Saturday, December 31, 2011

Yarn Computer

The computers that I use on a daily basis are made of, effectively, sand and copper. Every computer, every electronic thing I have ever used, or touched, has followed this pattern. The one non-traditional computer I have seen to date was a pure electronic relay computer, which used electrical switches with no silicon. The reason this pattern is not used is that it's inefficient, impossibly loud, slow, and expensive. And then there's today's strange technology: Via Slashdot, an international team of scientists have made circuits out of, surprisingly, yarn wires. The yarn is threaded with electrical conducting materials, such as copper, and woven into various electrical switches. Additional yarn can be added to weave the item into a piece of clothing, thereby achieving the long time goal of wearable computers, in this case, computers that are literally clothing. There are some minor downsides to the current state of technology. No, it won't shock or electrocute you, but it's currently at the inefficient, impractical, slow, and expensive state that the relay computer that I linked at the begining of this article. Much R&D is required before you'll be able to, say, use a sweater as a GPS unit, a sock to monitor your vital signs, or anything of the other wondrous potential of these technologies. Technology sometimes has to crawl before it can walk, and walk before it can run.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Truce

On this day, 97 years ago, the horrors and violence of the first world war suddenly came to an abrupt end. Soldiers on opposing sides met in the middle, exchanged gifts, sang traditional songs, and for a minute, human nature was shown to be remarkably civilized. An impromptu soccer game was even held. The generals, of course, hated it. Pal-ing around with the enemy did not get them the concessions that they wanted, way better for peace than for war. The more nationalistic, the more they hated it -- Christmas songs weren't bringing in any of the land or glory. Of course, the next day, everyone was back to shooting at each other, since after all, a war was on. The generals worked hard to avoid a repeat in the next four years of the war, until the Central powers finally surrendered. Events like this, the Christmas Truce, make me feel that a better world is definitely possible.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Neurotransmitter Drugs

Caffeine is a commonly used substance in my workplace. It is a stimulant drug that works in humans by interfering with the neurotransmitter adenosine, as illustrated by The Oatmeal Plants that make caffeine do so to retaliate against the insects that eat them. The bugs get overstimulated and panic themselves to death. There are many other mechanisms that could be interfered with. For example, seratonin. Blocking seratonin would interfere with the pleasure of hobbies and activities, but also addiction. Under the influence of seratonin blocking drugs, a person would not be motivated to seek out their addictions. Maybe instead they'd have a nap. Four months later, the drugs are discontinued, and the patient is encouraged to take up a hobby, which is now fun. Other mechanisms could cure anxiety disorders, weight control issues, impulsivity, and a host of other quality-of-life problems.

Monday, December 5, 2011


In Vietnam, rising wealth has lead to a major increase in motor vehicles as a means of transportation, and with the rise of motor vehicles has come a rash of street racers. The police dislike it, as the races run faster than many of the riders can control, often causing property damage and personal injury. The police's first motivation is to stop vehicles who participate in this type of activity, ASAP. In my country, the United States, a fast vehicle that refuses to pull over for the police is herded onto a road with no traffic, and a strip of spikes is laid on the road. As the vehicle approaches, the spikes are activated. The spikes puncture the tire in such a way that the vehicle comes to a halt. The spikes are then quickly retracted so that the chasing police car can run past it without this tire damage. The vehicle's driver is then forced to yield. Vietnam isn't wealthy enough to buy such machinery, nor industrialized enough to make it themselves, so they dipped into their historical engineering and decided to stop the bikes with fishing nets. Apparently, due to Vietnam's long history of fishing, the average Vietnamese person can throw a net very very precisely. This net, thrown into the motorcycle's motor, jams it in such a way that the motorcycle rolls to a controlled halt. Other methods had previously been rejected because the motorcycle lost control, which often resulted in the very crashes that the police were trying to avoid. It's cheap, simple, and effective.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Reincarnation Theory

The most common theme in all of the world's religions is that death is not the end of existence. This is not universal, and a few religions actually do teach that death is the end. Many religions describe a second world for the departed. Another common idea is that the dead are reborn as new people, an idea called reincarnation. Various religions describe various reasons why this should happen, and how it would work, usually positing that you have a soul that is moved from body to body. The Dalai Lama wasfamously asked by Carl Sagan if given proof, would he cease to believe in reincarnation, which is a major component of his religion. He answered that yes, proof was proof and believing untrue things was like lying to yourself. He added that it would prove very difficult to disprove reincarnation. I bring this up because about a week ago I was reading an article about a psychologist in the 1960s who hypnotized a large number of people in California and asked them if they could remember of past life. To her great surprise, many reported that they could, describing the food, clothing, and customers of a 30 to 70 year life. She then compared the reports to actual historical records, finding them to be accurate about 85% of the time. The new page community, whose religion teaches reincarnation, immediately jumped on this study as proof of reincarnation. The most commonly reported past life was World War II era Chinese, suggesting a period of less than 10 years between lives. Assuming that all of this true, it makes sense to my understanding of history. America and China were allies in the war, and to a Chinese person of this time, their ally, "Meiguo," as they called America, was far from their enemies, rich beyond all their wildest dreams, and powerful. If dead people reincarnated and had a choice as to where they would be reborn, America would be a tempting choice for a dead Chinese person. China would have been their first choice, but they would probably be afraid to return to where their enemies still had a major presence. Again if true, I would expect the former Chinese to be absolutely contemptuous of their old enemy, the Japanese, terrified of overhead airplanes (which in their past life would have been Japanese and actively attempting to kill them), and affectionate to their former home, China. Reincarnation religions don't have many teaching about how cultural traits carry over between lives, other than that memories are outright erased, but Chinese culture teaches an importance to family, and stresses scholarship as a means to get ahead in the world. These habits might remain. Of course, there was an immediate criticism of the study, which found a massive methodology hole large enough to drive a truck through. It is well established that we subconsciously remember way more of what we read than we consciously remember, up to all of it, and that hypnotized people are ridiculously suggestible. A person who had read a history book that year would have access to very detailed accounts of all the aspects given in the report. Also, subjects often described dates in their supposed past lives as "Such-and-such BC," a nomenclature not used until some 400-500 years after the fact. During the BC/AD switch-over, the most common calendar was the AUC, or "After the founding of the city." The city being Rome, the most famous city at the time. It is pretty clear that in their altered state, the subjects made stuff up, and the stuff they made up was accurate because the subject had studied history. It was a tempting idea because the only people with knowledge of what people experience in death are dead themselves, and they are in no condition to report back to the living. It is even possible that the dead have no existence at all, and that deeply frightens people.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Markov Chain

Graph of a Markov chain.Image via Wikipedia

It may be surprising, but at the core of thousands of chatbots like Megabot and Cleverbot is a simple mathematical construction implemented in about 30 - 50 lines of code called a Markov Chain. This construction was developed over a hundred years ago by a Russian mathematician, Andrey Markov. Dr. Markov posited a finite state machine, in which one input lead to a series of outputs, and one was chosen by probability. The chain would not remember previous actions in the chain, but just note that this node is most likely associated with that one, and hop to that node to repeat the process. If it searches four nodes deep for probability, it can, given a graph of commonly used words from an existing corpus of text, write text almost indistinguishable from the kind that would be written by the original human author. Markov chains could also be used for math equations, chess games (associating moves), or even programming code (this line of code is probably followed by this one, so write that line in next). Given a broad list of sentences commonly said by human chat-attenders, a Markov chain can actually pass a Turing test. Key word being "can", not "will." On the downside of this, due to the stateless nature of the chain, the bot lacks any understanding of either the stimulus or the response. It lacks an understanding of grammar, and often posits totally nonsensical, or even ungrammatical, sentences. Fed enough scientific papers, it might write a sentence like "It is established that." This phrase might appear in the original work, but the bot fails to recognize that this is not an entire sentence. I might use a Markov chain to help with creativity. It would randomly combine ideas, which could lead to some creative conclusions. As an example, Usenet's Mark V. Shaney was actually a Markov Chain bot. People thought it was a very confused man, possibly on drugs, and possibly insane, but it was a computer program. The most famous utterance that this bot produced was "I spent an interesting evening recently with a grain of salt." The bot had started with a common opening statement for posts on the particular discussion group, "I spent an interesting evening recently," which they used to describe dating experiences, with part of the expression to "Take it with a grain of salt," meaning that the previous statement should be viewed via non-literal means, and with little claims to any veracity or truth. The two collide to produce the hilarious impression of a man obsessively staring at a tiny speck of salt, so infinitesimal, and yet so orderly, in some sort of weird quasi-science ritual. And that's the wonderful thing about Markov Chains -- you'll mostly get nonsensical crap, but hilarious things will pop up all the time.
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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Plasma Water Cleaning

