Supersonic Man

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.

A second branch is religious conservatism.  This group is okay with intrusive government when it’s applied to godless people and practices.  And sometimes it’s not unwilling to support public charity for people facing difficulty, depending on circumstances.  The guiding morals are those of the bible and similar religious teachings, which on the one hand can be strict and punitive and undemocratic, but on the other generally support a compassionate outlook, and charity in all senses of the word.  They judge people as friends or enemies based on whether they support morality or sinful license.  The membership of this faction is large, but perhaps not a majority.

Needless to say, there is little compatibility with Donald Trump among those who take religious teachings seriously.  He is not a godly man, not even to the faintest degree.

A third branch is capitalist, or rather corporatist, conservatism — the philosophy of the wealthy and the greedy.  It superficially resembles libertarian conservatism, and tries to steal its philosophical credibility from that crowd.  The difference is that though they rail against any kind of state interference which costs them money, they welcome anything which is of financial benefit.  Instead of defending personal liberties, they concentrate on deregulating businesses.  The actual policies pursued by this group are often mean and harmful, such as lowering people’s wages or starting wars, and when asked for their justification, you don’t get reasons, you get flimflam and bullshit.  They have no shame whatever about hypocrisy or corruption.  They judge people as friends or enemies purely on whether their actions promote or hinder profit.  This is the most prominent type of conservatism represented in the national media, but its actual membership is limited to a fairly small set of profiteers, with their hired shills and a few gullible suckers — not a large portion of the population.

Donald Trump won the election with a line of rhetoric which directly challenged the established agenda of this type of conservatism, so no, he doesn’t seem very compatible with it, at least as a candidate.  However, his actual governing policies may turn out to be much more to their liking.  People in this group would have supported Trump’s election only to the extent that they believed him to be lying about what he would do.

Finally, we come to the fourth major branch of conservatism… the scariest one.  These are people who don’t particularly care about either individual liberty, religious morality, or corporate profitability, but who side with those that do care about those things, simply because they have a lot of the same enemies.  This is the group recently labeled as the “deplorables”, because it includes the racists, xenophobes, and misogynists.  Their philosophy is a farrago of lies and paranoia and wishful thinking, entirely unmoored from objective reality.  They judge people as friends or enemies based on resemblance to themselves.  They often don’t agree with each other on whom to hate, but they agree entirely on the necessity of hating.

I’m afraid their numbers may be very large indeed, and that Donald Trump is all too completely compatible with them.  What’s worse, they are apt to bring out the worst in Trump himself, because they are not interested in a government which is founded on democracy and universal human rights.  They want a state which supports their hatred, and are all too willing to embrace authoritarian means to that end, and to chant “Hail Trump” as a path to that goal.

Some principled conservatives don’t consider these fascist types to be conservative at all.  But in our two-party system, they have joined the same team as the other conservatives.

So the four groups can be designated as the libertarians, the moral traditionalists, the corporatists, and the fascists.  One thing we can ask is, which of these groups has really been steering the Republican party?

For a long time, all the media attention was on the Religious Right — their agenda was at the center of public debate.  But when it came down to it, policies usually followed a much more corrupt corporatist line.  More recently, the moralists have been losing ground on the philosophical front to the libertarians.  Since this philosophy doesn’t generally confront anyone on non-economic issues, it’s been even easier to bend into a corporatist parody of itself when it came time to decide policy.  The fascist element has mostly been in the background, embarrassing the other conservative groups whenever their toxic behaviors came into the public spotlight, but affecting policy when it could do so without being overtly identified.

If you ask conservatives what philosophy they subscribe to, they will almost always claim to be either libertarian or moralist, or some blend of the two.  Almost nobody comes right out and identifies themselves as a corporatist or a fascist.  And yet the corporatists are clearly the ones who’ve been calling the shots in practice, and the fascists have clearly been influential.

And now the fascists are emerging as possible rivals to corporatist control, as the corporatist faction has seen its own center of power shifting from business owners to bankers, who are of course far more unpopular.  The corporatists aren’t scared yet, but maybe they should be… anger at banks has often been useful to fascism.

Corporatism was already a moral challenge to conservatives, as it embodies practices which are superficially compatible with their moral philosophies but in practice antithetical to them.  But you could excuse a lot of conservatives for failing to pass this test, because it takes care and attention and a sharp eye to see through the lies and realize how big the difference is.

But fascism is another matter.  Whether libertarian or moralist, almost any American conservative will swear that they believe in the Constitution, in democratic elections, and in universal individual rights.  The fascists act directly against these values.

