Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Soccer in Qatar

I guess there's some recent stir lately about how the people who decide such things have decided that the 2022 World Cup will be held in Qatar.  Apparently it's the first strict Muslim nation to host the event, and there's concern all around about that little fact.

Two guys on whom I was eavesdropping at lunch today brought up an interesting point.  If the country is governed by strict Muslim rules (bear with me here, because I admittedly know nothing of Qatar and very little about Muslim rules and traditions and have thus far been too lazy to look it up, though I thoroughly appreciate the freedom to be able to look it up), how will that affect the game?  Specifically, how will it affect the scheduling of the game?  Will they have to periodically break for prayer?  If the games are scheduled around this but one runs into overtime (do they have overtime in soccer?), or something happens to conflict with prayer scheduling, will the game be interrupted during the religious services?

Again, I know very little about the traditions in question.  But it's my limited understanding that there are official prayer times throughout the day and whatnot.  So, if the laws of the country hosting the event in some way require observance of these traditions, or even if it's simply demanded by local cultural norms, will they actually interrupt the games and/or impose these observances upon the stadium crowd?

Here's my take on the potentially-non-existent-for-all-I-know situation.  I hope they do.  Not because I'm religious or because I think it's important or anything like that.  Granted, I am.  And I do, but not for the same reason.  I think it's important because I think the world needs to face something like that.  (Understand also that I care very little for soccer, so little in fact that thus far in this post I have made it a point to refer to it by its American name.)  The world, which considers this sporting event to be pretty important and a big deal all around, needs to be confronted with something like that.

I want them to force their prayer schedule upon every aspect of the World Cup.  Don't be dicks about it or anything, just be firm in standing up for whatever it is you and your people believe.  If you want your culture to be taken seriously, and everybody does, then don't you dare back down or dissolve your convictions.  It's your country, it's your culture, and if people don't like it then they can choose not to attend what may annually be considered the most popular event on the planet.  I'm not a big fan of imposing one's culture on other people, but I'm a huge supporter of standing up for your own values in your own home whether I as an outsider agree with them or not.

And I want the world to face something like this.  The way I see it, there are two desirable (by me, anyway) outcomes.  Both are equally good in my opinion, because both are equally decisive...
  1. The rest of the world takes offense to this action and stands against Qatar and Muslims in general regarding the scheduling and hosting of the event.
  2. The rest of the world openly and in no uncertain terms reveals itself to be spineless and just goes along with it.
I like both of these outcomes because they each represent a conclusion of some sort.  They each represent a decisive action (even if that action is, in fact, inaction).

See, I don't particularly care about the cultural or religious struggles between various societies.  I find it all to be terribly silly.  But what does bother me is the air of political correctness and people the world over just pussy-footing around and not actually standing up for anything.  Trying to find the least-offensive-to-all solution is the same as not finding a solution.  Don't just bury your heads in the sand.

I think of this much in the same way that I did the last US Presidential election.  I didn't like Obama and I didn't like McCain.  I didn't care who won.  What I did like was that the voters made a clear distinction as to who their choice was.  I didn't care who won, I just wanted a clear and decisive victory.  The previous elections, being split at a nearly even 50/50 decision, were nothing more than flipping a coin a hundred million times.  It wasn't a decision, it was a giant national shrug.

So that's what I want here... decisiveness.  Either stand up for what you believe in or shut up and stop complaining.  Both sides, all sides, I don't care about sides.  One of you needs to reveal the other to be lacking in conviction.  Again, I don't care who wins.  I just want the people who lack the actual desire for winning to stop getting in the way.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Homeowners Shouldn't Associate

That isn't to say that homeowners shouldn't associate in general, but rather that they shouldn't form an association.  Nothing good comes of it.  If you can refute that, I'd like to hear your reasoning.  You'd be wrong, of course.  And I like to hear other people be wrong, it makes me feel better about being right.

For me, one classic example will forever symbolize the ridiculous and ineffective nature of a homeowners association.  See, in our current neighborhood (Yes, we're subject to an HOA.  We were young and foolish.  Lesson learned.  Now, housing market, kindly improve so that we may relocate.) all of the homes were built in a relatively short amount of time by a single company.  They're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.  Including, of course, the street-side mailboxes.

Naturally, that is to say being quite indicative of the nature of an HOA's inability to perform basic reasoning, a rule was established from the beginning that all mailboxes must be of this design.  They must all look the same.  Thus, nobody could replace their mailbox for any reason.  This wasn't a big deal until several of the mailboxes began to fall into terrible disrepair.  (Quite quickly given their age, mind you.  I shudder to think what these houses will look like as the years tick by.)  So, naturally, people wanted to replace them.

But there's that rule, you see.  And we can't just go around breaking rules.  What kind of a world would this be if people were allowed to just buy and install a mailbox from a hardware store all willy nilly and without proper committee oversight?  Anarchy, I tell you!  So, clearly, we have a problem.  People need mailboxes which can actually hold mail and keep it relatively safe from the elements.  But all of the mailboxes need to look the same.  A conundrum, at least to an HOA.

