Supersonic Man

August 20, 2017

“Everyone is a little bit racist.”

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 3:19 pm

You may have heard that quote.  I am quoting it because I believe it’s true.  There is no dividing people into two groups, one racist and one not.  It’s a spectrum, and what matters is not what feelings or assumptions you start with, but what behavior you end with.  Let’s look at some sample points on this spectrum — some levels of racism:

Level 0: innocent.  This is where small children start out — unaware that race is a problem.  Maybe it’s possible to maintain this into adulthood in circumstances of major social isolation, but I don’t think I’ve ever personally seen an example of that.

Level 1: responsible.  We are all liable to sometimes forming snap judgments based on first impressions, and race is often a factor that plays into this.  But we can compensate for this by taking a moment for a second thought, to double-check our initial thoughtless reaction and make sure we’re being fair-minded.  This may not sound very impressive, but for most adults, this is about the best you can expect.  People in this category may be “allies” of minorities, or not.

Level 2: in denial.  This is probably where the majority of people fit, on most days.  This is where you land if you react to prejudicial snap judgments by rationalizing them instead of reconsidering.  Frequently accompanied by the idea that racism is largely historical, or confined to a few extremists — that it’s a distant external problem.  Racism at this level isn’t going to burn crosses, but it can produce frequent calls to the police about “suspicious” characters, or some extra strictness from the police themselves.  This mild racism can be enough to make a big difference in how difficult it is for some people to land a job or rent a place to live.  So even though the acts committed by any one individual seem minor and excusable, they can add up to a large negative impact on the lives of minority citizens.

Level 3: asshole.  This level is for people who sometimes show active racist behaviors, such as taunts and trolling and harrassment with racial epithets.  Generally these are people who are habitually unpleasant or obnoxious in other ways as well, or who have long lists of people whose lives they disapprove of.  Most often, such people are still in vigorous denial about racism, despite having numerous examples readily visible in the mirror.

Level 4: deplorable.  Finally, we come to those who have adopted racism as a guiding philosophy, and who actively evangelize it as an ideology: the Nazis, Klansmen, Neo-Confederates, and other racial separatists.  Many are fanatical True Believers, and as such, are capable of horrific violence for their cause.

Again, the point is not that people are divided into groups, who fit one label or another.  Any one person can and does slide up and down this scale, plus or minus a space over the course of a day, or larger shifts over months or years as they are exposed to different ideas.

And note that one’s position on this scale may have very little to do with the intensity or severity of their prejudices, particularly in the middle part of the scale.  Some can have major race-based fears and handle them well, and others might have minor ones but handle them badly.

The most important factor for affecting how a person moves forward or backward in their behavior is probably the social expectations of the people around them.

But don’t take this to mean that the way to make someone act better is by lecturing them.  If you really want to bring someone to see another point of view, it’s important to listen to them more than you talk to them, and let them express the feelings or anxieties or bad experiences they may be carrying on the subject.  And when you do speak, you want to be offering them an option, rather than making a demand.

Because when social pressure comes in a hostile form, it’ll probably have the opposite of the desired effect.  If you do listen to people at level 2 or 3 talk about race, one thing that often comes up is how much they dislike and resent hearing the word “racism” brought up as a belligerent finger-pointing accusation.

I don’t personally know who’s doing this kind of accusing, but some of my friends see it happen, and they affirm that yeah, it ain’t helping.  Maybe that behavior arises from having one foot in the responsible level and the other in the denial level, so you want to project and externalize the problem.  That’s just my guess, I can’t say.

As for the level 4 deplorables, I don’t think there’s much point in listening to them or engaging with them.  They’ve created a fantasy world where they believe each other’s made-up stories, so that’s all you’re likely to hear.  They’ve embraced evil, and there aren’t really very many of them, so socially, we can just write them off.

August 15, 2017

Nazi free speech

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 1:17 pm

The nazis among us like to complain that we’re stifling their right of free speech.  Here’s a reminder about some forms of speech which, by court precedent, are not and never have been protected by the First Amendment — types of speech which nobody has a right to make:

1. Fraud, false advertising, con artistry, and other forms of deceitful promise for personal gain.

2. Libel, slander, and defamation.  This includes not only attempts to damage reputations, but also taunts intended to provoke a violent response — “fighting words”.

3. Threats, intimidation, attempts to create panic (e.g. “fire!” in a crowded theater), or other means of trying to coerce people through fear.

4. Incitement of others to carry out violent or criminal acts.

5. Sedition — advocacy of overthrowing the government by force.

The courts may, for many of these categories, require strict or narrow conditions before ruling them to be unprotected and criminal forms of speech, but the point is that you do not have a right to deceive, a right to slander, a right to threaten, or a right to advocate violence.

