Supersonic Man

October 26, 2016

the popularity of football

Filed under: Uncategorized — 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 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 scores 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: Uncategorized — 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 bottom 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 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.  There are giant marine snails — critters the size of your head — which get along with only 27 nerve cells in their entire body.  Compared to one of those, a roundworm is pretty clever.

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.  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 snail or a scallop.  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: Uncategorized — 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 very low.

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?


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: 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.

August 6, 2016


Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 8:09 am

In my occupation as a coder, I have to read a lot of technical documentation in order to use existing software components.  And sometimes that documentation can be frustratingly incomplete or unavailable, but to me the worst situation to encounter is what I call pseudo-documentation.  It’s abundant out there.

I will give you a little example of what that’s like.  Let’s say you just encountered a line of code like this:


You have no idea what this does, so you look it up, and this is what you find:


Frabnicates a Zinxer for an instance of Thingy. If successful, the Zinxer will become frabnicated for this Thingy. If the Zinxer was already frabnicated for another Thingy, the new Thingy will be placed first in the frabnication order of the Zinxer. If it is already frabnicated for this Thingy, no change takes place.

public void FrabnicateZinxer(Zinxer zinxerToFrabnicate);

zinxerToFrabnicate – the Zinxer which is to be frabnicated for this Thingy.

Return value:

NullParameterException – a null value was passed as zinxerToFrabnicate.
InvalidOperationException – the Zinxer passed as zinxerToFrabnicate is in a nonfrabnicable state.

Thingy thingy = new Thingy();
Zinxer zinxer = Zinxer.Load("brb");

See also:
Zinxer class
Thingy class

. . . You see what the problem is?  The documentation covers all aspects of what needs to be available in reference material, but you learn nothing by reading it.  It labels the parts but says nothing about what they actually do.  All it tells you is what you had already assumed just from seeing the name — that some unknown thing undergoes some unknown process.  The only new knowledge you come away with is maddening hints of ways it might go wrong, none of which have any explanatory context.

There are many outfits which produce crap like this, but Microsoft may be the worst.  Their tech writers don’t seem to have any supervision by anyone who checks the quality of the work.  Even when they’re writing at length in tutorial or instructional form, the result is often full of gaps and omissions where crucial pieces of context are missing, not to mention inconsistencies which undermine your chances of piecing together anything definite.

July 6, 2016

Erdős-Bacon number

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry,Uncategorized — Supersonic Man @ 11:54 am

The Erdős-Bacon number is defined as the sum of the number of onscreen filmmaking collaborations it takes to connect a person to actor Kevin Bacon, and the number of academic publishing collaborations it takes to reach mathematician Paul Erdős.  The number has no value except for the small set of people who are both academics and film performers.  Natalie Portman has a Erdős-Bacon number of seven, as does Colin Firth, and Danica McKellar’s number is six.  The actor with the lowest number is apparently Albert M. Chan, who appeared with Bacon in Patriots Day.  His number is four.  Coming from the other direction, Carl Sagan’s number was four.  Stephen Hawking’s is seven.  The lowest number that anyone is known to have is three, held by Professor Daniel Kleitman of MIT, who was a math advisor for Good Will Hunting (which is one step from Kevin Bacon via Minnie Driver’s appearance in Sleepers) and appeared in the film as an extra.

Can this number be beaten?  Lots of mathematicians are still alive who have collaborated with Erdős, and if any of them ever appears in a Kevin Bacon film, they will achieve a value of two.  The other way this could be achieved is if Mr. Bacon himself goes into academia and collaborates with one of this group.  Since Paul Erdős left us twenty years ago, a value of one is not achievable.

For an even more exclusive club, there are people who have an Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath number, in which the third component is the number of musical collaborations which separate the subject from the members of Black Sabbath.  Some famous people for whom low Erdős-Bacon-Sabbath numbers have been claimed include Lisa Kudrow (15), Adam Savage (13), Albert Einstein (11), Richard Feynman (10), Mayim Bialik (10), Tom Lehrer (9), Terry Pratchett (9), Ray Kurzweil (8), and Brian May (8).  I don’t think any values lower than eight are known.

Some of these collaborations are a stretch — it’s easy to question whether they count.  Among those mentioned earlier, Natalie Portman has a pretty solid 10 via a joke rap track she recorded with some people from Saturday Night Live, Danica McKellar has a dubious 10 by singing in an ad jingle, and Carl Sagan has an even more dubious 10 by being sampled in an autotuned remix of bits of narration from Cosmos.  Mayim Bialik’s case might be the poorest of all: Michael Jackson put his celebrity friends into a crowd scene in a music video, and I don’t think she even sings in it.  In Brian May’s case, it’s the Erdős side which is very dubious, via some book called Bang! The Complete History of the Universe, which does not exactly seem to be a peer-reviewed publication.  For Kurzweil, it’s the Bacon number which is shaky, as they’re counting an appearance on a nonfiction TV show.  But some are much more legitimate: for instance, by singing in Mamma Mia!, Colin Firth has given himself a value of 11 which should be beyond dispute.

June 21, 2016


Filed under: Uncategorized — Supersonic Man @ 10:58 am

People have been trained to be scared of the word “radiation”.  But all it means is that something spreads outwards from a source.  Sound counts as radiation.  So do ripples on a pond, or earthquake waves in solid rock.  If you use the term broadly enough, the shrapnel that blasts outward from a grenade can be considered as a form of radiation.  And, of course, light is a form of radiation.

What people need to be legitimately scared of is the narrower category of ionizing radiation.  That’s the nasty stuff that comes out of radioisotopes, nuclear reactions, and x-ray machines.  It’s bad for ya because it destroys protein and DNA molecules inside your cells.  Anything that’s capable of ionizing an atom is also capable of breaking apart an organic molecule in the process, and if that molecule is inside you, damaging enough of them in this way will give you radiation sickness, cancer, three-headed children, and so on.

The hot particles which spit out of radioisotopes, and which are generated in tremendous floods by nuclear reactors and bombs, are ionizing radiation.  They aren’t waves, like sound or light (at least, no more than any solid object is wavelike) — they’re the subatomic equivalent of grenade shrapnel, consisting of solid pieces flung through the air.  But the way that they shine straight out in all directions is such that the word “radiation” has never gone out of fashion for describing them.

X-rays and gamma rays are also ionizing radiation — especially the latter, which tend to be produced in nuclear reactions and accompany the other emissions of radioisotopes.  But unlike the alpha and beta and other hot particles, these are electromagnetic waves.  They are, essentially, light.

The heat on your skin from standing in front of a fire is also a form of light (infrared), but it is not ionizing.  The only way it’ll ever disrupt organic molecules is by cooking them, and it’s far less effective for that purpose than, say, contact with hot water.  But how can light be both ionizing and non-ionizing?


June 16, 2016

is there only spacetime? (part 1)

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 6:33 am

In a recent post, I mentioned in passing that “the close relationship between energy, gravity, and inertia is still a mystery, despite apparent confirmation of the Higgs boson.”  But wow, I may have just stumbled on an outsider theory that can resolve that whole mystery, and more.  It’s from a laser specialist and entrepreneur named John A. Macken, and his work can be found at

Where Macken begins is with the idea that “mass” is just energy confined to a particular frame of reference.  This sounds like it might be just an obvious truism based on special relativity, but once one looks at the details, it covers more ground than you might think.

His start on this came, naturally enough, when thinking about lasers.  The light inside a laser has energy, which means it has an equivalent mass, which means it has inertia.  Now inertia seems very mysterious as a property for particles, but for light, he realized, there’s nothing mysterious about it. (more…)

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