Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Archive for July, 2006

People, Computers, and Companions

Posted by hyperpat on July 31, 2006

It’s my anniversary today. And I feel so very lucky to have such a companion. Without her, by this point I’d probably be ready for the loony bin.

Humans are social animals. Without someone to talk to, to tell your troubles to, someone just to hug, we deteriorate into something that’s less than human. Perhaps that’s why AI hasn’t really become a reality yet – the poor computer needs someone to talk to!  Robert Heinlein, in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, postulated on just this point, and in the process created possibly the most lovable computer character ever in the field of science fiction, Mycroft Holmes IV, or just Mike to his friends.

But regardless of the fate of computer intelligence, as long as I have my companion, I’ll be happy.

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Searching for the Perfect Place to Live

Posted by hyperpat on July 31, 2006

Went house hunting yesterday and saw five houses in quick succession. At the end of this process, everything is a blur. Happily, we took our video cam with us, and carefully labeled each tape for which house it belonged to, along with a notebook where we recorded salient facts and impressions (just as the House Hunter’s show recommends). After reviewing everything, it quickly became obvious that one house really stood out from the rest, and even though it was listed at the very top end our affordable price range, we placed an offer. Nicely remodeled and upgraded throughout, obviously well-maintained, plenty of room, a block away from the high school our youngest son wants to go to, it has just about everything we want (unless you factor in all those features that should be in houses, which I wrote about earlier at The Technology (or Lack Thereof) of Your House, but which the tech gurus haven’t gotten around to inventing yet). Now all we have to do is sell the current place and hope our offer is accepted (no sure thing in this area, as multiple offers for properties are still quite common, even though it has slowed down a bit).

The question is, how did people do this before the days of video cameras? Just one more way technology has impacted our daily living.

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When Worf Becomes an Acceptable Dinner Companion

Posted by hyperpat on July 28, 2006

The Star Trek series has been criticized for being overly dramatic, with simplistic plots, and gadgets that can never (?) exist in the real world. But it had something that is not only possible, but very desirable.

What I’m referring to here is the basic culture of Star Fleet. Here we find women, various minorities, and several varieties of aliens all working as a team, where everyone gets the respect they deserve. Add the unified world government, without all the brush wars that plague our planet now, and it becomes apparent that this show was set in what most people would describe as a utopia.

So how do we get from here to there? I think it must start in the home, in how parents teach their children, that everyone is a human, that every individual deserves to be evaluated on the basis of what they do, not what color of skin they have or what religion they subscribe to. And that needs to be reinforced in the schools – and this area will mean a change in government policy for many countries around the world. Laws prohibiting discrimination are fine, but they will only really work if the great majority of people truly believe in non-discrimination. This doesn’t mean that everything is all sweetness and light. There will always be individuals who can’t function as part of a society, who are greedy, selfish, argumentative, disrespectful, and generally pains in the ass, and there must still be methods in place to control such individuals.

World government could become a reality. The UN is a beginning model, but a future true world government would need to have some real teeth (independent of the armed forces of any country) to enforce policy decisions, along with a method to provide proper funding for it. Getting today’s countries to effectively give up some aspects of their current sovereignty will probably be extremely difficult.

But it’s a nice dream, one that actually has a chance of becoming a reality.

Posted in Politics | 1 Comment »

“That Silly Science Fiction Stuff”

Posted by hyperpat on July 27, 2006

“Just before they went into warp, I beamed the whole kit and kaboodle into their engine room, where they’ll be no tribble at all.” — Scotty, explaining how he got rid of the tribbles (The original Star Trek series, the episode of The Trouble With Tribbles)

Now, besides all the fun with tribbles (an idea that was partially stolen from the Martian Flat Cats of Robert Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones), there is a more serious side to the above: the concept of ‘beaming’, or instant matter transport. Surely this is pure fantasy; no such device could ever exist, at least according to theory. Right along side this concept is the ‘warp drive’, enabling the spaceship to travel at many times the speed of light. But concepts like these just may be possible.

Modern physics contains quite a few mind-boggling and non-intuitive concepts.

