grounded with a wire that connects to a metal pipe via a connector.
I'm not going to get into the electrosensitivity people just yet.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

"Reverse" Racism

The next time I hear this term, I'm handing the speaker an enrollment form for the fifth grade.
There is no such thing as "Reverse" racism. Any irrelevant use of race to make a decision is racism.
For my non-American readers who are looking confused: America has a long ugly history with racism in which European descended people, ("white") thought much less of African descended people ("black"). So later on, it became apparent that some "black" people were equally contemptuous of "white" people. Although both reactions are racism, people have somehow filed away the term "racism" to mean only the first one. So when the second occurred, they saw it as being like the first one, only in reverse.
I most commonly hear this come up in discussions about Justice Sotomayor and her nomination to the Supreme Court. Her honor Soytomayor is Hispanic. Many in the right wing worry that she will be racist towards "white" people. Except that they don't phrase it that way.
I'd also like to remind people that racism is the unfair discrimination based on race. Unfair discrimination based on other things is not racism. Unfair treatment based on gender is sexism, unfair treatment based on age is ageism, and unfair treatment based on social class is classism. One cannot be "racist against old people" because being old is not an ethnic identification. (The old age example would be "ageism.")

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Mad Science Basics

I'll admit that as of this writing, I'm short on ideas. I hope I've thought of some fresh ones by the time this gets posted, lest my flow break down. To stimulate me, here's a list of the basic fields of science, and ways to make them more strange and deranged than they already are. So each one is prefixed with "mad," because this is that kind of blog.
* Mad Mathematics
According to Wikipedia, math is the study of "quantity, structure, space, relation, change, and various topics of pattern, form and entity." In other words, quantifying and analyzing things. Math makes life's messy generalities into abstract, numeric patterns.
To twist mathematics, one typically winds up with low-rigor, cranky and ill conceived theories. Mad Mathematics is typically wrong, or worse.
* Mad Physics
Physics is a math-ified study of reality and how it works. Events are understood according to equations, which need vigorous and rigorous testing. Experiments involve matter, motion, elemental forces, machines, and quantum events. Engineering involves a heavy amount of physics, as machines built in accordance with the rules of reality work better, and machines built contrary to the rules of reality don't work at all.
Mad Physics would involve strange combinations of the above, often in impractical ways. Quantum Nuclear Hammer Propulsion! Surely, you won't mind if I do it remotely from a vast distance, as I like being alive too much to be sure if it won't kill me if I do it in person.
* Mad Chemistry
Chemistry involves more detailed studies of matter, what it's made of, and the effects of combining it. New materials, pharmaceuticals, and engineering techniques are the direct results of chemistry experiments.
Mad chemistry would involve combinations suspected to be dangerous.
Again, preferably remotely, as I don't see a point in being killed for science when I can endanger a probe and a camera instead. Probe 'n' camera are cheaper than my own flesh.
* Mad Biology
Biologists study life. From the smallest cell components to the behavior of organisms. It dovetails with chemistry ("Biochemistry") because life is made of stuff, with computer science for the information of life like DNA and behavior patterns, and with a few other disciplines.
Mad biology would involve strange life, either spliced from existing plants, animals, and bacteria into forms that probably would not evolve naturally, or outright completely artificial (which is harder than it sounds). I wonder if I could invent something with nipples for eyes! (Hint: Technically it's possible, but it would be blind and not inherently useful. If the nipples could provide milk, it's still limited by the entire organism's metabolism.)
* Mad Psychology
Psychologists study minds. Both for analytic (Why do people buy FLIBB brand cola and not YUPTA brand cola?) and therapeutic (It's unfortunate that your mom killed your dad with an eggbeater while you were watching, now let's talk about your fear of egg beaters) reasons.
Mad Psychology would probably venture into the unethical, (Convince people of things that are blatantly untrue! Cause insanity in your patients!) the blatantly false, (behold my obviously wrong theory of personal development!) or the unspeakably bizarre (What is the purpose of love? I think I'll find out by torturing monkeys).
* Mad Computer Science
Computer science studies how to store and manipulate information, how to automate the storing and manipulation of information, and to keep the complexity to a minimum. Machines might be powerful at math and logic, but they're not omnipotent, and some things that are easy for us are mind-bogglingly difficult for them. Take vision, for instance. It's easy for us to know what we're looking at, but give a computer a camera and it takes zillions of operations, and even then it's not entirely sure.
Mad computer science might involve unconventional programs, odd storage methods, or truly crazy automation.
* Mad Economics
Economics has often been called the "Dismal science" because many implications profoundly bother people. It also is uncomfortably between the "hard" sciences where there is one objective truth, and the "soft" sciences where many opinions prevail at once. (Some parts of economics are definitely true, but others are up to interpretation. It frustrates economists.) Economics studies money and value, in an attempt to set up society to maximize both wealth and fairness.
Mad economics would take unconventional theories on psychology, value, or production. Special care would need to be taken to avoid being wrong. (or worse.)
* Mad Engineering
Engineers make machines to solve problems. Mad engineers make strange machines to solve conventional, strange, or nonexistent problems.
* Mad Sociology
Sociology is like mass psychology. Studying the beliefs and practices of entire societies and cultures. Since it's in aggregate, it's very confusing.
Sociology is already so strange that mad sociology boggles my mind even attempting to imagine it.
* Mad Astronomy
In pre-scientific times, many cultures believed that the stars held answers to daily riddles, and predicted the future. So they studied them, with a field they called Astrology. Later, people realized that the stars couldn't possibly know the future, but still found stars interesting, so they looked at them for purely theoretical reasons. (Astrology would mean "star study," so "Astronomy" is "star naming." They just look and name.)
So mad astronomy ... would be giving stars strange and hilarious names. Check out the brightness of Glimglomyeeeyeeboing. (Which we named because we can't stop sniggering every time we say it.)
* Mad Political Science
"Who gets what and how." Theories on power, law, diplomacy. Good and bad ways to run a country.
I'm sure you can rule in a strange way that isn't technically worse than what's done now. One could always advocate ruling systems that have yet to be established, like technocracy (rule by a scientific elite), demarchy (rule by randomly selected people), kritarcy (rule by judges, according to principles), Gerontocracy(rule by older people), or Ochlocracy (rule by whoever shows up today). Most of these are obviously bad ideas.
* Mad Electronics
Electronics studies circuits, and how to make electricity do useful work. Including computers, which are made of extra-complicated electronic circuits.
Mad electronics would involve circuit patterns that are ludicrous and make no sense.
* Mad Archeology
Archeology is all about digging up past things to discover what went on there. There's a very established pattern as to the best way to dig to avoid damaging evidence or distorting results.
Mad Archeology is impossible. Deviate from the theory and you've destroyed your own results.
* Mad Dentistry
Dentistry involves keeping human teeth healthy. Teeth need to be cleaned, gums massaged, and if teeth are damaged, repaired. If teeth are knocked out, they need to be kept alive until re-implanted, or they will die and be rejected. Missing teeth can be replaced with prosthetics.
Mad dentistry would involve unconventional techniques. Strange ways of cleaning (ultrasonic waves? Lasers?), strange implants (ceramic bone? Plastic?), and strange repair.
* Mad Geology
How do Earth-bound systems work? Study volcanoes, earthquake, rocks, soil, and all things related to the planet and its workings.
Mad geology would attempt to bend the earth to your own will, perhaps by channeling lava to achieve objectives. (Warning: Lava is dangerous due to its immense heat. Do not attempt to directly touch lava. Do not be in the same room as lava. Do not be within the same mile as lava if you can help it.)
* Mad Medicine
Medicine attempts to maintain human health. Cure and prevent disease, treat accidents, and make the unhealthy healthy.
Mad medicine would involve doing strange things to improve health. Weird surgery, odd chemicals. Test on animals first, because few things are worse than unnecessary surgery.
* Mad Educational Science
How do you teach people things, and get them to remember it? As time goes on, the need for education grows. Society becomes more complicated, and citizens are expected to know more and more. In the middle ages, people were full grown adults at the age of 12, because they didn't need to know very much, and society was simple. By 1900, people had to learn in schools until the age of 18 to do anything productive. Now, people often aren't ready for their ultimate careers until they are 25 or 30. Also, they need to not forget what they learned.
Mad educational science would teach people things in strange ways. Maybe by simulation, game, scent, or direct-brain-stimulation a la "The Matrix."
* Mad Agriculture
People need plants. To eat, to make into clothing, to decorate, and to feed to animals that they then eat. Someone has to grow these plants. And if they're eating animals, someone has to feed and take care of the animals, then kill and process them. (The raising and killing need not be done by the same person.)
Mad Agriculture would grow unusual plants, and/or in unusual ways. Muahahaha, my genetically engineered okra/sweet-potato/tomato will feed billions on scarcely any water! Muahahahaha!
* Linguistics
How do languages work?
Mad Linguistics would, I suppose, invent new languages in the name of efficiency. They could have features not existing in any language, like perfect regularity (Esperanto), social engineering (Lojban supposedly makes ones thoughts perfectly logical), or some other features.
* History
What happened in the past?
Like Archeology, it's not safe to meddle with this without sinking into revisionism, crankdom, or some other undesirable result.
* Mad Civil Engineering
People like living in big cities to reduce their need to travel, because they get higher paying jobs, and so on. Cities can easily become miserable hellholes due to their enormous crowds of people. A lot of work is needed to make them nice.
Mad civil engineering would involve strange city plans. Strange features, strange transportation, strange everything.
* Architecture
Architects design buildings. Unless they're landscape architects, in which case they design the space around buildings, like yards. Architecture benefited significantly when people had some understanding of physics and could rely on certain principles to skip the "Oh hey, let's build it and see if it falls down" stage. A good architect is both an artist and a scientist, making a building that both looks wonderful and works excellently for its purpose.
Mad architects would design strange, unconventional buildings that technically fulfilled their purpose, but what the hell?
* Mad Military Science
When a nation wages war, it aims to win. So does the other side. How do you insure that you win?
Mad Military Science would make unconventional choices.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reverse MIDI