If nazis and other racial supremacists think they have a right to advocate their point of view like the rest of us, well, let’s see if they can actually do so without committing any slander, making any threats, inciting any violence or insurrection, or making any fraudulent promises.  Since their actual program for society involves defaming large groups of people, using lots of violence and threats of violence, and overthrowing at least some parts of the Constitution, the only way they could advocate it without mentioning these would be by lying.

Nazi speech is sometimes suppressed, but if they think their rights of free speech are being violated, they’re wrong.  They never had any right to this form of speech.

May 10, 2017

no Apollo

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 9:21 am

If NASA had not been hurried into building the Apollo mission by the “space race” against the USSR, how might we have arrived at the Moon?  Space development might have proceeded a good deal more slowly and less expensively, building on the X-15 rocket plane experiments.  I think that program would eventually have arrived at something fairly close to the Space Shuttle.  If you solve all the problems of the X-15 one by one to make it orbit-worthy, it would have had to be much larger and blunter, because any adequate heat shield is going to be around four inches thick, and that doesn’t scale down for something skinny or pointy.  That sounds a lot like the shuttle to me.

So let’s say we were trying to send a mission to the moon using space shuttles.  The shuttle itself can’t go there even in you fill the cargo bay with fuel, and that would be wasteful anyway, as you don’t need most of its bulk.  So I think the bits that actually go to the moon would be much as they historically were in Apollo: a lunar module, command module, and service module.  Why not just stick those into a shuttle bay?

The shuttle’s cargo bay is 60 feet long and 15 feet across, though for a cylindrical cargo the cross section needs to be a bit smaller, as the space isn’t fully round.  The mass limit for a flight to low orbit is a hair over 30 English tons, or 27.5 metric tons.  (I don’t think any real flight ever exceeded 83% of that capacity.)  What can we work out based on these limits?

You can’t fit all three modules into one shuttle-load, but they’ll go in two loads, if you make the lander a bit less broad and gangly.  One would be the command module and lunar module, and the service module would be the other.  And we might have to trim a bit of weight from the service module.  This means the service module would have to be mounted to the command module by shuttle astronauts in space suits, which would be inconvenient, but doable.  Alternately, you might cram the three modules into one flight all preassembled, if their fuel were in another.  This would mean at least six operations of astronauts pumping dangerous fluids into various tanks spread throughout the modules.  It might also mean assembling the lander’s legs from some inconveniently compact from.

Now you need a rocket to send the set toward the moon — one very like the third stage of Apollo, which used most of its fuel to lift the three modules out of low orbit and fling them toward the moon.  This rocket is a bit too large to fit into a shuttle bay, but it’s not too implausible that there could be a way to make it fit.  Its weight is no problem, if it’s empty.  But the fuel would take at least four shuttle loads!  Historically this rocket weighed 10 metric tons empty, and pushed a 40 ton payload.  The required delta-V is 3.1 km/s.  It burned nearly 100 tons of hydrogen and oxygen to accomplish this.  It used a bit more to circularize Apollo’s Earth orbit, which would not be needed in this case.

So the mission would require seven shuttle launches, starting with one to put up the booster with the first splash of fuel in it, and four more to fill it up.  Then the service module would be brought up, and attached to the booster.  The command and lunar modules would come up last, along with the astronauts who will ride in them.  That last shuttle could stay in orbit to await their return.

Since the empty “third” stage might not fit easily, and since it’s probably better to bring the fuel up in the tanks that will be used instead of needing to pump it from one tank to another, maybe the booster would just be a framework that fuel tanks would be bolted into.  Such a framework could be folded smaller for transport.  This would require additional assembly in space, possibly employing double digit numbers of shuttle astronauts over several flights.  But if everything were prepared well on the ground, the task should not be difficult or dangerous.  And if the orbits were well planned, the booster stage could be recovered into Earth orbit, and either refueled for another mission, or if necessary flown back down for refurbishment.  As SpaceX has demonstrated with their Falcon landings, once a booster is detached from its payload and has mostly empty tanks, a small amount of remaining fuel can accomplish quite a lot of maneuvering, so I don’t think it’s implausible that its engine could return to low orbit, especially if it discards some empty tanks or scaffolding.

The command module might not need to splash down into the ocean.  But it might still need a heat shield, just to brake in Earth’s atmosphere enough to slow down into an Earth orbit, so a shuttle can pick it up.  Or, this somewhat risky air-braking could be avoided by giving the service module more fuel.  (Perhaps it also could use bolt-in tanks.  Add one more fuel-hauling flight to the schedule in this case.)  An ocean splashdown might be the emergency backup option if the rendezvous fails.  But if it succeeds, they could even have the option of recovering the upper stage of the lunar module, and flying both modules down with the astronauts in one shuttle landing.