One of these is that it is possible for a particle to surmount a barrier, even though it does not have the required kinetic energy. If you take a marble and try and roll it up a hill, if you don’t give it enough initial velocity it will go up a ways and then it will invariably come back down, never getting over the hill. You can do this again and again, and always get the same result. But doing the same thing with a sub-atomic particle, every once in while it will get over the ‘hill’. Lest you think this is something that has no everyday relevance, there are quite a few electronic devices that depend on this effect.

Then we have ‘tangled quantum states’. Here we find not only Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” but the possibility of both faster-than-light drives and instant matter transport. Two particles forming a paired system of quantum states will preserve the sum of those states, regarless of how far apart the two particles eventually get. Measurement of one particle’s quantum state means that the other particle’s state is instantly determinate – so an action at one end of the galaxy could have an effect at the other end in zero time.

Worm holes are yet another way physics is pointing to FTL capabilities, and may be closer to the Star Trek concept. Instead of actually travelling through the entire distance between two points, why not ‘bend’ space until the two points are almost on top of each other?

Superstring theory posits that there may be as many 20 dimensions, rather than just the four we commonly know about. So far, no one has been able to prove the validity of this concept, and what could be done with it if true is not clear. But it is indicative of where physics is heading – concepts that seem more and more bizarre (besides being very complicated), but which just might allow us to some day make a reality much like that of Star Trek.

Posted in Science & Engineering | 1 Comment »

Pacifist Activists

Posted by hyperpat on July 26, 2006

Let’s stop war! Let’s hit the streets, chant our slogans, display our posters, make sure the media catches us! Which war? Does it matter? Nope.

All the chanting and demonstrating in the world won’t stop wars from happening. Wars are a way of making the other guy do what you want them to do, of making a political statement that cannot be ignored. As long as two people, staring at the same facts, can reach totally different opinions and views about their meaning, wars will happen. As long as children are taught that ‘different’ is bad, wars will happen. As long as resources are in short supply, and the supply of greed is not, wars will happen. Hate will always triumph over reason, at least until the human genetic makeup is changed radically to allow conscious control over emotions. Wherever people feel that their lives are threatened by someone else, whether they really are or not, the condition exists that leads to war.

Pollyanna futures are nice things to read about in SF, but it is quite striking that utopian novels are almost never as good, as engaging, or as relevant as dystopian ones. “Peace in our time” is, unfortunately, a dream, a goal that no matter how greatly striven for can’t be reached.

And of course, if we ever do reach that goal, about two weeks later the aliens from Alpha Ceti IV will arrive and wipe us out.

Posted in Politics | 2 Comments »

Rats and People

Posted by hyperpat on July 26, 2006

There are times when you need to have a little space. Just a little time away from everything that’s happening, and all the people around you. When you need it and don’t get it, the typical result is anger, frustration, and that feeling that the world is ‘closing in’ around you. At its extreme, the net result is ‘going postal’.

But the modern world we live in seems to keep getting busier and busier, with more things to worry about, more items that just must get done now, more things you must learn, and less and less time to just relax and go do what you want to do. This is partly the result of the pace of technological innovation, where new things keep appearing. Remember when there were no such things as cell phones? When you could go off in the woods, and absolutely know that no one would be able to bother you? Not now – you’ve still got that phone in your pocket.

With computers we are constantly hooked into the vast stream of data about what’s happening everywhere, while your TV does its best to make sure that you don’t feel great unless you purchase the latest hot item presented in all those invasive commercials. Out on the road, more and more cars crowd all around you, most of them driven by idiots (or at least it seems that way). The shopping mall seems to be absolutely packed with people, and lines, lines, everywhere.

There was an experiment done sometime back that looked at what rats did when they were given plenty of food and water, but had too many of them in a small space. Very quickly these rats ended up constantly fighting amongst themselves. I don’t think people are any different. More and more people on this planet means less and less space per person, and places people can go to relax and get away from it all fewer and fewer. John Brunner, in his ground-breaking book Stand on Zanzibar (written in 1967), envisioned a future that looks all too close to today’s world. One of the prominent features of that book was his description of ‘muckers’, people who have been pushed over the edge by the crowding and pace of their world, and who take out their frustrations by shooting, stabbing, or otherwise inflicting damage on all around them.