Clean water is a major need in much of the world. While water is a very common commodity on Earth, drinkable water is much less so. Much of our water is unthinkably salty, polluted, or so swarming with disease-causing bacteria and viruses that drinking it will probably result in your death. In many parts of the world, half of one's day is spent obtaining clean water so that your family doesn't die. And even then, some very clear, very clean water can be infected, and you'd never know until everyone who drank it becomes unbearably sick. In Berkeley, scientists have developed a way to not only sterilize water, but make it actively kill bacteria and viruses for up to a week after treatment, allowing people to stockpile water. They do this all with low temperature plasma, the type that develops in a neon light sign, or those lightning-ball toys. It's cheaper so far than the traditional treatments for water, such as bleach, filtering, or UV light. This kills even drug-resistant bacteria, which could save thousands of lives. Plus, it's cheap. A metal rod and a few cents of electricity will clean a few gallons of water. Even if the average resident can't afford this, there are many charities that would very cheerfully provide it. The saved time will also improve lives, as Dr. Hans Rosling pointed out how the washing machine turned his native Sweden into a first world country. Why? With the time that his mother saved by not having to manually scrub the family's clothing, she was able to educate her children, work to increase her income, and generally make life better all around. Automation has clearly made everyone's lives better. With clean water, child mortality will go down, hygine will improve, there will be more time for education and productive work.

Friday, November 11, 2011

It begins

So Apple now has a personal assistant with AI characteristics. People have been messing with it, and sometimes, it goes very very wrong:

Thursday, November 10, 2011


You know where I think the ideas of UFOs came from? I think there was an experimental aircraft crash in 1947, the government got all weird and evasive about it, like they do for anything classified, rightly or wrongly, some guy happened to write a book about people being abducted by aliens that year, and the two ideas got combined in a massive hurricane of terrified and crazy. Tune in tomorrow when I continue with the downright strange things of this world.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Economic Creativity

The Korean, a Korean American man with some very fascinating takes on both his respective cultures and their interactions, has a fascinating article on why Korea will never produce a company quite like Apple. For cultural reasons. Wait, what?

The first surprising one is the superpower status of the home country. We Americans tend to think of our status as a superpower mostly in hard-power terms: Extensive military might, so many trillion dollars that we could outright buy at least 3 quarters of the countries out there, and the like, but the soft power is what's driving things here. People in incredibly diverse nations still love American ideas, culture, clothing, and inventions. That iPods and MacBooks are American designed is an active selling point in all but the most virulently anti-American areas of the world. The Korean points out that if the iPod were, say, Italian, it'd have difficulty selling outside of Italy. The modern internet's love of bands like Caramell (Swedish), O-Zone (Romanian), and singers like Eduard Khil (Russian) is actually an aberration historically, as most people prefer music in a language that they already speak, in a style appropriate to their own culture. Another culture's music typically sounds vaguely preposterous, unless that culture is a superpower that you feel you need exposure to for success. If the iPod was'd probably be doomed unless well stocked with American music.

The Korean then went on to report that there used to be a site very much like Facebook many years before Facebook. It was perfect for Korea...proper language support, a style that suited Korean culture, and so on. One out of every four Koreans used it, a prospect that gets most businesses drooling. It then failed to expand past the borders of Korea when, surprise, things assumed to be true in Korea turn out to be totally false in other countries. The glam and glitter that appealed to Koreans looked like a cornball thing for a five year old girl in other countries. The extensive use of high density images that gave it its luster in Korea made it load slower than flowing glass in countries that didn't have as good a high speed network, which is pretty much all of them. And so today, those Koreans use Facebook. The network effect took off to the point where the older site just doesn't have your friends on it and facebook does. And today I've seen people use facebook to have friends across five oceans.

This isn't to say that being creative is not a cultural trait the Koreans have. My Korean-built cell phone is plenty creative. Korean ships can be found in every port. The creativity is clearly still there, but the domain and expression tends to be very different. Since Korea's independence in 1945, it went from the poorest country on earth (basically totally wrecked in World War II) to today in the top 7 wealthiest nations.

Nations are probably best off figuring out their strengths, and playing to them. If I wasn't so tired, I could probably draw a profound conclusion from this.

Sunday, November 6, 2011


Even relatively simple on your computer actually involve some rather complex chains of events. Take the keystrokes that I made to type this post up. Every time I hit a key, a little action something like this occurs: KEYBOARD: CPU, stop everything! The boss just pushed a key! CPU: Okay, I've stopped the task. What letter did he push? KEYBOARD: "e", sir. CPU: Alright, and I can enter that into the proper buffer so it can interact with the program. Now, back to work. The letters in the buffer then move into the text editing field, which gets uploaded to the server to make that post. And every time I pressed a key, literally hundreds of times per minute, the CPU had to quick, stop everything lest my keystroke be lost. Likewise, even turning the computer on involves a complex chain of actions, which is why your computer takes 2 to 5 minutes to even load up your desktop so that you can start working. A professor of computer science, Jean-Baptiste Queru, points out the deep abstractions involved when you so much as visit a website. All of this complexity is deeply hidden from you. You just clicked a link and this whole chain of events happened so that you could read something. Truly, we are better off today than even the richest and most powerful people a mere 300 years ago.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Oh noes

My readers, I have failed you. I grew busy at work, solving problems, and killing many many bad things. I have neglected to write in this blog for over a month. If you stopped reading, I don't blame you. I will be queueing up some good things to read which should post during the week.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Load Bearing Backpack Machine

In the poorer nations of the world, hundreds of millions of people earn their living moving things. Moving luggage. Moving cargo. Moving the harvest to the market. Moving water. Moving bricks to the construction yard You name it, they'll haul it. It makes them enough to get by. In rich nations like mine, vehicles usually perform this function.
An Indian inventor has come up with a machine that attaches to the porter's body and allows him or her to more comfortable haul of the load like a backpack. Postures improve, and the load the porter can carry increases, which in theory could mean higher profits. The invention also removes much of the medical risks of portering, which will hopefully mean far fewer ruined lives.
The best thing is that this invention is exceptionally cheap. It can be made for a few cents of bamboo...or plastic. It can also readily be reconfigured to a luggage carrier for the airport crowd, or an over-the-head carrier for small but fragile cargo like eggs. (which it will keep perfectly balanced so there's no chance of an expensive spill)

Sunday, August 28, 2011


There is only one thing that I expect from a filesystem -- I expect it to store my files. If a hard drive is like a storage warehouse, a filesystem is like installing filing cabinets in that warehouse. While it is possible to just keep papers in a large pile on the floor, this is not recommended.
When it's totally unacceptable to lose data, the current orthodox solution is to use RAID-1, a system in which all data is copied to two hard drives. If one drive fails, it can be replaced and the data copied from the other drive. My new idea is an imprcatical way of achieving this on only one hard drive. (Because your company has a bizarre policy of not ordering new hardware and a crippling hard drive shortage.)
ParanoidFS would store data in five clusters for each item. At read time, the five clusters would be read and compared. A Quorum of three would decide if any blocks were defective. (That is, the blocks "vote" what the correct value is, and if one or two of them have a different value than the others, then they are wrong and are marked as defective.) This could even be done in the background after loading a fifth of the file from each cluster for performance. The filesystem would allow itself to only work in a read-only mode after a certain number of blocks were declared bad, and a warning message would tell you to buy a new hard drive. One you can take to the accounting department.
On the downside, you would get at best 1/5th of the capacity of the hard drive. A typical 1TB drive on the market, for instance, would only provide 200GB of paranoidFS, but it would be a totally immortal 200GB.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Ugandan Space Program

