Friday, December 31, 2010


I am not a smoker, but many of my coworkers are. Smoke breaks are super super common, and e-cigarettes are popular too, as they allow smokers to smoke at their desks. (Traditional cigarettes would set off the smoke detectors, as well as making the entire office smell like an old cigarette.) One of my coworkers I remember complaining that he had two e-cigarettes, and this used up his hands, making it somewhat difficult to smoke and work at the same time. (If I'm remembering right, this same guy goes through a pack and a half of cigarettes per day, and this goes up to two packs per day on stressful days.) He idly pondered if there was some mechanical way to help, and although I said nothing, the wheels of my mind were already at work.
I'm imagining a collar-like machine with two robotic arms attached, and the arms hold the e-cigarette. Or two of them. Upon a pre-conceived signal, which could be two blinks, or a shrug, or any other gesture that can be made while typing, the machine pops the e-cigarette into the user's mouth for a quick inhale. It then extracts the cigarette and moves it to the side so he can get back to work.
Such a machine would increase the productivity of my smoking coworkers, who can now get their nicotine fix while at work, and would probably improve their smell a bit. (I can tell when they've had a cigarette, because they come back from outside smelling like an old ashtray.) Unfortunately, I think it would deepen their nicotine addiction. To the point that they'd never really stop smoking. And nicotine is made by tobacco plants specifically to make insects that eat them die of heart failure. Then again, so is caffeine, and I've developed quite the coffee habit, I'm afraid.
I'll be sitting in a major certification exam today. A little nervous.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Freeway Redundancy

I used to live in Los Angeles. The Westernmost cities of the United States tend to have a grid shape where the terrain permits. There are a lot of advantages to a grid shape, one being that it's much much harder to get lost. Another is that one blockage can always be routed around. The Internet was built on this idea, though in practice it has a lot of choke points.
Then I ended up moving east. The easternmost cities of the United States tend to have roads based on cattle trails, so everything bends and curves around for no apparent reason. And one immediate thing I notice: There are ways around clogs, but they're not always direct. In fact, they often make little to no sense. Except New York. New York is a grid.
Most communication, including transportation, benefits from redundancy. When there's more than one way to do something, no blockage is genuinely possible. You can always go around. This is helped by GPS devices that know where you are, and where the roads are, and how your road can lead to your destination. This is helped more by ones that have live traffic reports, quickly showing to you to the fastest possible route.
Another theory says that traffic grows to fit road capacity.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Fiber upgrade

Most telecom in the united states was built in the 19th century for telegraphs, and later telephones. A massive network of copper wire enables Americans to call anywhere in the country, and getting a new telephone line is trivial even in rather rural regions. (It may be difficult far out in Alaska due to the's hard to get anything there, really.) This is the backbone of our internet access too now.
However, in much of the rest of the world, the telecom infrastructure was completely destroyed by wars. World War 2 basically burned the vast majority of Europe, and coastal Asia, completely to the ground, and everything was rebuilt from scratch. With much of these regions managing to maintain a high population density, it was profitable to rebuild this infrastructure with what was then the best technology available. And a difference shows.
In America, a $40/mo broadband connection willl give you maybe 1mb (megabit) per second, but a compare this to, say, a Swedish connection gives you 4mb per second for 25 euros ($32 USD?), and people are outraged because they think they should have 6mb/s. And that they should only have to pay 20 euros instead.
Part of the difference is population density. The denser people live, the more people can be connected with less wire, and the more profitable it is to serve them. Sweden's people mostly live in the southern portion of their country, where it's cheap to keep them connected, while America's population is deeply scattered across the entire continent, and the four largest cities are practically at opposite extremes of the country. (New York, America's most populous city, is practically in the northeast corner of the continental United States, and Los Angeles, the second most populous, is practically in the southwestern corner.) South Korea has a great telecom system....because it has a huge population in a smallish area. Koreans get on the Internet for super cheap because it's not too expensive for companies to provide this for them.
I think that the cost might go down quite a lot if we replaced a lot of our old copper installations with fiber optic. Fiber optic cables are mirrored glass strands that can transmit information by shining colored light down its length, and the light bounces down the strand to the destination. By using many colors, outrageous bandwidth can be achieved. Fiber optic is also very cheap once installed, as it requires very little maintenance. Glass, unlike copper, doesn't corrode.
I think this upgrade to our infrastructure would make Internet access cheaper and faster, but I don't see it happening on the grounds that people tend not to like to fix things that aren't broken.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


I have what I think is an interesting idea for a cold weather car. Cars generally drive through environments colder than their engine, even in the desert, though this will gain the most usefulness in the more freezinger parts of the world. The car would have pipes going all throughout its outer chassis. The pipes would be full of an antifreeze and water mixture, and would end on either side in a bypass valve.
In cold weather, the driver can flip a switch, to open the valve, and now circulate the coolant in the car around the entire body of the car. Much heat leeches out the top, into the driving compartment, and out the back. In cold weather, it'd feel nice.
The engine would also benefit. Gasoline engines work by heat exchange -- the more heat it can pump out, the more efficiently the engine works. Coolant would come in cold as can be, and the solid parts of the car would have fewer heat differences over time. With fewer heat differences, there's less thermal stress.
I think taking this car to a hot region, though, like a jungle or a desert, would be worse than a conventional car.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Defeating CAPTCHAs

