Archive for June, 2009

Michael Jackson is Alive!

Or at least that’s the theory that’s probably going to start going around a la Elvis Presley. They’ll probably say things like “He just got tired of being a celebrity and faked his death to live the rest of his life quietly”. Expect at least several people by the end of this year claiming to spot him somewhere, most likely in widely disparate locations that have no connection to each other whatsoever.

Expect the internet to help fuel the conspiracy theorists, since they’ll be able to quickly disperse information amongst each other.

Starting in 5…4…3…2…1…

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And Iran…Iran So Far Away…

Turning to the other major evil nation on Earth, Iran is actually currently in the middle of what could be termed a revolution. Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you know alarge segment of the population is currently in revolt and protesting against the highly-religious conservative government (conservative in Iranian terms, like using the Koran and Hadiths as absolute law). The people revolting support a more progressively-person, someone who could hopefully help guide Iran out the shadow of Islamic rule and into a fairer, more secular society.

For both the sake of Iran and the world at large, the people revolting need to succeed. It’s unfortunate that they have to resort to violence, but sometimes that’s the only way to free yourself of a tyrannical dictator. Hey, it worked for us, didn’t it?

The reason is because of the fact that the country is completely ruled by a theocracy. And the worst part is that the religion in question is Islam. For me, religions fall on a sliding scale. Some, like Buddhism and Jainism, are near the good end. There are relatively benign and sometimes even beneficial. Jainism, for example, basically commands its followers to never hurt any living thing ever. Christianity is somewhere in the middle, trending towards the good end (now that the Inquisition is over, and Europe is no longer effectively ruled by the Pope). Islam however, is firmly and squarely near the bad end. Islam doesn’t have a problem. Islam is the problem.

I mean, perhaps it’s unfair to completely condemn a religion that is practiced by over a billion people, but when you really look into it, you can see how scary and insane it is. On nearly every page of the Koran, God directs Muslims to make war on unbelievers, to either kill or convert them, and that getting yourself killed in the process is not only unimportant but encouraged. Seriously. Imagine that you seriously believe, with all your heart, that if you go on a rampage and kill as many unbelievers as possible before being taken out yourself, God will put you on the fast-track to heaven. That you will be able to take with you any persons you select to join you (though there is a limit I can’t remember right now). Suddenly, it becomes surprising there aren’t more suicide bombings.

When an entire nation adheres to this ideology…yikes. And combine that with the fact that they are trying to acquire nuclear weapons…oh my. Plus they already have the technical capability hit any other point on the planet with a missile…excuse me while I go change my underwear.

But what does all this have to do with the protests? Everything. If the people protesting are actually successful, then Iran will no longer be (hopefully) absolutely ruled by Sharia Law. Iran will no longer be (hopefully) a threat of nuclear war. And, you know what? This is exactly the path it needs to take. Reforming Iran, and the Middle East in general, can’t be done from outside. It has to be done by its own people, by courageous people standing up and demanding change. If we were to put sanctions on or even invade Iran, all it would do would bolster support for the local government to stop us, and Iran would slide even further back. But if people inside start opposing the government, others who may also have grievances will also stand up, and so on.

Incidentally, the media, particularly the internet, is helping keep this revolt alive. All totalitarian governments need to have control of information to maintain their power. Without that, people learn what’s going on outside their country and how other countries view them. And then, the government loses their power. This is one reason the Soviet Union collapsed, particularly in the Soviet Bloc. People began having things like television, where they could see how screwed up their world really was, and did something about it.

Some Thoughts on Building a Dyson Sphere

A Dyson Sphere is a massive solar power collector that entirely encloses. I used the concept in my series Alien Civilizations as a means to capture all the outpouring energy from all the stars in the universe.

The concept I used is likely the most feasible: a swarm of independently orbiting collectors, each with its own orbit, all controlled by computer system to keep them from crashing into each other. This doesn’t require any undiscovered materials or technology, and we could probably begin building such a structure today. The only problem is the sheer amount of mass that would have to be transformed and transported, required enormous space-based infrastructure and manufacturing capabilities.

But there’s another design that is far less feasible, but more interesting: a single solid shell, 2 AU in diameter, used as a huge space habitat. This has a number of problems, not the least of which is that it is unstable.

Newton’s Shell Theorem states that in any hollow uniform sphere, the net gravitational force in any location is zero. Simply put, if you were inside a hollow sphere, you would not “fall” in any particular direction due to gravity. At all points, the gravitational force from all parts of sphere cancel each other out. The problem is: how you keep such a thing centered on the Sun?

One obvious answer is attitude thrusters, but that seems a bit drastic, and energy intensive. My idea is, well, what if it isn’t a uniform sphere? What if we specifically constructed the Dyson Sphere so that it was more massive on one side? Could we set up some sort of psuedo-orbital situation from that?

Second is how you go about constructing it. Half a sphere is also very unstable, but is an inevitable stage in construction. Or it is? Instead, what if we were to first build the equator-region in inertial orbit? What if we start by building a giant ring that it orbiting the Sun? Then, we start building towards the poles, keeping the center of mass within the equatorial plane at all times?

Last is the fact that the Dyson Sphere will heat up. Now because the Dyson Sphere is so huge, it actually won’t get as hot as the Sun. In fact, we can calculate where, at thermal equilibrium, the Dyson Sphere will be a comfortable 72 degrees F. In order for it to be that way, a Dyson Sphere should be around 265 million km in radius, or about 1.77 AUs. This is quite a bit larger than the orbit of Earth, but that it because all parts of the Sphere are in full daylight constantly, whereas half the Earth is always in shadow. Also, the spherical shape of the Earth spreads out the incoming heat from the Sun onto a larger area (specifically twice as large).