I naively suggested at some point that we simply repeal the rule that was blocking progress.  Allow people to install mailboxes.  The conversation went nearly exactly like this:

  • Me:  Why don't we just get rid of that rule?  We're the homeowners, we make these rules.  We shouldn't be so bound by them that we can't un-make them.
  • Them:  No, that rule is in place because it ensures that all of the mailboxes look nice.
  • Me:  Clearly that rule has failed to do its job.  It should be replaced.
  • Them:  [confusion and arguing resulting in no solution]
I've heard people in this neighborhood, amid complaints about the HOA, justify its existence by claiming that without it the entire neighborhood would fall into disrepair.  Everything would look terrible.  Apparently the HOA, and not common decency, is the only thing preventing everybody from replacing their driveways with gravel, their wheels with cinderblocks, and their front lawns with screen porches and rifles.  Exactly what kind of a neighborhood do these people think they live in?  These houses all cost roughly the same.  We're all roughly peers on any perceivable social ladder.  I really don't think the Beverly Hillbillies are going to come into some Texas Tea and buy the house next to mine.  (Even though that would be awesome.)

Minh from King Of The Hill put it best when she was explaining to her husband that they had fought for certain rights as free people (I don't have the quote exact, and wasn't able to quickly find it on Google):  "We escaped the Communist regime in Lao.  And the homeowners association in Orange County."

Anyway, let's fast forward a bit to present day.  I haven't kept up with the HOA nonsense in quite some time.  If they leave me alone, I'll leave them alone.  I consider the annual fee to be along the lines of mafia protection money.  I shouldn't have to pay it, but fighting it would prove a more costly endeavor.  But apparently this unwatched kettle is reaching a boil.  There is a stir.  A brouhaha, if you will.  Oblivious to the petty bickering of these small people, we received in our mailbox (not the mail part, the newspaper part, since it's apparently illegal to put stuff in the mail part or something) the following letter yesterday:

[neighborhood name redacted] HOME OWNERS
    I am writing this to inform you of a matter that is important to all.  This election we will be voting for a president, vice-president and secretary.  I was asked to step down as president because of lies by one of our homeowners ( whom by the way was quick to call me when she needed help repairing something in her home, which I was glad to do at the time, and quicker to spread lies when it suited her purpose ) , by the board and [management company name redacted].  I did even though the lies were false.  If anyone wants to know the truth and who started the lies in the first place, just come and ask me.
    [name redacted] is an interim Officer and the homeowners must vote by 51% to remove and elect new members.  This community belongs to you and you have a big say.  The board works for you and must respect your wishes.  If there is something you think should change, submit it for a vote.  Make sure you come to the Annual Meeting!  The Board works for you and [management company name redacted] is your employee.  You are their employer.  The whole community has got to come together and get on track so it looks good and works well for all of us.
    Does anyone besides me find the statement "After the election, the Board of Directors, not the members, will then appoint the "officers" of the Association."?  Why are we even voting?  My opinion, it is time for a clean sweep.  Does anyone know who is on the Board and what they have done for us?  It is time to ask!  Just remember these are your homes and you have a say in everything concerning this community!
[name redacted]
Isn't that lovely?  First of all, this letter serves primarily to add to my disappointment in the average person's ability to write at a passable level.  Yes, I noticed all of that.  I transcribed it exactly, save for a few redactions in the name of professionalism, and it hurt.  But more to the point, this letter conveys to me a struggle that one would expect to find on a school playground.  It doesn't help that this was a single printed sheet of unfolded paper with no envelope, no addressing, nothing resembling a properly formatted letter in any way.  I know you wrote this crap in MS Word, use the formatting tools it provides.

Of course, not to leave this as an isolated incident, a similar single sheet of unfolded paper with no proper trimmings was again left in our newspaper receptacle today:

To the Home Owners who resides in [neighborhood name redacted] Community in it is about time we take back our community by attending the meeting tonight at 6:00 PM at [location redacted].  On yesterday, a letter was placed in my mail box stating that the one of the board members were lies on by a lady in the community.  This is just another distraction to take our minds off the facts at hands.  This is one of the reasons we need to vote because this board member appears to be trying start confusion in our neighborhood.  He needs to grow up and act like an adults and not a child.  The board member that sent this letter is trouble and has stirred up the community in the past with lies.  I know from personal experience and I know of others that can attest to this.  We need to vote for what is right for our community and everybody should be part of this voting process.  For those who cannot attend you can drop your voting ballot at [address redacted] who will make sure it gets to the right person.
    We need to stick to the matter at hand which is what best for the community and not focus on petty things.  If any one need to know what prompted the letter from the ex board member and the true facts on what's going on need to contact the board for further information.
    We need to stop the confusion and get on one accord.  We do not have to agree on everything but we need to get along.

[name redacted]
Sweet Fancy Moses, that was some damn fine rebuttal.  I'm counting the minutes until I return home from work tomorrow to find a crudely printed set of grunts and clicks in my newspaper receptacle.  If my friend Stephen can acquire a copy of a certain notorious mass email he once artfully composed (I believe it was on the subject of an apple, though I may be confusing it with a different email), I would be remiss if I didn't crudely print out copies of it and placed it in everybody's newspaper receptacles.  They may wish to sow discontent, but my goal is to sow confusion and disarray.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Pride... Prejudice... Zombies

My new job brings with it a terribly long commute.  90 minutes each way.  It's not so bad, at least for now, and the job itself is thus far worth it.  So, to try to continue to look on the bright side (optimism? that doesn't sound like a good idea), this commute gives me a minimum of 3 hours each day where I'm effectively alone and listening to stuff.  Music was fine for a while, but I'm now filling the time with audio books.  (Sure, reading actual books is still preferred, but who has the time?)