Slashdot informs me today that a small group of Ugandans have an impressive dream: They intend to create their own space program with no help from the Ugandan government, and using only the local resources.
This is a big deal because Uganda is not the wealthiest country on earth, and so far space exploration has been the domain of large nations doing this for billion dollar science grants and military-industrial-complex testing of rocketry and other technology. Uganda has pretty much none of those things. At the moment, the team are designing airplanes, but they intend to move upwards as they gain more capability. (None of the team are professional engineers.)
Ideally, discoveries that this team makes will make space travel an order of magnitude less expensive, and thus more available to more people.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Hypertime and the Electric Plants

In a lot of media, there's places where time flows at a different rate than normal. The amount of time in and the amount of time out don't match. The closest real equivalent to this is special relativity time dilation, and that usually works in the opposite way. (The person accelerating experiences less time than everyone else.)
Anyway, this got me thinking about the movie "Clockstoppers" and their central mcGuffin, the "Hypertime". In the movie, the protagonist's scientist father invented a device that shifted him into a paralell time axis, ("Hypertime"), in which one could do time-like things and yet no time would have passed. After a long sequence of teenage boy antics and showing off for a girlfriend, the device is stolen by the movie's villain to set the center stage for the plot. And this gave me ideas.
I'd sleep in hypertime. I'd arrange for a hypertime room at work, and breaks there. When some problem has be absolutely screaming in irritation, I'd punch out, go to the hypertime room, take an eight hour nap under sedation, goof off for another four, and then return to work as no objective time had actually passed. I'd write this blog in hypertime and have two or three posts a day. Except, nags the nerdy part of me, some of this is just plain implausible.
No time means no outside electricity and no airflow. I'd suffocate while asleep. While there are existing solutions to this, such as chemical rebreathers (they have caustic solutions that absorb the carbon from your breath), my mind was already at work for alternatives, which could be useful in the real world.
The electric plant would, given electricity, strip carbon off of carbon dioxide, thus keeping air breathable in sealed environments. And provide a large source of carbon powder, which can later be sold as fuel, recovering some of the cost of the electricity. Extra bonus in solar-heavy rural areas like eastern California and Arizona, where you could have entire ranches of solar panels plus electric plants, sucking the carbon out of the air and gathering it for sale. Both to the coal plant to burn as fuel and to the pencil factory to stuff into pencils.
Portable power systems are a little more practical. Car battery, basically, that would be charged in a time environment.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Engineering Apotheosis

Take what U need (leave the rest)   HD on VimeoImage by Ralph Buckley via Flickr

There are three inventions that might not even be possible, but given them in conjunction, would grant engineers absolute omnipotence. Given all three of these things, it's only a matter of time before I'm creating entire universes.
First, a zero point energy generator. This might not even be possible. Energy is like the money of physics, and there have been a few clues that it might be possible to have negative energy as well as the positive kind that we're familiar with. If so, then from a "zero point" of no energy, you could draw off and separate arbitrary amounts of negative and positive energy, which would have to be shuttled off in opposite directions, as they would nullify each other on contact. However, negative energy hasn't been shown to really exist, and might make about as much sense as making money by sending out checks for negative amounts of money and somehow collecting when the checks are cashed in.
The first thing I'd do with zero point energy would be the mundane energy use, running the air conditioning, refrigerator, and lights with the energy, and do experiments with the negative energy. Could I run my computer on anti-electricity, and if so, would it absorb heat instead of producing it?
The next thing would be a matter condenser, that would change energy into hydrogen. Since E=MC^2, this would ensure an unlimited supply of materials. Of course, this would not be worthwhile without the unlimited energy from the zero point system.
The third thing would be some sort of teleportation system to make arbitrary manufacturing. It would have to teleport together raw materials to make things, such as combining a few grams of carbon from charcoal, hydrogen and oxygen from water, and nitrogen from air to form a hot dog. It would also need to be able to scan new patterns and store them in a computer. This also might not be possible due to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, in which knowing the exact position of an atom requires unpredictably altering its velocity and vice versa.
My power with these things would grow exponentially. First I'd use the teleporter/replicator to scan the three inventions and be able to arbitrarily produce more. Then I'd start scanning useful tools, which I now have in arbitrary amounts. Then, having proven its safety, I'll start handing them out because other people deserve this too. And next, I'd start designing entire star systems, which I teleport into existence. If I want to visit them, a matter-condenser rocket will take me there, accelerating to preposterous speeds with a zero-point-energy plus matter condenser, producing a stream of supercompressed hydrogen gas.
I'd send probes to go deep into the void, make a ring of trillions of matter condensers that was several AU in diameter, and spray hydrogen into the center to create stars. When the star grows enough, the welding on the ring fails and the matter condensers go flying outward into the universe. I'd recharge the sun by swapping out large amounts of it for a fresh cube of hydrogen. The heat death of the universe would never occur, because we would continuously rebuild it from scratch.
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Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Accidental Spammer

One of the strangest facts about fighting spam is that most spam comes from people who aren't even aware that they are doing it.
There are eight types of problems I deal with at work, and the top two are people spamming without even being aware that they are. See, the spammer lost access to audiences with his own accounts long ago. Either his ISP doesn't tolerate it and booted him, or does tolerate it and was blacklisted, so all his emails fall into the ether before reaching his customers. So instead, he infects people with a virus that gives him the passwords to their accounts, and spams in their name. When this doesn't work, the spammer resorts to guessing passwords, just in case someone decides to use "password," "123456" or their username as a password, because a shockingly high number of people do.
Alternatively, botnets can hack a number of popular installations with remote file injection, and the spammers love to insert mailer scripts into these. mailer scripts that send out hundreds of thousands of emails before being noticed.
The best protection against the first kind is to regularly scan your computer for viruses, using any one of the anti-virus products in the market, most of which you can at least try for free. Use a strong password, such as the first letter in the lines of your favorite poem or song in random capitalization, with a number or punctuation mark, and at least 12 letters long.
To prevent the second one, make sure your content software is up to date. Many packages even allow auto-upgrading, informing you if they are out of date and providing a handy upgrading button so that you can order it if you wish.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Artificial Immune System

Many simple lifeforms see our body as a plentiful sack of resources -- bacteria desire our proteins, carbohydrates, and iron and viruses seek to turn our cells into viral factories. Since these thefts hurt us and can even kill us, we have developed immune systems that destroy these on "sight," along with malfunctioning cells a la cancer.
While our immune system is strong, we benefit from helping it out, especiallyin medical situations where all tools must be absolutely sterile. Our existing plans for this involve high pressure steam, which heats the tool to temperatures that denature the bacteria and virus's proteins so that they cannot survive. We also have chemical attacks such as alcohols that have the same effect. This is also required to a lesser degree in other fields like restaurants, in which it would be bad if a client caught a disease from another.
Suppose one made a nanobot that dismantles known bacteria and viral proteins and uses them as raw materials to make additional nanobots. If one kept tools in this environment, the tool would stay sterile for cheap. (Presumably there is a means to prevent the nanobots from escaping, such as requiring them to stay within a power field not provided outside the toolbox.) In addition, if these nanobots could be taught not to attack human cells, and could be powered in a human body, then this would restore immune function to the immunocompromised. This would greatly increase their quality of life. In addition, immunocompromising diseases attack immune cells through attachments to their cell membrane. These nano-immune system devices do not have one of those.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Up and Down

I'm not sure if I mentioned it, but in May I was promoted to a different department, mail enforcement. Since then, my job has been to basically destroy spammers and make the world a better place. You probably have two or three less spams in your mailbox on average because I've what I've done. It also means that I have to constantly bug people about their email usage, which gets really depressing, really fast. I'm not fond of having to troll.
I also understand that I'm on the verge of another promotion, site security, which would mean that I would unhack all the hacked webpages, as well as explain how to avoid that happening to you in the future.
This has been good for me, and bad for you. Good for me because I make more, and have growing responsibility and a stronger, more awesome resume. Bad for you because I come home every night tired, sick, and soon whacked out on cough medicine. This state of affairs does not bode well for creativity. I'll be trying to strain through my every thought for the last few months to try and get an interesting idea going.
In the meantime, an interesting look at ludicriously dangerous chemistry in Sand Won't Save You This Time.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Pistol Shrimp Bot