And this means that, if you are a conservative, you are now facing a crucial moral choice.  Will you repudiate fascism, or will you join in?  Everybody says they’ll shun it if asked in the abstract, but I’m seeing very little of that in today’s political atmosphere.  Instead I see conservatives of all types mostly joining into a big friendly celebration of partisan triumphalism, in which everyone would rather laugh and gloat at defeated liberals than question what sort of policy they are supporting when they do so.  For instance, rather than trying to validate the accuracy of the recent vote count (or of our voting process in general) in the light of serious indications of antidemocratic skullduggery, most conservatives I’m hearing from re utterly scorning any attempt to recount or to audit our voting process.  They are even, as a whole, dismissing the alarming threat of a hostile foreign power working to gain influence over our politicians and our election process — an attitude which at any other time would be astonishing.  Nor have I heard them speak up about instances where corporatism has adopted the brutal methods of fascism, as in the Standing Rock standoff.  During the recent election, a strong minority of conservatives spoke out against Trumpism, but now most of them seem to have fallen silent.

The election is still a fresh memory, and the new administration has not yet taken office, so we can allow for a period of honeymoon, or of painful reassessment.  But the time is coming very soon when real policies will start to be handed down by the new regime, and from the looks of things so far, most of them will at the very least be nakedly corporatist.  It seems inevitable that this new administration’s policies will make a mockery of conservative ideals, whether libertarian or religious.  And given who is going to be accompanying Trump into the White House, and the sorts of ideas he has tweeted lately during the transition, it loojs very likely that some of the new policies will be fascist: measures intended to punish or disempower the new president’s political opponents, or various marginalized or scapegoated groups in our society.

When that happens, will you stand up for human rights, for democracy, and for the constitution?  Or will you cheer as long as the people on the other end are those you don’t like?  History, and your fellow citizens, will be watching.  This is your chance to show exactly what kind of conservative you are.

Over the long run, I have — or I thought I had — a pretty deep confidence in the readiness of the American people to reject any form of autocracy, regardless of party affiliation.  But right now that confidence is under a strain.  I am not seeing, from most of our conservative citizens, any sense of alarm or readiness to oppose such a threat.  I hope that I will be seeing it soon.

Once the real confrontation starts, I’m ready to offer a truce to my fellow citizens who are conservative.  We may have argued a lot and gotten angry with each other over a lot of issues, but for myself, I’m willing to let all that go for now.  If you want to push for lower taxes and prayer in schools, or repeal gun laws and privatize the fire department, have at it.  All I ask is that you stand with me against fascism.  If they start criminalizing dissent or rounding up muslims or restricting who can vote or stifling the media, or heck, even if they just start flaunting blatant corruption (an unavoidable part of any fascist system), let’s stand together for liberty and democracy.  We can argue about what to do with our liberty and democracy after we’re sure we’ll still have it.

November 18, 2016

future cars

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future!,thoughtful handwaving,Uncategorized — Supersonic Man @ 7:05 pm

A lot of people who talk about the coming future of post-petroleum vehicles like to pooh-pooh the battery electric car, even though it’s the most successful type so far.  They keep insisting that the real future will belong to hydrogen fuel cells or ethanol or something else exotic.

But consider the following vision for a future car:

It’s an affordable compact or midsize, nothing fancy.  The base model comes with an electric motor for each front wheel, and 25 or 30 kilowatt-hours of batteries layered under the floor.  This arrangement keeps the powertrain out of the way, so it can have a trunk at both ends, like a Tesla.  Its range is at most a hundred miles, so it’s fine for commuting and shopping and local excursions, but very inconvenient for a road trip.

Most people accustomed to gasoline cars would find this a bit disappointing.  But consider the upgrades you could buy for it.  If you want sure-footedness in snow, or more performance, add a pair of rear motors.  (They would be smaller than the front ones, unless you’re doing some aggressive hot-rodding.)  If you want longer range, you could have a second battery pack in place of your front trunk.  And… if you want to drive everywhere and refuel with gasoline, you could replace that front trunk or second battery with a small gasoline engine and a generator.  It could be smaller than a motorcycle engine, because it would only need to produce fifteen or twenty horsepower to keep your batteries from draining while cruising down a highway.  It would probably be a turbine rather than a piston engine, as it would only run at one speed.

Or if gasoline goes out of fashion, you could use that space for a fuel cell and a hydrogen tank.  Again, it would produce only a steady fifteen or twenty horsepower.  Or there could eventually be other alternatives not well known today, such as liquid-fueled batteries which you refill with exotic ion solutions, or metal-air cells fueled with pellets of zinc or aluminum.