Computer music fans for the last 30 years have enjoyed the MIDI standard interface for representing musical scores and recording them. MIDI can be captured into a file for later playback, and the internet is currently riddled with MIDI sequence files of almost every conceivable song. (Including ones generated by various algorithms.) However, playback of this file is currently limited to expensive electronic keyboards, or sound-card built-in synthesizers. The sound-card synthesizers almost always sound like complete crap, unless the sound-card is ludicrously expensive.
So what if I had a bank of physical instruments, a controller card, and miles of cables with mobile arms that plucked (or pressed, or whatever) the instruments according to midi signals. All of this would connect to a midi-compatible electronic board, that would connect to a computer. The computer could put midi-signals into the card, which would play the instruments accordingly. It would be massively expensive, although awesome. Your own automated private orchestra.
If the bank of instruments also has attached microphones, there are computer programs in existence that can interpret a sound wave as MIDI events. You would then have a Reverse-Reverse-MIDI setup that allows an orchestra to perform in a way that a computer can record, and play back at will. It's massively insane, though I can imagine a wealthy music-fan desiring and enjoying exactly this kind of setup.
Unlike some other massively automated systems, this has advantages that doesn't eliminate its own purpose, although it probably costs more than anyone who would benefit from it would be willing to pay. Musical instruments are mind-bogglingly expensive.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Cutting Lex Luthor a Check