Another coworker of mine mentioned to me that a hobby of his was defeating CAPTCHAs, and that instant, I realized that there were two completely different routes to do that. One social, and one technological. CAPTCHAs are, of course, a Completely Automated Public Touring test to tell Computers and Humans Apart. Those squiggly letters you're forced to enter to post on a forum, register new accounts, or whatever. They make them to prevent mechanical submissions, which get really annoying, really quickly.
The technological approach is to basically reinvent OCR, Optical character Recognition. OCR has gotten a lot of funding as a way of automating the conversion of paper documents into computerized ones, to gain the advantages of computerized documents -- easy transmission, copying, editing, and so on. An OCR approach analyzes the graphical elements to determine which letter they were originally, and enters that. Supposedly, really good ones can work with just a 3-pixel row.
The social approach is to decide that only humans are capable of reading the bent and distorted letters of a CAPTCHA and convinces them to do so. One common approach is to offer something in exchange, like file downloads, or pornography. There are plenty of people who will willingly do just about anything to get more of those things, including decipher letter puzzles. It's not as fast, but it is plenty reliable. After all, the goal of the CAPTCHA maker is not technically circumvented, a human being is solving each and every one of their little puzzles. Just...not in the way they had hoped. Social attack CAPTCHA are promptly cached and used to hammer the server with mechanical submissions.
My coworker, however, said he took the technological approach. He took pride in the quality of his OCR craftsmanship, boasting on his only requiring of the right three rows to totally guess the correct answer.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Auto Gaming

I think I heard this story a while ago, but now is the first time I actually remembered the address. An electronics engineer made a small device that automatically plays the game Guitar Hero, scoring better than any human ever possibly could, because it never makes mistakes.
Guitar hero is a "rhythym game," in which players use a plastic replica of an electric guitar to press buttons as they appear on a scrolling musical scale, in tribute to Bach's famous quote about musicianship: “I just press the right keys (buttons) at the right time and the organ does the rest. ” The guitar vaugely resembles the actual action of playing a guitar, in which a guitarist holds down some of the strings to change the effective length, and thus the pitch, of the vibrating string. Players of Guitar hero have about two seconds head-warning before they need to press the respective button.
Anyway, the machine receives a video signal, analyzes this signal, and uses it to determine when to send the button-push signal back to the game console. Two seconds is enough time for the computer to have completed its analysis, so the machine literally can't fail.
Why do this project? For one, it's an interesting look at video-analysis. Visual recognition is currently one of the weaker areas in computers. Show a computer a picture and it will interpret it only as a matrix of colors. Attempts to recognize pictures of people, useful for "We have a picture of a person walking into an airport. Is this person one of these people who are wanted criminals?" have been foiled by wearing different glasses, growing or shaving facial hair, or other things that wouldn't fool a human for even a second. There is big money, then, in getting computers to actually understand what it is that they are looking at.
For another, it's the "because I can" effect. Getting a computer to exactly copy a human action is an impressive boast.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

With peace on earth and good will to humankind.
Also, a psychotic machine made of drills and hacksaws in every driveway.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Cell Tower House

A coworker of mine has a very interesting idea: A house built upon a series of cellular towers. He's experienced with such technology, and knows it comes in various grades, and the strongest grades come with the ability to carry hundreds of tons up hundreds of feet. Perch a small house on four of them. This house is accessible by winch-elevator, which all cell phone towers have because the equipment can weigh over 150 pounds, and no human being is willing to carry that much up what amount to a ladder, by hand.
Slightly over one hundred feet in the air seems like a manifestly insane place to build a house, but there are a lot of good reasons for building it there. For one, it tends to have a good strong wind. Open the windows of this house in the summer, and a cool breeze banishes the excess heat. In the winter, keep it sealed up tight and the sun will pleasantly warm the complex.
For another, security. Cover the support legs in solar panels, and climbing the legs is now impossible. Only the winch elevator can get you in and out, and that you can key so that it only works in your presence (perhaps you have to enter a password to unlock it, or perhaps you need a physical key.) Burgle a house 100 feet in the air? Pffft. Burglers would move on to easier to enter structures. It's also safe in inclement weather: build it strong enough to endure a hurricane, and it's literally the best place in town in case of flooding.
Quality enginering is the key. It needs to start with an excellent base, one well-fit to stand strong and immobile in the local earth. It needs to be built of reasonably high tension materials that won't break when hit with 100MPH winds. It needs to be able to lift 400kg. (Let's say up to 200kg of people, about 3 or 4, and 200kg of cargo, like groceries, furniture, etc.)
For best results, it would also have batteries and pumps, so it could be relatively self sufficient.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Feed Speaker

I am subscribed to a lot of blogs. They have interesting content, and I'd like to be able to read them. I'm also strapped for time and really should exercise more. Something's got to give.
I'm imagining a device like an mp3 player. Only, instead of mp3s, it's loaded with text. Text that it loaded from my various feeds. I put on the headphones and hit play, and it reads me the news of the world in a synthesized voice. I can keep up to date with information...while jogging, lifting weights, or otherwise occupied.
This would probably be useful to other people too -- citizens of a democracy have to be well informed on current events, or democracy dies. In an increasingly time-strapped world, being able to do two things at once reasonably well is a welcome gift. I'm hoping that this leads to more news consumption than before, but somehow I doubt it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Part of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine in...Image via Wikipedia