The pistol shrimp used to astound scientists: It did...something..., and then fish in front of it abruptly dropped dead. The fishy victim is then pulled inside the pistol shrimp's burrow and devoured. Clearly, this had to be studied.
It was discovered how this works by filming the shrimp firing in slow motion. All the shrimp does is close its claw really really fast. The rapidly increasing pressure causes a cavitation bubble with temperatures rivaling the surface of the sun. This then, surrounded by seawater, explodes slightly as everything condenses back to normal. The heat, pressure, and shock wave all injure the shrimp's prey, usually adding up to a fatality. And knowing all this gave me the idea to weaponize it.
The weaponized pistol shrimp robot would swim up to things we don't like underwater, such as the propellers of an enemy submarine. It would then bring a massive claw as close as possible as close to the propellers as possible, and then very abruptly close it. With a loud banging sound, the propellers are promptly damaged by the ensuing cavitation bubble, as cavitation is the bane of naval propellers everywhere. The submarine is now mobility-killed, and can be finished off with a cleverly placed depth charge if it continues to cause problems. Or if this is done to a surface ship, that ship isn't sailing anywhere anytime soon. If it causes more problems, it'll wind up torpedoed, or we could cavitation attack the hull to sink it.
The robot can then swim to the next target, as an enemy that has one boat probably has a lot more.
Unfortunately, this won't be too useful in modern warfare, as all our battles are mostly against asymmetric enemies who don't have navies, because they aren't nations. Most of our enemies now are insurgents, and stopping them requires a whole different type of fighting than the kind that stops nations.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Printing a brain

Printed organs offer a major step towards immortality. I could take one cell from each of my organs, and use it to grow a brand new spare. I would then be guaranteed a very long life indeed, because disease or damage could be repaired fairly quickly by swapping my organs. Arteriosclerosis? New heart, no problem. Lung virus? New lungs. Cirrhosis? New liver. There'd be no chance of rejection, because they're grown from my own cells, and the cost would rapidly reduce over time from an economy of scale. However, if I had a stroke, or brain damage due to concussion, or became demented, I couldn't exactly swap out my brain. Or could I?
While if my brain were directly swapped out entirely, I would definitely be a different person, suppose only a small amount were changed at any given time. Starting with the moment that my doctor suspects that I'm developing a brain condition, I have a small amount of my brain biopsied and replaced with a printed copy of that section. This is allowed to heal and integrate back into my brain. Then a section a few inches further is biopsied and replaced, and over the course of about five years or so, every single piece is replaced. During the healing time, the neurons reestablish their connections, so at no point do I lose psychological continuity. And when the replacing is done, I have the brain of a twenty year old. If this works, then printing will make everyone immortal eventually. Well, not totally immortal, as you could still die from injuries, or if you have a brain condition that kills you in less time than it takes to replace-and-heal. But unaging and generally free of disease.
Or would you slowly lose your memory and personality over the course of the replacement?

Monday, June 27, 2011

Printing Organs

An interesting innovation of modern times is deposition printers, which can produce any 3 dimensional object by laying it down layer by layer in melted plastic, which rapidly cools and solidifies into a layer of the final object. If an layer can't support itself structurally until complete, the system can also lay down a second type of plastic that washes away when exposed to water. Although the systems tend to be expensive (none cost less than $500), once you own one, you can have all the plastic parts you want for a few cents worth of thermoplastic.
Medical doctors have especially taken note. Human cells can be grown in a lab, but only in flat sheets about one cell thick. The cells know that they shouldn't endlessly grow upon each other, because when they do that, they're typically cancer. Cells in your body grow on a framework, an extracellular matrix. And here's where they have the idea.
Since the 3d printer can print any shape, have it print an extracellular matrix for an organ, wash it, and introduce it to a glucose-and-saline medium. Inject one human cell, and a short time later, you have a fully functional organ. Since extracellular matrix parts are regularly replaced, this new organ will, after being implanted, slowly replace its plastic extracellular matrix with a real one, at which point the organ will be indistinguishable from the original. Other than the new one is fresh and healthy and will last for years longer.
This is giving me an even crazier idea, which I will go into tomorrow.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Solar Road

Every summer, America's roadways become miserable hot strips that go on and on for miles, adding to the already hot and miserable condition of the weather. The black asphalt soaks up the sun, producing loads more heat. This of course, has given scientists a genius idea: replace it all with solar panels. Wait, what?
The idea revolves around glass. Glass that can support the weight of all the cars, but is totally transparent. Beneath this glass road is an endless extent of solar panels that turn the light of the sun shining upon them into electric power. Sometimes this is interrupted by a car driving over it, but there would be more sun than not.
Due to the sheer bulk of Americas roads, much of them in rural areas where cars don't drive over them for days at a time, replacing all roads with this new kind would produce enough power to keep the entire country running. Dirtier powers like Oil, Coal, and even Nuclear would be practically obsolete. (China would take note, I'm sure.)

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Heat Power

Lady Ada tells me that there's an interesting new material that's been developed. It is an alloy that develops a magnetic field in proportion to its temperature. There are some immediate implications to this, most startlingly that it is now possible to turn heat into electricity.
This produces electricity because electricity is produced by a varying magnetic field near a loop of copper wire. Traditional power plants use a spinning magnet -- the wire is exposed to different magnetic fields as the magnet turns. This system would instead produce a magnetic field that changed as the temperature did. As it heats up, the field gets stronger, and as it cools off, the field gets weaker. So if you left it in the sun, it would start to heat up starting a little after dawn, until sunset, when it would be quite hot indeed. After dark, it would cool off. Cyclically, this would produce power, over a longer frame than solar cells because there are no moving parts.
However, the sun isn't the only thing that heats this thing up. You could use car exhaust, fire, nuclear waste, or in colder climates, even just grabbing it periodically. (Less than pleasant, though). The possibilities are literally endless, as heat is the most entropic form of energy, therefore almost all energy-using processes will produce heat. And now that heat can give you some of its energy back as electricity.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Ionization Theory

A common theory states that indoor air quality can be greatly improved by electrically charging the air. Air is accelerated over charged plates, imparting a charge to the air, which reportedly improves mood, causes bacteria, viruses, and dust to adhere to surfaces instead of becoming airborne, causes beneficial effects on the health of the people who breathe it, and even helps heal injuries. Some or all of these claims might be complete hogwash. One thing is definitely clear, though. Air ionizers create ozone, an oxygen variant that damages your lungs and is the major component in smog, although more useful in the upper atmosphere due it its tendency to neutralize harmful radiation.
The best evidence for the touted benefits of the theory was a study conducted in Bangkok, which showed that ionized air did improve rates of healing from injuries, and did in fact cause airborne bacteria to cease to be airborne, where it could be easily cleaned off the walls and floors that it stuck to. No mood difference was noted in participants. The data size was not large enough to be significant.
On the other hand, even if I assume this is all true, I would first worry about the ozone exposure. Fortunately, it is possible to filter out ozone using carbon-rich paper filters, and the ozone does kill all bacteria (and some viruses) while it is present.
So if this theory was true, the best air sources would be first ionized, then filtered (removing the dust, bacteria, viruses, and ozone), and then accelerated into the room. This also gives me a plan to experiment with this idea.
Get 3 groups of 30 people each. One group is put into a room in which the air is positively charged, filtered, then blown into the room. One group is put into a room in which the air is negatively charged, filtered, and then blown into the room. The last group is the control, and their air is not charged, but merely filtered. The filtering takes place some distance from the room so that it's not apparent which group you're in. The rooms are otherwise identical, and can support sleep, work, games, and eating. We have the group live there a period of time to be decided later. At the end of the period, we evaluate the groups for changes in health and mood, and we also measure bacteria concentrations in the rooms, walls, and floors.
If the theory is true, then I would expect that the positively charged room would be in better health than the control, which would be in better health than the negatively charged room, but that bacteria levels would be highest in the control room.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Hammock Effect

Discovery News reports that if you want a nap in a hurry, the best way to do so is to grab a hammock and rock yourself to sleep.
Apparently, both the gently sagging support and the rocking motion help you get to sleep faster than our traditional fixed bed.
If this can be consistently replicated, you might want to replace your bed with a hammock. Or, alternatively, we could make slightly curved beds on a mobile frame. Push a button and the mattress is gently shifted side to side in a rocking motion. Rocking you quickly to sleep, and then slowly stopping over the course of a few hours.
We especially need this in America, where studies show that the average American really needs 3 more hours or so of sleep per night than they're actually getting.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

History of the Chicken

Which came first, the chicken or the egg, asks a famous riddle. After all, the primary source of chicken eggs are chickens, and the primary source of chickens are those same eggs. To a casual observer, this would seem to be an endless regress, hence the question. The egg came first, and was first laid in India.