So TV Tropes tells me that all financial crimes have legitimate and high paying counterparts. I've thought about this since before I knew about TV Tropes, and the more I think about it, the more I believe it's true. Take a Mafia-style protection racket vs. insurance. In the protection racket, you ask business owners to pay you money, lest "bad things happen." Bad things that you cause personally. In insurance, you ask the business owner to give you money, and promise that if he does, he'll get a lot of money if bad things happen. (Bad things that you won't cause because holy crap would it cost you.)
So, here's a list of crimes and legitimate careers that they could be spun into. Arrested people, take notice.
* Drug dealing
Replace the product with something legal, rent a store, replace the habit of shooting people who threaten you or act up with calling the police on them, and you're now a legitimate business owner. Collected statistics show that street dealers mark up 2:1, but legitimate business owners mark up 4:1. So gobs of money to be had there.
* Assault
A career in bounty hunting, or bouncing is probably right up your alley. Bounty hunters catch and beat up people who escaped from jail or broke their bond, and bouncers beat up people who make trouble at bars. Both legally.
* Theft
As a collection agent, you steal things that people didn't pay for, thereby reclaiming it. Paid to steal, how about that? (Okay, you don't get to KEEP what you steal, that goes to the creditor. Big deal, you can probably buy it from the creditor later anyway if you really want it.)
* Money laundering
You're probably a decent accountant if you got away with this for more than about a week or so.
* Hacking
As well as a career of foiling other hackers as a consultant, the NSA is interested in you stealing information from other country's computers. (If you don't live in the United States, your country probably also has a cyber-warfare division, but don't count on me knowing what it's called.)
* Embezzlement
You'd make a decent investment banker, but you'd better use your own money. I'm sure you can understand why I'm not going to trust you with any of mine.
* Burglary
The CIA (or local equivalent) takes a continuing interest in people able to bug embassies, steal official documents, and other such acts. The stakes are higher this time, though, because if you get caught, torture and death may occur, and the CIA will disavow all knowledge of your activities.
* Pimping
Do it without violence and about a legal product and it's customer service. People call you up mad. You make them not mad, but still dissuade them from making trouble via violence. (And hopefully, preventing lawsuits.)
* Arson
If you can later extinguish the same fire you started, being a controlled burn forest ranger is for you. You start a fire, let it burn a little bit, and then extinguish it. This allows flame-dependent trees to reproduce without menacing the entire forest, and ensures that accidentally caused fires have less fuel to burn with, thereby making them less threatening.
* Fraud
If you did it as part of a confidence game, maybe you could tone it down a bit and be an excellent salesman (in which you convince people to avail themselves of a product or service). If you did it accidentally, by mis-measurement or whatever, then you're out of luck. Be more careful next time.
* Murder
CIA again (or local equivalent) has certain people that they would like to...disappear. What's that you say, you unsubtly poisoned your victim instead? Okay, fine. Executioner. Press the button when you're told to, and the guy convicted to die, dies. Since it was nationally ordered, you're not responsible.
* Reckless Driving
If you can also drive safely as well, then driver for an important person in an armored vehicle is for you. Should there be trouble, you will need to crazy-drive your way to safety, keeping a lookout for attempts to box you in. (Which you counteract by ramming, because anyone going that far is probably willing to murder your boss at all costs.) During non-emergencies, safe driving will of course be required.
* Prostitution
Massage. They're already euphemisms in advertising, I hear, and this way you don't have to have sex with your clients. Which may be desirable, if what I hear about the typical clientèle is true. Also, anyone who causes trouble in your new, legal, job, has to answer to the police.
* Vandalism
Demolition. Abandoned buildings are ugly crime magnets, and the new owner wants to build a newer, better building. First the old one must be destroyed, and that's where you come in. Salvage valuable things from the old building, then using skills we teach you, destroy it. Shake the owners hand and collect your paycheck.
* Abduction
CIA again. Sometimes they want information from people who won't cooperate. So you grab them at 3am when they're confused. You may have to return them later when the agency gets what it wants from them. Or if they're a threat, not.

Of course, one downside of this list is that the most desirable people for many of these positions are the ones that did not get caught. And those are likely to continue their crimes instead of moving into the more productive legal jobs.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Fake Democracy and You

This post is dedicated to Neda of Iran.

Many dictatorships around the world like to claim to be democracies. It looks good. It makes your government at least appear less like a sackful of corruption and stupid. And if you can legitimately say you were elected, it deflects much of the criticism of that kind of regime.
Of course, as a dictatorship, such a government does not want to give people any real power, because they'd likely throw you out on your totalitarian ass. So what to do?
Let's say you're the dictator, and let's call your movement the "status quo party", because it's in power. First, announce an election. Then eviscerate all parties other than yours that stand any sort of chance whatsoever. You can do this by outright banning them (they're "cheating," "collaborating with foreign powers," "anti-<your-nation>" or what have you), or killing off their leadership, "disappearing" them, or whatever dirty trick. Then convince all the really pathetic parties to run.
When election day comes, voters have the following ballot:
* Status Quo party
* Incompetence party
* Utterly brain dead party
* Grotesque and evil party
* Obvious Joke party
* Loser party
* Suicide party
* Mandatory Perversion party
Act surprised when they choose your own "Status Quo Party." Likely by a margin exceeding 90%. (Sure, one COULD vote for the Incompetence party to protest, but they're obviously so much worse than the dictator. After all, have you seen how incompetent they are?) The USSR pulled this for years, with the Communist party winning 99.999% of the vote in a completely meaningless election (Since the only other parties allowed to run were the idiot party and the chronic failure party, and no one wanted to vote for that crap.)
Or, you could do like other dictators do and have an election with real political parties, but cheat really severely to make your party win, up to and including voter intimidation, "losing" the ballots from high-your-opponent areas, deliberate miscounts, "disappearing" inconvenient people, and disbanding the entire thing if it doesn't go your way. (Sound familiar?)
This might seem like a lot of work to no useful end, but it's all political theater so that you can cry "But I'm not a dictator, I was fairly elected." when people call you out on being a totalitarian scumbag.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Alternate Government Finance

I hear a lot of people complaining about taxes. Taxes are levied so that the government can pay for things, and people are charged in a way that they find "fair." But what system could we use instead, if people hate the current one so much? Here's 12 13 ideas.

1. Inflationary Tax
When the government needs to spend money, it prints some. Hyperinflation usually results because the government goes through a lot of money. This hyperinflation decreases the value of money until one needs a wheelbarrow full of it to buy even a small thing like a loaf of bread. Let's not do this one on the grounds that it is ruinous and stupid.

2. Government Owned Corporation
The government would own a corporation, which would make money, some of which would be kicked back. To a degree this would work -- the US post office operates under this kind of arrangement. Would you accept a doubling of all postage fees?

3. Radical Spending Cut
If we spend much less, we could do with lower taxes. This will be very unpopular. Along with everyone's favorite program being cut, we'll also have to take a pacifist stance in worldwide goings on and fire 80% of our military. Your favorite program could be NASA, farm subsidies, art funding, science discovery, foreign aid, doesn't matter. It will be cut, and you will hate it.

4. Internet Tax
Stop reading this website right now, and go get a job. Otherwise, it's $10 per day, payable to the treasury. The funny sound you hear is the federal reserves laughing as millions of addicts whip out their checkbooks for fear of losing Myspace for the day.

5. Obnoxious Behavior Tax
Taxes on things that are voted to be annoying. Probably alcohol, tobacco, having a party at 3am, and novelty car horns, things of that nature. Maybe you'll pay us, maybe you'll stop doing it. Either way, we win.

6. Sell Gold
The government currently owns a large stash of gold in Fort Knox. Gold is currently at record high price. We could sell it now and buy it back later when it's cheaper, but maybe a gold speculation financed government isn't the best idea.

7. Sponsorship
This congressional meeting is brought to you by Coke, Taco Bell, Southwest, Safeway, and Mad Engineering. Please note the labels that we have pasted into all kinds of things that will be noticed during the meeting. Washington spins in his grave, powering a generator, the power which from we will use to pay off the remainder of the balance. Next up, the state of the union address, brought to you by McDonalds, Winchester, Macy's, and Crazy Bob's Toy Factory. Crazy Bob's, we probably have something your kids want to play with.