Steampunk is an art movement stemming from alternative history -- what if Charles Babbage's differential engine had worked, kicking off the Information age in Victorian times? The result combines Cyberpunk -- a grim cybernetic future where hacking cyborgs struggle against evil governments and corporations with superior skill, with Victorian fashion and steam-era technology, to form some sort of weird retro-future hybrid.
This does lead to some unusual technology choices. Steam was the power source of choice in Victorian times. If something needed energy, a boiler was the usual way to do it back then. Steam was well understood. Electricity was known, but it was known so poorly that it was seen as semi-divine, and only a truly mad scientist would be willing to mess around with it. So to make your car or train go? Steam. You need your computer to send signals? Steam based valve. You need to power your factory? Steam.
So...some very interesting art comes from this. Much of today's technology could have been made in victorian times, although they would have made it in a very different style. Brass instead of plastic. More showing of mechanism out of technological pride, than hiding it out of aesthetic purity. How would the world have been different?
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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Watering Afghanistan

Japan and Algeria have a joint project going to make solar power plants that also refine solar cells from the desert sand. This would enable plants to effectively reproduce themselves -- haul the solar cells a few miles away, set them in a concrete lattice, and this is power plant #2. They hope to cover the Sahara desert in these power plants, which would provide half the energy needs of humankind. Here's the video:

This inspired another Japanese scientist to cut a deal in Afghanistan to bring water for humanitarian purposes, as well as sociological studies of the plausibility of this kind of thing. There's a video of that too except it's in Japanese and I can't find an English language version of it. Sorry. I'll report on the English language report that brought this to my attention.
It seems that his original plan was to make concrete rivers that slowly leech water into the surrounding environment, which encourages plant growth and fertility, which reinforces the river in a continuous positive feedback cycle. Japan has many concrete rivers due to paving over natural rivers (and then, to the bafflement of the rest of the world, claiming that the river is still in its natural state). So this technique would be quite familiar to him. Only...turns out concrete is kind of hard to buy and pour in Afghanistan. Too much disruption. So he changed the plan to use chicken wire and rocks. Afghans are often quite familiar with chicken wire for use in caging in domestic animals, and there's no shortage of rocks. Already a number of rivers have been built this way. First, make a box with chicken wire. Then fill that box with rocks. this is now the bank of the river. Make a bank all the way up a mountain, where one finds likely sources of water, and let the water flow. A small amount of the river's water leeches into the ground water, irrigating miles around it.
The scientist, Dr.Tetsu Nakamura, also likes this plan because it can now continue without him. Already Afghans have been trained in the basic techniques, and are now improving conditions in their own country on their own effort. If this succeeds, they will not need foreign aid, relief work, or any of the other usual solutions to poverty and want. And that's the way the charitable want it.
It was speculated that all this kicked off from a pun. Japan's native name for itself ("Nihon") translates to something like "Origin of the Sun," which leads Japanese people to think of the sun quite a lot, and makes them very enthusiastic about solar power. If this is true, then perhaps I should ask Chinese people for advice on geothermal energy, because their country's name translates literally as "Center nation."
(America is named after an explorer, and my country's full name is the United States of America because we're not very creative at coming up with national names.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Emergency Pie Vault

One of the funnier, if slightly dark, things in the comic FreeFall is the emergency pie vault. FreeFall takes place on a terraformed extrasolar planet, and one precaution taken when the planet was terraformed was an emergency food supply in case local agriculture failed. The emergency food supply takes the form of several jillion varieties of pie. FreeFall being what it is, you learn about it when some of the main characters get into a massive irrational pie fight using a tiny portion of its pies.
However, an emergency food supply strikes me as an excellent preparation. One can make a large amount of food in times of plenty, and have it immediately ready in case of disaster. South Korea recently had a major disaster in which heavy rains wiped out the local cabbage crop. Cabbage is the main ingredient in the national dish, Kimchi. Accordingly, the price of Kimchi skyrocketed, and all hell promptly broke loose. The difference has been made up with American cabbage, resulting in some slightly bizarre kimchi. If South Korea had a vault full of kimchi (which is fairly easy to pull off, kimchi is pickled and has a long shelf life), then this wouldn't have happened -- kimchi would be extracted from the vault and replenished next time to much cabbage was farmed.
This would have a secondary benefit of stabilizing crop prices, to the relief of farmers everywhere. In times that the crop is plenty, farmers sell their surplus to the vault. In times of famine, the vault is drawn upon, keeping consumers from starving. Everyone wins. Especially if the vault is in space that wouldn't otherwise be useful, like the bottom of an abandoned mine.
The stored food should be of high nutritional value and have a very long shelf life. Pie fails the first criteria.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Fruit Machine

Mentally-ill engineering can also be used for evil. In Canada shortly after World War II, there was a paranoid fear that homosexual people would infiltrate the government and do whatever things that right-wing homophobes think that gay people are plotting to do. As an attempt to counter this, a machine was invented for the supposed purpose of identifying gays, which was about as effective as modern polygraph or the Vietnamese war's famous "Magic Eye." That is, it worked because people thought it did and then their own paranoia gave them away. They called it the "Fruit Machine," "Fruit" being one of many slang terms for a gay person.
The device resembled a dentist's chair, and had a screen and a camera. The screen showed pictures. Some were neutral pictures of scenery, math, or some other thing that held no interest. Some were pictures of naked women. Some were pictures of naked men. A crank theory popular at the time claimed that a person's eye dilated when exposed to things of interest to the person, so if a man's eyes dilated for the naked men pictures and not the naked women pictures.....WHOOP WHOOP GAY DETECTED!!!! Same if a woman responded more to the naked women pictures.
Except that this whole thing was fatally flawed. Pupils dilate more in response to changes in light than to perception of objects of interest. So if the lightbulb on the ceiling happened to flicker while the thing showed you pictures of your gender, it falsely flagged you as gay. And many gays went undetected. The camera had to be off to the side to prevent it from interfering with the screen, which made it often report dilation when actually there was merely a reflection in the pupil. It also produced unpredictable results if the subject had larger-than-average pupils, because it measured dilation by the diameter of the pupil and didn't calibrate first.
The devices were all dismantled in the 1970s after withering criticism from all angles. The device was demonstrably faulty, not only from the engineering standpoint, but also technically and even ontologically as homosexuality was ruled by a number of psychological institutes as not being a mental illness, but a normal human variation. Small comfort to those who lost their jobs and were forever scorned because of the errors of a machine, but at least the abuse stopped there.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Brain Hacks