In the jungles of Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma lives an animal called the Red Junglefowl. It is a tree dwelling bird, distantly related to the Pheasants that European aristocracy hunted for sport. Animal traders brought captured birds to India, where it was hybridized with the Grey Junglefowl, producing the modern chicken. The ancient Indian birdkeepers noted that the birds were easily cared for, enjoyed eating insects (and so were very useful to farmers), and were delicious with the right spices. Over time, Indians lost interest in eating the eggs, but those not prohibited from eating meat for religious reasons continue to enjoy eating the chickens themselves.

Over the years, the chicken was spread by trade through Persia, eventually reaching Greece and Europe. The ancient Greeks and even Romans thought of the chicken as a very exotic bird, as their only supply was through the Persians, and relations between the Greek city-states and the Persian empire were often frosty. However, centuries of trade quickly populated the bird throughout Europe.

Colonists to "The new world" of North and South America often brought domestic animals with them, and the expansion of the chicken eventually reached the Pacific Islands in the 1800s. Chickens are now found worldwide except Antarctica (where they occasionally arrive dead in the form of food).

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Nuclear Bomb Detector

Via Slashdot, I have heard today that a teenaged engineer has produced a machine that can detect the presence of nuclear bombs. The most surprising thing is that it does so with a fusion reactor. Wait, what?
Apparently this young engineer has been producing fusion reactors for the past three years (although apparently not energy efficient -- more energy is required to contain it than it produces), and they produce neutrinos. Neutrinos are very very small particles. So small, in fact, that when dropped, they can pass through the entire earth without hitting anything, slipping through the tiny space between the nucleus of an atom and the electron shells. His previous fusion reactors discarded the neutrinos as waste.
However, this young engineer also noted that radioactive atoms are unstable, and often disturbed by neutrinos. This makes them far more likely to decay and put out radiation. So he's set up a scanner that detects radiation before and after flooding the cargo container with neutrinos, and noting what type of radiation was produced. If it matches the profile of uranium or plutonium decay, then it's 99% certain that an atom bomb has been concealed in the container.
Before this discovery, the search for smuggled atomic bombs was done by manually searching the containers. This had the minor disadvantage that very few containers actually got searched. Genius.
Our excellent engineer, who has more than four times my intelligence at half my age, expresses an interest in getting a PhD in Nuclear chemistry, and doing government work.

Friday, June 17, 2011

GE's Walking Truck

Hack a day brings to my attention that in the 1960s, General Electric had a project with the military in which they produced Quadrupedal walking armored vehicles, which would be used to transport soldiers and their large amount of very heavy supplies across uneven terrain that trucks and even tanks couldn't cross. The project had mixed results.
Apparently, the vehicle was built, and it did transport people at speeds up to 30 miles per hour for very little fuel, and could deftly walk across surfaces that would flip over a tank. It was even sensitive enough that an operator could gently rest a foot on a lightbulb. (Critics note that the lightbulb was placed on a pillow, rather than a cement floor, which is slightly cheating.)
On the downside, though, the user interface was incredibly poorly conceived, and operators needed WTF breaks every 15 minutes, because everything was controlled with a ludicrious array of levers, which drove people absolutely bonkers. I see an immediate improvement that could be produced.
There are two kinds of quadruped animals whose gaits may prove useful to this machine, and that I could describe. The dog and the horse. I learned the dog's foot habits from my pet dog as a child, which I noticed had two gaits. At slower speeds, a walk, the dog would align feet by sides. So first she would step with her front and rear left feet, then her front and rear right feet. When speeding up, there would be a point at which she would switch gaits to the running gait. With the running gait, the front and rear feet were treated as a set: first the front feet together, then the rear feet together.
In horses, there are three gaits: a walk, a jog, and a run. For the horse's walk, the four feet move completely independent of each other, as if two separate people were walking, one in front of the other. At the jog speed, or trot, legs are moved in diagonal pairs: The left front and right rear, then the right front and left rear. The horse's run resembles the dog's run, except that the feet pairs do not hit the ground at the same time. (There tends to be a slight delay, but the front feet will hit the ground within a half second of each other, while the rear feet will hit the ground a second later, also within a half second of each other.)
With some testing, an embedded computer could be made to copy these gaits in the walking truck, which could allow the operator to move across smoother surfaces in the same manner as driving a truck, taking manual control only when the terrain becomes too rough for automated motion. This would save the driver a lot of WTF breaks.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Continuous flow coffee computer

Electronics make a lot of heat, because heat is entropic energy. The act of flipping the state of electronics irreversibly converts some of the electrical energy powering the chip into heat. This heat then has to be carried away. This entropy can be converted to good use.

One of the most treasured machines at my company is the coffee maker. The company has to keep going at all times, 24/7, and an energized worker is a not sucking at his job worker, usually. The coffee maker deliberately converts electricity to heat, which it applies to water, and runs over ground coffee beans to produce coffee. This is caught in thermal jars so that the workers can enjoy it hours later, still hot. I try and keep this making coffee at all times, as it makes my surlier coworkers far more pleasant to be around.

This also gave me an idea of an interesting cooling system. Start with a water cooled computer, except instead of water, cool it with industrial refrigerant. This is piped to the chamber below, where it is intensely compressed, and water is continuously poured over it from a faucet supply. This water is quickly boiled from the heat, and compressed, slightly below room temperature refrigerant is brought back to the computer. Just before it hits the electronics, the refrigerant goes through an expansion valve. This makes it intensely cold, and better suited to take the heat off the computer components. So far, this is essentially a refrigerator.

Now with the hot water, we pump this up out of the chamber, and over to another area, in which there is a "switch" pipe that allows it to fall into one of four carafe's, each of which below contains a thermal jar. A scale below the thermal jar determines how full the jar is, and when the jar is full, the system instantly switches to the next carafe over. Full jars should be taken away (and distributed with cups, creamer, and sugar) with an empty jar put in its place. Also, the carafe will need fresh grounds and filter on a periodic basis. This would occur in two hour cycles, and could quickly be changed to capacity in a five minute break.

Assuming that this system is kept supplied, it would produce coffee continuously, which would clearly be a good thing for my company, which is constantly growing and getting thirstier for coffee by the day.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Forgive me readers, for I have sinned. I have failed to update this blog for over 3 months. For shame.

Working nights is a bad idea for blogging. I come home in the gloom of night exhausted and semi-insane, and I ache too much to think of anything serious. Also, my wrists and back tend to hurt from spending the day sitting and incessantly typing.

I didn't even have any real big ideas during these last three months. I had snatches of an idea here and there, and read of some awesomely insane ideas of engineering past, but by the time I could sit down and write it up, I had forgotten. I'll try and get to what I can remember within this week.

There were also a lot of crisis-es that sucked up a lot of time. Like when a large jug of water tipped over the other day, and the rest of the day was lost to cleaning that mess.

Anyway, I'll try my best to keep up the good work. Will definitely have a new post for tomorrow.

Also, by the time you read this, I will probably be asleep, as working nights means early morning is sleep time.

