Monday, October 28, 2013

Tommy Edison's questions for sighted people

Film critic Tommy Edison hasn't actually seen a single movie in his entire life, although he's heard lots of them, due to the fact that he is blind, and has been since he was born.   He also enjoys photography, thanks to assisting technology.

On his youtube channel, he recently asked a number of questions for sighted people. Though people have already provided him with answers, I also thought it would be a good idea to answer him as well.

Hello, I am Professor Preposterous. I am 33 years old, and have vision, albeit with somewhat severe nearsightedness. This means my vision is distorted past the range of my hands or so if I don't wear glasses.

How do you remember all those colors?

In general, I would say that there are millions of small variations on a small set of colors. A fashion designer might be able to tell the difference between "aquamarine" and "periwinkle," but to me both are just "blue." I can tell that they're a different shade of blue, but I don't see the point in differentiating further. To make a metaphor, I would compare colors to textures. A wooden object feels different to the touch than say, a plastic one, or a felt one, and if you pay a lot of attention, you might be able to tell if the wood is, say, pine, instead of spruce.

Color is actually due to the frequency of light that bounces off an object, light being an electromagnetic radiation that vision detects, the way that hearing detects compression waves in the air. There are seven basic ones:

  1. Red: 700 - 635 nm
  2. Orange: 635 - 590 nm
  3. Yellow: 590 - 560nm
  4. Green: 560 - 490nm
  5. Blue: 490 - 450nm
  6. Purple: 450 - 400nm

There's also black and white, which depend on if it is described with an additive color system (like a spotlight or a computer monitor) or a subtractive one (like paints). With additive systems, all the colors make white, and no colors make black. With a subtractive system, all the colors together makes black, and white has to be prepared separately. My computer monitor uses an additive system that can make basically every color there is from three: red, blue, and green.

Also, I would be very surprised if you were unable to provide me a similar level of detail about texture, or sound.

What's it like to be able to look at a room and know exactly where everything is? My god, that's genius.

Extremely orienting. Except that vision only shows you where everything is in a room if the room is sorted first -- vision is blocked by the first object with color that it encounters, so if something is behind something else, a sighted person can only see the thing in front. Sight also only works forward -- we see what's behind us about as well as you do, which is to say not at all. For what's behind us, we have to rely on hearing, or perhaps mirrors.

While in theory, vision's distance is unlimited, closer things provide more detail than further away things, any obstacle blocks further sight, and some of the things vision tells us are just plain outright lies. For example, the sky is not actually a thing -- there's air over our heads, but vision tells us that it's a large dome-shaped object at a large distance away, maybe 20 miles. Or the horizon, where the sky and the ground seems to touch if there are no large objects blocking it, which appears to be about 8 miles away, but moves with us if we move.

So, how come you stop and look at a hot chick? Guys at a red light, they'll stop traffic!

Vision provides a lot of information at once. Sometimes this is kind of distracting, especially with our lower brain, the one we got from lizards, hijacking everything else to think up pickup lines until we realize that we've been staring and have lost all chance of relating to her normally.

How do you remember what things look like? I mean, there are so many things. Like cars. How do you know the particular make of a car? Or vegetables? Fruit? Food?

Things don't really change all that often. If I were to hand a random object off my desk to you, you would probably recognize it instantly, because it feels the same as the other ones that you've encountered before. Let's say that I hand you an apple. The moment it touches your hand, you'd probably recognize it. Vision is the same -- seeing an object gives us the general shape, the color information, and hints at the texture of the object. Having seen similar objects before, we recognize them.

If you were somehow able to touch and feel every car extensively, every time you passed them, I think you would start to recognize particular models after about a month. Every car of a particular year, make, and model is shaped exactly the same. The color is different due to auto paint, but the texture is the same and the shape is the same. We recognize them because we've seen them before.

The same with food. Apples have the same general shape as other apples. Bananas have the same shape as other bananas.

Fashion blows my mind. I mean, you choose to wear something that looks good rather than feels good?

As someone in the applied sciences, fashion doesn't work well with me either. But people who wear things that look good usually like the attention that they get for doing so enough that they're willing to put up with a surprising amount of discomfort.

What's it like to go somewhere all by yourself?