I’m sure this sounds a lot more awkward and inconvenient than the Apollo’s simple process of just launching one big rocket, but it would have been vastly less expensive.  Most of the parts would be reusable instead of disposable.  The only part that absolutely could not be reused is the bottom stage of the lunar module.  Apollo cost us at least $20 billion per landing, in today’s money; this would cost perhaps a quarter of that — and I’m sure if we made this a continuing operation, we would have found ways to lower the costs further.  Instead of just six trips to the moon, we might have continued doing dozens.  We might never have stopped.

However, I do worry that this process might have exposed astronauts to greater risks.  Lots of opportunities for something to go wrong up in orbit, and lots more shuttle flights.  As we have seen, those shuttles were not the safest things to fly in.

May 5, 2017

makes it easy!

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,life — Supersonic Man @ 3:08 pm

Whenever someone introduces me to a new software framework which is designed to make things easier, especially one to make visual layout easier, I usually end up wishing they’d left things difficult.  Because the thing about these frameworks is that they impose assumptions and expectations.  As long as you work within those assumptions and expectations, the framework saves a lot of labor.  But as soon as a requirement comes along which makes you step outside of those expectations, the framework stops working with you and starts fighting against you.  You end up expending as much work getting around the framework as on solving the problem.

This is especially relevant when the framework is for visual layout.  Because then, they only keep things easy when you adhere to certain limitations of visual styling, and the only people who understand those limitations are the developers.  Which means you’re fine as long as you’re willing to live with a programmer’s sense of visual style.  These frameworks seem terrific in demos, because the examples always take advantage of their strengths and avoid their weaknesses.  But as soon as you bring in a designer or marketer who understands design but doesn’t know the quirks of the framework, their ideas will immediately push you into fighting the built-in assumptions, and all the benefits of having a simplified labor-saving technology wave goodbye, going out for a beer while you’re stuck with a job which is now more difficult than it would have been with no help.

This has been true since the early days of graphical interfaces, from Visual Basic to Twitter Bootstrap.  The latter is my particular bete-noir at the moment, as we adopted it at my job, had to retrofit parts of our old design to not be broken by it, then started to develop new stuff which used it but also had the retrofitting in place, and of course were immediately hit with design change requests which don’t get along with it.  Even before those requests, we were already in a situation where our own CSS was in a fight with itself, half of it saying “don’t be Bootstrap” and the other half saying “you gotta be Bootstrap”.

In the nonvisual realm, it isn’t necessarily so bad.  Some frameworks actually do make things easier without making you fight them.  It helps if their use is purely for code, so it’s designed by programmers for programmers, with no end users involved.  One good example nowadays is jQuery.  It makes many things easier and almost nothing harder.

And we’ve been using it at work but now the word is we’re going to switch to Angular.  We shall see how that turns out.

April 8, 2017

eight-bit nostalgia

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 1:03 pm

There’s a lot of nostalgia out there for the era of eight-bit computers — especially the home-oriented ones from the likes of Commodore and Sinclair and Atari.  And I get why: they were tremendously liberating and empowering to those who had never had access to computing before.  And the BASIC interpreters they all came with were likewise quite empowering to those who hadn’t previously realized that they could write their own programs.

But as someone who was already empowered, I couldn’t stand those crappy toy computers.  Never owned one.  I didn’t start wanting my own computer until the sixteen bit era.  The first personal computer that actually made me want it was the Apple Lisa, which of course was prohibitively expensive.  The first one I wanted enough to pay hard-earned money for, at a time when I didn’t have much, was the Amiga 1000.

(Last I checked, my Amiga 1000 still runs.  But one of these days the disk drives are going to fail, and any available replacements will be just as old and worn.  Turns out that what a lot of retrocomputing hobbyists do is to use hardware adapters to connect their old disk cables to modern flash-memory drives.  It may be kind of cheating but at least you won’t have range anxiety about how much you dare use it before it breaks.)

To me, the sixteen bit era, and the 32-bit transition following, was the most fun time, when the computers were capable enough to do plenty of cool stuff, but also still innovative and diverse enough to not be all boring and businesslike.

If I were of a mind to recapture any of that fun with modern hardware, it sure doesn’t cost money like it used to: I’d look at, for instance, getting a Pi 3 with Raspbian on it.  You could have a complete Linux system just by velcroing it to the back of a monitor or TV.  But there are even cheaper alternatives: there’s a quite good hacking environment available across all modern platforms, more empowering and ubiquitous than BASIC ever was… in your browser’s javascript.

