Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Linus Akesson's Auto Plant Maintainer

A Swedish programmer, engineer, and mechatronics expert, Linus Akesson, made an interesting device to detect the moisture level in a potted plant's soil. He stopped there, on the grounds that if it over-watered, it would ruin the wood floor under the pot. Based on his work, I think I have a completely automated plant care device.
His machine measures the soil's resistance to electrical flow. Moisture decreases this resistance. So, a microcontroller, connected to a probe wire and a relay, can probe periodically as in Mr. Akesson's design, but rather than merely recording and reporting this resistance, will, at a certain level, activate the relay, which will open a valve and water the plant. It can close it after a set period of time, or it can close it when the resistance has reached a certain level.
A microcontroller could also log this data to a computer, turn on or off an electric light for indoor or space growing operations, alert me if it runs out of water, or activate some sort of a camera and store the pictures so I get a "time lapse" of the plant's growth.
If I could only get it to monitor soil nutrition and chemistry too, then I've pretty much made a machine that automates plant care. And that's of interest to homeowners, gardeners, and farmers.
Mr. Akesson also does projects with musical microcontrollers, a chiptune piano, which he also demonstrates to great effect, and a rather good description of the historical applications of TTY technology and why modern computers support them despite very few people or institutions still having anything remotely similar to a teletype.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Entangled Tablet

So lately I've seen searches in the analytics for a "Quantum Entanglement NIC." This isn't possible under current technology, but it gives me an excellent idea.
A Quantum Entanglement network interface card would be useful because it would be linked to another card, and the two cards would act as if physically touching, even if separated by miles, astronomical units, or even lightyears. Literally instantaneous and uninterceptable communication. If it had a slot for a RJ-45 or wireless connection on top of that, so much the better. If it didn't, well, there's enough add-on slots in the desktop computer's motherboard to have a traditional network interface card.
Anyway, my idea is that we have an internet tablet (think like an i-Pad), and it has a quantum entanglement NIC connection to your desktop computer. The tablet will not run its own software, but instead be a mobile peripheral to your desktop machine. It is a terminal that fits in your briefcase, backpack, or other carrying device. It probably doesn't fit into a pocket or purse, but they're working on those. You would have all the features of your desktop machine, like high speed internet, your data, games, and so on, in a portable and useful form. The only thing the tablet wouldn't do well is type, unless your brought some sort of keyboard attachment.
You could have one entanglement tablet per quantum NIC installed, up to as many expansion slots as your computer has. This further expands the usefulness of computers if they have multi-user operating systems installed, and most these days are, for security and remote access's sake. One computer could be shared by four or five people, who access it through their tablets.
If you're not prone to losing physical objects, this would be good for security, too. It is literally not possible to intercept a quantum entanglement. There is no signal to snoop. However, if you do lose the tablet, you've basically given your computer over to whoever takes it, at least until you shut it down and remove the entanglement card. That would be scary.
Now, the current obstacles to this are in entanglement itself. For all its promises, quantum entanglement is a very fragile phenomenon. Entangled particles are difficult to keep entangled. If you disturb them, the entanglement is lost. If you read or write to the connection, it typically breaks immediately after. We're not even sure that a permanent entanglement is possible in theory. We're not even sure if that instantaneous effect works over long distances, or if it's limited to the speed of light like everything else. The current world record for entangled particles brought them 16km apart before the connection was lost. If you want a NIC, it's going to have to read or write so much more than than 1 bit before failing.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Common Dreams

A study by a Hong Kong area psychologist found out that you, and I, and random people in Hong Kong, often have extremely similar dreams. There are some dreams that pretty much everyone on earth has, which is kind of strange because of the variety of cultures and lifestyles out there. I'll tell you some of mine, and the study shows that you almost certainly had them too.
As a young child, I often dreamed that I was driving a car with some other children. Sometimes the incongruity of this never hit me at the time, other times I had a nagging suspicion that maybe children shouldn't be driving cars, and maybe I'd get in trouble for it. Those stopped when I learned to actually drive. I also used to dream about having a fist fight with a person who couldn't be damaged. They could hurt me, though, and thankfully those stopped in college.
I used to dream about being naked in public, and boy was it embarrassing. In the more recent ones, however, I always seem to come to the realization that no one cares (at least in the dream), and so I don't have to be embarrassed. Perhaps my subconscious thinks that what I'm most embarrassed about really is no big deal to everyone else? And about two weeks ago, I had for the first time in my life that old chestnut of dreamers, falling out teeth.
In my senior year at college, I would have dreams in which a professor ruled me to be "stupid," and thus required me to repeat high school, or worse, junior high school. And I would feel humiliated...but the kids there only made fun of me for being "old," which really didn't bother me at all. Even though I'm easily now twice their age. And repeat high school was always so....easy.
Dreams common with other people, but that I generally haven't had, include being chased, searching for a specific place, having to pee but there being no suitable toilets (which I've had maybe once), eating lots of delicious foods (I'm going to guess these people are dieting), and suddenly being famous.
The psychologist, Dr. Calvin Kai-Ching Yu, also said that psychotic thinking was far more common in dreams than in people's waking environment. Believing that a famous person is in love with you despite any evidence to the contrary is, in waking life, a disorder called Erotomania, which suggests we keep you away from this person before you hurt that person or yourself. But in dreams, at least half the people worldwide have that experience. Dr. Yu said that psychotic-thinking based dreams are actually the most common kind, and that draws some interesting questions. Could many mental disorders actually stem from a damaged ability to tell dreams from waking experience? (And I can't tell you how many times I've woken up convinced of something, only to realize that it couldn't possibly be true.)
The most surprising thing about this is the way that people from different cultures have almost exactly the same dreams. One would think that, say, French and American and Hong-Kong-ian people would have different dreams because their waking lives are so totally different. What those three people would chose to wear, and do, and deal with other people, and eat, and so on, are all totally different. Then they all go to bed and have a dream where their teeth fall out. That is the weirdest thing I have heard all month.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ant Hunting