Sunday, March 13, 2011


What order do you do operations in, in math, when you've got a lot of them? Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally. er, I mean, Parenthesis, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction. See how the first memorable phrase starts with the first letters of the words in the second?
Mnemonics are a psychological trick where you remember something by associating it with something novel, which your brain expects to do. The more associations (and the stranger), the better you can remember it. They're named after Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory (and apparently, arbitrary spelling. Pronounced "Nem-o-seen.")
Okay, so what kind of stars exist? Oh be a fine girl, kiss me. Ouch. Hey, I'm not literally hitting on you, it's the mnemonic. Lists their orders from hottest to coldest. Our sun's a G. Specifically, G2V, a little cooler than the average G, main sequence.
Okay, music. Those lines stand for notes, but which ones? Well, in the treble clef, "every good boy does fine." In the base clef, "Grizzly bears don't fly airplanes." Oh, and sharps appear in a particular order too: "Father Charles goes down and ends battles." (Flats are in the opposite order, if you'd care to write a mnemonic for that.)
In chemistry, equations always obey OIL-RIG. That is, oxidation is loss (of electrons), reduction is gain. Redox!
Mechanics. Which way do I turn the screw again? Righty tighty. So therefore, lefty loosy.
Electronics? They're color coded: "Bright Boys Rave Over Young Girls But Veto Getting Wed."
Biology? All life is elaborately classified. "Kings Play Chess On Fine Grained Sand." (Although the last two, Genus and Species, are unique enough to identify pretty much anything in existence.)
And if this isn't circular enough, remember this poem and all your circles will be correct:
Sir, I bear a rhyme excelling
In mystic force, and magic spelling
Celestial sprites elucidate
All my own striving can't relate
Or locate they who can cogitate
And so finally terminate.

(Which, if you count the letters in each word, becomes Pi, to 31 digits, which is accurate enough for any dimensions of a circle the size of the universe, accurate to the width of a hydrogen atom. Trying to be more accurate than that in engineering is just being pedantic.)
Why do mnemonics work? Well, our brains are designed to keep novel and well connected information. any of these facts by themselves would just be discarded, but this gives a startling and well connected way of remembering, and any one component can bring the entire chain to mind. Also, because of a quirk of psychology, a dirty one works way better than a clean one.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


I hate waking up with a runny nose. Should invent something to deal with it.
I'm thinking gentle vacuum with tiny hose. Kind of like a reverse Neti-pot, or something like that.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Sci-Fi Strikes Again

According to a coworker of mine, a physicist has a device the size of a small car, which holds some ten trillion positrons in containment, and has a wand attachment that can fire them. Positrons, are, of course, anti-electrons, and annihilate electrons on contact, producing a burst of energy, usually heat, light, or sound. (Although sometimes you only get neutrinos out of it.) So when fired, this produces a little beam of light from annihilating the air that it touches, and a strange sucking sound as air rushes in to fill the vacuum.
He then pointed out that technology tends to, over time, cheapen and miniaturize. This machine might be the size of a car and cost more than the entire neighborhood that I live in, but one hundred years from now it'll probably be the size of a flashlight, and be purchasable for a few of whatever they use as currency then in a corner store. It would be useful as a cutting tool, as it would make a tiny part of anything you touched to it literally cease to exist.
So in short, this machine is the precursor of George Lucas's lightsabers. With one major distinction. Lucas's lightsabers could be stopped by each other. This thing's beams would go right through each other if you had more than one.
This would not be the first time that science fiction inspired a real world invention. Plasma shields existed in various sci-fi productions for years before NASA built a real one to deal with the real problem of space dust. (Because collisions with even tiny chunks of dust are a problem when they occur at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour.)

Friday, March 4, 2011

Carbonated Fruit

At Hack A Day, I've learned of a new and impractical but fun snack: fizzy fruit.
The mechanism takes water-rich fruit, such as citrus fruits or, if scaled up, watermelon, and carbonates them in a method similar to the way that sodas are carbonated. High pressure carbon dioxide is diffused through the fruit, producing a fruit that fizzes when eaten like a soda.
Even better, all of the parts for this are available in a regular hardware store. A water-filter casing holds the fruit. Tubes lead to a CO2 canister, which can be bought at all kinds of places. (Apparently paintball guns have a good CO2 source and aren't terribly expensive.) Fruit's cheap in the United States, and all but the poorest houses have refrigerators to keep it cold.
The only way this could be better is if there was some way of refilling the CO2 yourself, but that probably requires a factory....

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Teleportation, the movement of objects from point A to point C without passing through the space between, actually does happen, on the quantum level. Individual atoms have been known to teleport around, though macro-sized objects, things at our level, do not. Developing some means of actually doing so would revolutionize hundreds of industries, from manufacturing (why weld when you can just teleport the steel into the right places) to transportation (Instead of bothering with boats and trucks, goods are teleported from the factory that made them to the store that sells them....or even to the buyer's home) to mail (the post office only needs one facility now: teleportation central).
Attempts to bring this to fruitition often involved some very strange ideas indeed. There was a guy who was popular when I first came to the internet, and surprisingly is still around. Alex Chiu, a rather odd businessman and philosopher, was hawking his "immortality rings," which appear to be some sort of re-machined industrial washer that he then magnetizes and claims that it provides immortality to the wearer. Wouldn't the world be crowded if everyone was immortal, people asked him? He responded in the affirmative...and then answered that a teleportation machine that he invented. It involves a series of coils, which according to Mr. chiu's beliefs about atoms, would convert the atoms into a signal which could then be transmitted to the receiver. I find this idea strangely popular, especially with string theorists.
If human-sized object teleportation is possible, by what means could it occur?

Saturday, February 5, 2011


I thought it was science fiction. I thought it was comic book stuff. I thought it was manifestly insane, but someone has done it. Popsci magazine reports that picoengineering was invented a week or two ago.
For the experiment, one of the electrons in a helium atom was replaced with a muon, which has a similar charge, but is much smaller. And then an interesting thing happened: The helium started acting, chemically, as hydrogen. This has many interesting implications.
For one, if this turns out to be inexpensive enough, you could substitute cheaper materials by bind away some of the electrons. Need thalium? You could substitute lead. Substitute Sulfur for Phosphorous.
Nanoengineering is the production of things ten to the minus nine power meters in size, a billionth of a meter, the size of atoms. Picoengineering is three times smaller than that, dealing with the internal components of the atoms themselves.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Starving AIDS

A discovery from The University of Rochester is likely to make the whole fighting AIDS thing easier: We've been doing it wrong.
Viruses usually replicate by stealing a molecule from your cell, dNTP, and interfering with this process is the first means by which most anti-viral drugs work. AIDS, however, has taken to preying on immune cells that don't have this chemical. The university discovered that AIDS instead takes a similar molecule, rNTP, and works from there.
This could lead to whole new classes of AIDS fighting drugs, ones that do actual damage to the virus's metabolism. Not yet a cure, but AIDS is now officially on the run.
Curing viral disease tends to be more difficult. We have yet to develop any real cure for the common cold, a disease that we naturally recover from in a week or two. Part of the reason for this is that virus's aren't, in most senses of the word, alive. They are naked chunks of protein progammed to replicate endlessly, like some sort of zombie. And like zombies, they tend to keep going until totally destroyed.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Quadcopter Construction