I'd recently tried a few already, namely World War Z and some strange audio book Jen got for free somewhere, and had rather enjoyed the experience.  World War Z in particular was an excellent listen because it had a cast of excellent voice actors (Mark Hamill, Alan Alda, etc.).  All in all, it provides more mental stimulation than my usual iPod playlist, which itself gets tiring after a few hours.

So, with more driving time on my hands these days, and with the personal enjoyment of World War Z, I recently obtained two more audio books: The Zombie Survival Guide and Pride And Prejudice And Zombies.  The former was alright, mostly because it was the same author as World War Z and thus shared in much of the same details, making the two something of a companion set for one another.  It wasn't spectacular or anything, but it was an interesting listen.

I'm just over halfway through the latter, and it's pretty awesome.  Basically, the author took Pride And Prejudice and added some phrases/passages to it to create a zombie-infested backdrop to the story.  A brilliant idea, really.  I mean, what wouldn't be better with the addition of zombies?  Also, the book has ninjas.  Seriously.

Now, the core story and main plot and dialogue of the book is still Jane Austen's classic mind-numbing drivel.  But the fact that it's now instead set in a zombie-infested English countryside protected by ninjas makes the whole thing pretty bad-ass.  I actually find it interesting, provided any given scene has at least some of the new additional text.  After all, the original dialogue just sounds like a Victorian episode of Gilmore Girls, but slower.  (Come to think of it, Gilmore Girls really can be accurately described as a modernized Austen or Bronte novel played in fast-forward.)

Again, the whole idea was just brilliant.  I hope this mash-up style continues, and I may have to try it out for myself.  The addition of zombies, pirates, perhaps even robots may even make some of Sylvia Plath's work vaguely palatable.  By itself certainly a non-trivial goal.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Why I Don't Want Flying Cars

Every once in a while a Slashdot article is either about or tangentially related to the dream of flying cars.  There have been several prototypes over the years, some certainly much better than others, but it's just not a reality yet.  And, invariably, the Slashdotters complain about this.  We're in the 21st century, we have all the technology and civilization to make this happen, so why doesn't it happen?  It must be the oil companies keeping us back, right?

No, what's keeping us back is plain old human nature.  People do a poor enough job driving on a 2-dimensional plane, how do you think they'll fare with the exponential increase in complexity of a 3rd dimension?  Have you ever seen somebody change lanes without looking and not notice (or care) that somebody is in their blind spot?  And you want to give that person a much larger blind spot so they can descend without looking?  Good call.  Seriously, picture your daily commute to work.  Now picture yourself standing under it.

Honestly, to anybody who wants our society to have flying cars, I envy you.  Apparently you have never stalled, suffered a mechanical failure, or been in a minor collision while driving.  Because these relatively small inconveniences take on an entirely new meaning during flight.  Aeronautic travel presents a very unique set of circumstances not present in other means of travel.  When driving along the ground, if something goes wrong you coast to a stop.  When at sea, if something goes wrong you float.  Even in space, if something goes wrong you still kind of float.  But in the air, you fall.  And die.  A lot.  Sure, there are circumstances where those other examples aren't quite so safe.  There are dire situations where land, sea and space travel can kill.  But it's not quite so readily apparent as with air travel.

I've heard lots of arguments to the contrary, and they all demonstrate only that the person arguing just wants their shiny toy and hasn't really thought it through.  Let's take a look at some examples:

  1. Air travel is statistically safer than driving.  Ya, funny thing about statistics.  They can be made to say anything.  Just remember that, statistically, more people survive car collisions than plane collisions.  See, there are relatively very few vehicles in the air, and the passenger to vehicle ratio is extremely high.  Also, pilots are generally well trained.  Drivers just have to not kill someone during one 20-minute drive when they're 16 and they're pretty much licensed for life.
  2. Pilots say that flying is easier than driving.  Of course, they don't have to worry about assholes cutting them off or people talking on cell phones while eating a cheeseburger and trying to fly a plane within a few feet of them.  The skies are pretty open and clear.  The roads, not so much.
  3. We can make the vehicles safer.  Back to an earlier point, can you make the vehicle remain aloft while not functioning under its own power?  (And if you can, how light and delicate is that craft going to be?  Hopefully the flying Suburban sees you and can swerve around you, and give you enough room that the wake of its turbines doesn't shred your parachute.)  We've been making cars safer for years and people still drive like dicks.  Also, all of the "safety" equipment in cars is pretty heavy.  It's not hard to add weight to a car, but it's very hard to add weight to a plane.  That's all we need, giant flying SUVs that are marketed to their owners as being "safe."
  4. More lanes means less traffic, we can make it safer by simply stacking more lanes arbitrarily.  Wrong.  Just wrong.  You want to see what happens with more lanes of traffic?  Go sit on the outer edge of a parking lot at your local WalMart or shopping mall or something like that and just watch.  There are tons of lanes specifically designed to keep cars moving through with minimal difficulty.  What do you see?  People jumping from one lane to another randomly, people going the wrong direction in a lane, people speeding, people stopping and blocking a lane for no reason, people cutting each other off and pissing each other off.  More lanes just means more opportunities for opportunistic assholes to practice their craft.
And when was the last time you performed a detailed inspection of your car before driving it?  When was the last time you saw anybody do that?  Pilots do that all the time.  They spend upwards of a half an hour going through a detailed checklist to make sure the plane is in perfect working condition before they fly.  You, on the other hand, are late for work and still need to stop by Starbucks on your way so you can finish waking up.