These would not have to be options you choose when buying the car, but could just as easily be aftermarket modifications.  They simply bolt in!  Anyone with a hoist could swap them in minutes.  Even the trunk would just be a bolted-in tub.  With a good design, these power options might be interchangeable easily enough that people could just rent such an add-on as needed, rather than buying it.  It might be cheaper than, say, renting another car for a vacation trip.

Another option might be to install stuff from below.  There have been plans to make a network of stations where a machine just unclips your empty battery and slots in a full one, from underneath.  With forethought, this car could be made compatible with such a system.

The point is, once you have the basic platform of a battery-electric car, it can be cheaply adapted to run on any power source.  You could run it with coal, or with thorium, if you’re crazy enough.  Whatever becomes the most economical and abundant power storage medium of the future, your existing car can take it onboard.  All you need is to make sure it has some unused room under the hood.

And the best part?  Even if you don’t add anything, you still have a plug-in car that’s perfectly okay for most everyday uses.  In fact, I suspect a lot of people might come to prefer the car with no add-on, because it’s lighter and quicker and more efficient that way, and it has two trunks.

November 7, 2016

enduring franchises

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 5:48 pm

What are the longest-lasting, most prolific, most enduring entertainment franchises? When it comes to movies, there are two big ones which usually get mentioned above all others: Godzilla, and James Bond. If you include the combination of movies and TV, Star Trek is hard to beat. But these are only the well-known internationally popular ones. If you look at more obscure serieses that aren’t well known outside of their countries of origin, there are many which, for sheer quantity, utterly blow away those big names.

Here are some examples:

franchise origin years films genre
Hopalong Cassidy USA 1935-1948 66 western
The Durango Kid USA 1940-1952 64 western
El Santo Mexico 1958-1982 52 luchador
The Bowery Boys USA 1946-1958 48 comedy
Tora-san Japan 1969-1995 48 romantic comedy
Charlie Chan USA 1926-1949 47 mystery

This list gets plenty longer if you start counting Japanese TV material repackaged as films, in which case Ultraman and Super Sentai are both formidable. Perry Mason and Scooby-Doo are also substantial.

Things get muddier if you look at public-domain characters who have been the subject of different serieses of films made by independent groups. Some characters who have large numbers of films of independent origin include Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, Dracula, Frankenstein, and Hercules. Two characters which may be a bit more unified in their origin, and more plausible as having their films constitute a single franchise, include Maciste (Italy) and Wong Fei-hung (China).

But the picture brightens up if you look at franchises which include the longest span of years. Then the mass-produced comedies and westerns centered around particular actors mostly drop away. The most enduring I can find by this measure are:

Godzilla Japan monster 62 years and counting
Perry Mason USA mystery 61 years including TV movies
James Bond UK spy 54 years and counting
Doctor Who UK SF 53 years on TV, and counting
Ultraman Japan SF/kids 50 years on TV with spinoff films, and counting
Star Trek USA SF 50 years on TV, 37 on film, and counting
Zatoichi Japan samurai 48 years
Bulldog Drummond UK/USA action 44 years
Mil Máscaras Mexico luchador 44 years
Looney Tunes USA comedy 41 years and counting, without including shorts
Super Sentai Japan SF/kids 41 years on TV with spinoff films, and counting
Apartment Wife Japan erotica 40 years
Star Wars USA SF 39 years and counting
The Cisco Kid USA western 36 years, then rebooted in 1994 after 44 years off

But these all dwindle into insignificance if you count the short cartoons of characters like Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse. I have no doubt that those guys will hit the century mark in due time… though the effects of their early works going into the public domain (if lobbyists ever even allow that to happen) may be difficult to estimate.

November 6, 2016

the obsolescence of labor

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 5:29 am

A few years ago I wrote about how artificial intelligence is going to make it impossible to plan any long-term career because there’s no safe way to pick a job skill that won’t become obsolete.  A few weeks ago I wrote about how Trump took over the Republican party, and may end up leaving it in ruins.  These two topics may not seem related, but they are.  They’re both about the value of labor.

Three days before the election, I was in an argument with a left wing Trump supporter — yes, they exist — and we disagreed about many things, such as whether Trump is a racist, but we totally agreed that the major split in this election — at least among swing voters — is about class.  Hillary represents white collar voters and Trump represents blue collar workers.  We agreed that the interests of the latter are largely unrepresented by either political party nowadays.  But I’m not here today to write about electoral politics.  Today I’m taking a much longer term view.