8. Sell Land
Russia wants Alaska back. They would be willing to pay a large amount of money to make this happen. This would inconvenience the Americans that live there now, but we can probably find some good land in Montana, Idaho, and North Dakota for them to live in. And when we spend the money, (and we will), then what?

9. Fees
Today you found a man forcing his way through your window, so you called the police. They showed up, promptly arrested the burgler, and charged you $1500 for their services. Then you pay $200 to testify against him when his court case came around. You pay $500 to visit a national park, $10 to drive on a public road, and since your town remains free of military occupation by a foreign power, a $5000 military fee. You'll pay $10,000 per year tuition to keep your kids in school, and $300 to complain about all these stupid bullshit fees.

10. Stupid Comment Tax
Like the internet tax listed above, but charged when one makes a stupid comment to a forum, blog, youtube video, or email. While this could be done by moderator, it's probably better to do it by a computer program like the Stupid Filter, as computer programs will give a better appearance of objectivity, even when it isn't. Youtube video comments alone would probably pay the balance.

11. Suicide
The US government announces that it ceases to exist. Depending on where in the country you live, you are now a citizen of Russia, Canada, Mexico, Cuba, or Japan. See, these countries rushed in to fill the power vacuum, and they will charge you, yes, income taxes, according to their own laws.

12. Income taxes
When you earn money, you are charged a percentage of each bracket. The first bracket is charged nothing, the second one 10%, and so on up to a maximum of 39% for the top bracket. You can definitely pay this, because it's less than the amount of money you have, and the first bracket being free means it won't make you go hungry. Oh wait, this is the system we have now that people were complaining about.

13. Tariffs
Under this system, all products imported into the country must, at time of purchase, pay a fee, to be tacked on to the purchase price. This was the first finance of the US government, and part of its early bitter politics. The Northern US preferred higher tariffs to encourage growth of domestic industry, the southern US preferred lower tariffs because they liked to buy their things from England and France, and the tax made the things more expensive. We literally could not do this today -- there are multiple trade treaties that forbid it, and if we did do it, we could expect a ruinous counter-tariff imposed by the other country. For a nation like us that loves to import and export, this would be a rolling disaster.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Farm Bill

We Americans tend to be kind of fat. A lot of this has to do with the the way we eat. Money also has a lot to do with this -- cheap food tends to be full of fat and devoid of nutrition, making us want more and more before we feel satisfied.
The actions of the government have a lot to do with the cost of food. Every year, a farm bill is written by congress, determining which foods are subsidized, making them cheap, and which foods are taxed, making them more expensive. Current farm bills have favored corn. Our representatives seem to prefer the idea of producing vast amounts of biofuel to reduce the current dependency on oil, and corn oil is one of the easier ways to do that.
It's time now for the 2009 bill. I think we should ask for subsidies on the following:

* Broccoli
* Lettuce
* Asparagus
* Carrots
* Squash
* Pumpkin
* Tomatoes
* Brussel Sprouts
* Blueberries

These foods are all low-calorie, nutrition dense fruits and vegetables. Post-subsidy, they will be plentiful and cheap. In addition, the sheer variety will make it hard for pests to establish, the way it has with corn mono-cultures.

If there are any foods that are inherently unhealthy, we can tax them. I can't think of any offhand. Sure, an excess of corn has lead to high fructose corn syrup, but corn by itself isn't inherently unhealthy.

We should definitely tax tobacco, however. It doesn't make sense that we're paying people to grow it, and then turn around and encourage people not to use it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

High Speed Rail

If we had a high speed rail network in America, we could move stuff around at about 1/3 the speed of flying it with 1/2 the energy. Probably be quieter, too. I enjoy traveling by train more than plane because of the less crowdedness, the less security bullshit, and having lots and lots of room. But it takes 8 times as much time, which is ridiculous.
It's also speculated that trains are in fact cheaper, due to lack of extensive subsidy. If so, cheaper transportation can only benefit the economy.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tea Machine

Tea is a worldwide-enjoyed beverage made from water soaked in leaves. First discovered in China, it quickly spread to Japan, India, and from there on to Europe and the Americas. The first tea plants also provided caffeine, a minor stimulant. Later, "herbal" teas were developed that tasted reasonably good but provided no caffeine, as people were jittery enough as is.
So let's say for arguments sake that I have a room full of British workers who need their cuppa tea, right this instant. I have mugs of hot water, and tea bags, and no time to let it brew. I have learned from my own tea drinking experience that the fastest way to brew tea is to dunk and lift the bag, as every lift drains the saturated water from the bag, and every dunk provides fresh water.
So I have a machine with many wheels, about ten inches (25cm? Length of a teabag's string.) over each cup. I dip each teabag in once, then attach its label to the wheel. The wheels connect to a motor, slowly turning them, one revolution every 4 seconds. 2 minutes later, all the teas are done. Discard bags, add milk or cream, sugar, and bring to my workers, who tell me that it's "about bloody time."
Oh, but wait? What if they're the sophisticated type of tea drinkers that dislike teabags? (Sensitive people claim that the paper in teabags leaves an unpleasant taste in the final tea.) I can replace the teabag with a straining-sphere (imagine two strainers, with the handles removed, and attached to each other via hinges. I open them to add the tea leaves, then close them so as not to lose the tea leaves), and attach the spheres to the wheels. Then at tea-time, fill, spin, milk, sugar, serve. This is endlessly reusable, and I can compost the tea for eco-credit.
Lastly, I can scale this all up for use in tea shops or coffee shops. The latter machine can be filled with coffee grounds instead of tea leaves to make coffee instead of tea.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Gravity Meshes are Impossible

One invention for the sake of making the filming easier in Sci-fi shows like Star Trek are gravity webs, meshes, or floors, that provide gravity in environments like space that shouldn't have any. This makes it easier to film, because the "space" environment can be shot in a basement in hollywood, instead of having to actually take the actors into low earth orbit, which would be significantly more expensive.
Such a device would have massive utility. Not only could you walk in space instead of float, and travel between the stars without your bones weakening into goo, but you could exercise with them (the gym has DOUBLE GRAVITY today), make transportation easier (the packages now weight NEGATIVE whatever because there's a reversed gravity mesh in the truck's ceiling), or just carnival style novelty (as in, hey, let's walk on the walls! Because we can!).
However, it can't happen. The best way to prove to me that it can't happen is to build a perpetual motion machine with it, so I'm going to do exactly that. Please enjoy this flagrant violation of the laws of thermodynamics.
It circles around...
As you can see in the diagram, the very large ball falls onto the turning wheel, imparting the energy it got from gravity and thereby providing the extractable energy. It then falls to the lower ramp, moving to the other half of the device. At this place, gravity is reversed, so it "falls" to the top of the machine, where it hits the ramp that moves it back to the other side. Oh hey, gravity is reversed again due to the absence of the mesh in this part, so it falls again, back to the wheel. This would endlessly produce power, against all reason.
So obviously the gravity meshes either have to use more power to function than all the falling that happens in their area, or they just can't happen. In either case, Sci-Fi fans everywhere pout at this rude intrusion by reality. Then they go back to enjoying their fandom, because since when does television, movies, or books have to in any way correspond to reality? Wait up, guys.
Thanks to D. K. Wolfe for the illustration.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Mad Materials Engineering