There is a birth defect that leads to people who have no sense of pain. They can handle hot frying pans without flinching. They can have their fingers viciously bit by animals without noticing. Awesome, right?
No, not awesome. The average life expectancy for these people is 17, because pain is actually a pretty good warning system against damage. People with the disorder have a nasty tendency to accidentally bite off their tongues, not notice that an object is too hot to touch until they have second (or worse, third) degree burns (and the first hint they get that it's too hot in the smell of burning flesh), and didn't learn lessons in childhood about dangerous things that get them killed, like that electrocuting yourself is a bad idea.
So when a woman recently lost her ability to feel fear to neurological disease, science was very interested. She is never afraid of anything. When she was taken hostage at gunpoint, she only became angry and upset and gave the gunman a thrashing. People who give her death threats are quite surprised when she responds with face-withering invective. And all this because something damaged her amygdala slightly.
If we reverse engineer what happened, it may come to pass in the future that we can turn off our own fear, something that militaries and police departments would surely pay huge amounts of money for. Same with the pain thing -- save bundles on anesthetic in any hospital. Just so long as you turn it back on again afterwards.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Barter Economy

Before there was money, people dealt with their desire for things they didn't own with trading. This allowed you to turn extra goods that you didn't want (let's say you're a cattle rancher. You would have lots of milk, cheese, and beef, but you'd be disappointed if you needed say a potato), into goods that you do want.
Now, there's a reason we stopped doing it this way. For one, you have to find someone who wants what you have, and has what you want. There's a famous German story about a group of Prussian officers trying to trade around their possessions, and some 62 trades have to be made to finally get everything they want. This is essentially the ancestor that famous red paperclip story in which a series of trades turns one ordinary, fraction-of-a-cent in value paperclip into a house, but has to do a lot of trades for things he didn't want in order to get there. Money, by contrast, is a singular store of value that I can trade for almost anything under the sun.
However, in the depression climate, Barter can be useful again. Many Americans have old, unwanted possessions from fatter times. What we need is money, and money is hard to come by, but I still think we can get what we want. By trading. Trade that old stereo that you're tired of to someone who has more booze that he can drink. Trade your old car to an enthusiast, who can give you, say, a new set of tools. No money traded hands, but as I understand Economics, all of this trading would make us all richer. Something we didn't want has been turned into something we do. And that thing need not be a good. There's no reason that services couldn't also be bartered.
See, wealth is not just dollars. Wealth is also having things that you want, and more importantly, need. A broken old car isn't wealth to you, unless you're a mechanically minded old car fan. A book on how to speak Russian isn't very useful...unless you need to learn to speak Russian. Maximize the wealth.
And when the depression ends, there's an even better thing you can do -- garage sale. You unload stuff that's worthless to you, in exchange for cold hard cash, and the people who bought it get it way cheaper than it would have cost new or in a secondhand store. Everyone wins, and that's pretty rare in Economics.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Chinese Room

Imagine that there is a room with a man, a device that can stop time outside the room, and a huge book. The huge book describes lists and lists of Chinese characters, and a good response to being shown particular sets of them. The man does not speak Chinese, nor can he grasp any meanings from their writings, but is otherwise reasonably intelligent and literate in whatever his native language is. The room also has a slot that can move letters in and out.
I take a friend who speaks one of the many Chinese languages (They're unified only by their form of writing), and I tell him, "Hey check out my Chinese-writing room. It totally understands Chinese." He doesn't believe me, but writes a message on a slip of paper. A minute later, the paper comes back out of the slot with a response. He reads the response -- it matches exactly what a reasonably intelligent Chinese-writing person would have written in response to what he wrote. "Huh, I guess your room does. Neat."
Now this is an abstraction of AI. Even if we do write AI, it will essentially work by having responses to stimuli that it applies deterministically. The program is the book, and the computer is the man. Many philosophers therefore argue that all AI can only provide the illusion of consciousness. After all, the computer (the man) doesn't understand what he's writing, but only writes what the book tells him. The book doesn't have any consciousness -- it's a thing. And the room doesn't have any consciousness, as it is a shaped chunk of plaster, wood, and metal. But I can make the argument that the system of the room, the man, and the book amounts to consciousness.
Consciousness after all is very mysterious, and we can only really observe our own. One philosopher said that it was like the only way we could know about beetles is if we each had a box, and were told that what was in the box was a beetle, and we somehow couldn't look in each other's boxes. There's a distinct possibility that different people could have different things in their boxes. Or that some boxes could even be empty.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I has a job

Good news, Readers. I'm working, which means that I get not to starve to death. Yay!
My employer is a preeminent ISP.
The bad news for you is that this sucks up lots and lots of time.
Still,yay, money, I can afford things.
I'm tired.