I've had a long running war against ants. They're an annoyance that seeks to steal my food, damages the house foundation, and occasionally bites me during the night. The usual way to deal with them involves dumping neurotoxins disguised as food on their nests. They eat it, share it, and all collectively die. Especially the queen ant, who is more literally "mommy ant." Without her, the last ant of the colony dies of old age, squishing, or being eaten in short order.
A big annoyance, however, is that I can only really find their nests after they've built up a bit. A small ant nest goes completely unnoticed. Until they build up to extreme irritation levels.
Biologists have successfuly reverse engineered the chemical signals that ants use to navigate, so I'm tempted to get their "ant pencil," which traces lines not of graphite, but of "food" signal, and leading them to a big pile of the neurotoxin. They won't be able to resist. Muahahahaha!!!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Space Internet

People love the internet. Especially astronauts. You can get all kinds of practical information, keep in touch with family, and there are countless amusements for the boring parts. Just one problem: It's hard to get off-planet. It's really hard in high earth orbit, and past about the moon or so, just plain outright impossible. TCP/IP, the backbone of the internet, would literally time out before signals could reach, say, Mars, even when Mars is at its closest. To say nothing of the return trip. My Mars base is ruined!
NASA does have a solution that they call DTN, which they use in the space station and other orbital places. DTN has a much much much longer timeout. If you're patient, you could run signals as far as you need to. And this gives me an idea.
A DTN over radio link connects a caching computer to the Internet...by downloading all the pages it can get a hold of, transferring email, and uploading new pages and transmissions (such as, say, blog posts), and storing this. It would transmit once per day. Space stations or other planets now receive the internet via the caching computer. Admittedly, every page in it is, on average, a day old, but it is as it appeared on Earth yesterday, and it would work at area network speeds (100Mbs is cheap, and 10,000 Mbs is...available.)
This way, people in space can look up things on wikipedia, or write blog posts, or upload the Mars vacation photographs to their blog. From their perspective, the Internet just doesn't update very often, but it still works. And back on Earth, you might get notification late, but you will get it. It's the best I can think of without, you know, altering the speed of light.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Leaf Hunting Robot

In the forest, when leaves fall to the ground, small animals tend to eat them, and if the leaf escapes that, the worms get them. Ultimately, the nutrition that went into the leaf is returned to the forest as a whole. Nature is one big cycle. We like trees too, but when those trees drop their leaves, as happens in the forest...well, the animals that would have eaten them aren't there. If nothing else, your fence is in the way. And nothing's trampling them into the ground where the worms can get them. Typically, you rake them up and throw them away, where they rot in a landfill somewhere.
I'm imagining a small robot. You active it at the beginning of fall. It wanders around your yard, looking for leaves. When it finds one, it shreds it, and buries the shreds in a convenient way. (Say, it injects it under the grass in a way that won't be readily apparent the next day.) The raking is done for you, and the worms benefit. When the worms benefit, so does the soil quality, which now has been aerated and fertilized, which the grass will appreciate. And the robot can't cost too much. You won't have to rake much. Only on the heaviest days. When the leaf fall stops, you can take your robot back into storage, or maintenance.
People's yards and spare time would both benefit.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Population Pressure

Governments and corporations would like there to be more people. More people means more money flowing about, and more power to be had, and everything just goes faster. Environmentalists would like there to be less. More people means more used resources. More displaced wilderness as we require more cities, more farms, more mining, more everything. And both sides would, I imagine, like to apply pressure. Most famously, earlier this week Iran's government suggested dialing back the marriage age as a way of encouraging growth.
I think a major factor in people's decisions about reproducing are about resources. Not the biggest factor. The biggest factor is personal attitude towards reproducing. Someone who thinks it's their duty to God to have more children will have more than someone who thinks it's a burden on the Earth's ever-dwindling resources. But resources plays a role too. When food and toys and housing and education are expensive, and work opportunities are few, children are going to feel like a luxury that one just can't afford. One feels that any children one brings into the world will be living a life of deprivation and want, never sure where their next meal is coming from.
Or, even connecting couples can be a problem. In societies that strictly segregate men and women, men and women tend not to know each other very well. One may want to start a family, but in this kind of society, one has no idea how to go about doing it. Maybe you could talk to your parents or friends about it, and maybe someone knows someone who knows someone who you can hook up with, but it does make it far less likely. And even if you do manage to meet, you're so unfamilar with each other's upbringings that you may very well develop a relational train wreck. In other societies, people are so shy that they don't connect well. It's hard to want to marry someone who's afraid to hang out with you, or tell you what they're really thinking.
So, should society encourage more or less reproduction, and if so...how?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Synthetic Hair

A number of charities allow you to donate hair. You wouldn't think hair would be useful, but the most common use is making wigs for little girls who have cancer. The treatment for cancer costs them their natural hair, and having a wig makes them feel more...normal...about the whole thing. For this reason, they want long hair pretty much exclusively. If the hair is too long for the recipient, she can always cut it. If the hair's too short...well, not much can be done about that. If hair isn't long enough for that, it's also proven well at absorbing oil slicks. Or it can be made into brushes.
All hair use, however, is just a little insufficient. We get a lot from haircuts, and from Indian widows who are required, for religious reasons, to shave their heads when their husbands die, but we need so much more. So it's time to look into substitutes. Doll hair uses nylon fibers, and kind of resembles hair good enough for a paint brush. Not quite good enough on a human being.The texture is vaugely wrong, and not quite bouncy enough. A better substitute can be found in animal hair. Horses have some very good hair for this purpose in their manes and tails, and angora rabbit's hair would be perfect if it could be gotten long enough. Either would be fine with being shaven in hot weather. In fact, horses often prefer it, as their natural mane has a way of getting dirty and tangled, requiring vigorous brushing. Ask a parent with a toddler what their child thinks of being brushed, horses are about the same about it.
I think the best solution, however, would be reverse-engineering the way that horse and rabbit hair grows, and producing an artificial version of the same, be it chemical or biological (grown in a vat). Then we'd have all the hair we want. Wigs? One for everybody. Insulation? Now with hair for extra creepiness! Oil slick? We'll drown it in nylon hair bags!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Zero, One, Infinity