So sit back and relax while you still can. But add another worry about how we can solve this problem.

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From Little to Big

Posted by hyperpat on July 25, 2006

My wife is, in PC speak, “vertically challenged”. This causes her some problems in everyday life, with shelves too high to reach, gas pedals too far away, etc. She has ways to cope with these problems, but it highlights an aspect of modern mass market industry that targets only the middle of the demographic. While some things are available for people who fall outside that middle (usually at exorbitant extra cost), other items have no available models for such problems. This would seem to be an area where software, programmable robots, and assembly lines engineered for more flexibility are needed. But probably no one is working on such things as there is no financial incentive for them. One of the downsides of a capitalistic system.

I remember a short story I read many years ago that had a solution to the world overpopulation problem – a secret government program in genetic engineering to make everyone ‘small’, who would require less of just about everything (less fabric in clothes, lower calorie intake requirements, etc.), and would help solve the problems of extremes in the range of size of people. The reality is, however, that people are actually getting larger (both vertically and side-to-side). And the world population continues to climb at an alarming rate. At some point we will reach a condition where there simply are not enough resources, no matter how efficiently we use them, to support everyone. When that day arrives, we’d better have a much better way of handling conflicts, or the solution that we get will be global war, or plagues that would make the Black Death of the Middle Ages look like a picnic. I’m not too optimistic about it, given the current world political picture.

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Disasters for Fun

Posted by hyperpat on July 23, 2006

There’s a certain element in all of us, I think, that revels in the second hand delights of disasters. Certainly not first hand – oh, no, that would mean actually having to experience all the nasty things that go along with disasters, like pain, loss of loved ones, seeing the work of years wiped away in moments, and the daunting task of having to rebuild. But we love to read about such happenings as they happen to someone else.

And there are writers aplenty who have given us some great disasters to look forward to. Scared about the possibility of a meteor or comet hitting the Earth and wiping everything out? Try Larry Niven’s and Jerry Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer. Blow up the planet by accident? There’s Eugene Burdick’s and Harvey Wheeler’s Fail Safe. Or let’s just hollow out the planet’s core till everything collapses, courtesy of a black hole – David Brin’s Earth. And then there are some books that look at what things are like long after the disaster occurred. Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz looks at the world over a thousand year span after a nuclear holocaust, while Edgar Pangborn’s Davy is a Huck Finn set in partially drowned New England.

All of these books are excellent reading, well written and with some very cogent things to say about things that matter to all of us. And this small listing only scratches the surface of a veritable library of books that delve into those times when things just don’t go right. And just perhaps, reading these will allow us to make better preparations for the future, and possibly know what to avoid to prevent these nightmare scenarios from actually happening.

Posted in Books | 2 Comments »

I’m Wilting, But Will the Planet?

Posted by hyperpat on July 22, 2006

Ok, it hit 111 today. And over a hundred yesterday, and will be over a hundred tomorrow. Not very comfortable. But many people look at such temperatures and say “Oh, global warming is the cause”. They’re wrong. Days like this are nothing more than a few more data points added to the total body of evidence that indicates that yes, our planet is warming up a little bit at the moment. Does it mean that New York City will be under twenty feet of water a century from now? Maybe. And it might be buried under twenty feet of snow.

Predicting the climate is not something that we can do with great confidence yet, and given the weather’s chaotic nature and the huge number of variables that contribute to the climate, we may never be able to do so. Much of current theory is based on data collected in the last century, augmented by things like deep ice core analysis and some historical records of things like the “Little Ice Age” that happened between about 1400 and 1850. The trouble is, much of this input data is suspect, or has known biases, such as temperature recorders located near large urban areas, which are known to produce local area temperature increases. Such biases, if well understood, can be corrected for, but it still makes the data input somewhat suspect. And science, if nothing else, is all about data: you need to able to measure it, quantify it, force a repeat of the conditions that produces the measurable effect. From this data a hypothesis can be formed, and if confirmed by later experiments and measurements, graduate the hypothesis to a theory.