It may seem odd to refer to people as being in different classes just because they have different kinds of jobs.  This is not the proletariat vs the bourgeoisie anymore.  White collar workers are in many ways in the same position as blue collar ones: often stuck in jobs with little prospect for advancement, working for employers who view them as disposable, facing an uncertain and unstable financial future, and sometimes having to meekly submit to demeaning crap for fear of the consequences if they protest.  Both are often seeing their prospects of having as good a life as their parents had dwindle away.  The overall experience of working for a living is similar, and you’d think the two groups would have a lot more common ground than differences.  But despite that, the classes are quite distinct in practice, with some dramatic differences in culture and values.

The main influence on this differing outlook is probably college education.  But just as important is the attitude toward learning and intellectualism that one grew up with.  I personally never attended a real college, and spent a fairly large part of my working life doing the kind of semiskilled outdoor work that needs no such education.  Nevertheless, culturally I am 100℅ a member of the white collar class, because of how I grew up.  Similarly, there are those who can be educated yet remain members of the blue collar class.  (The guy I was arguing with has also lived both sides: he does have a degree, but due to personal issues is now stuck in the crappiest of jobs.)

Politically, the first obvious thing you notice about blue collar America nowadays is how angry it has become, and how under the anger it’s not hard to find despair.  And it’s very clear why that is: for the last fifty years, their economic condition has gotten steadily weaker, until nowadays many of them are being ground into outright poverty.  Though exacerbated by many factors, such as union-busting and trickle-down tax policies, and all the other regressive abuses that come from special interest corruption, the inexorable underlying force is one that I am not hearing people discuss: that increasing mechanization and automation are steadily reducing the economic value of their labor.

Though ruling classes and employers throughout history have usually been quite good at keeping workers in line so their work can be had cheaply, for most of history the real value of that labor was high — it was essential and there was no substitute for it.  This is why labor unions were able to succeed, once they finally got organized.  (One further distinction between the blue collar and white collar classes is how the latter never managed to organize this way.)  Early mechanization reduced the value of the crudest forms of muscular labor, but balanced that by increasing the economic output of other kinds.  Automation and basic computerization continued that trend, trading worthlessness in some skill areas for higher productivity in others.  This tradeoff mostly works fine, as long as human hands remain essential to the overall process.

But every time we make such a trade, the skills required by the human worker get a little more difficult and demanding, and move a little bit more into the realm of specialists and experts, away from the range of tasks that an ordinary person can learn to do in reasonable time.  And this means that at each step, there are a few more people who no longer have any good path to learning an economically valuable skill.  The more skill we require, the larger the percentage of people who fall short in some way, and who therefore have economic value only to the degree that they can work more cheaply than what it would cost to automate their jobs — a cost which keeps moving downward.

As automation advances and begins to approach artificial intelligence, it becomes less and less an essential necessity to include human work.  A little more every year, employing human beings becomes an optional choice for soneone developing a business.  Human labor, which used to be (despite how poorly it might be paid) an absolute requirement for production, is now useful but not always mandatory.  As Bill Maher said to Trump voters, the worker who’s going to take your job isn’t growing up in China or Mexico, it’s being built in Palo Alto.  Quite a few of those Chinese and Mexican workers are themselves in the situation I mentioned, of being employed only while their cost stays below that of automation to replace them.  Protectionist measures to block overseas competition will not stop the ongoing erosion — it will at best just delay it.

That is a big part of why rural and blue collar America feels desperate enough to elect a Trump, above and beyond shorter term abuses from the likes of Wall Street pirates and crooked lobbyists and anti-union ideologues: because their labor is losing its value.  They have to compete with workers poorer than themselves, who in turn have to compete with robots, which get more capable every year.

And to the extent that members of the blue collar and white collar classes think about this problem, they tacitly agree on one thing: they see it as a blue collar issue.  For semiskilled workers, the loss of labor value is an immediate personal threat, but in the white collar world it’s usually seen as at most a distant tragedy, like a famine on the far side of the world.

Most people who consider this issue do so with a strong unstated assumption: that there’s a separation between jobs vulnerable to automation — essentially, those that involve manual tasks — and those that are generally safe, which depend on verbal or intellectual skills.  In other words, they are assuming that some jobs are too difficult and subtle to mechanize  — that there is an upper limit on the level of complexity, skill, and human judgment which can be automated.

I am here today to tell my readers, particularly those in the white collar class, a single awful truth: there is no such upper limit.  We are limited in how much we can automate so far, but there is nothing to stop that limit from continuing to rise beyond anything we can imagine today.  The falling value of labor is not a blue collar issue — before the robots finish taking over the blue collar jobs, they’re going to start in on the white collar jobs, including mine.  Once AI starts to develop seriously, there is not a single white-collar job anywhere, from customer service to CEO, which will be immune from automation.  All human labor is losing its economic value.  Some types are losing it quickly and others much more slowly, but it’s disappearing for everyone in the end.  Each of us has abilities of which we can say “I can _____ better than any machine”, but the list gets shorter and shorter, until it’s down to skills no one pays money for.