The three most useful numbers to programmers are zero, one, and infinity. Let's talk about why: It's the number of times something is used. That something can be a program, a block of code, or a data object.
Zero and one are pretty straightforward. Zero, it's not coming up at all. We're skipping it, because it's irrelevant, because we're low on resources, or because we just don't want it. If it comes up and we tried to skip it, it's a bug. One, we're doing this once. One copy of your business proposal. One copy of your personal finances. One copy of the pipe-flow model so the oil company can prevent blowouts in the new well. One copy of the game you're playing. It runs alone, and other things must be prevented from altering it. So far so good.
By infinity, we don't mean the mathematician's infinity. That would require literally forever to run if we ran it in serial, and an infinite number of CPUs and RAM chips if we ran it in parallel. No, by infinity, we mean arbitrarily many until we run out of resources. If you can run two, why not three? If you can run 3, why not 5? If you can run 5, why not 100? If you can run 100, why not 1,000,000? And something interesting comes up here.
A good example of the infinity model was back in the days when the significant computers were mainframes owned by an institution, and used by hundreds of users. They had text editors to take notes, program, and a myriad other things that store as words. The first attempt was to have a separate copy for each user, but that used too many resources. Programmers had to consider what could be shared, and what couldn't. Obviously, users should not see someone else's text stream, but the code to, say, draw up the text on the screen was invariant, and only one copy was necessary. So they all shared those parts of the code, and only one was in memory.
As an example in modern computing, take your media player. You probably have more than one media file on your computer, be it a movie, a song, or a MIDI sequence. It's quite rare that a media player requires your to load up the files one by one at the time you want to hear them, but more likely that it maintains a playlist. When you're tired of what's playing, you just press the 'next' button, and it goes to the next song in the list. The playlist is the infinity model, you can add songs to it until you run out of resources. Probably the hard drive fills up, and no more media can be obtained. It's not likely that your playlist grows so large that you run out of RAM to store it all, since the playlist is fairly compact, being only a pointing to the file name of the media, which it can load up quickly when indicated.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Automated Data Entry

made this myselfImage via Wikipedia

Data entry is a frustrating job with little intellectual satisfaction, and practically a guarentee of carpal tunnel syndrome and other sore finger problems. It requires a clerk to be given reams of paper on a subject, and he or she must type them into a computer, quickly and accurately. Quickly because another shipping crate of paper is coming tomorrow, and because the computer can't really help with this problem until it has the data on hand. Regular saving is a must, as is passing this now computerized data over to IT to plug into the number crunching machine proper.
If one asked me to automate it, I would first start with OCR technology. OCR can, given a scanned page, translate the pixels into words. The reliability is pretty good if one can guarentee that the paper was scanned perfectly straight, and the original page's handwriting is reasonably legible. A mechanical arm would place the paper in the scanner, activate the scanner, and pass the result to an OCR program, and the data entry clerk's job is now reduced to verification. Any words missed or copied erroneously must be fixed, but it's easier than typing out everything by hand.
Of course, this is all expensive and difficult, which is why they pay you to do it.
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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Traffic Tech

I was born in Los Angeles, a city with miserable amounts of traffic. Every rush hour, the entire city comes to a standstill, because there are too many cars on the road and they are in each other's way. The slightest slowdown anywhere in the traffic grid makes slow-moving, congested, stop and go traffic lines that go on for miles and miles. A traffic engineer once told me that traffic jams like that start when there is over a critical threshhold of cars, and one of them goes slower than 35MPH on the highway. (That would be 20 - 30 MPH under the limit, a significant slowdown.) Often, this is an accident, reducing at least two cars to 0 MPH and other cars around it to speeds under 20MPH as they slow or stop to gawk.
Most of China's cities are even denser than Los Angeles, and can suffer traffic jams that are longer than the city itself. So there's a big effort to push some of this traffic to busses, trains, and subways. And now on top of that, busses just got a big improvement. Busses may just be one very large car, but it's one very large car that takes so many people around that 30 or 40 other people aren't driving a private car. So it reduces traffic slightly. The new busses from China are raised above the street with a hollow first floor that cars can drive right through. Busses and their perpetual stopping are no longer a source of traffic jams. If the bus isn't going fast enough for you, you can drive right under it. If the bus stops to pick up passengers, you'll go right under it and no one on the bus will notice. The people are still transferred about...but as far as the cars below are concerned, it's like it's not even there.
I'm now thinking, what else can we do to alleviate the traffic problem? Near Los Angeles there's a really great light rail system, but it stops short of the city where'd be useful. Why? Taxi lobby bitched and the city caved. It would be helpful if that would be extended, perhaps into a subway system? And speaking of subways, if we build a tunnel highway beneath existing ones, we'd have twice the capacity in the same space.
But to really solve the problem, we'll need some sort of transportation that's completely different altogether.