Also, I don't know about you but I like the fact that a drunk driver has to negotiate a series of obstacles before he can crash into my house.  Currently he would have to leave a main road onto a lesser main road, leave that and enter my subdivision, navigate the turns and down the hill to the end of my street, jump the curb, not be stopped by the car in the driveway or the tree or the mailbox (the mailbox wouldn't stop him, but may indicate to him that he should stop), and even then the brick front porch provides a decent shield.  What's to stop a drunk pilot from crashing into my house?  Some shingles and plywood.

Come to think of it (and damn you Slashdot for making me present this point), I bet flying cars will be really popular among terrorists both domestic and foreign.  Again, it's comparatively easy to defend a structure against cars.  But small planes?  That's a whole new kind of problem.  Ever see the kamikaze video footage from World War 2?  You can't really shoot them down.  They're small, hard to hit, moving really fast directly towards you, and best of all even if you do hit them all you can really do is make them ballistic.  Rather than having a small plane screaming towards you, now you have a small ball of fire screaming towards you.  Physics is fun like that.

So, ya, I don't want flying cars.  I specifically don't want them precisely because of the aspects of our culture that make people on Slashdot want them.  We as a people are demanding, inconsiderate and filled with an over-inflated sense of entitlement.  Just because it's the 21st century doesn't mean you get a flying car.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Determinism and Retro-Determinism

I was watching another one of those History Channel specials where they have futurists (including that guy with the increasingly crazy hair, I can't remember his name) talking about the technology to come (I know, I need to stop doing that, but it's entertaining.  And how does one become a "futurist" and get on TV talking about things that don't exist?  That sounds like a great job.) and one of the subjects that came up was how, with distant future technology, a civilization would be able to "model the universe" such that, having unlocked "the equation of the universe," they could theoretically construct a model of the universe and rewind/fast-forward to any point in order to study the past or predict the future.

You know "the equation of the universe" we're talking about here.  It's the idea that there is somehow one complete mathematical model that describes the interaction of all things which exist (matter, energy, various forces such as gravity, things we haven't even discovered yet, maybe a Higgs-Boson for good measure, etc.).  It's sort of an unofficial goal of the entire physics community, some are just a little more realistic about it than others.

This idea didn't sit right with me, and I've determined two main reasons why that's the case.  It's not so much that "the equation of the universe" isn't possible, or isn't worth at least in part pursuing, but rather it's the idea of "rewinding and fast-forwarding" that doesn't seem to add up in my own reasoning.

Let's start with fast-forwarding.  Seems simple enough, right?  You construct a complete model, you have the equation, you just move it forward faster than time itself is moving forward.  Computers are fast, future computers will be even faster, so it should work, right?  No.  See, there's a problem of infinite recursion.

The model of the universe needs to contain everything within the universe, right?  Otherwise you're not modeling the universe, you're modeling a pretend universe.  Hardly a useful model, because then you're just predicting a pretend future based on non-existant circumstances.  So you need the whole thing.  Well, the universe includes the computer you're using to model it.  Which means the computer needs to also be calculating its own act of calculating, which is part of the overall interaction of matter/energy/forces/etc. in the universe.  And it needs to do this in fast-forward.  Essentially, the computer needs to be able to calculate what its own calculations will determine faster than it itself would have determined them.

Yes, in the future we'll have really fast computers.  But this particular application of the technology would require a computer that's faster than itself.  Maybe someone can throw together a lot of quantum mechanics terminology and theory and begin to imagine a computer of unbounded processing speed, where it can calculate without being limited by the passage of time and therefore be infinitely fast.  Sounds cool, sure.  But isn't all of that still within the scope of "the equation of the universe" and therefore still needing to be calculated?

All you've done by removing time from the equation is demonstrated that any single "step" in the model being calculated can contain an infinite amount of interactions.  It's not entirely dissimilar to Zeno's Paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise.  That particular example was a little silly, of course, related rates being what they are.  But that age-old philosophical exercise would actually become real under this model.  In order to calculate "the next step" (that is, predict the state of the universe a moment before it happens) you first must calculate an infinite number of interactions taking place within that step.  In this case that includes your own act of calculating the calculations.

The second thing that didn't sit well with me, of course, was the act of "rewinding."  This doesn't fall into the same trap at fast-forwarding because when looking backward time is finite.  The act of calculating takes place after the base state of the model and therefore doesn't need to be calculated.  So it makes more sense and seems more plausible, right?