March 1, 2017

faith

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 9:56 am

If what God actually wanted from us was to be worshipped, believed in, and obeyed in one particular way, think how easy it would be for Him to inform everyone on Earth of what He wanted.

Even if He only spoke to a few prophets, why not just have a bunch of them say the same thing at the same time in different languages?

Instead, what we’ve got now is a God who apparently expects to be believed in on a basis of occasional hearsay and conflicting testimony… which means that to arrive at correct faith depends on the exact same faculties that other people use to arrive at a wrong belief in a false deity.

January 22, 2017

Trump’s inauguration crowd is yuge

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 5:50 am

​From one perspective, it’s hilarious: Trump has taken time off of his twitter feuds to engage in a ridiculously juvenile dick-measuring contest over who had the bigger crowd in DC, his supporters or the protestors.  And he sends out this Sean Spicer character to make absurdly transparent lies about it, in order to back this up.  As (presumably) a professional media guy, Spicer has got to be pretty deeply embarrassed about hitching his national reputation to such a transparent fib, but Trump has him doing it anyway (albeit fleeing the podium as soon as possible afterward).  This is not only some good late-night-comic fodder, it’s also an open invitation for the straight news media to directly call out your administration as liars, despite their normally great reluctance to depart from “neutrality” whenever there is disagreement about facts.

But there’s another way to look at this, which isn’t so funny.  In a nation with a free press, this kind of attempt to transparently invent your own fake facts is laughable… but in countries where the press is not free, it’s routine.  This is exactly how news reporting is treated in totalitarian countries where the media are captive to the state.  In those circumstances, the big lie is the only story the public gets to hear, and if the truth gets to them, it’s only in the form of rumor and anecdote, which might be just as untrustworthy when it comes to pinning down solid facts.

What makes this sobering is Trump’s continual attacking and denigration of the news media.  He very much wants his supporters to distrust them, but even more, he wants them to stop reporting facts which contradict his stories.  Why all the attacks?  Because he wants his supporters to demand change, to shout down stories they don’t like — to pressure the media into compliance with his will.  Consciously or not, what he is pushing for is an end to the free press.  To him, a free press is the enemy.  He will never stop attacking them, so long as they report news that they discover through their own lying eyes and ears, rather than the official truth of Trump.

Trump is not just making this attack out of ego or spite — he is betting his presidency on it.  As long as the press remains free, Trump is a clown.  As soon as it’s not, everything he’s doing starts to work exactly as he intends it to, and he can rule as strongly as he wishes.

Trump is governing in a style which can only work when the press is not free.

December 19, 2016

red country vs blue city

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 10:11 am

Anyone who’s studied election maps has seen that when you look at which areas voted conservative and which voted liberal, it isn’t a matter of “red states” vs “blue states”, it’s a matter of urban areas vs rural areas.  The cities in red states are blue, and the countryside in blue states is red.  The balance of the state as a whole largely comes down to how urbanized it is (though the racial composition of rural areas can also be a factor).

countymappurple512

So what is it about city and country that correlates with liberal and conservative views?  I think there is one factor which explains most of the difference.  It comes down to investment.

(more…)

December 1, 2016

conservatives face a test

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 1:41 pm

There are several types of conservatism in the United States.  They differ in what sorts of principles and values they consider to be the moral basis of conservatism.

The first branch to consider is small-government conservatism.  This includes libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and other ideologies favorable to laissez-faire free market policies.  The underlying values and principles have to do with liberty, individualism, responsibility, and self-reliance.  They judge people as friends or enemies depending on how willing they are to impose rules on each other.  When this philosophy reaches a toxic extreme, you get philosophies like objectivism, in which caring for other people is anathema.  But the mainstream of this type of conservatism is the most common one you will usually find in intellectual discourse: it has a rich body of abstract philosophy supporting it, and often attracts highly intelligent people.  But I don’t think it’s a majority among American conservatives.

How compatible is this type of conservatism with the rhetoric of Donald Trump?  Not very.  He tends to easily mix hands-off ideas in one area with interventionist ones in the next. (more…)

November 25, 2016

disenfranchisement

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 3:18 pm

The practice of denying the vote to felons even after their sentence is complete — one basis of the discriminatory Crosscheck system — really ought to be ruled unconstitutional.  It exploits a loophole of the 14th amendment in a way clearly not intended by its crafters, and acts as a substitute for the “poll tax” practice abolished by the 24th amendment.

Misuses of felon lists to block voting have already been ruled illegal in several states by several courts, specifically because they target minorities (as forbidden by amendment 14), yet they persist in the abuse.  We need to cut the whole thing out at the root, which is the state laws under which felons lose their voting rights permanently.  These laws turn biased law enforcement into a tool of deliberate disenfranchisement.

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