We have built our whole way of life around trading labor for sustenance.  We are approaching a time when such trades will no longer function.  Society will need a new basis.  When the goods we depend on remain abundant, but job skills no longer suffice to buy a share of them, we’ll need to start allocating the necessities of life in some other way.

And that means we face a tremendous choice.  We are coming to a time when we’ll be redesigning our whole way of life, and as yet we have no way to know what the available options will even be.  We’ll have to get creative and think them up, once we see what we’ve got.  We can’t really preplan it now — we know too little in advance.

Of course, for a long time the most popular answer will be to try to cling to the old way.  Free-market believers will be especially insistent.  But as the erosion continues, taking away the economic value not just of particular job skills, but of human work in general, the only endpoint such a path can have would be for the whole species to be reduced to poverty and slavery, accepting scraps from an ever-shrinking class of privileged owners, until finally the owners themselves are replaced, as their is no need for human being to fill their roles either.  Such a course would be suicide, and we will not follow it, no matter how many ideologues might insist that we have to.  We can and will choose a better path — any path we like.

My pro-Trump acquaintance fully expects this dire capitalist outcome if labor in general is lost to automation, opining that “the idea of a leisure society is bullshit”.  But I say that it (or some similarly implausible new way of life) can happen, simply because it must.  This doomed type of capitalism will end.  What will replace it, no one can yet say.

What I can say, today, is that if letting insufficiently valuable workers starve is going to be wrong then, it’s also wrong now.  In addition to the clear need to support fairer wages and more financial security for those who are working today (instead of our current policy of seeing how much we can fatten up Wall Street speculators before they burst), we also need to start thinking of options for supporting some kind of decent and dignified path of life for those among us who have limited employability.  And we need those ideas now, not in another generation.  The severe economic shock of mass unemployability may be decades away, but the pain it will bring has already begun.

What you are willing to do for your impoverished fellow citizens today, you will quite literally be doing for yourself later.

October 26, 2016

the popularity of football

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 1:09 pm

Why is gridiron football so much more popular than other sports to watch on American TV?  I think it’s because the sport excels at creating drama.  In almost no other sport I can name does a game-changing score typically come about only as a result of many minutes of effort, in which a mishap at any point can mean it was all for nothing.  In sports like baseball or soccer or hockey, big scores come with very little warning, and in sports like basketball or tennis or golf or volleyball, there are no really big moments because each individual score is small and only the accumulation of dozens of scoring moments can create a win.

There are certain sports which are very popular despite being poor at drama in this sense.  Auto racing has even more fans than football, and winning at that involves very little drama — it’s an extremely incremental process to work one’s way forward through the field. Bicycle racing is much more dramatic than any motorsport, because the athletes can make bursts of effort at strategic moments.  But on the other hand, losing at auto racing can be very dramatic indeed.  Maybe it’s true that many fans watch it just for the crashes.

Soccer is the real puzzle. Why is it the most popular sport in Europe, South America, and Africa?  It’s fun to play but I don’t see how it’s fun to watch.  Scores can be very rare, and you may have to watch an hour or more of nothing before seeing a big moment, and that moment comes with little warning. Then if they go to penalty kicks, it’s an anticlimax that makes the entire game pointless. (They should widen the goals and make the game higher scoring.)

Actually, I can think of one other athletic endeavor which can offer the same kind of drama that gridiron football does: the fighting sports. Boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, judo, MMA… no wonder the UFC has grown so rapidly. Except sumo wrestling, which is usually over in seconds. That’s another one which is a bit inexplicable in its popularity.

One sport that might be kind of good at drama is cricket — it sure ought to be better than baseball, from what I understand of the rules. Unfortunately a cricket test is really really long.

October 17, 2016

Consider the roundworm

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 12:48 pm

Consider the lowly roundworm, or nematode.  A very primitive form of animal life, but a very successful one, ubiquitous around the world.  They live everywhere, from the bottoms of the oceans to the tops of trees, and they can even be found in near-solid rock in deep mines.  Many also live parasitically inside plants or animals.  They account, by number, for around four fifths of all multicellular animals on Earth.  There are tens of thousands of different species.

Unlike advanced worms, such as the earthworms in your garden, roundworms do not have a circulatory system — they have no heart and no blood.  They absorb oxygen only through the outside surface, and it has to diffuse from cell to cell.  This generally limits them to quite small sizes — larger than single-celled organisms, but not by a lot.  Common sizes are somewhere around a millimeter long and a tenth of a millimeter thick, though in certain protected environments they can expand greatly in length.  They can also be much smaller — as thin as five microns, which about the thickness of the individual strands making up a cobweb or a silk cocoon.

