Hyperpat\’s HyperDay

SF, science, and daily living

Archive for February, 2007

A True Human Invariant

Posted by hyperpat on February 16, 2007

Every human culture and society has music. It seems to be hard-wired into the human brain, our genetic structure, and the human voicebox is one of the most remarkably versatile organs in nature. But why should this be so? What survival characteristics are enhanced by music, that it should be so deeply embedded? After all, it doesn’t seem to be helpful in putting food on the table (but see below), or building a shelter, or anything else you can directly point to and say “This helps us survive as a species”. Except perhaps courtship. Music can be used to communicate to others your availability and desirability as a mate, and is clearly used in this fashion in some other species. In fact, a large proportion of the songs that are produced deal directly with our mating desires.

But most people are not great singers or instrumentalists – and listening to some of the contestants on American Idol, I would think that some of the ‘singing’ done there would actively turn off any potential mate. Very few can write a song. If only a very small part of the population can produce, in one fashion or another, something pleasing enough to actively attract others, then it’s hard to see how music can strongly effect mating choices and thereby enhance survivability.

Perhaps we need to look at some of the other effects music has.

Now one characteristic of music is rhythm, and the typical frequency of rhythms present in almost all music is close to the normal human heart rate. Some studies have shown that the heart rate adjusts itself to be close to whatever the ‘beat’ of the music is. What most people consider to be ‘relaxing’ music has comparatively slow rhythms, similar to the heart rate when ‘at rest’. The converse is also true – music with accelerated rhythms produces a quickening in the heart rate. Right alongside the heart rate effect is the apparent effect on brain rhythms, which seems to follow a similar pattern (and leading to some claims that playing Mozart will increase your child’s intelligence).

One strong item which derives from this is the ‘synchronizing’ effect between the music and the actions of the person listening to it. People are not normally very good at accurately timing their actions – typical is perhaps getting within 10 – 20 milliseconds of when they wanted to do something – but when trying to, say, match the timing of words in a song, most people can get a lot more accurate, near 1 – 2 milliseconds. This might be a good ability to have! Especially when looked at in terms of a group of people. Imagine a group of hunters who need to coordinate their attack on a large animal. A song with a strong beat will allow these hunters to precisely time their actions, and be more successful in bringing down their prey. This accuracy in timing is apparently due to the ability of the brain to pre-process all the needed setup for the action before it actually needs to occur, based on the repetitive nature of the beat. So here is one benefit that can actually help us survive.

But music has a whole host of other effects on the human body, from skin galvanic levels to production of various hormones and other chemical facilitators. What survival attributes these effects have is not very clear. But apparently, over our long evolutionary course, these responses to rhythmically produced tones had some benefit to the individual’s ability to survive and propagate the trait.

But regardless of how it came to be, one of the strongest attributes of listening to music is pure pleasure, in some ways akin to a drug ‘high’ (possibly this effect is mediated by the same chemical ‘triggers’ in the brain). Music is addictive and (normally, when not played at 120 db) harmless, and I for one am very happy that today’s technology allows me to get my ‘fix’ almost anytime and anywhere I want.

Posted in General, music, Science & Engineering | 4 Comments »

Seen a UFO Lately?

Posted by hyperpat on February 15, 2007

The aliens are coming! The aliens are coming! Where? I don’t see them. Nor does anyone else, at least not yet, even though quite a few people have been assiduously looking for some real evidence of them, using the latest and greatest technology we have.

Now the current theories on how life came to be on this planet indicate that the proper combination of elements, molecules, and energy sources should be fairly common in any normal solar system. And the number of bodies we have found orbiting other stars indicates that most stars will have something circling around them that could serve as bedrock for developing life forms. Given the number of stars in just our own galaxy (somewhere between 200 and 400 billion), even if the odds of having a solar system with an orbiting planet in the region where liquid water would be present is one in 1,000, and the odds that all the rest of the requirements for life to form are met is one in 10,000, that would still give us some 20,000 worlds with life of some sort. But perhaps the real kicker is if that life would ever develop intelligence and technology good enough to send a message (or a space ship) to us. This may just be a matter of time; eventually all worlds with life may be driven to this development level because of evolutionary survival pressures. But if these assumptions have any validity, where are the aliens? This is generally known as the Fermi paradox, as so far the only intelligent race we’ve heard from is ourselves.