Friday, November 19, 2010


Minix is the Unix-like operating system that inspired Linux in the first place. It's a very tiny microkernel based OS, written primarily to teach the design of a Posix-compatible operating system. Since then, it's had some rewrites, and is now capable of operating your home computer. They would like some additional driver support, and offer their OS with a BSD license, which allows you to do...pretty much everything except claim you wrote it or sue.
When I tried it out, I was expecting a repeat of my horrible experience with HURD, but Minix was different. Yeah, they're both microkernel Unix-alikes, but Minix was far less fragile. Everything ran. Everything ran reasonably fast. There was extra software, and it installed without the usual whining and carrying on from the OS, and nothing broke when I installed something else. Everything just flat out worked. Part of the reason for this may be the "reincarnation server" that keeps copies of critically important programs, and can kick-start them again if something makes them stop working, whereas in other microkernel operating systems, a failure in anything critical means you're restarting. It was a Linux-like experience....but slightly faster, because all the code was smaller. Sweet.
On the downside, Minix insists on its own weird little partitioning scheme, which confused me. I also dislike the bootloader, in which a mini-os loads before the main OS and requires your intervention, whereas other unix-likes can be left alone until login time. That was kind of annoying. I also worry that if I screwed something up, that I'd be permanently locked out of the system. In Linux systems, I do have ways to break back in and take back my files if the OS screws up. Or, more likely in Minix's case, I forget my passwords.
I feel like it would make a great install-to-ram bootstrapping OS, but I can't find any documentation on how to do that. Oh well. My experiments on this were some time ago, so I've forgotten a lot about it since then.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sea City

70% of the earth is covered by ocean. It's wet and salty, and only really populated with life in the shallows near the continents. Further offshore in the deep, life lacks the shelter to survive, so there's just an endless expanse of water. On the depths below, there is darkness, as the ocean has absorbed all light, and a sand-and-rock bottom. I have a plan to make this...useful. I wrote about it once before, so let's see
Using construction submarines, we build a large and hollow structure, and use cans of strongly compressed air to purge it of water. The structure will need a semipermiable membrane filter, to filter seawater into drinkable water, a submarine airlock, so people can reach it, and be divided into rooms. This is now an undersea city. It can be sold to the nearest nation....or an exploratory sort of person to found a new one, if it's far enough away from the others. The city will need electric power for lighting, some sort of commerce or hydroponics for food, and some plan to deal with the brine and wastewater. (They could be taken to treatment plants onshore with pipes, or they could be just flushed back out to the ocean at large.)
A better still idea would be an underground tunnel at the bottom, below even the surface, with rail and road lines that lead to the nearest on-land nation. Better than that would be to connect to the nearest several, thus becoming a transit hub. Air would flow through the tunnel, as would trains and cars carrying goods and people. The self-sufficiency of the sea city would be greatly improved. And you wouldn't need the expensive and difficult submarine lock anymore.
Last time, I suggested windows. These would be, from the point of view of the inhabitants of the city, useless. In the kinds of locations where this would be most plausible, there isn't enough light to see anything. It's dark 24/7, because the ocean above absorbed all the light that falls on it. Windows would only be interesting ecologically, as there could now be an ecosystem that starts with plants living on the light that leaks out sea city's windows. What plant could endure the pressure? Not many. The windows would be as helpful as your house's windows are on a dark and moonless and cloudy night. You can see your own reflection...and not much else.
I predict this will gain little traction until it becomes necessary. Already, every scrap of land on Earth is claimed by some nation or other, but many nations have large empty tracks. If these fill, perhaps offshore colonies may be considered, but no one's going to bother before. Perhaps a bunch of wealthy libertarians might like to do this, as it would leave them free of existing governments and rules as well as being hard to invade. Perhaps a displaced group might want to find some place, any place, where they won't be persecuted, and this is one of many possible solutions. Perhaps a group fond of solitude might do this to shut themselves off from the rest of the world.
Nah, not likely.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Learning By Doing Theory

There's little demand for inexperienced workers. Almost all companies want to hire workers with prior experience in their field, to minimize training expenses, and to start productive working immediately. This leads to the extreme environment I have been seeing for the past year where many companies won't even bother with a person who isn't already working in their field, and all companies demand prior experience. Those with little to none, like myself, where left with a catch-22 of requiring the experience to even get the experience required. This had to be frustrating for the companies too, who keep wondering why the figurative watering hole has been permanently dried up. (Like most professions, IT workers like me do not spring fully formed from Zeus's forehead!)
I think the entire system would benefit from workfare. People would be paid to do things, thereby getting the money to raise them out of poverty, but more importantly, they would have experience that would make them more attractive to hire in the first place. Companies would gleefully hire up the workforce bunch, who have prior experiences doing what they want and can be laboring productively starting immediately, and the training expenses have already been handled. The paying government would also benefit of progressively shrinking welfare rolls as the petitioners get snapped up into the workforce and the economy recovers.
However, for this to work, workfare would have to revolve around all sorts of industry's work, without stepping on that industry's toes by competing. We do need shovelers and road crews to fix our roads, but having done that doesn't benefit any industry. If the government did manufacturing, engineering projects, and IT, three industries with large demand for the foreseeable future, wouldn't companies that do manufacturing, engineering, and IT complain about the competition? (Yes, undoubtedly.) So the government would have people manufacture build and program systems....that would be thrown in a hole and forgotten. Not good for the morale of the workers, nor would the government really benefit from the results of that.
A better idea are institutions like NASA. NASA has a massive crew of engineers with numerous skills that almost any company would want to hire, but it focuses on something that companies can't yet do profitably for themselves -- space travel. (Space engineering is extremely expensive, and won't be profitable until we figure out some way to keep the expenses down.) So a workfare engineering facility would have to manufacture things that are useful to the government, but not profitable for private companies to make. Specialized tools for the CIA, perhaps. And government IT would have to focus on programming and maintaining computer systems that are somehow unprofitable for private contractor work. I can't think of any of these offhand, but I'm sure they exist and the NSA readily knows what these sorts of things would be.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Menthol is a hydrocarbon extracted from peppermint that gives the impression of coldness when in contact with human skin. It does not actually lower temperature, but does soothe irritation (which feels hot without providing an actual temperature increase). Chemists have recently begun to find other compounds with similar properties.
The most insidious use of menthol has been in cigarettes, which provide a cold sensation while smoking. The menthol soothed the irritation that the tar and other cigarette ingredients provided, and left the smoker with the feeling of cold air with every breath, even while breathing warm and muggy air. It also tended to conceal the effects of smoking for a few years. Not cure, but conceal.
Now, chemically, there are a few reactions that genuinely remove heat. Chemists call this property "Endothermic," and such reactions speed up in a hot environment, and slow down in a cool one. The reaction stops when all of the products have reacted.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Stocked from the back

