Yet another weird SF fan

I'm a mathematician, a libertarian, and a science-fiction fan. Common sense? What's that?

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Yet another weird SF fan

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Another Reason Not to Fear Monomolecular Wire

In a common science-fictional cliche (for example, in “Thin Edge” by Johnathan Blake MacKenzie), monomolecular wire is supposed to be an invisible, infinitely-sharp knife that will slice through flesh and bone with hardly any resistance. Any terrorist (or even an irresponsible twit) can loop it across a doorway and slice any passerby to ribbons. I criticized this a few years ago, but it still looked like it might still be dangerous at the thickness of dental floss. There's another reason it won't be the ultimate terrorist weapon. It can be detected by Silly String:

I'm a former Marine I in Afghanistan. Silly string has served me well in Combat especially in looking for I.A.Ds., simply put, booby traps. When you spray the silly sting in dark areas, especially when you doing house to house fighting. On many occasions the silly string has saved me and my men's lives...

When you spray the string it just spreads everywhere and when it sets it lays right on the wire. Even in a dark room the string stands out revealing the trip wire.

There are more possible uses of civilian technology

For example:

Webcams have been dotting the American landscape for over a decade now. They can be purchased for next to nothing and are supported by a host of software and hardware developments. At its heart a webcam is really only a few dollars worth of parts and a plastic shell.

With a little effort it would take a small company only a short time to integrate a host of intellectual properties to provide a robust and effective monitoring system to all of Iraq. Look at the typical cellphone today, possessing as it does camera, gps and dozens of other functions. Strip away the keypad, lcd screen and lighting; replace them with a mesh network transponder system and perhaps a MEMS motion/vibration detection chip. This energy efficient device could be packaged in a rugged inexpensive plastic shell injection molded to look like a rock, brick, tile or what-have-you.

Upon mass production it would cost only tens of dollars. For the price of a couple of humvees and a tank these things could be scattered out the backs of trucks, dropped from airplanes or emplaced by hand to literally blanket roadways, city regions or any place that needed it with video monitoring. The mesh network would feed video back to a central station or up to satellites via spread-spectrum broadcasting. With motion activation software built in, inactive sites could powerdown and use their resources to help pass signal.

But wait, there's more.

There's yet another possibility. Would it be possible to scatter “starved octahedra” reflectors in the war zone? The octahedra described here:

One every navigational bouey and nearly every boat that floats around in Puget sound there is a metal octahedron. Now these are no ordinary octahedra because they do not contain the usual triangular faces. Instead they contain the 3 diametrical squares. In an xyz-coordinate system with the origin at the center of the octahedron the squares are on the 3 coordinate planes (xy- xz- and yz-planes). I once asked what these were for, and was told that they were for radar. Apparently they show up very sharply on radar.
If those reflectors are small enough they might be overlooked. (In that case, it might be necessary to use lasers instead of radar.) Small reflectors can be expected to move slightly in response to sound waves. That motion might be detectable by the Doppler effect.

There's probably some kind of catch …

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Does Academia Discriminate against Conservatives?

Some academics think so. In the comments here (about the blog of Luboš Motl, a “reactionary physicist”):

I think for him it would be the best, simply to SHUT DOWN HIS BLOG IMMEDIATELY and concentrate himself working on some papers. He has ruined his life with his blog.

In Munich, I’ve heared Suesskind complaining personally about Lubos Blog! If Lubos would not have this blog, almost everyone would employ a former Harvard professor. (But of course, Lubos won’t shut down his blog, because he thinks that he was always right, seeing no insults he has made. He writes that he “does not enjoy elementary human rights now”, and this shows no insight, that he has done something wrong)


On the other hand, this might be an isolated incident.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Equal Time for Banker Potter

In the world of the movie It's a Wonderful Life, did the supposedly-evil banker Mr. Potter (Mr. was apparently his first name) also have a wonderful life? If he had never existed, would this banker with a heart have frittered away the capital of the townspeople? Did Mr. Potter make it possible for a town with a healthy economy to rescue Bailey's bank?

Did the absence of equal time mean the FBI's characterization of the movie (seen via BoingBoing) was actually accurate?