The above factors, along with a few more, are encapsulated in something called the Drake equation:

N = R * Fp * Ne * Fl * Fi *Fc * L

R = rate of star formation in our galaxy
Fp = fraction of those stars that have planets
Ne = the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
Fl = the fraction of Ne that actually develop life
Fi = the fraction of Fl that go on to develop intelligent life
Fc = the fraction of Fi that are willing and able to communicate
L = the expected lifetime of such a civilization

Determining proper values for these parameters is difficult and subject to a lot of assumptions and guesswork. When this equation was first developed in 1961, the values used for a first guess were: R = 10/year, Fp = .5, Ne = 2, Fl = 1, Fi = .01, Fc = .01, and L was 10,000 years, leading to an estimate for N, the number of alien civilizations we should be able to talk to, of 100. Other estimates using the results of data obtained since this equation was first developed give results for N ranging from considerably less than 1 to 5000.

But the value for L, or just ‘time’, in this case, could be the killer. Humans have been around for a distressingly short 20,000 years or so, and had the technology to think about talking to the stars for only about 100 of them; this is out of a planetary lifetime of four billion years. Clearly if these alien civilizations came to be a million or so years ago (a relative eye-blink in terms of the astrophysical time) and then died out before we came down from the trees, we’d never hear from them.

Of course, our own development may be atypical; life has had to start over almost from scratch at least a couple times on this planet. And how long we can last as a species with good enough technology to communicate to other stars is very much a pure guesswork figure – after all, we have only one example, and we haven’t ‘died’ – yet. Though the way we’re going, perhaps a figure of only 200-300 years should be used, as that may be all the time we have before we blow ourselves up or poison everything. Which may be the real answer to the Fermi paradox.

Posted in Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

A Negative Aspect

Posted by hyperpat on February 14, 2007

Woe betide the husband/wife who forgets that today is Valentine’s day. Such a transgression is probably good for at least a week in the doghouse. But consider what it would be like if the poor person had an alternative form of marriage instead of the traditional monogamous one, such as that depicted in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as a ‘line’ marriage, where there may be both several husbands and several wives, whose age range may be 16 to 90. Now of course in such a group hopefully at least one of the involved parties will remember what day it is, and ensure that all the rest of his/her cohorts of the same gender are reminded, but just think what it would be like to be the only one who forgot out of a group of ten individuals. ‘Doghouse’ wouldn’t quite be adequate – perhaps ‘Coventry’, that area set aside in the south forty for those who can’t abide by the customs of their society, would be more appropriate. A small downside to such living arrangements.

Posted in Books, General, Science fiction and fantasy, SF | 4 Comments »

It’s the Silicon Valley Way

Posted by hyperpat on February 14, 2007

Haven’t had time to post anything lately, as there have been a few things happening at home, my car broke down (happily fixed at no cost under warranty coverage), and I’m working a seven day week right now. As the saying goes, it’s crunch time, as my company tries to ready a brand new system for customer acceptance.

For our systems to work, there has to be mating between hardware, firmware, software, and applications program, all at once. Some pieces of the hardware didn’t even arrive till last week, and there were large ‘place holders’ in the software and firmware code waiting for that hardware. It’s my job to make all this stuff come together (not counting the work I’m doing as being primary engineer for one the board designs). So I’ve been running around getting everyone to hurry up and get me something that has at least minimal functionality – not easy given the traditional rift between the hardware and software guys. But the extra hours and effort seem to be paying off, as we did manage to get a simple pattern to be produced by the hardware a couple days ago – now the goal is to do the same thing from the software interface level.  Almost there – but the customer arrives in just one week’s time, and it will definitely be a race against the clock to finish this up.

I fully expect to be working something like 100 hours this week.

Posted in Daily Happenings, Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

A Mountain of Water

Posted by hyperpat on February 7, 2007

The idea of using icebergs as a fresh water source has been floated around quite a few times, and is gaining headway again in view of the concerns over what will happen to the climate in certain areas that are already short on clean water given the projected warming trend over the next fifty years. Does the idea really make sense?

First off, there is certainly a large enough supply of naturally occuring icebergs to fufill any expected need from this source for quite a long time. Unless the world’s glaciers and ice caps totally melt, it will continue to be there. And as it sits right now, icebergs represent both a hazard to shipping and a natural resource that is not being utilized. If these bergs were used to supply fresh water for land use, it obviously would reduce the amount of fresh water being added to the world’s oceans, but only temporarily, as after use such water would eventually find it’s way back to the oceans.