A popular robot for fun is the Quadcopter, a robotic flying machine that has four helicopter-like rotors, and can do all sorts of aerial maneuvers by varying the speeds of its rotors. And some time ago, someone taught them to build building frameworks. Wait, what?
Discovery News reports that the University of Pennsylvania has developed Quadcopters that can manipulate plastic rods with a magnet on one end into the framework of pretty much any building. The metal end of one rod connects to the magnetic cube on the other, to form extremely solid building frames. Presumably one could finish it off with walls and floors that also attach to those magnets.
Already, people are imagining using these to throw up buildings in a hurry in places where it's impractical to take human construction workers. War zones. Mars. Antarctica. The quadcopters will cheerfully work in all of those places. And given a solar-powered charging station, they can work until they run out of parts. Admittedly, they sound like a swarm of angry bees from hell and being in the vicinity of them would be quite unpleasant, so I don't imagine them working urban construction anytime soon. (Especially because scaled up to the point where they'd make human-sized buildings, the noise would certainly rupture your eardrums.)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo appears in the news a lot these days. He is the recipient of a Nobel peace prize, one that the Chinese government is hell-bent in preventing him from actually receiving. The Chinese government is really enraged about him, and to know why I'll have to explain more about his prize and how he got it.
In 1977, a group of Czech intellectuals irritated the then communist Czech government by producing a document called the Charter 77, which demanded human rights and democracy, and lambasted the Czech government for denying its promises in this regard. Though the Czech government lashed out, ultimately the demands outlined in Charter 77 were upheld after the fall of communism. Liu Xiaobo and a large number of other Chinese intellectuals were inspired by this document, and made a similar one called Charter 08 (as it was written in 2008).
This clearly annoyed the Chinese government, who not only was very irritated to be criticized like that, but also considers human rights to be a load of western bullshit that would derail Mao's vision of an equal society. Mr. Liu then went on to further annoy them:
(It would take) 300 years of colonialism. In 100 years of colonialism, Hong Kong has changed to what we see today. With China being so big, of course it would require 300 years as a colony for it to be able to transform into how Hong Kong is today. I have my doubts as to whether 300 years would be enough.
These kinds of views are generally seen as seditious, and I think if I expressed any similar beliefs (if I advocated that it would be a good thing if America were to be conquered by another country, say Germany or China), I think I would be loudly denounced as a treasonous bastard, though not arrested. The Chinese government, nationalistically insulted, arrested Mr. Liu on grounds of sedition.
The Chinese government was further enraged when Mr. Liu was awarded the Nobel peace prize for the work on Charter 08, and its inability to lobby the Norwegian Government to influence the decision. (Members of the selection committee are chosen by the Norwegian parliament, but the government has no further input on selection and certainly enjoys nothing remotely similar to veto power.)
So that's why he's imprisoned, why the Chinese government is mad at Norway, and why shit will fly for years to come from all this. I argue that human rights, "Ren Quan" in Chinese, is an important part of Sun Yat Sen's "Minquan," or "people's power."

Friday, January 21, 2011

Brute Force Safecracking

If you wanted to get into a safe, but didn't know the combination, how would you crack it? The dumbest, but guarenteed to work, solution is to try every combination until one works. A human safecracker would get tired within a few hours of doing this, so Hack A Day reports someone automating this...with robots. The robot works faster than a human safecracker too.
The robot is a metal-and-plastic manipulator machine controlled by an embedded computer, and would fit in a backpack. If the thief is sneaky, and does this at a time when most people are asleep, and muffles the whirring noise made by the servos, he could sneak it into a bank at 2am in a backpack, muffle all noise in the area, let it grind away for 3 hours, grab the safe contents, grab the machine, and be gone by 6am. If he's stealthy enough, no one would even notice.
In some ways, I suppose this was inevitable. Cryptographic brute force is the only known way to solve NP based problems, and the only P based way to crack a safe would be to somehow figure out some pattern to the combination based on the manufacturer's serial number.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Fruitfly Network

An interesting way of solving a wireless network problem was found today in fruit fly brains, reports Discovery News.
See, bug brains and wireless networks have a common problem. "Who's the leader?" To an individual brain cell or network node, it doesn't matter if it's the leader or not, so long as it definitely knows who's in charge. The bug solution has been applied to networks, for a saving of cpu power dedicated to routing.
In bug brains, neurons first see if there are any leaders near them. If so, they decline to become a leader -- someone's beaten them to it, why bother? If they don't find a leader, then this section of brain is leaderless, and they announce to their immediate neighbors that they are the leader. This tends to organize the leadership cells evenly through the fly's brain in a very efficient pattern.
To do this for wireless network, you only need two dedicated signals. One for "Any leaders around here?" One for "Yes, I am the leader." When a node turns on, it sends the first signal. If it doesn't hear the second one, then it puts out the second signal and sets itself to leadership mode. This isn't terribly difficult to set up even in hardware alone, so routers can route more efficiently....for cheap.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Neurology has advanced to the point where an EEG can now be used to answer yes or no questions, reports Discovery news. And this could be used for good or evil.
For good, it can be used to communicate with vegetative people. If they have enough brainpower left to understand you, you can put them in an EEG and ask questions. They're not conscious enough to answer you, but their brain activates in particular patterns when imagining answering the question, which we can now read. And this proves that people who have been unconscious for years can still recover: their brain still works.
For evil, I imagine that this may be used for coercive interviewing. The evil spy, government, or whoever, crams you into an EEG and starts answering questions of you. And you don't really have to answer him with words, your own brain will give you away. (Unless, of course, you've decided to rehearse your lies ahead of time.)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

More on Emulating the Brain

Timothy Blee has a lot more to say about Robin Hanson's thesis of simulated people. Namely, Mr. Blee asserts that it is not possible.
Brains work in a very different manner than silicon chips. Silicon chips have a central processor, that can store data on temporary storage, like RAM, or permanent storage like hard drives. It cycles very very quickly. I recently bought a 3.2 GhZ processor. It cycles 3.2 billion times per second.
Brains, however, are a massive network of neurons that signal each other They cycle slowly, only 30 times per second, and can connect to many other neurons at any given time, and are always reconfiguring each other.
Mr. Blee then points out that emulation works in computers works because we know how both the target and host computer operate, and by Dr. Turing's theorem can restructure the directives to match the host computer's operation. We at this point have only a fuzzy idea of how the bran works, and our theories on it are constantly being proven wrong.
I think that it's hypothetically possible to emulate the brain -- but it may require radically different hardware. A massive memristor mesh would be a closer approximation than the machine on your desk (or lap). The hardest part is that the brain literally rewires itself as you learn things, and so far no hardware we have ever built does that.
I thought of this because of Mr. Hanson's previous rants about emulated people, and thinking how an emulated version of me could be handy at work. While I'm stressing and frazzled, I could pass messages to him and he could help me. (Which would probably even be easy for him...the world would move quite slowly from his perspective.)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Lunar Base

I constantly hear about how the moon has water in a crater on its south pole. This gives me an idea of building a base in the north pole.
The moon, unlike the Earth, is not tilted. The poles of the moon have perpetual sunlight...except that the south pole is a crater that lives in perpetual shadow. Hence the water. (With no atmosphere, the moon is burning hot where the sun shines and freezing cold where it doesn't. Ice remains in the shadows.) So my idea is to build a huge megastructure on the north pole (especially if there is a crater there), topped with a giant geodesic dome made of Plexiglas. I imagine this structure being many cubic kilometers in size, at least the size of Rhode Island. In the geodesic dome, there will be a park and a farm. Below, a living area and a laboratory and a huge storage area, and some sort of airlocked shaft to the lunar surface for resupplying.
I imagine the lab being used for fusion research, as the lunar surface is covered with helium, and the farm growing the food that the fusion scientists would eat. Also, it would grow tobacco. Why? Interesting reason for that.
On our third trip to the moon, one of the astronauts was a major conservationist and brought a collection of seeds with him. When he came back, these seeds were quite popular with people who desired the novelty of a "moon tree." There is nothing odd about the trees other than the fact that as seeds they were once on the moon. (This has not changed them in any perceivable way.) If people like "moon trees," I'll bet they'd go absolutely gaga for "moon tobacco." Now you can smoke something...that grew in the perpetual sunlight at the lunar pole. Holy crap!
One other project to develop would be to send astronauts to the far side and have them construct a telescope there. Communication wires would then be installed to link it to the moon base, and then to Earth-based radio link. This would be an excellent vantage point to observe the universe, and I imagine a major jockeying of astronomers for a share of time to use it. (Only really useful when the moon is full, and the telescope not facing the sun, unfortunately.)