When I was in the 8th grade, my lab partner and I had finished with our experiments for the day. I was one of the smarter kids, and he was also ahead of the curve, so we finished long before everyone else. Bored, we then noted that we had a hot plate and some chalk. What was blackboard chalk, anyway? We saw it every day, and still had no idea where it came from. (Besides "schools.") We decided to do an experiment.
We put the chalk on the hot plate, and watched it carefully. Was it an organic compound, that would burst into flames, or an inorganic compound that would melt? (In either case, we watched carefully so that we could quickly unplug the hot plate, extinguish any flames, and cool it back to a safe temperature when needed.) Before we got that far, our teacher interrupted by sending us both to the principal's office for unauthorized experiments, where we both got chewed out. That jerk.
Since then, I've learned that blackboard chalk is Calcium Sulphate, and it is usually made by processing a natural rock called Gypsum, crushing it up and pressing it into a stick. It is inorganic and does not catch fire. It melts at 1460C, a temperature we would not have achieved with a high school hot plate. Gypsum is also processed into Drywall, a housing compound that makes the house more difficult to set fire to, a definitely desired property.
I think it would be nice if there was a lab that just played with materials to invent new ones. The funders would get the patent on anything the lab discovered. Various chemical, nanotechnology, and heating and cooling experiments would surely invent some new interesting material.
Expert researchers would be preferred, because they would already have some knowledge about what kinds of experiments would be most effective, and that's worth the extra cost of hiring them.

Sunday, June 14, 2009


Many of my older relatives have to take many, many medications, and it is often quite confusing for them. 2 of these, 1 of that, this every 4 hours, this other every 6. It's necessary for their health, but an organizational nightmare.
So what if I had a box that could store a large amount of all of these medicines, and inject it at certain times? It could be implanted, or a wristband device that connects to an IV. It would be set up by a doctor to inject substance X at Y times, and then attached to the patient.
This would work well for medicines because medicines have to be kept at a certain dose to be active, but are slowly reduced in quantity by the body's natural workings. With this system, one never forgets, and dosing can be done even in one's sleep.
On the downside, if it's external, it's probably annoying, bulky, and the repeated injections or persistent IV can't be good for you. If it's implanted, refilling it is an issue. (Access panel on the skin? Seems macabre.)
Medical commenters: Is this even remotely viable?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Light Rail

It would be totally awesome if cities had these little trams that constantly circulated between sectors, and you could get on one here, leave it at the sector-border, get on another one, and so on, until you reached your destination. The trams would work on a few cents of electricity, and you could charge $1 for a day's trip to quickly recoup all expenses. Charge it with a smart card so that you don't have to fumble with cash, checks, or credit cards, and have smart-card-selling-stations in every sector. (Or you could have it government subsidized in the interests of increased commerce, but the cries of "socialism" are already deafening.)
It would be only marginally slower than cars, and would have the advantages of not requiring maintenance, usable by even small children, much lower energy use (rolling rail friction is the least energy-absorbing kind I know of), and automate-able so that it could circulate 24/7 (you never miss your ride). You would never have to walk farther than a block at any time.
My neighborhood won't do it, because they have some weird hatred of mass transit systems, and some places like New York already have subway systems that are already better than this.
Better yet, operate it Hub-and-Rail. Hub systems move slowly and stop often. They connect at some point to a faster one that expresses to large destinations (like downtown malls, or major work centers). The high-speed one can go faster than a car could be safely driven, because it's on a dedicated track and does not have to worry about collisions. The hubs would mostly be suburban residential neighborhoods with one "transfer" station. Although transferring at speed would be the most efficient, this probably shouldn't happen for safety's sake. Just in case somebody trips.
This system should be easily scaled up if the population grows, and not too difficult to control thanks to electronics.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Premature Optimization

"Premature optimization is the root of all evil."
-- Computer Science Proverb

This quote may seem strange, but by "optimization," they mean "fancy tricks to make your code work better," and by "Premature," they mean "before you've checked to make sure it works right in the first place."
If you make your code too fancy and then make a mistake somewhere, it'll be impossible to catch. Because it will be too complicated. First concentrate on making sure it's right. Then do the fancy tricks to speed it up. Besides, CPUs are very fast these days. It's okay to losing a few cycles to making sure its done correctly.
This is not to say that optimization should never be done. As an example, the computer game "Wolfenstein" would have been too slow to be playable if it had simulated everything it claimed to. It was only functional because of all the crazy shortcuts that made it fast enough to play.
Perhaps this is true in other fields too. First correct, then faster, better, or cheaper.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


Many big cities have an impenetrable cloud of visible brown air around them. It smells bad. Also, the increase in carbon dioxide has unwanted side effects. Let's come up with solutions.

Plant/Algae Tunnel
We force-convect the air across a huge tunnel full of plants, who absorb the pollution. The cleaned air is then accelerated into the city.
Advantages: Cleans all pollutants, and decreases carbon footprint
Disadvantage: Plants need light. Also, must remove dead plants. Expensive maintenance. Plants edibility is questionable.

Sharper-Image Device
"Powers through even the thickest smoke!" So we have a large network of these, maintaining one per minute. Maintenance consists of unplugging the device, wiping the pollution off, then reassembling and plugging back in.
Advantage: Portable
Disadvantage: Excessive energy usage, expensive, maintenance crew eventually drops dead of exhaustion or requires expensive multiple shifts, does nothing for carbon dioxide, cartloads of dirty, ruined cloths.

