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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