They lack many bodily features besides a circulatory system.  They have no bones, of course, and no lungs or gills.  They also have no eyes or ears, and almost no brain.  They sense the world only through their permeable skins (or rather, cuticles).  They do have a gut through which food passes from one end to the other, though the early larval stages may absorb food as well as oxygen directly through the cuticle.  If you look closely enough, there’s also something in there which functions like a kidney.  And for internal organs, that’s pretty much it — the only other thing they have which clearly resembles anything familiar from the viscera of higher animals is a gonad, which often fills about half of the body cavity.  (They’re usually hermaphroditic.)  In short, their bodies are so rudimentary and simplified that they make a dust mite look like a miracle of advanced complexity.

Let’s look at a specific example, namely the most thoroughly studied nematode, Caenorhabditis elegans.  It lives in soil, and is a typical nematode size, one millimeter long.  It has only about a thousand cells in its body.  To be specific, it has exactly 959 cells in adult hermaphroditic form, not counting sperm and eggs.  (Certain rare individuals grow up to be male only; these have exactly 1031 cells.)  Each and every cell has an individually programmed shape, location, and role — a condition called eutely, which is common in similarly tiny organisms with small numbers of cells, such as rotifers and tardigrades.

It can be informative to look at how they are divided up.  The main length of gut (not counting the specialized bits at each end), though a large part of the animal’s mass, uses only 48 cells — they’re very large and blocky compared to others in the body.   The cuticle is around 200 cells, and the musculature which allows it to wriggle forward consists of 95 cells.  The interesting bit is that of the 959 adult cells, 302 are neurons.  That may not sound like much when even a lowly fruit fly has a quarter million, but a single neuron can do quite a lot of information processing.  Despite its completely fixed neural wiring, this roundworm is capable of rudimentary learning and memory.

Those nerve cells are what make this otherwise very primitive type of organism significant.  Because despite the lack of most everything we take for granted in an animal body, the fact that it has nerves and muscles means that evolution has already produced everything that’s really needed for the development of advanced creatures.  The toolbox already has all the essential parts to create intelligent life, in a way that is not true of, for instance, a sponge.  In terms of evolution, the progress from the origin of life to the achievement of intelligence is, in a roundworm, already like nine tenths complete.  I’m almost tempted to say that  you could practically coast the rest of the way — that once any animal has reached the point where it has muscles coordinated by nerves, the arrival of high intelligence at some later time is scarcely a surprise.  Okay, that’s exaggerated, but really, it no longer requires any great leap — there’s a clear path forward that requires only slow and plodding improvement.  If there’s any astonishing miracle in the process, it’s something that happened at a much earlier stage.

If you doubt this, I will mention that a lot of the useful bodily features that are absent in these worms are already part of the evolutionary toolbox at a wormlike level.  Though a C. elegans has no hard body parts, some other roundworms do — they’ve got teeth.  And rotifers can have rigid external skeletons, and they have chewing mouthparts.  Tardigrades (water bears) have legs like a caterpillar, including claws at the tips.  And they have eyes!  Rotifers can have rudimentary eyes too, which might contain only a single retinal cell.  It’s not at all surprising that a beginning like a rotifer or tardigrade could later produce an animal like, say, a tiny crustacean.  Or that a worm could develop into a creature like a lamprey or hagfish — something which resembles the ancestors of vertebrates.  Give something like that a hinged jaw, and it’s well on its way to producing something like a shark.  Give that the ability to extrude bony protective plates like a sturgeon, and you’re well on your way to fishes with an articulated backbone.  And so on until you get to apes and humans.

Looking the other way, a roundworm hardly seems very remarkable as an advancement relative to, say, a hydra.  It is much better able to move purposefully through its environment, and that’s about it.  And a hydra, in turn, is not really much more sophisticated in its behavior than many protozoans are — the only big advancement is that it is multicellular, with the muscular and nervous functions reasonably well separated into distinct cells.  This allows them to become arbitrarily more complex, whereas a single cell probably can’t grow beyond a quite short list of adaptive behaviors.

Put this all together, and we see why most of the history of life on Earth was occupied with the slow process of perfecting single cells.  Once the most basic multicellular animals developed, and became capable of movement… at that point the slow crawl forward became a race.

It’s not done yet.

October 13, 2016

a pre-post-mortem of the 2016 Republican debacle

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 3:07 pm

It is now 24 days before the 2016 election, and the Democrats seem very likely to have a solid victory, retaining the Presidency and gaining a number of House and Senate seats.  Their popular vote advantage is expected to be around six percentage points, according to current polling aggregates… but there are now hints and rumors and suspicions which suggest a much broader and more lopsided victory than that could be coming.  Trump’s support is continuing to erode, and in early voting, Republican enthusiasm seems low.