But the big problem with all the models that are based on the current theory is that there is no way to do repeatable experiments to confirm the accuracy of the model or even the basic validity of the theory. All scientists can do is continue to collect data and see how well it matches up with earlier predictions. Even that doesn’t provide great confidence. Things like just how the great North Atlantic ocean current, that has kept England and much of Western Europe quite a bit warmer than would otherwise be expected given their latitude, operates or what would cause it to change direction or even disappear is not known with any degree of certainty. The movie The Day After Tomorrow played upon this great unkown to present a scenario of not Global Warming, but a very sudden change to a new Ice Age.

However, what we do know is that our climate is changing, and that CO2 levels, that can be proven in the laboratory to have significant effects on the total heat equation for this planet, have reached the highest level ever in at least the last 600,000 years. And most scenarios indicate that the types of changes foreseeable, hot or cold, are not good for our civilization. So it would seem to make sense to look for ways to at least curtail the amount of CO2 we are putting into the atmosphere, even without reliable predictions about what might happen. And perhaps a lot more money should be allocated to research not just current effects, but to look for ways to actively manage the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere.

But putting an automatic label of ‘Global Warming’ on every twitch of daily weather is an incorrect use of the results of scientific investigation, and does not lead to proper introspective thought about appropriate actions.

Posted in Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

The Bowling Gods Smile…

Posted by hyperpat on July 21, 2006

Last night was my normal league night, and at the beginning it looked like it might be a very long night, as the oiling pattern that had been laid down was a tough one, heavy oil and oiled very far down the lane, to about 48 feet. This meant that my ball did not ‘break’ very much, and for the first game this resulted in several splits and few strikes, for a net of a 168 score. Then I made an adjustment to work the ‘outside’ line, and game two became reasonable, a 201. But in game three, the bowling gods decided to be nice, and let me carry a couple of Brooklyn hits and didn’t leave me with a bunch of ten pins, for a final score of 258. For a change, I left the alley with a smile on my face…

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The Technology (or Lack Thereof) of Your House

Posted by hyperpat on July 21, 2006

I’ve been busily getting my house ready for sale for the last several months, and doing so has forcibly brought home to me the fact that most houses are little more than slightly dressed up caves. Neanderthal man wouldn’t have much trouble understanding most of how today’s houses are constructed, even if the materials and and tools used to do so might amaze him.

But really, where are the great advances in living arrangements that should be there? How about a self-cleaning carpet whose color is changeable at the touch of a button, windows that clean themselves via application of an electostatic charge, automatic environmental controls that not only regulate temperature but also humidity separately for each room and continuosly monitor for bio-hazards, while at the same time minimizing your electric bill (and solar panels at affordable prices), pest monitors that let you know when that first termite finds something good to munch on in your home, security that block-head thieves can’t defeat in thirty seconds, a way to permanently mount your Christmas decorations and keep them hidden till the appropriate season, plumbing that will never, ever get clogged, trash receptacles that send their influx directly to the city dump via underground tubing while carefully extracting those items that can be re-cycled, easily movable walls and changeable room configurations, window screens you can’t poke holes in and don’t get dirty, a flexible home robot that can do just about any repetitive task, this list goes on and on.

The scientific and engineering gurus apparently don’t think much about developing things for the home.

Posted in Science & Engineering | 1 Comment »


Posted by hyperpat on July 21, 2006

Kim Stanley Robinson wrote an excellent series of books a while back (Red, Blue, and Green Mars) about terra-forming Mars. Part of the tension and conflict of those books was that between those residents who felt that Mars should be preserved in as near its pristine state as possible and those who felt that all technological methods available should be used to make the planet’s environment as human friendly as possible.

You might think that this question is moot, as we haven’t even set foot on Mars yet, let alone started changing its environment. But the question is actually very relevant to everyone living on good old planet Earth. Here, the question is usually framed in terms of ‘Let’s preserve all the wilderness areas and keep everything just like it was 200 years ago’ versus ‘I want to build my 300 story office complex right here, and I don’t care what I have to bulldoze to do it’. When the two sides are stated as baldly as this, I think it’s fairly obvious that neither side is completely right.