The Prisoner's Dilemma

The Prisoner's Dilema is an intellectual game with implications in the real world of dealing with people who you may not be able to trust. It comes up commonly, and recently one such scenario actually did happen as a current event.
In the game, you and another person (a smalltime acquaintance of yours who you don't know very well), are accused of committing a crime. The police separate the two of you and ask each of you separately if the other person is guilty. You both have the choice of cooperating with each other and proclaiming the other's innocence, or tattling on the other person.
The results depends on what the police learn from this investigation. If neither of you talks, they'll probably be able to press a lesser charge on you both, and you'll both spend a week or two in jail, but you'll escape conviction . If both of you tattle, you'll both surely be convicted on this evidence, and you'll both spend 3 years in jail. And if one of you talks and the other doesn't, then the tattler escapes and the victim rots in prison for 5 long years. So....what will you tell them? The best possible result for you may be to play the other guy for a sucker, but the net benefit is for you both to cooperate.
Worse, the real life versions tend to be iterated, where you and the other guy show up over and over and over, and have the same choices every time. Reward vs. Punishment are on the line, and the other guy definitely remembers what you did the last time.
A university did a simulation of iterated prisoner's dilemma to see if there's a rational way to handle scenarios like this, and the results were surprising. Various programs were put in that used various strategies. There were programs that always cooperated. There were programs that always attacked. These tended to get eliminated pretty quickly when their bad choices caught up to them. One early winner was a strategy that they called "Tit for Tat." This program started out cooperating, and then always used the same strategy that the partner used last time. So if you cooperated with it, it cooperated with you. If you wronged it, it got revenge. But the ultimate winner was "Generous Tit for Tat," which sometimes declined to go for revenge, thus getting out of some vicious cycles.
I say this came up in the news due to the situation with Russia, America, and Nuclear Weapons. Russia would like to inspect US uranium mining and nuclear production, and limit both countries supplies of nuclear weapons. This is an iterative prisoner's dilemma, with the "cooperate" option being to let the other country's inspectors in and limiting the production of nuclear weapons, and the "defect" option being to eject the other country's inspectors and build more nuclear weapons to gain the other hand.
Previously, both of us have chosen "cooperate" with the SALT and START treaties. Shortly after SALT II was an arguable defection on both sides, when the Reagan administration refused to sign the treaty on the grounds that Russia violated it, and Russia responding with a large construction of additional nuclear weapons.
So then, America, we have a choice. Cooperate or Defect. And Russia is watching.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Hub and Wheel Transport

Shipping company FedEx has a very interesting system for achieving shipping efficiency: It all goes through one point. Hub and Spoke seems like a poor model for moving goods, especially considering it can up to double the distance that a given package has to travel. The primary advantage is in the economy of scale.
Let us take the example of mail. I can mail a letter to a faraway country for a mere $5, which will travel by plane and be in the recipient's hands by the end of the day. This could not possibly be so if this were the only letter going, because it costs $40,000 for the plane to even take off, and the plane cost several million dollars to purchase in the first place. However, there are lots of letters going. The plane will be full of letters, and each letter writer has paid $5 to send the letter. The millions of letters have funded millions of dollars for the operation to go through, and so it does, and everyone gets their letters for a reasonable price.
Similarly with the parcels. Lets say that I'm sending Christmas presents to various friends and family members located all over the country. A traditional distributor has to put them all on separate trucks that all race to their respective destinations, but the hub and spoke model can take them to the nearest big city (Houston), which puts them on a train with all the millions of other packages. One big advantage of a train is that once you have one going, adding one more package is so trivial as to be practically free. All of this goes to the center distributor.
And at that center, they have a concentration of expertise. People who excel at making sure the package is definitely on the right train, knowing that "Settle" is a common typo of "Seattle," knowing that people tend to mispell "Jonston Road" or whatever, and being able to fix it. And again, the train going to Seattle has every package in the country that's headed there. One train is way way way cheaper than ten thousand trucks.
This makes me wonder if there would be a way to do this for personal transportation. One very fast subway takes you to a big station at a common location (like the center of a large city), and from there, one can take very fast trains straight to whatever other place you need to go to. All trains would be high speed express trains, and collisions would be impossible because no two trains overlap in any way. You might have to go from point A to point B first, but B to your destination C isn't interrupted by all the people who first want to stop at D, E, or F.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Watt Step

I have a watch that's wound by the movement of my arm during the day. This does not violate conservation of energy. Movement is energy. It uses a complicated mechanism to extract a little power from the movement it experiences, and uses this power to charge the watch's battery.
I'm thinking of scaling this up. You would wear a bracelet on each wrist, and an anklet on each leg. And as you walked, ran, and went about your day, they would each trickle charge a small battery. You might only get an AA battery's charge out of each one bracelet and anklet, but that's an AA battery's charge more than you had before. You could power a small gadget with just your own movement. Maybe a cell phone, an embedded computer, or a PDA? The "free" power would be nice, anyway.
The energy would come from making it sliiiiiightly harder to move, but not in such a way that would be a big deal. And frankly, we could use the exercise, nationally.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Music Education