Statistics and Insanity

I suspect the number of lunatics who think they are the President of the United States or Pope or Secretary-General or even Bill Gates probably exceeds the number of actual people in those positions. Does that mean that President Bush or Pope Benedict should come to the conclusion that he is a lunatic and resign? It seems like statistical reasoning has its limitations …

In related news:

I'm Joshua Abraham Norton, the first and only Emperor of the United States of America!
Which Historical Lunatic Are You?
From the fecund loins of Rum and Monkey.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Food Irradiation and Nutrition

There's evidence that food irradiation can increase the levels of Vitamin A and carotene.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Literary Critics, Science Fiction, Atheists, and Religion

The claims that religion is inherently irrational (in the comments here, there, and yonder) remind me of Robert Conquest's description of the literary world's reaction to science fiction:

'SF's no good,' they bellow till we're deaf. 'But this looks good.' -- 'Well then, it's not SF.'

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Do Personality Tests Only Tell Us What We Already Know?

This one did. I'm a Crackpot.

Thank you, Mr. Obvious.

Is Transhumanism Incompatible with Belief in an Afterlife?

Why would transhumanism be incompatible with a belief in an afterlife? Even an immortal lifespan is a mere aleph-null years and there are much larger cardinalities.

I was inspired by this discussion.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Did Nukes Win the 1980 Election for the Republicans?

While considering the comments on this post, I realized that they might have done so.

A substantial number of leftist arguments depend on the claim that liberals know more than conservatives. Did the no-nukes movement in the 1970s undercut that? I suspect that in the late 1970s, most voters in “blue” states knew somebody who could explain in great detail how liberal heroes were selling horsebleep. As a result, pro-nuclear candidates were able to win solid majorities in many of the bluest states. (I recall that John Anderson first became well known as a supporter of nuclear power.)

Of course, the 1980s and 1990s, oil prices dropped off the public radar and nuclear power was mostly ignored.

I Know You Are but What Am I?

A snarky Doonesbury strip from a few months ago looks different in light of recent news.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

You Can't Melt Your Own Coins?

Is there any Constitutional basis giving the Federal government this power?

WASHINGTON — People who melt pennies or nickels to profit from the jump in metals prices could face jail time and pay thousands of dollars in fines, according to new rules out Thursday.

Soaring metals prices mean that the value of the metal in pennies and nickels exceeds the face value of the coins. Based on current metals prices, the value of the metal in a nickel is now 6.99 cents, while the penny's metal is worth 1.12 cents, according to the U.S. Mint.

The only Consitutional clause that comes close is that giving the government the power to regulate the value of the currency … and if they had that power, they could outlaw coin collecting.

But wait. there's more:

Under the new rules, it is illegal to melt pennies and nickels. It is also illegal to export the coins for melting. Travelers may legally carry up to $5 in 1- and 5-cent coins out of the USA or ship $100 of the coins abroad "for legitimate coinage and numismatic purposes."

Violators could spend up to five years in prison and pay as much as $10,000 in fines. Plus, the government will confiscate any coins or metal used in melting schemes.

Doesn't that violate the Consitutional prohibition on export taxes?

Are the Fifties returning?

Why did the chicken cross the road at the Holocaust Denier Convention?

The road was paved in the first place by Talmudic Zionists intent on overthrowing Aryan Civilization! The chicken had every right to cross the road. The chicken had every reason to cross the road. Nevertheless, the chicken did NOT cross the road and any evidence to the contrary was planted by Mossad agents. The fact that the chicken was first seen on one side of the road and then on the other side is irrelevant since the road was repaved in accordance with the dictates of the New World Order. The fact that the chicken was seen walking across the road is irrelevant since the witnesses were Jews and under instructions from Rabbi Baba Mezia, President Second Amendment, and Professor Volume C of the Encyclopedia Britannica to mislead the furshlugginer goyim.

How many Holocaust Deniers does it take to change a light bulb?

Two. One to break the bulb and another to deny that the bulb was ever broken.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Vilifying Pinochet—Cui bono?

There are two groups who can benefit from the vilification of Pinochet.

First, there are wannabe dictators-for-life. Vilifying Pinochet will deter anybody who might want to suppress a revolution and then step down. The opposition will be limited to other would-be dictators-for-life—a much smaller group. Any dictator who steps down voluntarily should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Second, there are the neo-Nazis. They have claimed that Hitler is vilified because he was anti-Communist. The obvious retort—until now—was that other anti-Communist dictators have not been similarly vilified. Vilifying Pinochet will give neo-Nazis some superficial plausibility.