If I had a grocery store, I think I'd set it up that the behind-the-shelf area was hollow, and accessible from the basement. Clerks would stock the goods from the back, the way the milk refrigerator usually is. This would happen perpetually, so all you'd notice is that the supply of goods on the shelf never seems to run out, no matter how much people are buying it. There's probably some reason that supermarkets don't do this, but I can't think of what it is this morning.
Also, why don't supermarkets ever have a second floor? (Okay, many of them do have an upstairs office for administrative purposes, but the customer-accessible area is all on ground floor.) Stairs would be a bad idea, since most shoppers now use carts, but a ramp up to the top would work. Stores could have more selection on less real estate. What, are people too lazy to push a cart up a ramp?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Hikkikomori City

"Hikkikomori" is a culturally-specific psychological syndrome, affecting only people of Japanese cultural upbringing. People with this condition are withdrawn and fearful of interacting with other people, and tend to live in their parents basement well into old age. They tend not to work, shrink from education, and spend all of their time on hobbies, much to the great irritation of everyone around them. The closest way to describe them in western psychology terms would be a mix of Agoraphobia (they do not wish to leave their homes at times), avoidant personality disorder (they really don't want to interact with anyone besides their families), Autism (they tend to have very narrow, obsessive hobbies, and again the not fitting in with society thing), and extreme shyness (they find even talking to a shop clerk to buy something unbearable). Japanese psychologists claim there are up to 1 million such people in Japan. Their parents all wish they'd just move out and get a goddamn job already.
I'm imagining a city, built beneath a mountain, and having space for up to 1 million people. A train, subway style, connects this city to the rest of Japan. The city is made of little rooms cut from the stone, and has electricity, water, and Internet. There are many gloomy apartments, perfect for Hikikomori hobbies. And living here has...conditions.
For one, people living here will be charged rent. You can earn it with psychological studies on re-socializing the Hikikomori, or, we'd have a number of jobs that don't require dealing with the general public. (Socializing tends to be easier for 'Hikki" people if the other person is also one. For one, there's a greater chance of empathy in the encounter.) Many jobs would revolve around things the person could do in a small room by them-self, like programming, art, industrial design, or assembly of small objects (which would arrive and be sent back by pneumatic tube). The most extroverted position available would be store clerk, who would sell things to people feeling particularly brave that day. (I predict most goods would be sold by vending machine.) Most contact would be by internet and telephone, which these kinds of people tend to be more comfortable with than face-to-face contact.
The train would regularly go back to surface Japan, so that people could visit their famlies, and hopefully, report an improved quality of life. Japan would probably want to regularly send in psychologists, both to study the disorder and to provide therapy to make people able to function outside this little city beneath the mountain.
If this existed, it would also test a theory popular with Japanese psychologists, that "Hikkis" are the way they are because they have different ideas about independence, interdependence, and the self, which subjects them to intense bullying in Japanese society, which makes them socially withdraw. If this theory is true, then "Hikki City" would thrive. If they are, like western psychologists suspect, just really obsessive agoraphobics with varying degrees of autism, then I think "Hikki city" residents would tend to not pay their rent until forced to move back to their family's home in shame.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cockroach Hunter

Cockroaches are the blight of many an urban area. They feast on our food and garbage, and quite sturdy against many biological threats, and few things are willing to eat them. Also, they're gross and they smell bad. So, they proliferate, to our great annoyance. Usually, we try to poison or trap them, with some tricks proving more effective than others.
I'm imagining either a robot, or a specifically bred animal, that seeks out and consumes cockroaches for power. If it were a robot, it would need a bacterial digester to turn the roaches into power. (Animals have a digestive system that turns what they eat into ATP and carbohydrate chains that they can burn for energy.) If it were a robot, it would be programmed with roach-like habits, like avoiding light, and tracking pheromones. If it gets too much power, probably it can go plug itself into the wall, and save you a few cents on your electricity bill. An animal version would, if it fed well, attempt to breed, which we clearly want to encourage. Answers.com suggests that a good starting point for a professional cockroach predator would be the gecko, a small lizard with an immense hunger for insects.
I would want to make this cheap enough to drive roaches into near extinction in cities that expressed interest in this. Cockroaches would continue to survive, if they learned to avoid human settlements. (Already cockroaches know to avoid flickering lights, as this means that a human is coming with things like squishy shoes, poisons, and possibly assistant animals like cats and geckos.)

Friday, November 12, 2010


Defragmentation is a useful thing to have on traditional style hard drives. It moves around your data so that it's contiguous, which makes it read and write faster. Fragmented data has been broken into little chunks around your hard drive (because that's all the room there was available at the time), and to operate it, your computer has to play a "choose your own adventure" game from hell, hopping to various sectors to get every little bit.
However, a badly fragmented drive takes hours to fix up. While one can, on more recent OSes, schedule the defrag to run overnight, and leave your computer on, more likely people ignore this until the computer is slow as hell, and then wonder why. When the resulting defrag takes more than 24 hours, they're kind of upset.
More recent filesystems note that one does not constantly write data to the disk, and spends spare moments passing a file around the disk to defragment it. This is called online defragmentation, and it's so efficient that you don't notice it. (Unless you're constantly downloading huge files via your impossibly fast optical fiber connection, but people who do that probably have their own ways of dealing with it.) With online defragmentation, fragmentation never gets a chance to get seriously started, because ignoring it for a few seconds tends to schedule it for defragmentation. A few microseconds later, and it is defragmented.
However, there is one kind of drive that fragmentation is not a bad thing. SSD drives are not a magnetic platter like traditional drives. They are a large connection of Flash EEPROM chips. The drive can get any part of the data on it equally fast, no matter how many pieces it's in. The main downside is that the information can only be changed so many times before that particular chip just plain breaks down. Defragging an SSD drive only prematurely ages the disk for no apparent gain. Other technologies, like load balancing and TRIM, keep the disk lasting longer, and the user will want to use a filesystem that uses these technologies. SSDs tend to be smaller and more expensive, so are primarily useful for things you want to load often and change little, like the operating system and executable files. Your main data would be stored on another, more traditional, disk.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