But what would this mean about the model of the universe and the equation of the universe?  If any state of the universe, given a finite set of previous states, can be calculated backward to any of those previous states, and if there are an infinite number of states moving forward, then that would mean that the state of the universe can contain an infinite amount of information (considering also previously where I discussed that there can be an infinite number of interactions in any infinitesimal amount of time).  It would also mean that the equation of the universe is an algorithm of infinite decompression of information (and, by extension, infinite compression of information).

Could such a thing even be considered plausible?  That somehow, in some way, the current state of the universe contains within it all of the information about all of its previous states.  And that this collection of information continues to grow within the confines of a finite model which does not grow.  That somehow a finite amount of matter, energy, forces, etc. can contain an infinite amount of information.  And that this is possible because at the very core of the nature of existence exists a single equation that, essentially, does nothing more than compress and decompress information between finite and infinite sizes.

You can see where that wouldn't sit right with me.  It's great to sit around and think about the boundless possibilities of future technology.  (And it would be awesome to have that job.)  And things like the technological singularity present deeply fascinating thought exercises regarding all facets of human nature.  But I just haven't been able to reconcile these particular gaps in the speculation.

Granted, there are probably aspects of this I don't fully understand.  I do understand that time itself is not a constant line forward (or backward) and that it is a variable part of that whole equation.  I understand that "in the beginning" (that is, in the immediate moments following the big bang) time was a very different thing than it is now, and that it will continue to change, well, over time.  (I've often pointed out when asked "what was before the big bang?" that, given the nature of time and the universe, "before the big bang" isn't part of the coordinate system.  It's akin to asking "what's north of the north pole?"  Time isn't constant, and it itself began when the universe began.)  But, simply as a matter of exercising what I consider to be reason, these seem to be significant holes in the theory.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Bible as an Online Video Game

I certainly hope this is being taken seriously by its creators, and honestly it's about time someone seriously considers the stories of the Bible as a rich source of video game material.  Sure, it's a hot topic rife with controversy.  But if some literary allegory about ancient figures is more taboo than stealing cop cars and shooting hookers then your society is broken.

Penny Arcade chimed in on the topic as well and raised some good points.  Namely that the stories provide an absolute ton of rich content for adventure, not to mention that the characters have a lot of room available for depth.  Even the most pivotal and important characters have wide gaps in the story which can be filled with all kinds of interesting adventures.

Naturally, I'm already a fan of the subject matter.  And I would be lying if I said I wouldn't enjoy holding any kind of small tactical advantage over the average douchebag gamer as a result of my familiarity with the subject matter.  (Where's your precious flying spaghetti monster now, mofo?  *unloads a full clip of sanctification on opponent*)

The subject has come up before, actually.  I remember a discussion about this very topic on Slashdot many moons ago.  And, in usual Slashdot style, I was engaged in a pseudo-argument by some random windbag.  And, let me assure you, nothing brings them out like a discussion even tangentially related to religious beliefs.  Seriously, it's textbook Pavlovian behavior.  My wife is the same way.  Mention anything that can, in 4 degrees or fewer, be in any way linked to anything remotely religious and expect to get a diatribe about the evils of religion.  And of course by "religion" they invariably mean "American Christianity."  It's difficult for some people to separate the two.

Anyway, what basically happened was I made some random point on the topic.  Something about how I like the idea and how the Bible has a ton of content that can be used for video games.  Then someone randomly added to the conversation by stating his views on how God isn't real and none of the stories in the Bible actually happened and how even the events that inspired it were historically insignificant, being confined to that little corner of the world.  And, of course, that we're all idiots for following ancient superstitions.

First of all, -1 Offtopic.  Nobody cares about your religious beliefs, we're talking about a video game.  (And, yes, unshakable faith in the absence of a god is, by definition, faith.  It's a religious belief.  Deal with it.)  But more to the point... what was the point?  Was he insinuating that only historically significant events can qualify for video game material?  Please, explain to me the historical significance of Mario and Luigi.

And even still... "historically insignificant"?  The Bible?  Whatever this guy's been huffing, he may want to lay off for a bit.  I can see where he was trying to go with that, being stories of random little prophets and comparatively small-time kings (except the king in Esther, which may very well be my favorite Bible story, who was likely Xerxes or some Persian king of that period and very much not small-time) and tribal skirmishes otherwise unnoticed by the more developed societies surrounding them.

But then it was written down, and boy howdy did it become significant.  Wars and empires, kings and heroes, for thousands of years they have risen and fallen under the weight of the Bible's pages.  Granted, I see as the great irony the fact that western Christianity has traditionally been a Roman institution and not necessarily a Christian institution.  Thanks Constantine, you simultaneously put Christianity on the map and forever altered it to suit your own views.  But that institution has been far from "historically insignificant."

I guess this guy had his own religious beliefs on history.  Again, the irony is delicious.  It's one thing to not believe in God, it's another thing entirely to plug your ears and shout "la la la..." whenever the subject of history rears what you consider to be its distasteful head.  Yes, pretend the whole of human history and all the colorful religions that have decorated it never happened.  That'll lead to true progress.  Science be praised!