Do Fictional Characters Have Rights?

They may have rights soon in parts of Germany:

Politicians in Bavaria and Lower Saxony have proposed a new offence that will punish "cruel violence on humans or human-looking characters" inside games. Early drafts suggest that infringers should face fines or up to 12 months' jail for promoting or enacting in-game violence.
If this spreads, Steven King is in deep organic fertilizer.

I suppose the term “fictional” will be classified as an ethnic slur and replaced in decent society by “ontologically challenged.”

This has, of course, been anticipated.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Equality Matching and Immigration

As long as I'm discussing Alan Fiske's theories, I should apply them to more controversies. For example, the libertarian view of immigration law is that it should be based on market pricing, the liberal view is that it should be based on communal sharing, and most conservatives think of immigration as something based on equality matching. To make matters more confused, much of the open-border side thinks the immigration-control side is based on authority ranking and the immigration-control side thinks the open-border side is based on communal sharing. Sometimes the immigration-control side even tries attributing authority ranking to the open-border side (while comparing importing voluntary immigrants to importing slaves).

I also think equality matching is unsuitable for organizing anything more complicated than a parking lot.

George Lakoff and Alan Fiske

Alan Fiske classified human interactions into four types:

Communal sharing is how you treat your immediate family: All for one and one for all. Or as Marx put it: From each according to ability, to each according to need.

Equality matching, by contrast, means we all take turns. From kindergarten to the town meeting, it's all about fair shares, reciprocity, doing your part.

Authority ranking is how tribes function, not to mention armies, corporations and governments. Know your place, obey orders, and hail to the chief.

Market pricing, of course, is the basis of economics. It's what we do whenever we weigh costs and benefits, trade up (or down), save or invest.

I just realized that George Lakoff's analysis of politics is based on the assumption that communal sharing (called the “Nurturant Mother” frame) and authority ranking (called the “Strict Father” frame) are the only two types of interaction worth considering.

There are, of course, situations in which communal sharing is preferred and market pricing is wildly inappropriate.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

It depends. Would yeast pretend to write an article on energy sources while blowing off the most promising technologies with superficial nonsense? For example:

The well-known alternative ways of producing liquid fuels, such as coal-to-liquids and gas-to-liquids, are neither ready to scale to the huge volumes we need nor likely to attract the immense capital needed for such an undertaking within the required time frame, due to the uncertainties and risks of the global commodities trade. ("The ability and willingness of major oil and gas producers to step up investment in order to meet rising global demand are particularly uncertain," according to the IEA report.)
Translation: People who know more about this topic than this cliche-monger think the price of oil is likely to either remain stable or decline over the next few decades.
The tar sands of Alberta are currently producing about 1 of the world's 85 million barrels per day of oil production, but "as North America runs short on natural gas to cook the tar out of the sands and water to move the mess to processing plants, very large increases in production from the tar sands seems less and less likely no matter what the price of oil."
Why would we have to depend on gas in a fossil-fuel field? (Of course, we could cook the tar sands with a nuclear bomb …) Isn't the surface of the Earth 3/4 water? Isn't water recyclable?
In my wildest dreams-and I say this as one who has made my living in retail solar for several years now-I don't see solar and wind together achieving more than perhaps 15% of our total global energy mix in the next 30 years.
Why not? It's interesting that no details were supplied in the one field where he might know something. Is he trying to suppress competition? (Maybe that explains the rest of the piece.)
Nuclear energy, likewise, is also not the right solution to the problem, because it neither creates liquid fuels nor is it feasible. Nuclear power has earned the support of environmentalists who recognize the benefits of its lack of greenhouse gas emissions, but it has been estimated that if we were to meet our anticipated electrical needs over the next 30 years with nuclear power, we would have to build some ten new plants each year in the U.S. alone-a highly unrealistic outcome. And in the same way that we are about to pass peak oil, we are past peak uranium.
Question: Why is it unrealistic to build ten new plants per year? That would be a small part of the GNP. As for the peak uranium, uranium is as abundant in the Earth's crust as gold is in gold ores. The extraction costs for gold are $10 per gram. A gram of uranium can produce far more than $10 worth of energy. Finally, the following statement “Nuclear power has earned the support of environmentalists who recognize the benefits of its lack of greenhouse gas emissions …” sounds like the environmentalist wacko version of “I didn't do it! Nobody saw me do it! You can't prove anything!”