Once upon a time, I was a hobby musician who would engage in one hour music writing contests -- you had to write a song in one hour, songs are voted by the writers (excluding your own), and winner gets...bragging rights for the week. I even took a music class to become a better writer, which was linked to a singing class that I was no good at. I think it's hilarious that I got an A in the music writing, but an F in the actual performing, making me some sort of hypothetical musician. Can write great songs, but only in theory. And of course with the weekly contests...I was almost always last place.
Anyway, all I've studied music all my life, and all the crazy things I tried to do for just the write sound, are all quite familiar to an amazing group of musicians that I just discovered. Los Doggies are musicians who dissected for me tons and tons of incidental music. Video games. Animals. Telephones. All of them have a complex musical basis. The website takes them all apart, showing them sheet music, and even playing the sound note by note if you don't know how to read sheet music. (I can, not quite fast enough to play the song in question.) This site has taught me more about music than years and years of musical education in only a few minutes.
I'd like to know why. All of education could probably benefit if I could just figure out why this site is so engaging and informative.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Magnetic Double Blind

One of the hardest hypotheses to test today is the theory that magnets can cure a surprising range of diseases and disorders, and part of it is ruling out the placebo effect. The placebo effect occurs when any treatment at all, even one that clearly has no effect (like giving the patient a sugar pill) still cures their disease because the patient expected it to happen. "I got treatment because people care about me" is a powerful thought to a person who is ailing. To rule out the placebo effect, most clinical trials do a double blind study. Neither the patients nor the doctors administering it know which is the real treatment, and which are a fake chalk tablet that only gives the impression that you're getting powerful drugs. And here's where we have the problem.
Any American who graduated the fifth grade, basically all of them, know how to tell the difference between a magnet and an inert chunk of iron. If you press it against metal and the metal sticks, it's a magnet. If you bring it up to a TV and the picture distorts, it's a magnet. If it deflects a compass needle, it's a magnet. The double blind will be ruined, I guarantee. The people with the fake magnets will find it obvious.
If we can resort to some very totalitarian methods, and we can because this study will pay handsomely and "scientific firm reserves the right to dickishly control every aspect of your life for the duration of the study" will be in the contract, if not in those exact words. If you've ever seen the X-men movie, the scene where the villain Magneto is imprisoned in a plastic bubble suspended by fiberglass line, because of his ability to control basically any piece of metal anywhere near him makes imprisoning him in a tradition prison stupid, inspires the perfect impossible-to-detect-magnetism environment ever. You will live in an all plastic and ceramic environment with no metal or electricity. You are encouraged to bring books, writing materials like pencils and paper, and metal-free hobby things. All metal or electronic devices will be confiscated for the duration of the study. You will have a device with something heavy and metal-ish sewn into a cloth pocket strapped onto you. Half of these will contain an actual magnet. The other half, an inert piece of metal of the exact same size, shape, and weight. Participants will journal their recovery from disease over the course of two weeks to a month. We will also have to keep you isolated from each other, except for maybe a ceramic-can-on-a-string telephone. We can't run the risk that you'll "test" each other's "magnets."
After the study is over, we can then reveal who actually had a magnet, and who had just a chunk of metal. And we will finally have determined if magnet therapy offers any actual benefit, or is just another attractive woo-woo claim.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Paranoia will Destroy Ya

Talking to paranoid people seems really trippy. They're totally detached from reality, it seems like. They believe in utterly insane things like massive conspiracies dedicated to ruining their morning coffee, or some other result completely short of the millions and millions of dollars it would have taken to do everything they describe. Pointing this out does not deter them in the slightest -- obviously their enemies are both unreasonably wealthy and impossibly petty.
Surprisingly, one psychology book I read claimed these beliefs all stem from one erroneous belief, which proceeds to compound everything else. That belief? I am never wrong. And with that in place, suddenly all the craziness makes total sense. How? Think about how often the average person is thwarted, frustrated, annoyed, or defeated. It's quite often. Now imagine having to blame all of that on things other than yourself. Let's go through a common day.
You wake up, only to notice that the alarm you set last night was not on, and now you're late to school or work. You quickly rush to avoid being even later...and are stuck in traffic. People cut you off repeatedly, and one guy flips you off. "Nice." At your laboring place, your supervisor is enraged at your lateness and incompetence, and chews you out quite a lot. It's a rough day, and coming back home you again have to suffer in traffic. At home, you have misplaced the remote, and you left a cup of coffee out on the counter this morning that has now gone stale and must be thrown away. You sit to watch your favorite TV show...but it got preempted, in favor of some inane thing that you don't really care about. In irritation, you go to bed early, grumbling to yourself.
Now, if you're a sane person, you blamed the alarm on forgetting to set it last night, the traffic to the fact that you're rushing and probably driving a little rudely (plus there being a lot of people, some of who are jerks), your boss's anger at you is genuine rage, but out of proportion to the true level of your faults, the news at home is more important to many people than what you wanted to watch which is why the tv station preempted your show, the remote and the coffee were lapses of your memory that annoy you, but can nonetheless be worked around. In short, you mostly blamed yourself for what went wrong. You assure yourself that you will try harder tomorrow, and it will be less bad for you.
Now let's try it again, only this time, you are never wrong. Your alarm didn't go off. Clearly it's the evil conspiracy trying to prevent you from succeeding! They must have secretly turned it off during the night. The fiends! The traffic? Another evil plot!!!! Especially that one guy who flipped you off. Your supervisor is mad that you came in late and are now bungling yet another project? No, he's clearly in on it! You come home and your remote has been stolen!! And they hid your coffee until it went bad! They will clearly stop at nothing to irritate the living shit out of you! You sit down to enjoy a little TV, but the conspiracy people clearly saw this coming, and had your show preempted. Clearly they will stop at nothing!!! As you go to bed in irritation, you resolve that tomorrow you will get the upper hand for a change. After all, for all their evil plotting, you were not truly beaten.
The paranoid outlook is more satisfying, even if it does lead to being afraid of your own shadow and believing that your least favorite type of music is a secret plot to annoy you. After all, you're never wrong.
I think a lot of these psychological conditions are actually spectrum. One can be a little paranoid, and very into conspiracy theories, hard headed, and fearful, or very paranoid and blame the Martian space monkeys for your missing car keys. Or any amount in between.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Schrodinger's Car