On one hand, liberating. On the other, lonely. I was kind of surprised with the idea that you couldn't travel alone.

What about driving?

I learned to drive 17 years ago. When I first started, it was unbearable -- having to keep track of everything and do so many things at once took more brainpower than I had available. Over time, I got used to it as more and more things became habit and could be relegated to the unconscious, until I could drive and listen to the radio and muse about philosophy all at the same time. Cell phones are a bad idea though. And texting -- texting is just asking for trouble.

What's it like to walk around in the snow?

Snow doesn't support your weight and sinks when you step on it, with an annoying crunching sound. It's also super easy to get lost, the massive amount of reflected light gives sighted people a headache, it's wet, and it's cold. In my opinion snow can go die in a fire.

How do you not see something that happens right in front of your face?

Vision uses a huge amount of brainpower all by itself, so if you do it, your brain takes a lot of shortcuts. A sighted person can see something and not recognize it, or could be facing the wrong direction, because vision only works in front of you. Anything above or below, or behind, will just not be seen at all. If your sighted friend is facing the wrong way, his vision is just not going to help.

How do you lose sight of something? I mean, like you drop money on the floor and lose it?

Sight only works one layer deep, as it were. If the money goes under or behind something, sight will tell us that nothing's there. If money falls into the sofa, and we look at the sofa, we'll only see the sofa, not the money. Sometimes moving around can give us new information, like putting our head to the floor before looking at the sofa (oh hey, there's that quarter!)

How do you lose your car in a parking lot?

Unfortunately, cars are not all that unique. One particular make, year, and model of car, in a particular color, is as specific as it gets. There's at least three cars in any particular lot that exactly match the description of my car, so I'll walk to one and....this is somebody else's car. Damn it!

How do you miss the exit while driving? Wouldn't that be blatantly obvious?

With distractions, usually. You have to look at quite a lot of things very quickly, and the recognition step of vision sometimes comes too late due to the speed. Okay, avoid that car, check the rear view mirror, check the side, see the sign, avoid that other car, wait, that sign was indicating my exit. Damn!

Thanks for the questions, Tommy. Tommy maintains both a channel about his experiences with blindness and how he deals with it, and his reviews of movies.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Solid Tires

When I think about tires, the more I realize how completely weird they are.   Our roads are full of vehicles that ride on inflated air.  Why?  A completely solid tire would cause too much wear on the road, but they're also vulnerable to puncture, deflation, and so on.

There's a number of reasons that we do this.  Tires need to be soft enough to not damage the road that you're driving the car on, provide enough friction to prevent the car from sliding, and hard enough that the engine doesn't get overtaxed by pushing them.  (Deflated tires have a greater resistance to actually turning). 

So the usual solution is to have inflated tires, filled to a set pressure.  (Mine is 35 PSI, about twice atmospheric pressure.)   If driving conditions change, you can inflate it more, for greater gas milage, or less, for more traction.  For instance, in a very sandy road, I might want to deflate my tires to 20PSI to make sure that I don't skid.

However, since basically 100% of my driving is on cement or asphalt roads, which change very little, and puncturing a tire is a severe problem, I was thinking, as a longer lasting solution of a tire that instead of being inflated, was filled with a memory-foam like substance.  This tire could not be punctured, would perpetually remain balanced, and could be used until the treads physically wore off.

On the downside, if you did ever need the characteristics of the tire to change, you'd have to pretty much have to remove all four tires and put on four new ones.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Sea Bucket

During a lunch break, I saw a "ha-ha, only serious" article suggesting that we deal with sea level rise by flooding arctic Canada. Why? Several reasons:

  1. No one lives there.  90% of Canada lives within 100 miles of the US border.
  2. North of the tree line, the plant life stops being all that interesting
  3. No real commercial interest in the area either
Of course, Canada will raise objections to this plan, if no other reason than because it makes them lose territory for no good reason.  However, thinking about it gave me an idea.

I can model the ocean as a bucket, 5 miles deep, with a trickle of water being added to it.  (The rise is more related to its change in temperature, but that'd be harder to model in the small scale.)   We as humans can dig far deeper than that.   I'm thinking of the borehole studies like the Kola borehole, where we dug down as deep as we could just to see what was there.  Previous knowledge of the depths of the earth was based on seismic studies, in which we bounced sound off of it.  Things got weird.