[Post-election update: yeah, I look like an idiot now.  But I think most of what I wrote below remains valid.]

If that does happen, it’s traditional for the punditry, and the parties themselves, to do a post-mortem to try to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.  I figure I’ll just do it ahead of time.

So, what is to blame for the crushing defeat that the Republican Party just experienced (hypothetically) in the 2016 election?

(more…)

October 3, 2016

a tribute to the HTC One M7

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,life — Supersonic Man @ 11:09 pm

My current phone, on which I am typing this post, is an HTC One — the iconic model known, but not advertised, as the M7.  It’s old and I’m now only days away from replacing it.  The battery can barely hold a charge anymore, the main camera is busted, and the proximity sensor ain’t what it used to be.  Besides that, of course the CPU isn’t much by today’s standards and 32 GB of storage is rather limiting with no SD slot… but if it weren’t for the wear&tear issues, I’d feel pretty darn okay with continuing to use this phone for quite a while longer.  It’s an excellent phone, and I definitely wish there were more phones out there which embraced front stereo speakers.

The M7 was quite an important and influential model.  Its design and build set a new standard for the kinds of materials and aesthetics that a high-end phone should aspire to.  Samsung took a couple of years to catch up, and I’m not quite certain Apple ever did.  It’s because of HTC’s chamfered aluminum back that nowadays every midrange Chinese wannabe model has a “premium” metallic build, and plastic became intolerable on a high-end model.  And though the stereo speakers may not have been imitated nearly as often as they ought to have been, their presence did manage to embarrass all but the cheapo models into at least putting a speaker on the edge, like Apple, instead of on the back.

Even its camera, which was often regarded as the most disappointing piece of the phone, was influential.  The “ultrapixel” approach forced makers and buyers to realize that pixel size matters as much as pixel count, and this is why today’s camera spec comparisons include that metric, along with numbers for megapixels and lens aperture.  And yes, this was also among the first cameras to make an issue of its aperture, with f/2.0 when competitors were f/2.4 or slower.  The “zoe” feature also helped popularize sharing brief video snippets as if they were still pictures.

Another imitated feature was the IR blaster, though that is now falling out of favor again.  Don’t blame HTC for the trend to nonremovable batteries, though — that was well under way a year earlier.

Aside from innovative aspects, it was just a solidly good phone.  Its software, for instance (initially a skin on Jellybean, eventually updated to Lollipop), was dramatically smoother and more pleasant than that of the competing Galaxy S4, which tended to be jerky even when fresh out of the box.  It also had a stronger headphone amp than the Galaxy.  Its audio features even included FM radio, while other phones were giving that up.  The display was pretty good for a non-amoled, with nice color and 1080p resolution, which is actually better than 1440p for those who watch movies and TV on their phones.  Also, the size of the display was about what I still consider ideal for a compromise between ergonomic convenience and viewing area.  The whole industry has pursued the trend to phablet-sized enormity too far, in my opinion, and I’m glad to see a sign of reversal coming now, with Google’s new Pixel phones (made by HTC) each being a size smaller than their Nexus predecessors, and with no performance penalty for the smaller model relative to the larger.

What are the important and influential models in the history of Android phones?  The HTC Dream, a.k.a. the T-Mobile G1, was the first.  The Moto Droid was the first to popularize the platform with massive advertising, pointing out that there were areas where it could outdo iOS.  The Galaxy Nexus showed off the alternative of a “pure Google” unlocked phone, and a high definition screen without a high price.  The Galaxy Note put phablets on the map, and the Galaxy S III was, for many, the first phone to show that Android might actually be superior to iOS, depending on one’s personal priorities.  The M7 was the first phone to outdo Apple at physical design and construction, and to demonstrate the importance of good speakers.  And maybe we can make a spot for the S6 Edge for being the first to put curved glass to good use, eliminating the side bezel and taking another definite step beyond Apple in physical design.  Historically, the M7 stands in distinguished company.

We shall see what becomes influential next — perhaps modularity, though judging by current sales, probably not.

The M7’s physical design is definitely iconic, and it’s unsurprising that HTC kept changes to a minimum for the M8 and M9, comparing them to a Porsche 911 which still looks like it did 40 years ago.  Unfortunately they kept too much else the same, and lost popularity.  To me it’s sad that HTC has regained customers by losing its definitive feature, the stereo speakers… though the HTC 10’s mix of front sound at one end and edge sound at the other is still influential, having been copied by Apple.