All that non-physicists tend to remember about Erwin Schrödinger was his cat thought experiment. The one with the cat in the box with one atom of radioactive material and the diabolical setup that will kill the cat if the atom decays, and the nonsensical result of the cat being both alive and dead at the same time. And suddenly, my unsleeping mind goes to some very strange places.
I'm imagining a car that works by controlling, sort of, quantum teleportation. It restricts the teleports to one particular direction, so you move forward at a random, not readily predictable speed. Teleporting against that direction is prevented by a brownian-ratchet type of mechanism. Given this much, it wouldn't even really need fuel. You will get there, eventually.
It's probably not even technically possible, but it would be so much fun to try.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Microphone power

When I was a little kid, I had an electronics kit, the kind where you connect transistor 22 to resistor 25, to capacitor 9, to diode 13, and it becomes a water level detecting kit. It also had an astounding proof of a scientific concept introduced to me in the fifth grade: sound is energy. For this proof, the kit instructed you to connect the microphone to the voltmeter and light bulb. And then scream really really loud into the microphone, which would lead to the bulb lighting up and the voltmeter jumping, as this was the kind of kit that grandparents buy their grandchildren, in order to annoy the parents. Parents, I'm sure you're quite familiar with this kind of toy.
Anyway, microphones do change sound into electrical energy, primarily because the electricity retains the pattern of the noise, but can be amplified, rerouted, edited, and a whole host of interesting tricks. Speaking into a microphone actually generates a tiny amount of power, which leads me to my idea.
Freeways often have tall walls built around them to cage in the annoying whooshing noise that the cars make as they zoom past at high speed. This noise now dissipates into the upper atmosphere instead of your windows. So I think we should take these walls....and line them with microphones, hooked to diodes, hooked to battery banks. I'm hoping that this will further dampen the noise as well, so it's win-win.
Well, except that physics is never totally win win. It'll probably slightly increase the air resistance or in some other way steal energy from the cars in a way only a physicist can explain.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Carbon Dioxide Seperator

I want to create a system to flush carbon dioxide from air. Why? I do have a good reason.
"Stuffiness," the sensation commonly found in enclosed rooms with no air circulation, is almost assuredly a carbon dioxide buildup symptom. The air feels oppressive and stale, and one has an immediate urge to try to open a window. One feels drowsy and irritated, and everything smells bad. I know this because as a small child, I used to like to hide under blankets, which would become stuffy in short order, to the point where I started to associate hot air with stuffy and cold air with fresh. The stuffiness was due to poor air circulation: the carbon dioxide of my breath would build up until I exited the blanket.
NASA probably knows a few ways to do this, as it became critically important on space missions. You only have the air you bring with you in space, so it is critical to keep it as fresh as physically possible. Drowsy, confused, astronauts poisoned by their own breath is a bad thing. Their technique involves a rather complicated membrane system performed under pressure.
If I were to invent my own system, I think I would work with the chemical properties of carbon dioxide itself. I can extract it by cooling it off -- carbon dioxide sublimates long long before oxygen precipitates into a liquid. I can extract it with pressure, bringing the carbon dioxide into its liquid state and siphoning it off. I could even extract it with chemical combinations, like Sodium or Potassium Hydroxide, which tend to absorb carbon dioxide until they reach a saturation point, but I'd want an industrial type technique that I could set up and not have to personally fuss with afterwards.
Having installed one of these systems in a house, stuffiness is banished forever. What to do with the carbon dioxide? I can shunt it out of the house, thus getting all the benefits of opening a window without losing all my heating, which is sweet, but for even better works, I can use it as the security system for a greenhouse. The greenhouse is, when no humans are expected inside, flooded with all the carbon dioxide from the house. All pests die. Any intruder dies. It's just plants and a few bacteria, with the plants slowly reoxygenating the place.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Pneumatic Net

I just read an interesting proposal of adding to, or replacing, the internet with a network of pneumatic tubes to allow it to handle any physical object. This will require some explanation.
Before personal computers were common, large organizations like banks typically had a pneumatic network for exchanging paperwork. One would roll up the relevant paper and put it into a tube, and then put the tube into a slot. A vacuum would then pull this tube to its destination. One could exchange anything that fit into that tube through the network. So while the most common use was paperwork, one could also send keys, a packet of potato chips, or really anything that could be fit into the little canister.
Computers did away with pneumatic networks for the most part because of the difficulty involved. Setting it up was difficult. A preposterously complex network of tubes had to be built in the building, you had to have a dedicated routing room, because the vacuum only went one way, and you had to have really powerful pumps to abruptly suck the air out of any particular tube. So when personal computers became common, most organizations ran screaming from pneumatic systems. After all, the routing room had to sort who got what canister by hand.
I don't see a worldwide pneumatic system coming about without some serious automation of identifying and routing, because the internet has billions of nodes. The routing room, wherever on earth we put it, would have to be a nightmarish maze of pipes with many many OCR readers and supercomputers and robot claws for identifying the tube, putting it in the correct destination, and sending it on its way. No human being could ever hope to keep up. Hence the sheer insanity of this idea.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