The kola borehole went down 40,000 feet.   The further the geologists drilled, the stranger it became, and the more often the drill would break and have to be replaced.  The environment at depth was over 360 degrees (180C), and they reported clouds of hydrogen gas. 

Accordingly, in a location of low commercial value, but still near the ocean, we dig as deep a hole as we can manage, build a geothermal plant over it, then dig a shaft from our hole to the ocean.   Water from the ocean drains into our hole, gets superheated into steam, and turns the turbines in the geothermal plant.  The water then condenses into fresh drinkable water.  The first place that would be good to do this would be the Kola borehole itself, if the Russian government is amenable to this.

Ideally we would pipe this water into the various fossil water reservoirs that we've been using all these years, but in practice I have a nagging feeling that the water will be sold to the highest bidder.   Probably a bottled water company.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Garbage eating Pigeons

The pigeon is ubiquitous in the world's cities due to a similarity to the native habitat of these birds -- seaside cliffs in the middle east. We humans went and built these cliffs everywhere, and even leave around half-eaten sandwiches for sustenance. If there weren't cars and cats and predatory hawks, pigeons would think cities were perfect.

One thing that annoys me about the city is litter.   I often see little bits of garbage thrown into some corner where it will just kind of sit around for all eternity.  Occasionally I've gathered it up and thrown it away myself, but within a week's time, it's back.   This gave me an idea.

Using the de-extinction technology I mentioned earlier, I make an artificial variant of the pigeon.  This species will have digestive enzymes that can consume paper, plastic, and styrofoam.    I'd like to include glass, but glass is made of pretty much pure silicon dioxide, and there are limits to what protein can accomplish.   I engineer 20 of these, and release them in a major city, ideally one with an extreme litter problem.

The garbage eating pigeons will clear the streets quite handily.   While existing pigeons will go to extreme lengths to grab old bits of bread and discarded lunch things, such as jumping into dumpsters, charging across five lanes of traffic, and I even saw a pigeon try to divebomb a sandwich out of someone's hands once.  (This failed.)

So when pigeons can eat stuff that's just lying around, I imagine it'll be snapped up in a matter of weeks.  At which time they will move on to dumpsters and landfills, lowering disposal costs.

Of course, there's a catch.  No organism is 100% efficient, and birds poop.  Birds in fact have an annoying instinct to poop into puddles to disguise their trail from predators, and when airborne often confuse shiny cars with puddles.   This is going to mean a greatly increased bird population in the city, and with it, greatly increased car washing will be required.   I may be able to breed a new instinct into them to poop into grass instead, which would fertilize the grass.

And if they get too numerous, there's another creature from their native habitat that also does well in cities, the Peregine falcon.   This is the fastest moving bird on earth, and exclusively eats other birds.   It enjoys pigeons for dinner the way that I enjoy a medium-well steak.  Each released falcon will eat a minimum of five pigeons a day.

Monday, June 24, 2013


One of the great tragedies of animal conservation is that a lot of animals are threatened with extinction -- the death of the last of them, causing their species to forever become absent from the face of the earth. Remarkable animals like the Carolina parakeet, the Aurochs, the Dodo, and the Moa, are extinct, and will never be seen again. Anything relying on them is also gone. And anything that relies on that goes away quite quickly too. Some of them have surviving relatives, like the modern Cow's relationship to the Aurochs, the Ostritch to the moa, and the nicobar pigeon to the Dodo. One scientist is aiming to change that:

Essentially, the extinct species will, from what few remaining scraps we have of their DNA, be cloned into a genetically modified parent. A modified chicken will birth small extinct birds, a modified cow will produce extinct bovines, and what was once gone forever, will cease to be gone. The first generation of these will be sickly, as the modification process has certain complications, but their children will turn out normally. And then the cold hand of death will have to release it's hand on certain animals.

Or to put it more mad-scientistly, IT'S ALIVE, IT'S ALIVE, MAKE MY CREATION LIVE!!!!