Now, here's hoping this turns out to be an interesting online game.  Again, tons of stories from which to choose.  And, as Tycho from Penny Arcade also pointed out, it's conveniently all public domain.  No licensing, no lawsuits, and a time-tested brand with proven earning potential.  I've heard it referred to as a niche market.  Are millions of devout followers considered a niche?  Well, those millions of people are historically insignificant, so their brand loyalty doesn't matter.  Right?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Light Cones and Retro-Causality

Maybe I'm just not understanding something about this, which is entirely possible given that we're talking about quantum mechanics.  I was watching something on television last night (I know, hardly a means of studying the subject, but bear with me) and there were various guests, filmed in silly locations where they try to use real-world objects as analogies of quantum mechanics, talking about time travel.

Now, there was no shortage of discussion on forward time travel.  Enter or leave various gravitational effects, approach the speed of light, etc.  Forward time travel, as presented in this program, wasn't really time travel at all.  It was merely a change in the relative perception of the passage of time.  It had the perceived effect of time travel, but so does freezing yourself and being revived in a thousand years.  The passage of time, relative to your perception as you zip through space at near-luminal speeds, remains.  That is, you continue to physically exist throughout the entire time as perceived by anybody.  You don't blink out of existence and re-emerge in the future across any kind of event horizon.

But when it came to backward time travel, that was a whole different story.  There was really no way around the fact that speeding up or slowing down one's relative passage of time doesn't make it go backwards.  (Much in the same way as when someone misses their turn on the road and suddenly begins to drive very slowly as they try to figure out how to go back and make that turn.  There is no forward velocity that's slow enough to take you backward.  Deal with it.  Take the next left and double-back.)

So the only segment the program had on this subject was a professor who is conducting experiments for the purpose of using quantum entanglement to send information backward in time.  Experimentally we're only talking about a couple of photons, not a letter that you can write to yourself in the past.  But it's a start.  But the way he described it just didn't sell the idea to me at all.

He spent some time attempting (with delicious looking pizza, boardwalk style) to illustrate the idea of a light cone.  Well, the concept isn't terribly difficult.  Looking forward and backward on the scale of time, a cone shape outward into the scale of space emerges relative to the speed of light from any given point.  This cone contains the realm of causality for that point.  Anything within the scope of the reverse cone can affect the point, and the point can affect anything within the scope of the forward cone.  This is based on the idea that nothing can travel faster than light.  And, even if we can travel faster than light, we simply change the volume of the cone.  The cone itself still exists.

Enter quantum entanglement.  Quantum mechanics may indeed tell us that anything can happen at any time for any reason, but more specifically it tells us that particles are linked together by a means that has no limitation of velocity.  If you affect one state of the entanglement, the other state will instantly know.  This happens regardless of distance.  Even separated by light years, the two states of the entanglement share information instantaneously.  Somehow the information is transmitted and received trans-luminally.  No energy is sent, and energy is bound by Einsteinian physics anyway so it wouldn't be able to traverse any distance instantly.  It's just... instant.  On the light cone the information remains on the same plane as the point.

The professor with the pizza barely touched this as he attempted to explain the idea of sending a message back in time.  Basically, the idea was that you can use quantum entanglement to transmit information to a distant recipient.  But he kept describing it as the recipient receiving the information before you sent it.  This was where he lost me.  As I see it, perhaps the recipient is watching the sender through a telescope, receives the message, then later witnesses the sender transmitting the message in the telescope.  But that's not "back in time."  That's just causality outside of the confines of the light cone.

Essentially, on the scale of relative perception of the passage of time (remember the speeding or slowing velocity of the passage of time), you've discovered the number zero.  The light cone becomes entirely flat.  It's now a plane.  Don't get me wrong, this is a big deal.  But it's not "backward in time."  You haven't actually crossed back over that plane.  You've achieved a non-positive time difference, but not a negative time difference.

Consider two machines with synchronized atomic clocks measuring time to within the trillionth of a second.  One machine sends a piece of time-stamped information to the other via traditional means.  When the other receives it, the time stamp is different from (lower than) what it currently knows.  Time has passed.  Now instead imagine that one machine sends a piece of time-stamped information to the other via quantum entanglement.  When the other receives it, the time stamp is exactly equal to what it currently knows.  Some time later, it may perceive through conventional means that the first machine is about to send a message... the message that it has already received.  But it didn't receive that message before the message was sent, merely before it knew that message was sent.  Not time travel.

The idea of sending a message back in time is the idea that, after something happens, you can send a message into the past to someone who can prevent that thing from happening.  Causal paradoxes and alternate universes aside, what you're talking about is retro-causality.  The future affecting the past.  But that's laughable compared to what is actually physically being attempted.  The physics is describing trans-luminal causality, that's all.  The idea that the present can affect the present, where previously it could affect only the future.  It does nothing to change a past event.

It's possible to conceive of a machine which could, using all kinds of ridiculously advanced control over quantum mechanics, affect things outside of the scope of time.  But it still can't touch the past.  The past is, and always will be, gone.  This machine can, from the moment it is activated, affect any point in space or time forward from its initial relative position.  But it can't go back to any point in time prior to its own existence.  The Wonkavator can go sideways, slantways and squareways, but I'm afraid it can't go backwards.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Kindergarten Geocache

Cammy is currently enjoying her first day of Kindergarten.  She even rode the bus by herself like a big girl.  Quite literally by herself, in fact.  When we saw her off in the morning she was the only child at the bus stop.  Then, being the concerned and involved parents that we are, we went to the school to make sure she got to her class fine and knew what was going on.  What we discovered was that she was, in fact, the only kindergarten student (at least from her class) to arrive on that bus and it was the first bus to arrive at the school.  She thoroughly enjoyed the process, though.