Water Tunnel
All air is inhaled by a vacuum system, then bubbled through a large body of water.
Advantage: Cheap
Disadvantage: Rapidly saturates, stops working

Not polluting in the first place
Cars, factories, campfires, cigarettes, and anything that in any way smells bad is hereby banned by the department of STFU. Pollution will be cleaned away after the next rainstorm.
Advantages: Cheap, Fines pay for everything and then some, carbon footprint eliminated
Disadvantages: Radically decreased quality of life, infinite whining, severe economic damage

By attaching extra equipment to factories, cars, etc, the most noxious part of their pollution does not reach the air
Advantages: Pollution reduced by 99%
Disadvantages: Carbon output unaffected. Who pays for the scrubbers? (Whoever does probably resents it.)

Better Energy sources
Fusion power, electric engines, and so on, allow for the same activity to occur without the smoke and carbon.
Advantages: Infinitely awesome, carbon footprint eliminated
Disadvantage: Requires technologies not yet invented

Mass Transit
Trains and Buses and other high density people movers replace cars.
Advantages: Moves lots of people, easily retrofitted with better energy sources
Disadvantages: Does not necessarily run when a person needs to travel

Enormous fan
Ummm...make a fan with fins miles long, point it at the ocean, and blast the foul air away from the city in an enormous gale.
Advantage: Extremely cool looking
Disadvantages: Excessive energy use, large chance of property damage, chance of people and pets being blown out to sea or otherwise injured. Chance of pollution-cloud blowing back into the city when the fan is turned off, ruining the whole exercise, excessively crazy

Seed Rainclouds
When it rains, the rain absorbs the pollution. We can send planes into the clouds with chemicals that cause it to rain. Yes, we can totally do this right now.
Advantage: Effective
Disadvantage: But then you'd have to make it rain basically all the time. Wouldn't that be inconvenient, wet, and annoying? Also, all the pollution would wind up in the ocean, which would be bad.

One of these alone isn't going to solve the problem, and any one of them will cost quite a bit. But two or three of these combined should end the pollution problem in the big cities.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


We humans have two hands, and typically one is dominant over the other. The dominant hand is stronger, more accurate, and more skilled at handling objects. If you throw an object to a person, they will typically catch it with their dominant hand.
Hand dominance is determined in the brain. The left side of the body is controlled by the right side of the brain, and vice versa. Some individual difference in brain structure determines if an individual person is left or right handed.
Now the weird part: 90% of humans are right handed, 10% are left handed. I would have expected the split to be 50/50, since there's no big advantage to either direction. Left handed people have had a "surprise" bonus in combat against right handed people, but this has not encouraged huge growth of left handed people.
Culture may have something to do with the disparity. The left direction is almost always associated with bad things for some reason. In pre-toilet-paper societies, the left hand is used for hygiene, making it undesirable to do anything else with it. Other societies have associated left handedness with dark magic, clumsiness (which has more to do with making the person operate against their natural handedness than they think), strangeness in general, and the ancient Hebrews associated the left hand with "the ability to shame society." I'm not clear if that reference means the ability to humiliate the entire tribe, or the tribe's ability to eject members.
Left handed people need their tools custom-made, because almost all tools are built with the assumption of a right handed user. Until recently, left handed people were "switched" at the time that they learned to write, punished when they used their left hand until they used their right hand exclusively. Many of these people wind up ambidextrous. Left handed people have been noted to have, in comparison with right handed people, more spacial skills, and are often excellent artists.
I am right handed. My grandfather was a "switched" lefty.
BREAKING NEWS: A reader of mine writes in to tell me that "switched" lefties often suffer from stuttering, anxiety disorders including obsessive compulsive disorder, and other ailments. This suggests to me that "switching" people is a really bad idea.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Railgun Space Launch

Rail guns would greatly reduce the expense of launching items, vehicles, satellites, and so on, into space. Possibly down to the magic level that would allow privatization of space travel, finally putting advocates of such to put up or shut up. Allow me to explain.
A railgun is an engineered device that, using two electrically charged rails, exerts an enormous force on the object placed between those two rails. Aligning the currents with the right spin, this direction is "up." Yes, it uses a lot of energy to reliably produce a space launch, but less with this method because the energy will be provided at ground level. The launch vehicle will not require its own fuel, as the rail gun will be providing the energy. It can launch thousands of vehicles a day, if need be. (Though need will not be unless we're evacuating the Earth or something.)
Now space travel is expensive, because anything you want to get even into earth orbit must be sped to 11 km/s, or it will just fall back down again. 11 km/s is absurdly fast. To accelerate even, say, my car, to this kind of speed, some 19,958 Kilo-newtons must be applied. This would easily consume the entire output of a medium sized power plant, all charged in a bank of capacitors the size of a skyscraper.
Existing space travel uses massive hydrogen-oxygen bombs that, when
detonated, provide all that thrust and more. Of course, this means
carrying thousands of kilograms of those materials with you, which will further throw off calculations by being used up. Heavier thing, more fuel required. More fuel means even more weight. Any space mission will easily cost a billion dollars, leaving it solely in the reach of national governments.
With a rail gun setup, a very rich person could afford to send themselves and a Soyuz-type space station into orbit, for about $10 million. Plus maybe another $50 million in startup costs. Further advances might further reduce the expenses, bringing space travel to the masses.
Now at this time, there are people who complain that space travel is a misuse of government resources, and that space travel should be privatized. Very well. For $60 million, I offer you more material resources than the entire mining output of the earth. For $400 million, a consistent trade route could be developed, earning that sum back within 20 years time and employing a staff equal to the current population of Utah. I dare you to.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Secure Passwords

In many organizations, there is a policy requiring strong passwords. Of course this drives password users crazy, because it eliminates 99% of what they were thinking of using.
In the beginning, computers relied on passwords to ensure that users were who they said they were. Sure, anyone can claim to be Bob from Accounting, but only Bob knows Bob's password. That Bob's password was usually something that could be gleaned from reading his file in the human resource department didn't matter to anyone.
Then people realized that making the password your birth date, middle name, or pet's name, allowed people who had minor knowledge of you to impersonate you, which was a security breach. So length requirements were implemented, and requirements for mixed-type (letters AND numbers), and a dictionary of common passwords, none of which you could use. This made passwords less guessable, but more likely to wind up written on a post-it note on Bob's terminal.
Now while the post-it note is bad for security, all security tends to be null and void if you get physical access to Bob's terminal in the first place, so I suppose it can be allowed to slide if Bob conceals it carefully.
Sometimes there are breaches in security. Somebody who saw Bob's post-it note gets fired and has a grudge against the company. Somebody malicious figures out that bob's password is his cat's name with the "i" changed to a "1." When this happens Bob's password has to be changed, quick. Since you never know when this will happen, many organizations require passwords to be changed periodically. Old knowledge is now useless knowledge.
Now let's say that YOU'VE just been hired, and you need a new password. The options are driving you crazy, how do you make a strong password?
Let's use acronyms. Take a song lyric or poem that you really like, and take only the first letters. Substitute a few letters with numbers that look vaguely like them, and capitalize some of them. Now you have a rather strong password that you remember easily. As an example:

all my troubles seemed so far away
Now it looks as if they're here to stay
oh I believe in yesterday
-- The Beatles