So as I say goodbye to my hard-working HTC One, it’s mostly just with regret that it’s getting physically worn out, not that it’s fallen too far behind.  I will definitely keep it around — if my new phone ever has an issue and I need a backup, I know that the old phone will still be able to perform well, as long as I can keep juice in it.

September 9, 2016

Star Trek: 1966–2005

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry,Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 3:43 pm

Star Trek has now been an important and inspiring part of our culture over a span of fifty years.  But it’s done.  It is now time to let the shambling corpse have its rest. (more…)

August 17, 2016

will there ever be a material to replace steel?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 12:14 pm

We constantly hear about new or exotic materials which are stronger than steel, but for many uses it turns out that steel is still the best stuff available to use. When is one of these new materials actually going to be able to replace steel?

Quite possibly never. Fancy materials like kevlar and carbon-fiber and even titanium alloy are only stronger than steel by weight.  Their sole advantage over steel is lightness.  If you compare strength by volume, they do much more poorly.  This means that if you were to, for instance, try to make a sword out of titanium, it would have a much fatter blade than a steel one, in order to have the same strength and heft.  And it would be inferior at holding an edge. You’d have to, like, insert a separate bit of tungsten carbide or something along the edges, and have a way to replace parts of that when they get chipped.

(Such a design might be a pretty good way to make a sword, actually.  A Japanese katana is a bit like this: whereas a western sword is hardened and then tempered, so the whole blade is springy and tough but not as hard as it could be, a katana is glass-hard at the edge but soft along the spine.  If it’s damaged, the edge will chip, but the back part won’t even spring back into shape if bent.  It has to be hammered straight again.  Then the edge has to be ground down where it chipped.  A titanium-plus-tungsten-carbide design would make the middle of the sword about as tough as tempered steel, but give it an edge able to cut notches into any metal.  While it lasted.)

Any materials that are stronger than steel are generally not hard or tough, and materials harder than steel, such as diamond, are generally brittle and easily shattered.  It’s entirely possible that there’s no such thing as an exotic material that can outdo steel — that no possible combination of atoms can get there.

Which, to a science fiction reader like me, begs the question of whether you could make something that is not based on atoms.  Is there some kind of exotic substance or field in the far reaches of physics that could replace ordinary chemical elements as building materials?  Old-timey SF is full of improbable superstrong materials invented by advanced technology.  Could any of them ever exist?

As far as we can currently tell, the answer is no.  We might have small incremental improvements, such as putting alloys into a glasslike state instead of a crystalline one, but that’s probably all.

I did once see a physics paper which described a theoretical solid state far stronger than ordinary matter.  All you need to do to create it is subject ordinary hydrogen to a magnetic field of a billion gauss (100,000 tesla) or more.  The paper speculated that this substance might exist on the surfaces of neutron stars.  In such a field, the electron clouds around the hydrogen nuclei elongate and finally merge with each other, so the atoms form a kind of polymer.  The resulting substance is very dense — far heavier than any metal, though far lighter than neutronium — and very strong.  As best I can recall without being able to access the text of the paper, sideways to the magnetic field the strength was calculated to be somewhat proportional to the density, but lengthwise along the field lines, it would be way stronger than that.

There are three problems with this idea.  First is that it’s impossible to make a magnetic field like that to order, or to shape it for the convenience of the objects you want to create.  Second is that the effects of such a field on all the other stuff around the superstrong material would make it impossible to fit in amongst anything else made of ordinary matter.  It would, for instance, be lethal to any living thing in the area.  And the third is that this paper has not received much followup as far as I have been able to find, and what I’ve been able to track down in later work often criticizes the assumptions of earlier authors, and says their calculated numbers may have substantial errors.  It appears that “linear molecules” in intense magnetic fields are an accepted concept, but whether it would be superstrong in proportion to its density, or only in proportion to normal matter, is not clear to me.  The key value is probably the binding energy per atom, and I’m seeing estimates of that all over the map, from a few times that of common materials to around a hundred thousand times.  In newer calculations the smaller numbers seem to be predominating.

I mentioned neutronium.  What about that?  Unfortunately for our dream, it’s not a solid, it’s a superfluid.  Not to mention that it can only exist under extreme pressure, and would otherwise first explode, then undergo rapid beta-decay.  Unlike “linear molecules”, it has no resistance to flying apart.

Perhaps someday we might meet an advanced alien civilization — possibly one so advanced that they don’t even regard us as intelligent life, and can’t even remember what it was like to ever not know the answer to a question about science.  We might expect that their stuff would be made of magically wondrous materials, but then end up finding that like us, they still have to make things out of steel.

Next Page »

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.