Certainly, there is a place and valid reasons for trying to preserve some areas and unique ecologies from the ravages of capitalistic-driven development. It is very possible that there are life-forms in these areas that may eventually prove not only beneficial, but essential to humanity’s continued existence. Wiping such areas out willy-nilly is not good stewardship of Planet Earth.

But at the same time, neither does it make sense to try and preserve every nook, cranny, and spotted owl. At some point it becomes obvious that whatever organisms that are present in an area are either fully abundant elsewhere or provide no real benefit to man or the overall eco-system.

So far, who decides just where that dividing point is, and whether a particular piece of property can be used for commercial purposes or whether great efforts should be expended to preserve it as is, is a matter for the courts. But the law and the courtroom adversarial approach do not seem to me to be the best arbiters of such matters. Rather, scientific facts and the voices of those who hear the great call of all living things need to be considered in a forum or organization where all points of view can be freely expressed and consensus can be reached. What form such an organization might have or what power it might have to enforce decisions reached by its members I don’t know. But we need something different than today’s approach.

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Politics, Science, and Religion

Posted by hyperpat on July 20, 2006

Bush’s veto today of the Stem-Cell funding bill is a prime example of why there needs to be an even stronger separation of Church and State. With this action, Bush has basically declared that he doesn’t care what the scientific facts are, or what the majority of Americans have indicated that they want in this area, and has let his personal religious beliefs hold sway. Besides this being a no-good way to run a country, this action will probably have several deleterious effects:

1. Good scientists will decide that the US is not the place they wish to reside and do their research in. This will eventually relegate the US to a second-rate power in terms of science and technology.

2. It will probably delay the probable benefits of stem-cell related medical procedures for everyone. Which means unnecessary deaths or permanent disabilities.

3. It will convince other countries that the current leader of this country is just as blind, arrogant, and determined to have his way as the leader of Iran. Which is not a country I would like to see the US compared to.

4. The fallout from this veto will mean Congress will continue to have this as a debating item on the floor, taking time away from other major issues that it should be discussing.

Now I’m really neither a Republican nor Democrat, though I’m registered as Republican, but am actually close to the Libertarian philosophy. I did vote for Bush in this last election, feeling that he was doing at least a reasonable job in the areas of budget and foreign relations, but his actions during this second term have turned me more and more against him. The problem is, I don’t see anyone else on the political horizon who is any better.

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Our Small World

Posted by hyperpat on July 20, 2006

Humans have been around a distressingly short period on this planet. And there’s no guarantee that we’ll still be around tomorrow. We’re busily involved in modifying our home to suit ourselves, via mining, lumbering, farming, fishing, and polluting, with little understanding of the long-term consequences of our actions. While the arguments rage about global warming, the deforestation of the Amazon, and how long the oil supplies will last, Mother Earth must absorb and deal with all the blows we are dealing her. And how she deals with them may not be very nice to live with.

Which is why we need to do something to establish a second home. We desperately need to figure out how to not just get to space, but how to live there. Whether it be the Moon, Mars, Callisto, or somewhere totally outside the solar system, we need to find a place where man can survive even in the face of ultimate disaster.

Now many people feel that the money being spent on space exploration is a waste of time, money, and human lives. But our solar system has far more resources than what is contained on our little planet, from iron, nickel, and other metals to an unclouded sun that can provide a great source of clean energy. But unless we invest in making space utilization a priority now, it may soon be too late to ever do it, as disaster may strike at any time, and we’ve already used up most of the more easily obtainable materials needed to develop a high-technology culture.

Science fiction works have poked and prodded the collective consciousness into at least recognizing space as the ultimate frontier, but few people are aware of the extraordinary width and depth of the ideas that SF has explored in its short span as a separate literary genre. To my mind, at least, it is one of the best vehicles for getting people excited about the possibilities of the future, of showing just what mankind can do, just what marvels lie waiting for our discovery, and just how people can live and work in societies far different than our current ones.

For all the above, much of what I write about here will be devoted to science fiction and/or scientific discoveries, and just what their impact is (or should be) on our daily living. I maintain a website devoted to the field at HyperPat’s Science Fiction, and I’d really like people to visit it and hopefully come away with a better appreciation of what the field offers.

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