(By the way, I love her school.  They have a smart board/projector system in every class.  I no longer feel agitated about buying all kinds of supplies at the behest of the school, a brief tour through the facility and interactions with the staff and seeing them handle the first day of school indicates that they're running a pretty good shop there.  Though I still think the excessive cleaning supplies are unnecessary.  Kids get dirty.  It's good for them.  I'm fairly certain that if I wrap my child in a magical cone of Clorox for 18 years then as soon as she steps out into the world on her own she'll probably get cancer and die.)

Anyway... As we were seeing the facility and meeting the teachers earlier this week, one of the things the teacher asked Cammy was "do you like treasure hunts?"  She then handed Cammy a sheet of paper which listed key points of interest throughout the classroom, and Cammy's job was to go find them and come back for a prize.  Nice little way to get Cammy comfortable and familiar with the room.  Naturally, Cammy responded well to this.  You see, Cammy and I go on "treasure hunts" all the time.  It's what she (and, by extension, we) calls Geocaching, since that's kind of a big word for her.

Cammy and I go out pretty much every weekend (weather permitting, etc.) and find a few more geocaches, and she loves it.  We both do, really.  It's a fun hobby, it's good father-daughter bonding time, and it's just great to go out and see interesting little pieces of the world around us that we otherwise would never have bothered to notice.  This got me to thinking, and I have since cobbled together the pieces of an idea for her Kindergarten class that may be a fun little project for the kids.  And, of course, it would be by certain measures good for them.

The idea is to have an official geocache for the class.  Something near the school (it's in a pretty good location, being surrounded by trees and near a park) that the children can hide the cache and occasionally monitor it as a class.  It's at the very least a nice little walk in the park field trip, which is always a good thing.  But they can make it even more involved than that.  Here's what I'm envisioning:

Each child draws a picture, potentially of his or her self, and writes (in classic 5-year-old style) his or her first name on it.  Something small, smaller than a 3x5 index card.  It would be dated (even if it's just dated "Kindergarten class of 2010-2011" or something of that nature), and each one would share a label describing what it is and why it's in the cache.  The label would be something akin to:

"Hi!  I'm a geocache item created by a kindergarten student.  I was hidden in a cache along with lots of others just like me.  I'd really like to travel to other geocaches so I can see new and interesting places.  Please take me with you and hide me in another cache.  Also, if it's not too much trouble, could you send an email to _____@gmail.com telling me where you found me and where you hid me?  Don't forget to mention my name and class year, there are a lot of us!  Thank you, and happy geocaching!"

You get the idea.  Each of these would of course have to be laminated to protect against the elements.  The more durable we can make it the better.  The email address (and it doesn't even have to be email, it can be any form of notification and tracking) would just be a school-monitored (or parent-monitored if someone were to volunteer for this, which I would be glad to do) account and the information sent to it could be passed along to the kids so they can see where their cards are going.  Maybe even have a map of some kind to track its travels.  (Again, I would thoroughly enjoy putting together a digital representation of this.)  Sort of a pen-pal to the world kind of setup.

Now how does this benefit the kids themselves, other than just be really fun and maybe learn a little bit about maps and distances and such?  Well, let's take a look at the things I think Cammy is slowly gaining from our geocaching:
  • Going outside.  It's that simple.  Go outside, go to a park, go into the woods or through a field, get your hands and clothes a little dirty.  Go do something.  It's certainly a heck of a lot better than sitting around in front of the TV all day.  Sure, I'm a huge fan of the smart boards in the classrooms, but I'm equally a fan of stepping out into the blinding sun and enjoying the outdoors.
  • Leaving no trace.  Geocachers, as a community, tend to be considerate of the environment around them.  Not in a hippie tree-hugging way, but in a not trampling through the woods and destroying things way.  For example, one of the caches Cammy and I found was near an old farm house building of some kind.  It was very much off the dirt road, which itself was off the beaten path.  Nothing around it, nothing can be seen.  But it's there.  It's interesting, and we were curious as to what its function was and how old it was and all that.  The cache specifically said to please not touch it, don't break or disturb anything.  Not because that guy owns it, but because he would hate to see it damaged or ruined in any way beyond what years of nature has already done.  And, as geocachers, we tend to all think that same way.  When we find a cache, we don't just toss it back on the ground.  We carefully place it back as it was found.  We don't leave any trace that we were even there, save for the log entry in the cache itself.  We don't disturb the environment around us.
  • Taking no more than you give.  One of Cammy's favorite things about geocaching is that she gets new toys.  She's a small child, after all.  But she understands at this point that she must bring toys to trade.  She may not fully grasp the idea just yet, but on some basic level she's beginning to understand that it's poor form to just take things from these caches.  Every time something is taken, something else must be left.  (The kids would especially love this part because they can see the interesting things that people leave in the class' cache, and possibly trade them out with other things.)
  • Being considerate beyond your personal scope.  We try to teach children to be considerate to people, naturally.  These people generally include friends, family, teachers, etc.  Basically, people with whom the children interact.  But what about the people with whom the children do not interact?  The people whom the children never even meet or see?  This is similar to the "leaving no trace" point above, but on a different level.  Other people, people whom you'll never meet, enjoy these geocaches and/or the places in which they're hidden.  Be considerate to those people.  If something about the geocache needs to be fixed, fix it.  Or at least report it back to the owner of the cache.  Don't take up excessive space in the log book, don't damage the log book, etc.
  • Appreciation of the little pieces of the world around us.  This is probably my favorite part of the activity.  We're not talking about deep woods camping here, just little spots slightly off the beaten path (or sometimes on the beaten path) that we otherwise would never notice.  I mean, think about how you view the area around you.  There's your yard and your neighborhood and all the nooks and crannies you notice on foot there, but outside of walking distance it sort of breaks down to a series of destinations and paths to reach them.  We tend to neglect that those paths, and the paths near them and so on, are also filled with little nooks and crannies and interesting walkable things.  The simple act of standing still and looking around, in an area where you normally drive by at 40mph, gives you a different perspective and a new appreciation for that area.  It doesn't make your world bigger, it just reminds you of the fact that the big world is made up of many little areas.
There's probably more that I just can't think of right now, and I may add it later.