This turns to: "yamtssfanilaithtsoIbiy." We capitalize randomly: "yamTsSfanilAithtSoIbiy" and then do some numerical substitution: "yamTsSf4ni7A1thtS0Ibiy". If you then insert or substitute a punctuation mark: "yamTsSf4n!7A1thtS0Ibiy" you now have an easily remembered, strong, impossible to guess password. It is meaningless to pretty much anybody except you.
Now if this sounds like way too much work, you could use the strong password generator to make a strong password, including a little mnemonic to help you remember it. But that kind is more likely to wind up on the post-it note, which is not a good idea.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Regrow Nerves

I find it shocking that after 500 years growth of the field of medicine, there is still no good way to repair nerve damage. One break of your spine and everything below the break is lost to you forever. Meanwhile, a (mad) researcher can do a freaking head transplant, which would be useful if it didn't render all monkeys involved quadriplegic.
Meanwhile, neurologists are experimenting with nerve grafts, there's a few attempts at pills, even computer chips. (what the hell?)
There is everything to gain by succeeding in this. People could transplant limbs to repair amputation, cure paralysis forever, or even transplant human heads. (We put your perfectly good head off the old diseased body and onto a body whose owner smashed his skull. Everybody wins except him, but he smashed his head. There's not much we can do to fix that.)
And then there's Dr. Sakiyama-Elbert's nerve gel that can be squirted around nerve injuries. The nerves them repair around the gel, reconnecting and restoring the use of what was previously numb and paralyzed. Just a few more years testing to see if it really works. Sweet.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Compound Failure

Here's a time worm joke on poor planning. This was supposedly a city council meeting in Mississippi, according to the quoted book. (Although I've seen it attributed to various cities throughout 40 of the 50 states on the web, possibly mis-attributions of the same story). The council planners make a three-part plan. Any two of the three alone would have been an excellent plan, but mixing the three suddenly becomes pure idiocy. (And aspect 2 wasn't very smart to begin with, I say get rid of that one.)

1. Resolved, by this council, that we build a new jail
2. Resolved, that the new jail be built out of the materials of the old jail.
3. Resolved, that the old jail continue to be used until the new one is finished.

Presumably next month's meeting was about the strange and alarming increase in jail escapes.

Now like I said, any two of those alone would have worked. (Albeit combining two or three alone would basically be waving your hands and yelling "TADA!!!") Plans 1 and 3 would be the best combination, in which the city builds a new jail from new materials, presumably of higher quality, and then move the inmates to the new one upon creation. Plans 1 and 2 would involve moving the inmates to another facility temporarily while the materials get recycled.
The material recycling is the least important part because jail components are quite cheap. Steel for the bars, concrete for the floors, walls, and ceilings, maybe some brick. At most, $20/ft^3, and that's assuming that we do something like have sophisticated electronic locks.
I see this kind of thinking all the time. Sometimes people just don't grasp the implications of some of their statements. Sometimes it's because they don't want to understand the implications, especially when this means harder work or less profit for them. Sometimes it's because they're working far outside of their expertise. Sometimes it's because they're not used to making connections.
As an example of purposely not understanding the connections, chickens are not legally animals in Louisiana. Although the legislators do understand that chickens are animals, they have ruled otherwise because cockfights are quite popular there, and they need a loophole from the animal cruelty laws to continue them. So their loophole is that chickens are not animals, they are something else and therefore exempt. (Food, I suppose? Living...food?) So an insane conclusion is required to preserve the status quo.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Art of Smuggling

Sailor's magazine Marine Buzz has an article about smuggling boats. Smuggling is an area in which insane projects are the norm, because sane ones inevitably get caught.
In the beginning, people wanting to bring over illegal goods did so on foot. Typically, they were caught. This annoyed the kingpin, because his goods were confiscated, and the mule, who got severely punished. (I'm not naive enough to believe that the kingpin gave a hoot about the mule.)
So then, planes. For a little while this worked. Then problems emerged first with dropping the goods in the wrong places, where it hit people. Hitting people with illegal things kind of draws the wrong kind of attention. Also, planes tend to have things like transponders that make them extremely blatant.
So then the idea of ocean-based smuggling occurred. The perpetrators built really narrow boats with a flat, ocean-color-painted top. The boats were then stuffed with guidance electronics, loads and loads of illegal goods, and an operator. The operator would sail the boat to an obscure shore where it would be unloaded and then abandoned. (The boat was apparently cheap enough that a new one could be built every smuggling operation.) The boat sounds no larger than my bathroom in total, but still had hundreds of millions of dollars worth of goods on it.
And for a long time, the boats worked, because they were extremely hard to see. And when they were seen, they were confused with other things, or sunk with the operator escaping, thus destroying all the evidence. Then the coast guard developed a way of capturing these boats, by finding their most common materials via sonar and abruptly inserting a commando before the operator notices.
So the next idea? Goddamned submarines. Professional navies have difficulty finding enemy submarines, and a litany of technologies have been developed to make them even more invisible. The thing runs under complete radio-silence, making at most a whirring noise from the propulsion engines, and there are ways of suppressing that, too. Even this will eventually be caught by the coast guard, and probably whatever they discover will revolutionize submarine warfare forever.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mechanical Motion

The number one obstacle in automating anything is a naive attempt to mimic what hands do in the manual version. Which the machine really cannot do, since mechanical hands exist mostly as prosthetics and would require a human brain to make them really work their best anyway.
In the 1700s and before, clothing had to be hand-sewn by a tailor, and was super expensive. Most people owned at most two outfits. Or sometimes even just one. If it got damaged, they would hand-sew patches on to repair it, because they sure as hell couldn't afford another pair.
The tailors were all overworked, and sewing was a task outright itching for automation. And so starting in the 1600s, people attempted to create automated sewing machines, recognizing that such an invention would revolutionize the clothing industry. So they watched people hand sew, and tried to make a machine copy that movement. None of them worked. Always, something would jam, break down, or fail.
The real innovation didn't hit until 1846. The modern sewing machine uses both a needle and a bobbin to sew from both sides of the cloth at once in a way that would be quite impossible for a human to copy. And that is the lesson I would like to teach today: Mechanical movements are quite different from their human counterparts.
Or, let us take the vacuum cleaner. The human-wielded device is a cart, with a vertical attachment to a bag, and a handle for human direction. So to automate it, I suppose people first tried mechanical legs and arms, only to have the whole contraption repeatedly fall over. And then when automated vacuum cleaners were invented, they look nothing like the hand-pushed kind of yesteryear. They look more like a security droid from a sci-fi movie.
So when a task is automated, it often is accomplished in a way different way than it would be if a human was doing it. Imagine if there were no windshield wipers. If it rained, you'd regularly have to pull to the side of the road, get out of the car, and wipe the windows with a dry cloth. And you had better hope that you had a large supply of dry cloths. Imagine if then somebody tried to create a windshield wiper that moved a cloth and then wrung it out. Probably wouldn't work very well.
PS: The invention of the sewing machine has reduced a pair of the typical kind of shirt I wear to $7, and the cost of a pair of pants to $10. I own tens of each.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Rebuild New York