Traditionally, most philosophers taught that to be is to do. Your actions are determined by your innermost nature, bolstered by your experience, and what you have become from that, you continue into the future with your actions. From this innermost being, everything was implied: preferences, morality, potential. Then, suddenly, everything got flipped on its head.
Existentialist philosophers like Sarte and Camus taught that to do is to be. Your inner nature has more to do with the sum of the choices you made. If you act differently, then eventually it leads you to becoming a different person altogether. You can be the change you want to see in the world, and watch it bend slowly. And on the flip side, your entire life is as pointless as Sisyphus, and not even killing yourself will give it meaning. Oh shi-
On the flip side of this, since to do is to be, if you give your life a meaning of your own, it will be more meaningful than if this meaning was imposed upon you from outside. We were free to invent the best of natures for ourselves, because we had no nature. You're free.
Now, there are a lot of people worldwide who don't like the idea of freedom. With freedom comes responsibility. When things go wrong around free people, it's their own fault. A lot of people want to be protected, and damn the cost.
And yet, as a free person, your meaning came from you alone. You'll never have a crisis of faith. And no one can make you feel inferior without your definite consent.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Inspiration Machine

Did you know that there are "writing prompts" that help you come up with topics? There are ones for bloggers like Squidoo's, Creativity Portal's imagination prompt, or even one from Writer's Digest, which sounds very prestigous.
They won't work for me. Every single one produces prompts that could never ever ever come up in the context here, all about insane ideas to make the world better. Let me go grab one now:
It has often been said, “Ignorance is bliss,” and “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.” Do you agree with these statements? Why or why not?
Ignorance is bliss insomuch as what you don't know about, you don't worry about. It's one reason why intelligent people tend to be unhappier on average: they can imagine way more ways for everything to go totally wrong. When I was a child, I didn't know about economy, or chemistry, or nutrition. I ate when I was hungry, slept when I was tired. I can't live like that anymore. When I was a young child, I thought it was stupid that commercials often advertised drinks as "100% juice." I could see juice for sale in a million different places, and I didn't see anything special about it. What was this non-juice that could possibly be so terrible? Clearly, advertising "100% juice" meant you were less creative than your competition. Now that I'm an adult, I know. If it's not juice, it's probably ultra-cheap sugar water with some flavoring added so you don't feel completely ripped off. The sugar water will, of course, contain none of the vitamins, minerals, or phytonutrients in juice, but will rot the kids teeth just the same.
On the other hand, what you don't know can and probably will hurt you. If you deny the law of gravity and step off a cliff, you still fall. If you deny seeing the stop light and run through it, you still get a traffic ticket. If you don't know that pressing the button will result in the floor receiving a 10,000 volt charge that will promptly fry you, that doesn't protect you either. If you get hurt because you were unaware of something, the universe rarely does anything other than stop to point and laugh at you. If not knowing truly protected you, then we should ban schooling and live forever as a nation of invincible imbeciles.
It makes a big friction when I read, say, H.P. Lovecraft, who believed that some information was clearly bad for your sanity to learn. His stories are chock full of characters suffering harmful stimulation. This seems patently ridiculous to me -- the only harmful stimulation I know is too intense for your sensory organs, damaging them by excess. Light so bright it burns your retinas, sound so loud that it bursts your eardrums, or touch so hot that you burn your fingertips off. And there are precautions to protect you if you know that this kind of thing is going to happen. When you shoot a gun, it's extremely loud, so you wear ear protection. Wear special sunglasses if you're going to stare at the sun. I also thought when Lovecraft went on his inevitable rants about "the thing that mankind was not meant to know," that he was being a pretentious jackass. (Okay, so this kind of thing is essential to the cosmic horror genre. Everything's out to get you, even if that doesn't make sense.) I know some terrible secrets about the universe, but I can tell you, and you won't go insane:
1. Space is so large as to be practically infinite, and may be truly infinite
2. All but an iota of this is incredibly hostile to Earthly life, such as humans. There is no air. There is intense radiation. There is a distinct lack of gravity. Unless you protect yourself from these things, you die.
3. Therefore, the universe was not made for us. We live in a bubble of unusual properties, vastly different from the norm.
4. Also, most of the universe is indifferent to our existence, and probably not aware, even if parts of it are able to think (ie: aliens)

Still with me? Still sane? Suck it, Lovecraft.

So, if I can't use writing prompts, how would I inspire myself?

I have an idea of a program that, mad libs style, throws together common keywords, combining them in strange and unexpected ways. Most of these will be stupid. (Chemical house sewage pants! Umm...no thanks.) Occasionally, one will be brilliant, and then I can go write about that. And sometime when I have spare time, maybe I'll actually write this program. What language should I use? Python? Perl?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Two links

I'm still worn out from the hunt. In the meantime, two things for you to read about:
TwoYaks of Alaska has some good advice for preparing yourself for winter. It's going to be a cold one this year, but if you're prepared, it'll be less bad for you.
A British electronic engineer has made a Z80 based laptop, able to run all the old programs and games, and made entirely by hand. Damn. He even wrote his own OS for it. Now that's dedication to hand crafting.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Performance Metric