Second is the energy and economic cost of pushing these bergs to where we want them, and setting up appropriate facilities to pump the melt water into the local water system. While this is not a small item, and in fact is one of the major reasons why it hasn’t really been tried yet, neither is outside the pale of what is doable with the right economic incentives. And this is where the real crux of the matter shows up: in most of the world, the cost of water is very low, and the cost of getting water from an iceberg is much higher than this. However, in those areas with chronic water shortages, many of which are the same areas projected to get even less rainfall under the effects of global warming, it might make sense to pay such a high price for water (versus not having any at all).  Areas where there is a water shortage can become flash points for conflicts and wars (it’s certainly happened in the past) – and the economic cost of wars (not to mention the humanitarian cost) is much higher than what would be needed to do something like this.  Other technical problems, like the need to wrap these bergs in a huge plastic baggie to prevent the sea water from mixing with the pure melt runoff, have already pretty much been solved.

So it doesn’t appear as if there is any real roadblock to doing this. The only real problem is getting either a government or a large enough corporation to take the first step and provide enough funding to really try it, and so far these entities have been more enamored of desalinization as a solution to the water problem. An even further out solution has been proposed, that of moving a icy asteroid into near-Earth orbit and mining it for water – but this idea is clearly a lot further away from becoming a reality. But sometime soon, we better come up with some solution, as clearly our usage is outstripping the supply.

Posted in Science & Engineering, science fiction | 2 Comments »

Drowning in Electronic Clutter

Posted by hyperpat on February 5, 2007

Sometimes technology gets too enamored of itself for its own good. My family currently has four cell phones, a Game Boy, a Game Cube,  two laptops, two external disk drives, a couple of LAN adapters, and some remote control model vehicles, and each and every one of them has a different AC adapter brick (not to mention the car AC adapters for the phones). They output different voltages, have different connection plugs, are heavy, bulky, occupy way too much space in an outlet strip, ‘steal’ power if left plugged in, and are continuously getting lost. Add to this mess the various cables I need to keep track of to hook up my cameras to my computers (three different ones), the battery chargers, and the TV/DVD/Stereo remotes, the various specialized AC power cords for things like the PS2, and there are times when I when I think my living room is actually a Fry’s Electronics store.

Why can’t the various manufacturers of these things get together and standardize these things? Whatever voltage is needed by the actual circuits of these products could certainly be easily derived from a single 12V DC input (it basically calls for a single IC chip added to their internal circuitry). And if the adapters only output one voltage, there would be no need for having different connectors (the current set of different sized connectors is there for a good reason – to prevent you from plugging your phone or whatever into a voltage that it can’t handle and going up in smoke).  For that matter, the adapters should be able to handle the various standard AC voltages present around the world, so that when I go on overseas trips I wouldn’t have to take a gaggle of various step-down transformers. The same thing applies to those TV remotes – the current ‘universal’ things are either way too complex, don’t work with all equipment, or are way too expensive (or all three). The IR codes that TVs and such use should get a rake-over and get standardized, which would make producing a true universal remote a lot easier and cheaper. As far as the camera USB interconnects, there really is no excuse for the current plethora of different plugs – each one is merely a optional component selection by their designers, with no overriding technical reason for the differences.

But I guess this is one of the benefits of capitalism – everyone gets to do it their way, and us poor consumers take what we can get. And it won’t change until we revolt and quite buying all these neat gadgets until they do something about this mess – which might happen somewhere around Christmas 3001.

Posted in Science & Engineering | Leave a Comment »

A Difficult Adjustment

Posted by hyperpat on February 1, 2007

Starting last Thursday, my bowling center started using some of the PBA oiling patterns. For last thursday, it was the regional/seniors pattern #3. This is probably the second easiest of the PBA patterns (easiest may be the Cheetah). Between my practice and league games last week I at least proved to myself that I can get to the pocket and have reasonable carry on this pattern.

But last night was a enough to give me a headache. For my practice games I was at one end of the alley, where this same PBA pattern was laid down. To play this pattern, which has a lot of oil on the lane, I lined up on the 13 board and shot 7th board, with a soft, easy delivery, and I averaged 193 over 5 games (199 for the last four, first game was poor as I figured out where to play it) – pretty reasonable. Then I shifted to league at the other end of the alley, and found that they had laid a ‘house’ pattern which was very stingy on the oil. To handle this I had to move over to board 20 and shoot board 10, with a hard, fast delivery.  And it took me awhile to make these adjustments. Net: I only managed a 181 average for league, and got very frustrated, as I left 10 pin after 10 pin even when I did get lined up properly. I just hope that next week the house uses the same oiling pattern, whatever one they choose, across all the lanes. Switching between patterns that are this different is a fast way to mess your mind over.

Posted in Bowling, Daily Happenings | Leave a Comment »