I won't say anything about biofuels other than point to this criticism of the claim that they use more energy than they produce.

The entire analysis is rendered plausible by the theory of overshoot, a phenomenon frequently observed in animals and other heterotrophs. It is rarely seen in plants and other autotrophs. As far as ecology is concerned, humans are, of course, autotrophs.

A Theory on Why the Democrats Are Opposed to Free Trade

If we had free trade with Vietnam, they might have to admit we won the Vietnam War. It just took a little longer than expected.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Comparing Physics and Economics

There's a debate going on at Political Animal on why economists are allegedly respected less than physicists. I disagree on the existence of this relative lack of respect. Lots of people are disrespectful of physicists. We can start with anti-nuclear-power activists and continue through young-Earth creationists, astrologers, people who think that quantum mechanics means that refusing to perceive something means it doesn't exist, etc.…

By the way, in the course of the comments at Political Animal, I saw an odd claim:

Physicists don't get cushy jobs at think-tanks as a reward for pushing theories that support policies that make their bosses richer.
Have you ever tried telling a liberal activist that depleted uranium is relatively harmless? (Given the ubiquity of trace amounts of uranium, the “completely uncontroversial facts about radioactivity” clearly imply that everybody has been killed by radiation and this is the afterlife.) You can think of that as an illustration that physicists are also disrepected when they're saying the “wrong” things.

By the way, how do we know minimum-wage laws raise wages?

I noticed an assumption by the liberal commenters in the debate at Political Animal: If there is any possibility of error by opponents of minimum-wage laws, then we can assume the downside can be disregarded. Can this be applied in the other direction? Can the same people who assume it is impossible for the Federal Government to enforce laws against abortion, or some drugs, or immigration automatically assume that it is suddenly able to enforce wage-setting laws? Maybe we just get bootleg wages or back-alley wages … Have there been enough studies showing an increase in wages? Maybe we can find cases of rising wages without minimum-wage laws. Maybe we can even find a study showing higher wage growth rates.

On the other hand, demand for evidence can be taken too far.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Is It Racist to Remove Airline Passengers for Disruptive Praying?

There's a precedent.

We can even apply Gary Farber's rule:

I've long, as a Jew, found a highly useful test for distinguishing legitimate commentary from hate; I take the noun of the statement in question, switch it to "Jew," or the adjective to "Jewish," and see how I think it stands up.
It works in both directions.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

If Hezbollah's Best Troublemakers Are in Beirut …

… maybe now is the best time for Israel to invade.

At a minimum, that would stop the “demonstration.”

Saturday, December 02, 2006

They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha!

According to this story:

Lohse, a social work master’s student at Southern Connecticut State University, says he has proven what many progressives have probably suspected for years: a direct link between mental illness and support for President Bush.

Lohse says his study is no joke. The thesis draws on a survey of 69 psychiatric outpatients in three Connecticut locations during the 2004 presidential election. Lohse’s study, backed by SCSU Psychology professor Jaak Rakfeldt and statistician Misty Ginacola, found a correlation between the severity of a person’s psychosis and their preferences for president: The more psychotic the voter, the more likely they were to vote for Bush.

Of course, Libertarians are envious.

I suspect it was the Perot voters. They went Republican in 2000, 2002, and 2004 but not in 2006.

On the other hand, Republican support among the brain damaged is not unanimous.

Set seriousness bit to ON

It looks like this supposed result was due to data mining:

Rakfeldt says the study was legitimate, though not intended to show what it did.

“Yes it was a legitimate study but these data were mined after the fact,” Rakfeldt says. “You can ask new questions of the data. I haven’t looked at” Lohse’s conclusions regarding Bush, Rakfeldt says.

If a scientist looks at, say, a hundred different possible correlations, sheer chance would indicate that some of the results will seem improbable enough to be published.

I'd like to know how hard they tried to torture the data into confessing.

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