In programming, people have to assemble instructions on how to get a computer to do something. Complex tasks can take years of time, and it's not always clear how long things are taking. Managers of programmers therefore love to take measurements. Most commonly, they measure the number of lines of code that have been written. More code, more information, therefore more progress, right?
Well, not exactly. You want a certain way of doing things, and an efficient program will do it with less code. (Because computers run instructions per second, and if you have less instructions, then it runs faster, see?) Many programmers love to lampoon their bosses insistence on measuring progress by lines of code, most famously Bill Atkinson's recording of the removal of 2000 unnecessary lines of code, which promptly threw his manager's metrics into a tizzy. The story ends with his managers never asking for this particular measurement ever again.
So, what are some better measurements?
* Features vs. Bugs
Good code offers a number of features that make the software attractive. It also has few bugs, code that doesn't work properly or has unexpected results. The more features and fewer bugs are found in the program, the more progress has been made.
* WTFs per minute
Have someone who isn't the original programmer read the code. The less confused they are by it, the better. ("WTF" being an abbreviation for a particular something a person who is confused or dismayed would say.) Now, admittedly, some of the most genius programming is still immensely confusing, but code that is hard to read or understand is harder still to maintain. Maintenance is necessary, because sometimes assumptions that were valid last year are invalid today. Tax laws change every year. The year 2000 problem emerged from 1970s era computers having code that assumed it would be changed in 30 years. (It wasn't changed until practically the last possible second.) Architecture changes over time too. My computer today is 64-bit, and all values have twice as much space available. If I specified an "word" sized variable on my older 32-bit computer, I'd be able to store numbers from 0 - 65,536, but on my newer computer, now I can store numbers from 0 to 2,147,483,647. Twice as much memory is used. If I ran the Fast Inverse Square Root code (a confusing but genius algorithm) on my computer today, everything it handled would be wrong. Why? The variables that were correct in 1995 now no longer line up correctly. The constants are now wrong. Everything would have to be re-aligned to work again.
* Customer Satisfaction
Most code is written for people who aren't programmers or mathematicians, to help get their work done. The author of a simulation suite says that good software is like a butler, in that it solves your problems, cleans up your messes, and then escapes your notice as it prepares to help you again. So good code would be fun and helpful to use, and the tester is absorbed and not complaining. Bad software would have the tester frustrated and screaming, complaining about a thousand different things. Ideally, this would carry over to the eventual end user buying and being very satisfied with the software.

Can you, my readers, name a better way to measure the development of something abstract as software?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Redoing Signs

Street signs are important. They tell you what street you're on. They tell you about changes in the rules, like speed limits, where to stop, and about when the road changes, like the addition or subtraction of lanes.
Some signs around the country are worn. Having been in the ultraviolet glare of the sun, enduring erosion from wind and rain, their bright and vibrant colors have faded. The sign becomes dull and hard to read. It would be cheap to replace it...if you could get there. Signs are printed metal from silk screen, and not terribly expensive. Especially in bulk.
Along with my proposal to rebuild the roads, I think we should replace the signs. With power tools, we remove the bolts that held the old sign in place, we then hold the new sign in place and bolt it in place. We should have a new supply of bolts in case the existing one gives us any trouble, or is in any way rusted or deteriorated.
This would give jobs, and make the roads so much nicer to drive on. Surely that has some economic value.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Embedded DNS

DNS servers are a very simple computer that must be online and connected to the Internet 24/7. You can make it do other things too, but the important thing is that it's able to direct people who ask about your domain to your computer, even if they ask at obscure times like the very early hours of the morning. DNS is simple work, so most people make these computers do other work for them as well, like email gateways, load balancing, or some other task.
Computers use electricity to stay on. But not in the same amounts. A computer with an overclocked, top of the line processor, a massive RAID array, and deep deep banks of ram is going to use significantly more power than a budget CPU at factory set speed with a "green" hard drive. Electricity costs money. Not much, but it adds up over time.
I'm imagining a very simple embedded computer. It uses a very low power CPU. It has a modest amount of RAM. It has a flash drive with a basic OS and DNS support and configuration. And it has a robust network card. With a 5V DC connector, I store it in my local ISP's closet, where it can easily get power and bandwidth. It doesn't need hard drives. It doesn't need a monitor. It has no moving parts, and will gleefully point people to your servers for years and years and years.
The cost to run this thing is minuscule. we could get the cost of them down to maybe $80 at most if we print a lot of them, and that's assuming a proprietary CPU architecture like ARM. ISPs could store entire closets full of them for all their customer's hosting needs. Just one problem.
I can either make it reconfigurable on the fly, or I can lock it down so that it's hard to alter. If I make it hard to alter, then you'd have to go to your ISP's closet to change it, which is a pain if you have to make a lot of changes. (Changes like new domains, moved your computer to a new IP, or whatever.) If I make it able to take your connection from your desk PC, then it's so much more convenient, but runs the risk that someone may be able to hack your password, spoof being you, and poison your information with fakes. Suddenly, your website redirects to l33t Bob's house of hackery, cleverly disguised as your company's website and stealing your customer's information for nefarious purposes!
I could compromise and allow it to only connect from one IP, and require a special encryption key to do so.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Delaware Race