New York is America's largest city, boasting 8 million people, and claiming to be a serious cultural center. This much is the good news.

The bad news is that in the 200 years since the filling out of the city, much of it is old, ugly, and falling apart. Construction grows more difficult by the day due to the virtue that half the infrastructure consists of things that no one is quite sure what it is, but is afraid of inconveniencing millions of people if they break it. Thousands of miles of obsolete gas, pneumatic, and other pipelines crisscross the city. New York is watered by two enormous pipelines. The pipelines have been in use continuously for over a hundred years, and the engineers are afraid that if they shut one down for inspection, that they might not be able to start it up again. Bad. A third pipeline is underway, estimated to be complete in 2010.

I think that all of the city landowners should pool their money with the city's for a massive rebuild. We would take a census of every person, every business, every structure in the city and what humans live and work there. Then we would move all 8 million people out into temporary structures (either in upper New York or in Montana) and level the city to the ground. We would then rebuild the city with all structures twice as tall and with better infrastructure. (Many buildings were built before such things as air conditioning and internet access, and retrofitting is proving a problem. These new buildings would be built with those in mind.)
Having rebuilt every last structure, and new pipelines and subway, we would then get out our census notes and move people back into the addresses that they once occupied. The census would enable people to continue to rent at the same address at the same rate as before. However, the twice as large building could accommodate new tenants as well, thus earning the landlord additional money. (This should be pleasing to all parties involved.)
We would, of course, insist on all the replaced buildings be up to code, with all the latest safety standards in wiring, fire prevention, and waterproofing. (New York is technically in a hurricane zone.)
I think that the increased quality, comfort, and lack of decay would revitalize the city. In addition, improvements to the subway system would make it faster and easier to get to work, as well as reach neighboring regions (such as pennsylvania and new jersey) for additional economic opportunities.
This would of course cost a ludicrous sum of money. Still, between all the building owners and the city, I think it could be achieved.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Capacitate Lightning

Lightning often strikes the Earth's surface. Sometimes it hits a person. Sometimes it causes property damage. The status quo sucks, let's change it.
In the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin did many experiments about the nature of electricity, although the thing with the kite was actually just a thought experiment, and not actually done. In the course of these experiments, he invented the lightning rod. Not only did it protect a house from being struck by lightning, it also harnessed the energy to ring a bell, mostly as proof that it was protecting you. This was later disabled when the repeated bell ringing annoyed his wife and his friends.
Churches at the time often denounced the lightning rod as interfering with the wrath of God. They stopped doing so when churches quickly became the #1 most often struck structure in existence, which made their argument look, at best, patently insane.
Anyway, lightning has considerable energy. Essentially a built up, over sized version of static cling, lightning strikes with around 500 MegaJoules of energy. This is enough energy to run my computer for about 2 months. However, it is all delivered at once, which leads to major grid-problems when the electric grid itself is struck. Equipment literally fries from the sudden burst of energy all at once.
So I propose placing a large metal rod in a lightning-prone area. This rod is connected to a very high capacity diode, then to a very large bank of capacitors. Then another, more conventional, diode, then a bank of batteries. When lightning strikes the rod, the capacitors suck up the energy, then slowly drain it into the batteries. The batteries can slowly power the electrical grid after passing through, yes, another diode. The diodes are to ensure that this setup does not drain backwards, which would uselessly suck energy from the grid. The capacitors store energy, but not very well. Capacitors are mostly useful for their ability to quickly charge and discharge. The batteries should be the deep-cycle kind that can be charged and drain without annoying side effects like battery-memory.
This structure would supplement the energy grid slightly, but not well. Its primary purpose would be to absorb lightning strikes in the area to prevent them from damaging other structures. The added power is just a minor side benefit.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Male Birth Control Pills

A contraceptive pill, taken by the male partner of a heterosexual relationship, is currently a big goal of biochemical medicine. (Because it would make so much money.) Currently, most birth control techniques weigh more heavily on the female partner. A female-taken contraceptive pill definitely prevents pregnancy, but also causes some strange side effects. Weight gain, menstrual alteration, and water retention are common side effects. While some women take the pill for some of the beneficial effects alone (the pill has been known to clear up acne, and sometimes reduces the severity of menstruation), women who suffer side effects must either endure them or switch to condoms.
Hormone alteration has been the first angle into this. By altering hormonal balance, male fertility is deliberately impaired, until this is reversed by ending the medication. So far so good. This also tends to kill his sex drive. The hypothetical man's hypothetical girlfriend would not hypothetically be pleased.
So the next attempt was to mix estrogen, a "female hormone" with testosterone, a "male hormone." (Actually, both genders have both compounds, but in different ratios.) Hypothetically, the estrogen increase decreases fertility, and the testosterone reestablishes sex drive. (Testosterone causes sex drive in both genders.) However, the testosterone may also increase male fertility, in which case back to the drawing board.
A clever doctor, Dr. Christina Wang, at UCLA has discovered that a mix of progesterone, a "female" hormone, and testosterone, seems to be working the trick. So far, none of the usual side problems (loss of sex drive, gynecomastia, has been noted, and the worst side effect seems to be night sweats. However, testing could take another five years. After all, it would suck if there was some horrible side effect hidden in this, and suddenly millions of men are subject to this all of the sudden.
The female based pill works by simulating pregnancy. Since her body thinks she is pregnant, she does not ovulate, and if she has sex, there is no egg to be fertilized. The male pill seems to likewise stop sperm production, so there can be sex but not fertility. To the relief of heterosexual couples everywhere.
People should note that the male birth control pill does precisely nothing to stop STDs, and should not be relied on in sketchy situations. Just like the female pill.
I, as a man, look forward to it.
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