Of course, the main challenge is finding a material that could withstand such enormous structural stresses, and finding enough matter to actually build it. For those, I have no idea. The amount of usable material in the solar system is probably not enough.

Well, but if we do overcome those obstacles, maybe we could build one. It would certainly be a sight to see. Or not. Considering the sphere would completely cover the Sun, it would only appear as a giant black disk from outside. How boring.

Mmmm…nuts…

You know what I just discovered is really good?

Dry roasted peanuts covered in dark corn syrup.

Mmmm…

We Have A Great Future Ahead…But Only If We Don’t Blow Each Other Up!

Man, what is up with North Korea these days? It’s like their intentionally trying to provoke us into a nuclear war. In 1953, U.S. signed an armistice with North Korea to end fighting in the Korean War. No official peace treaty was ever signed–meaning the Korean War is technically still going on–but it has prevented hostiles from erupting since. Now, only two weeks ago, North Korea decides to just withdraw from the armistice. They are restarting their nuclear weapons program, designing long-range missiles,  and now I hear they’re just maybe going to launch a missile in the, er, general direction of Hawaii on the 4th.

I mean, just what the hell are they thinking? We were able to topple the industrial and political might of the Soviet Union, do they honestly think they’ll be any real challenge? I mean they have maybe one nuclear weapon. We have like ten thousand. If we really wanted to, we could make a nice little North-Korea-shaped nuclear burn mark on the Earth.

Not that that would be a desirable scenario, but it’s something to keep in mind. I don’t know exactly how this will play out, but the strategy that collapsed the Soviet Union seemed to work and North Korea has essentially the same political ideology.

The country we really need to be worrying about is Iran, but that’s a story for another time.

Why Do Christians Cry When People Die?

It’s never made much sense to me. I don’t mean to be insensitive, but, you know that you’re going to see them again, at least, assuming you both get into heaven. I suppose if someone dies, but they weren’t a good Christian, and so they’ll probably end up in hell, then I could understand that you’d never see them again. Plus, you’d be upset that someone you love is going to be tortured for eternity.

If I were a Christian, and I had a friend who died, someone who I knew was very likely going to heaven and that I’d follow, I’d probably be happy for him. In fact, I might even be a little jealous. He’s made it, and he no longer has to worry about having enough faith and being a good Christian. But I’d be able to overcome that jealousy by realizing that the little time I have in this world is insignificant compared to the billions of trillions of years I’ll spend in paradise, with the opportunity to see my friend whenever I wish.

Now, being an atheist, and not believing in an afterlife (because the two are not necessary related), it is entirely reasonable for me to be sad. The person I cared about is gone. I will never see them again. Ever.No matter how much I want to, short of building a time machine, I will never be with them again. I’ve known a couple people who were around my age when they died. Not really friends, but acquaintances that I liked.

Well, crazy athiestic rant over. Today is the first day in three months where I have no work or school and absolutely no plans. I get to stay home in my pajamas and write politically-charged blogs all day! No actually I’m working on my game some more. I know I said I was done, but I’m mostly just re-doing the layouts and adding tiny things here and there.

Automating My Job

Many times at work, I wonder about the future of my job, about how it will eventually be taken over by robotic labor. It may be strange that I think about how to eliminate my own livelihood, but it still fascinates me. I am a checker at a grocery store. My duties are to check out groceries, collect money, stock the deli case (dairy, cold juices, butter, cheese, etc), and ice cream when I close. These are deceptively simple tasks since we would generally expect anyone to be able to do them. But automating my job means overcoming some of the toughest obstacles in robotics

For one, I have to able to interact with and help customers. That’s no easy task for a machine. I require a mastery of the English language with very minimal margin for error when doing this. We have voice-command systems today, but these are fairly limited (for example, when checking various features on my cell phone’s plan, I can solely use my voice, but maneuvering through menus essentially consists of the system telling me “to do X say Y”. If I stray from that, it easy gets confused. Fortunately, it’s good enough that I never had to go through a tutorial or anything to “train” it to recognize what I’m saying). In order to interact with customers, a computer

I also have to walk around the store, maneuvering among other customers and employees, which, of course, requires accurate vision processing, balance, and mobility. In addition, when ringing up groceries, I have to be able to recognize the many different types of produce. When buying groceries, you may have noticed funny little stickers that have numbers on them. These are called Produce Look-Up codes, which checkers punch into the check-stand to correctly charge the customer. One thing you may notice is that many types have no sticker at all. We checkers have to memorize the rest. It’s easy to teach a computer what PLU# goes to which type, the hard part is getting it to visually recognize what the produce in question actually is, preferable without having to stop every time to ask the customer what it is.

Bagging groceries is also no simple task. You have to be able to recognize which items should go on top, which should go on the bottom, that only meat should be bagged together, only cold items together, etc. It might be useful to be able to feel temperature by touching it. That way, only cold items go in one back, hot items go in another, and so on.

All these things require a formidable computational capacity to achieve. Not only that, we also have to be able cram all that capacity into approximately the volume of a toaster. I mean, modern-day supercomputers already approach the capacity of the human brain. They, in theory, could be used to drive a bipedal humanoid robot that could directly replace a human being, but that robot would be horrendously expensive and impractical. Plus the computer system running it would struggle to fit in a semi-truck, not to mention a humanoid frame.

But, we only need to look to Moore’s Law to see that the main requirement (a massively powerful computer system), is rapidly become cheaper and cheaper. Within 15 to 20 years, the average desktop computer will exceed the intelligence of its human operator. About ten years after that, the required programming to create multi-tasking humanoid and non-humanoid machines will be commonplace. 

I’m not worried, though. I highly doubt I’ll still be a checker in 2030. Maybe, if I choose to stay with the company, I’ll be a store manager or even executive. My children, however, looking for their first job, won’t be so lucky…