At the time that I wrote this, two people were vying to become Delaware's 2nd senator. The Democratic party were running Christopher Coons, the Republican party were running Christine O'Donnell. The previous holder of the position, Ted Kaufman, is not seeking another term.
In the debates, both were quite disappointing. Both candidates showed a remarkable ignorance towards the first amendment. Ms. O'Donnell asserted, as many fundamentalists believe, that the separation of church and state was externally imposed by court decision, and challenged anyone to show her that this principle is in fact in the constitution. Mr. Coons challenged her on this, but was then unable to mention any of the other protections of the first amendment. (Right to free speech, right to free press, right to redress the government, right to peaceable assembly.) Both have shown a shocking ignorance of the nation that they hope to regulate.
As for Ms. O'Donnell's assertion, she will be quite pleased to hear that the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear literally in the constitution as such. However, the concept exists from the first amendment's statement that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that amendment, later wrote a letter describing his intention to have a "wall of separation between church and state," using those exact words.
Further connecting this, after the Barbary Wars, fought by the generation of Americans who founded the country, we signed the Treaty of Tripoli with the Barbary States. The treaty had 12 components, and in number 11, we assured them that we would not attack them for being Muslims:
As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.
"Mussulmen" and "Mahometan" being the 18th century way of describing Muslims. Essentially, we assert to being a secular nation that has no beef with Islam. I would further remind Ms. O'Donnell that treaties bear the same weight legally as the constitution itself.
The founders did seek to prevent what they saw as the abuse of religion at the time, in which the Church of England was quite embedded in the English government, and enforced its decrees with the force of the nation. They also felt that this diminished the honor of religion, especially when it became involved with the usual petty disputes that nations have to deal with. (Who owns the house on 1329 Main Street?) Someone always went away mad. To give the church government powers, in their minds, suggested that it was so weak that it would not survive on its own merits.
Since I wrote this, Delaware elected Coons instead of O'Donnell, by about a 16% margin.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Hormone Cleanup

Earlier this week, I pointed out that human activity has been putting hormone-like chemicals into the water. Don't panic. Discovery news has a solution.
Alfalfa and similar grasses absorbs this pollution, and is not often eaten by humans. Rabbits breed fast enough that we could have a disposable batch of rabbits to eat this, live their short lives, and produce pelts when they end. Running it through the alfalfa partially breaks it down, and feeding that alfalfa to rabbits will break it totally down. In theory, the rabbits would be safe to eat. (In practice though, I think they will wind up as dog or cat food.)
And if water treatment plants need to include a small alfalfa farm, I think they could do this. Water would be so much cleaner, for very little added cost.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Central Vacuum

There is an existing system in which a building maintains a vacuum chamber, from which all air has been forcably removed. This leads to ports. connecting a hose to the port makes it work like a vacuum cleaner: material is forced into the hose with air pressure, about 14 pounds per square inch.
This may seem like a lot of work considering that vacuum cleaners already exist. However, with an average level of vacuuming, the chamber uses less energy, distributed through a longer period of time. It is easier to maintain, and several parts of the building can be cleaned at once. These advantages are promptly nullified if you do something like leave the ports open, which will require the vacuum system to run constantly.
Although this system already exists and can be found in all kinds of homes and businesses, I still think it's worth discussing.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Water Recycling, Historically

Human civilization uses a lot of water. We drink it directly, use it for cleaning, and pour tons of it on our plants for farming and gardening. It doesn't come from magic. We take it from nature. Various lakes and streams and rivers. (Though smaller sources like ponds tend to be a bad idea. The water gets stagnant and things start to grow in it.)
After we've used the water, it tends to be unappealing. If we washed things with it, it's now full of dirt and soap. It may contain sewage. In the old days, we'd just flush it straight back into the river. The river did tend to take it away where we never saw it again. We now know that all rivers eventually go to the ocean, and the ocean an only absorb so much before we get horrible blooms and such.
Since then, we've learned to chemically clean water. We add a material that sticks to the dirt and bacteria and soap and whatever other additives. We run it through sand and charcoal. We expose it to ultraviolet light to kill off what bacteria remains. The end result of this is cleaner than the water we got from the stream in the first place. And yet, it's been proven in Singapore and Australia, two places with a desperate shortage of water, that people are still grossed out by the idea of recycled water. (And yet all water is recycled. In nature, it's filtered by clay and such before flowing back to the river. The clay does a very good job, but it is quite limited in capacity. Put more than a certain amount of water through it and it just stops working at all.)
So if people won't touch this filtered water, the next best thing, and the thing that I'm 99% sure actually happens, is to return recycled water to nature. No more infected, polluted rivers. No more harmful algae blooms from detergent. And yet, this could be better.
Studies of river water with returned water show traces of pharmacology byproducts. The metabolic transformations of the pills people took, peed out, and survived the filtering process to return to the river. Sometimes they combine into hormone-like chemicals. News reports feminized frogs, where various pills combined to form a pseudo-estrogen, the frogs absorbed this and feminized.
I suppose the only way around this is to find a better purification system. The only way I could be totallly sure would be to electrically separate the hydrogen from oxygen, and then burning the hydrogen to recombine them. (and condense the resulting steam, of course.) This is not energy efficient.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Easier Computing

Yesterday, I came across a young man ranting about how it doesn't make sense to him that Apple computer survives as a business. Their computers are quite expensive. They're quite limited. If you try to do something that Apple doesn't approve of, it'll tell you to sit down and shut up. Albeit more politely than that. Apple controls a small market share, one that hasn't grown after quite a lot of marketing.
Other people rushed in to tell him that his ideas were wrong. Apple has a distinct market, one that will gladly pay anything they charge. Apple products are quite flashy and fashionable, but most people buy them because they're easy. From the days of the first Macintosh, Apple invested a lot into psychology and marketing to find the most intuitive interface they could come up with. And it's very easy for a lot of people. Apple is primarily a hardware company, and only releases combinations of hardware known to work. This eliminates 99% of computer problems.
I think there's still ways to make it easier after that. People have proposed everything from webtop models, in which the computer is only a memory-managing OS and a web browser, and has fewer parts to fail or confuse, (A study showed we spend 99% of our time in web browsers anyway, which this model finds encouraging), to cartridge computing, in which different applications would be loaded from ROM-based cartridge(the way that old NES games were) giving a physical aspect to the computing.
Now, truthfully, I'd want a lot of psychological studies before I recommend anything. People are all different, and what's pleasing to one person is profoundly irritating to another. A webtop system is great if everything you do on a computer is on a web page somewhere. It's less great if you just want to do spreadsheets and have an unreliable internet connection. A cartridge system would drive someone who loses things frequently crazy when they inevitably lose a cartridge and now have to re-buy it. Ideas that we think are obvious in computing are often only obvious because we're familiar with them.
I'm curious about what that would discover.
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