Sunday, June 23, 2013


Where did the past four months, almost five, go? Oh right, I was working a crapton of overtime due to a major expansion event. We're now taking clients as far away as San Antonio and Dallas. All this work has been great for my budget, but for ideas, I haven't had any for months. Then I had one, but it will take some time to properly write up. This can only mean one thing. I'm back. Let's see if I can keep it that way.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Swing Pressure House

I have an impractical idea that may have beneficial effects for our space program: A house in which there is no carbon dioxide whatsoever, and it's all shunted aside to a greenhouse. This both benefits the plants, and is a security system for pests and vegetable thieves. We start with an oxygen generator, a machine who's name is a bit of a misnomer. It doesn't chemically generate oxygen so much as concentrate oxygen in the air. We want the industrial type, because it's cheaper, has higher airflow, and makes fewer assumptions about the air flow stream. This is used to pressurize an airtight house to 1.1 atmospheres. The higher pressure is to ensure that if any leaks do develop, the air flows out, not in.
Next, for dealing with the exhaled breath of the house's occupants, we have an airflow system that takes air from the house, and bubbles it through a hydroxide. All metal hydroxides react with carbon dioxide to form carbonates, which filters the carbon out of the air. Calcium hydroxide would be my primary choice, as this produces heat when synthesized, and is easily cleaned due to calcium carbonate being insoluble in water. You could even check visually to see when a hydroxide sample is worn down and needs replacement. Unfortunately, the synthesis of calcium hydroxide is more complex than sodium hydroxide, which can be produced by electrolyzing salt water. Enormous vats of hydroxides keep the air carbon free.
Over at the greenhouse, the metal carbonates produced by the air filtration system are bought to a lime kiln or vat of strong acid. The carbon becomes liberated from the metal, and spews forth throughout the greenhouse. This suits the plants fine, as the original earth's atmosphere was something like 30% carbon dioxide. As far as plants are concerned, modern earth is polluted all to hell with oxygen, which they produce as waste.
I wanted to make this a closed cyclical system, in which the greenhouse reset the conditions of the house, and vice versa. This would be necessary in space, where the gathering of additional materials is not possible. In space, if you did not bring with you, then you do not have it. I would recommend a calcium based system for this:
CaCO3 + HCl → CaCl2 + CO2 + H2O
H2O + electricity → H2 + O2
CaCl2 → Ca + Cl2 H2 + Cl2 → HCl
Ca + O2 → CaO
CaO + H2 → Ca(OH)2
Ca(OH)2 + CO2 → CaCO3
On earth, a sodium based system is probably more practical: NaCl + H2O → NaOH + Cl
NaOH + CO2 → NaCO3 + H2O

You now have an endless supply of hand warmer and poison gas.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Windshield Wire

There's a small icon on my car's dashboard.

When I push this button, current runs through tiny wires in my car's back window, and the resistance to this heats the window up. The head makes water deposited on this window by condensation evaporate, making the window clear for me to see out of. This is legally mandated for my car, as lawmakers think it a reasonable expectation that I be able to see what the hell is going on behind me when I drive.

The windshield, though, or front window, is defogged by blowing hot air from the engine. This is partially because the engine is right below it, and this is a ready source of heat, but mostly because the little wires would be way too prominent at that close a distance. The back window is six feet away from me, the driver. The little black lines are just too tiny to notice at that distance. The windshield, though, is merely inches away. To put little wires here would mean looking a little black lines constantly while I drive.

Let us suppose, though, that I didn't mind the wires, but needed some sort of automated system, so I don't have to bother with the button. I think I would resolve this by materials science.

I would need to produce a material that conducted electricity, but developed greater resistance under low temperatures. In temperate environments, where the window does not fog up, the wires conduct efficiently, and very little heat is produced. However, in colder environments where my own body heat makes a temperature gradient that encourages condensation, the resistance rises considerably, producing heat, and evaporating this fog before it can really get started.

Nah, there's defoggers set up the way they are for a reason.

However, if I were redesigning cars, I would make each of its vents independent. The front vents for blowing air at my face, the lower vents that blow air at my feet, and the vents that blow air at the outer windshield would each have their own dial for temperature and amount of air. As I turn the amount of air dials up, a fan in the vent is given more voltage, making it rotate faster and push more air. As I turn the temperature dial up, more of the air is routed past the radiator.

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