Randomness is an interesting thing in computer science, because a computer's numbers are only pseudo-random. Computers are quite deterministic, which makes it quite difficult to produce anything random. And yet, many mathematical techniques depend on reasonably random numbers. What's a programmer to do?
Most existing pseudo-random numbers are based on things that are difficult to detect or determine ahead of time, like a statistical study of keystroke timings, mouse movements, or the thermal entropy in the various capacitors. An "entropy pool" is maintained from the study of numbers like these that accumulates enough to be sufficiently random to, say, produce an encryption key that can't readily be guessed.
When sites want a stronger randomness than that, they often resort to the study of random events outside the computer to maintain an even bigger, and more rigorous random, than can be done inside the computer itself. One common technique is to point a webcam at a television that is tuned to a non-broadcasting channel. The resulting static is effectively random data, which is fed to the entropy pool. One site, Games By Email, has an elaborate machine to throw dice and record their rolls for later use. The site also promises to melt down any die that produces a roll that a customer is not satisfied with, because the customer base tends to strongly anthropomorphize dice and sometimes want to "punish" dice that don't roll the way they want. (And why not, dice are cheap and a satisfied customer is a returning customer.)
This all gave me an idea for a cheap source of pseudo-random numbers: Spam. Spam are unwanted emails that constantly hammer servers and annoy the crap out of millions of people, all because .00001% of people take them seriously and buy stuff because of them, thus handsomely profiting the group that put them out. Most spam is today thrown away, often by automatic means before any human being ever sees it. Or if not, is tossed into a special spam box to be discarded later. Just in case a real message is falsely flagged as spam. Spammers go to elaborate lengths to ensure that the recipient looks at the message.
So, from now on, when a message is flagged as spam, we take a quick hash of it, like an MD5 sum, and then manipulate this into the entropy pool by a pseudo-random means. (Arbitrarily pick one of: Add, subtract, XOR, OR, AND, Replace, Append). This should slightly improve the quality of the entropy pool with every spam you receive. After the summing, the spam can be discarded or added to the spam box or whatever the mail receiving program was going to do with it.
I don't recommend this technique to sites in need of high quality randomness, as it leaves a gaping security hole: An attacker can spam the site with several trillion copies of the same message, thus setting the entropy pool to a known quantity, thus effectively giving the attacker control of the encryption keys. But sites like that probably have a TV static, nuclear decay, or other basically impossible to control source of random numbers in the first place. They also have a lot of money to ensuring the security of their randomness.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Mouse Fountain of Youth

Discovery news says that a group of mice genetically engineered to age rapidly and grow telemerase when exposed to estrogen tend to recover their youth when exposed to estrogen. Already visions of a technological fountain of youth dance in many a journalist's head. Especially because telemerase is something easily obtainable that you could probably inject yourself with as early as tomorrow if you ordered it this morning.
Ah, but not so fast cowboy. The article also points out that this may be a quirk of the rapid aging genes. So maybe it might help someone with a rapid aging condition, but not provide boundless youth to whoever wants it. Even so, this is a remarkable piece of medicine going on here.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Lifting the Low Countries

The low countries of Belgium and the Netherlands, and the Maldives, are quite worried, and justifiably so, about the rising ocean. All three countries are very close to sea level, and parts of the Netherlands were actually reclaimed from the sea at great effort and expense. This post concerns the Netherlands and Belgium the most, as the Maldives can't afford this solution just yet.
I think, starting from the German border, we should carefully record each building's blueprint, demolish it, and rebuild it on poles 60 meters high. We'd also retrofit the plans for things useful to the people, like electricity, phones, central heating and air conditioning, and whatever else could sensibly be installed in the plans, because, well, why not. The streets would be on poles (like a freeway), the houses on poles, with yards on poles. It would be very tall. We'd sweep through the countries doing this until we reached the sea. Then, when the crops are harvested, the dearest plants transplanted, and everyone high and safe, we'd board off the sides and fill the inside with cement to stabilize everything. The low countries would now be the high countries, and would survive the highest sea rise possible.
Expensive, for sure, but I think if national survival were ever on the line, they'd find a way. Also, I think the highness would form a tourist attraction.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Human powered copter

Imagine a device with a little seat, a large propeller, and huge rotors. A small counterotor in the back retains the balance. Sitting in the seat and violently pedaling, the user could lift himself aloft.
...eeeexcept that the rotors would have to be about 30 feet across, and one would have to pedal really really hard. It'd have to be made of the lightest carbon fiber, and even then it probably wouldn't work.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Planar Furniture

I'm imagining a super cheap form of furniture made of boards. Boards in little shapes slapped together to form a chair, and filled with expanding foam in the middle. Or, perhaps just an "X" like shape of more boards. A board chair could be had for $10, and a board bed for $30. Board desks would be maybe $5. For the cost of a professionally made chair, one can buy an entire studio's worth of furnishings. Furnishings that can easily be taken apart and hauled away. Just one problem: They'd be ugly.
True, to make them bearable I'd want to attach lots of cushions, but their primary benefits are also their main detractions. They're going to be boxy, kludge-like in appearance, and tacky. And yet, I believe there is a big market for them with college students (who have to make the most of every cent) and nomads (who can enjoy the benefits of furnishings by being able to take them apart and haul them away.
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