I really think the children would enjoy this and would learn from it.  And, over the years spent at that school, they can continue to see how their class' items have traveled and how other class' items have traveled, etc.  New kids in the class can add their own, the kids can continue to interact with it if they so choose as they grow into older classes, they can involve friends and family, etc.  And I think it would help teach them some important life skills beyond the usual classroom rhetoric.  The teachers and administration may enjoy it as well, seeing what's become of something their kids made, etc.

I'm definitely going to have to put together a proposal of some sort for the school administration.  Heck, maybe this could be something our non-starter Kiwanis Club (the club that doesn't want to go on the cart) could host.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Playlists and Albums

I've recently been listening to a lot of Rush.  This is, of course, a good thing.  But in this I've re-discovered the value of the "album" in music.

These days, in this age of iPods and eWidgets, playlists are becoming more common than albums.  After all, it's my music collection and I should be able to organize it as I see fit, right?  Well sure, that's fine in some circumstances.  Creating a party mix of various songs from yesteryear, or a driving mix of enjoyable music that keeps one awake without being distracting, or even a nap time mix of soft classical.  But it's important that we don't lose sight of the value that an album itself can represent.

I had lost sight of that, and that's why my first attempt to "get into Rush" met with failure.  For this, I apologize.  See, I've never really been a Rush fan.  Their music is fantastic, and I've always recognized that, but I just never really paid any attention.  At some point I decided to give it a try, so I loaded up my iPod with as much Rush as I could muster and set it to random.  And, well, I just didn't get it.  I didn't see the fanatical appeal.  But, of course, that was my fault.

To go from Moving Pictures to Vapor Trails to Fly By Night to Counterparts to Hemispheres and end up on Power Windows... That's not the musical journey that the artists envisioned and produced, but rather a disorienting maelstrom of sounds and experiences.  I was hearing Rush music, but I was not listening to Rush.

Since it didn't click with me, I moved on.  I went back to what I was doing.  A few gems from that attempt made it to my regular playlists, but that's it.  Then sometime later my friends and I went to go see the Rush documentary, Beyond the Lighted Stage, at the Nickelodeon theater downtown.  (It is, by the way, an excellent documentary.)  This gave me a little more insight into the career of Rush and helped me understand the progression of their albums.

See, unlike other bands which tend to have a sound and just stick with it, Rush has evolved tremendously over the years.  They've truly perfected their craft in the sense that perfection is a journey, not a destination.  Over the years they've produced a lot of albums, but each one is its own discreet unit.  While some may be grouped into eras of the band's career, the albums themselves are atomic units.  Some songs may be taken on their own, but the album is the true unit of music being presented.

So shortly thereafter I tried again.  I commuted to and from work one day listening to Moving Pictures, in the order in which the songs were intended.  I.  Was.  Hooked.  And so it continued, album after album, commute after commute.  One need not necessarily listen to the albums themselves in the order of the band's career, but one does need to keep each album in its proper era context.  If you just came off of Roll The Bones and you're in the mood for 2112, take a moment and get into the right mindset.  You're not just moving to the next song in your playlist, you're embarking on a musical journey.  Prepare yourself accordingly.

I think I'm just about ready to load up some prog metal concept albums.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hello, Cruel World

I guess I'm really getting into this whole blogging thing. (I've even recently been delving into the Twitter micro-blogging scene, which I've always personally seen as a solution looking for a problem.) I have the developer blog and I really enjoy contributing to that, but now I guess I also need a place for my personal entries. A little personal stuff is fine there, but not too much.  (And of course I also have the Google Voice blog, but that's just silly.)

There used to exist my personal website, where the primary content for a long time was pretty much a blog, but like many things that has faded away into history. That site was more about being a web development playground than about its content. And the content just wasn't all that great, with a few exceptions that I may migrate to here in time.

And as I've moved away from self-hosting everything, which was more effort than it was worth, and more toward using the tools that are already available, here I find myself creating another blog to fill the gap of that old site. Maybe I'll be able to generate better content this time, maybe not. Either way, writing is better than not writing.