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Most American cities have some sort of highway system for transportation. Highways are streets that have very high speed limits and offer a sort of right-of-way to the drivers on them, and traveling for a semi-long distance in America is really tricky without one. Most cities' highways dangerously fill up when the workday starts or stops, which is really annoying.
The natural disaster that occurs in my region is hurricanes, and something interesting happens when one is coming. The authorities set up a "contraflow" system for the highways, in which the other direction of a highway is reversed, since all traffic needs to be leaving town at the time. (They come back after the hurricane.) This gave me another idea to defeat the whole rush hour phenomenon.
Highways now are set up evenly divided between the two directions. If a highway has eight lanes, it will have four going in one direction and four going in another. With this, I replace the barriers with a more mobile one, such as slots with metal doors that we can remotely pop up or down, and we divide it six lanes in one direction and two in the other. We switch configurations at noon and midnight. It won't totally solve the problem, but it will now be much much easier to deal with.

Thursday, January 13, 2011


I'm still hovering in that sick zone where I'm ill enough to want to do nothing but sleep when I have free time, but not quite sick enough to take a sick day from work. I tried sitting down with a notepad to come up with an idea, but only got an incoherent scribble out out that. I might have interesting ideas while whacked out of my mind on cough syrup, but then I'm too messed up to actually, you know, write them down.
So to amuse you, I have translated a comedy classic, the log commercial, into Chinese. I don't actually know any more Chinese as a language than "Hello, how are you, My name is Professor Preposterous, I am an American," but mechanical translation technology has gone a lone way since then. The log commercial is, of course, a parody of slinky commercials that ran in the sixites.
Google literally translates the log song's lyrics as:

This would be a mouthful to sing, so for that, I pidginized the lyrics until they fit.


So, why do this elaborate waste of time? For one, translation technology amazes me. At work, I handle requests from all over the world, but officially, they're supposed to be filed in English, as we are an American company and cannot reasonably be expected to have, say, French speakers on hand. So when someone doesn't speak English....they can run their comments through this translation program, and be able to talk to us anyway.
Technology, hell yeah.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Hot Ice

My illness is getting worse. Here's a video of a very clever chemist making "Hot Ice," a substance that cheerfully freezes at room temperature, yet in its liquid state looks exactly like water, and frozen looks exactly like ice:

Enjoy your chemistry

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Call me...

I need a new nickname. "The Mad Engineer" seemed good enough when I started, but now there's several blogs named mad engineering. Surprise. Though I like the anonymity, I want a way for people to address me, personally. In addition, I'm interested in guest posts and extra writers, and wish to distinguish myself from them.
Henceforth, I'm changing my official name here to "Professor Preposterous." From the Latin word, meaning:
Absurd, or contrary to common sense.
Or more accurately, something that's so wrong as to be an inversion of the actual truth. After all, patent ludicrousness is what this blog's all about.

In other news, I've caught some sort of Martian-death-flu at work and am behind on everything. Guest posters wanted.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Gas Crisis

Gas is about to hit $3/gallon in my region. I remember not too long ago when gas exploded to over $4/gallon and there was a massive massive freakout. Europe and Asia proceeds to laugh derisively. (The Chinese Guy points out that gas is over $9/gallon where he lives, and he manages.) I think the best thing we can do is to develop alternative fuels, which reduces the demand and thus lowers the price.
* BioButanol
This is a chemical fuel that resembles gasoline, but is made of any vegetative matter modified by a particular bacterial action. You could put it in your gas tank right now.
* Ethanol
Drinking alcohol. Works as 110 octane fuel in your tank, but most cars couldn't handle more than 15%. Flex-Fuel cars can have up to 85% ethanol, and Brazil has cars that work on 100% ethanol due to their excess sugar-cane production. Nice work, Brazil
* Electricity
Electric cars exist that you can buy now. People complain about their lack of range, and the fact that they're a tad difficult to recharge, and the fact that they're expensive due to novelty factor. Still, one would work even for my long daily commute.
* Nuclear
It'll never work, there are still too many anti-nuclear kooks that insist that anything nuclear will at some point violently explode, destroying the entire city with it.
* Biodiesel
Change vegetable oil into diesel gasoline by removing the glycerine. Works in any diesel engine. The catch being: Only works in diesel engines that lack rubber parts. biodiesel has an annoying habit of leeching through rubber parts.

Any other ideas to power our cars? Cars use a lot of energy, and even advertise the fact. Cars measure their output in Horsepower, a unit of about 750 watts, that being the approximate power output of a strong draft horse. So whatever source you use, it'll need to be very portable, have a large power output, and not too expensive or strange to refuel.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Civil War

Every big country I can name that has existed for more than 150 years or so has had a civil war. The effects of which often spill out onto other countries. I'm thinking about the American Civil War, which raged from 1860 - 1865, primarily over the rights of the states that compose the country, tariffs, and as pulp history likes to over-simplify it, the legitimacy of slavery as an institution. The war ended with the complete defeat of the southern rebels, "Dixie," and a rough period in which they were reintegrated into the country. Historians like to point out the weird parallels with America's war of independence in the first place, with the northern faction more in the position of the UK and the southern faction more in the position that the colonies had at the time.
"Dixie," or as it officially named itself The Confederate States of America, had pinned its hopes of survival on the UK and France intervening in the war. Such a foreign intervention is a major risk for the intervening power, as a successful intervention leaves the surviving power in their debt, but a failed one leads to understandable anger from the faction you opposed. The Confederacy ultimately sucked at diplomacy, and their "You need us as we're your biggest source of cotton" position alienated the countries they wished to court, who promptly found other sources of cotton to feed their mills.
I'm aware of the take of the UK, France, and Mexico on the affair. The UK and France were horrified by the Confederacy's enthusiastic endorsement of slavery, an institution that they had both recently banned as grossly immoral. They were also aware that friendly actions towards the Confederacy understandably cheesed off the American government, which was a major trading partner of theirs. Mexico, meanwhile, had lost half of its territory to the Mexican-American war twenty years before, and was aware that the Union government had no further claims, while the Confederacy desired the remainder of their lands. They were grateful to Abraham Lincoln (the Union president)'s denouncement of the Mexican-American war as a cynical land-grab, and was thus enthusiastically pro-Union.
I'm curious as to how the rest of the world felt about the Confederacy, then and now, especially as a lot of conservative southern Americans look back to the Confederacy with nostalgia, and even vigorously wave Confederate flags and dream of a repeat. A behavior that northerners and westerners find treasonous. As late as World War 2, southern battalions often incorporated Confederate symbols where possible, and the American visit to Mao was called the "Dixie mission," comparing his rebellion against the Republic of China to the Confederate rebellion against America. Except that Mao was a left-wing communist and the Confederacy right wing extremist, and Mao actually succeeded, an interesting comparison.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Preventing Inflation

Inflation is when money becomes less valuable, as goods and services become more expensive. A small amount is practically expected. A large amount is ruinous. Keeping it under control is a very important task for nations. Inflation increases when the production of goods and services slows down or when the government prints more money. Inflation decreases, or even gets turned into its evil twin deflation, when the services speed up faster than money is printed, or if the bills get destroyed by someone other than the government.
This gives me a wonderfully weird idea to slow or kill off inflation. Potlach. Potlach was an old ceremony from Pacific coast tribes in which they were throw a feast for everyone and set part of their wealth on fire. This had the effect of increasing social equality while still allowing the high-rollers to show off and get additional status. For a modern version, we'd have a big huge party for our sponsors, with food and music and speeches about how awesome they are. This culminates with them stacking a huge number of bills on a stack and setting them on fire. As the bill burns, the sponsor gives a speech on any topic of their choosing. Inflation is controlled, rich people get to show off, almost everyone wins. It's best not to do this too often, though, as there is a minor expense in printing the bills in the first place.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Ever seen toy car racetracks? The cars are pushed by a small plastic hook pulled through the tracks by an electric motor. I wonder if there's some way to apply this to larger scale....?
If so, it could have big savings on gasoline.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Years

A new year is a new beginning or some such. I could talk about why January, why the new year represents a new beginning, but instead I think I'll have a public service announcement.
Many people traditionally celebrate the new year by firing a gun into the air. They think this is harmless, but the bullet forms a very high ballistic arc that often ends in someone else's house. People have been severely injured or killed because of this. So, as your local sherrif's or other law enforcement office will tell you, please don't fire guns into the air unless there's no one else around for miles. You can call them for more information.
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