Supersonic Man

November 9, 2021

the right wing’s rejection of reality is now its defining attribute

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,Uncategorized — Supersonic Man @ 10:17 pm

In earlier times, if we wanted to explain the difference between the left and the right in politics, we might talk about individual vs community, or big vs small government, or diplomacy vs militarism, or multiculturalism vs traditionalism, or equality vs inequality, or even communism vs capitalism. You could say it divides people between the compassionate and the selfish, or between the religious and the secular, or even just between the urban and the rural. But nowadays, in the United States of America, all such historical distinctions have now become secondary. What now separates our left and right is that one holds to reality while the other wholeheartedly rejects objective reality for fantasies and lies. One is sane and the other is not.


October 30, 2021

the novel “Dune” is both great and flawed

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 2:23 am

Dune, the career-defining 1965 novel by Frank Herbert which is the source of the current blockbuster film, is certainly a magnificent epic. It is a richly complex work with a lot of meaning, and it deconstructs a lot of narrative tropes familiar from our favorite legends and entertainment, at a time when such things were usually accepted uncritically. Hero’s journey, chosen one, white savior — they’re all there, played halfway straight but always askew and always illuminated from an unusual angle that makes you see it in a new way. And the book is packed with everything that was popular and trendy in its time, from martial arts to mind-expanding drugs, from youth rebellion to superpower origin stories, from the feudal struggles of high fantasy to the new science of ecology.

(Someone recently summarized the tale, when asked to boil it down to one sentence, as a bunch of greedy horny men failing to peacefully share a planet made of cocaine.)

To summarize it somewhat less briefly, the protagonist is Paul Atreides, the teenage heir of a feudal lord who rules an entire planet. Thousands of years in the future, the galaxy is divided among such families. The Atreides family is offered an upgrade — a chance to take over as rulers of another planet, Arrakis or Dune, which despite its arid barrenness is the most lucrative in the galaxy because it is the sole source of The Spice — a drug which not only extends human life but gives some users vision across spacetime, without which interstellar navigation is impossible. They suspect the offer is a trap but have no way to turn it down. Sure enough, once they arrive they are attacked, and Paul’s father is killed, along with the majority of his staff and followers. Paul and his mother Jessica escape into the desert, where they encounter the untamed indigenous people, the Fremen. Paul integrates into Fremen society, eats spice, and develops prophetic visionary abilities. He teaches the Fremen advanced techniques which he has been trained with since infancy because of his privileged upbringing, and this training raises their already formidable combat abilities to near superhuman levels. He emerges as their messianic leader, and leads the Fremen in a rebellion that overthrows not only the villains who killed his father, but the emperor of the galaxy. Oh, and there are giant worms.

Hard science fiction it’s not — this story is more a fantasy set in the future than a tale of science.

What that summary can’t begin to capture is how rich the novel is as literature. From the delicate balance of genteel wit and murderous intrigue at a formal banquet to the complex ecological cycles which underlie the worms and the spice, from the way that Paul’s parents blend simple heartfelt decency and love with ruthlessly cunning intrigue (and I will note that Jessica, not Paul, is the novel’s deepest character), to the endless depth of history and culture that is apparent in the Fremen way of life, I would say this is a towering achievement which can stand right beside genre-defining immortal works like The Lord of the Rings.

Or rather, I would have said that when I was younger. Now I’m less certain.

The novel ended up being the start of a series in which Herbert wrote five sequels during his lifetime, while leaving notes on two more which he thought would wrap the series up. But his son Brian and others have decided to keep on a-milking the cash cow with prequels and spinoffs, and have produced a run of books that now brings the series to 22 novels, along with numerous shorter works and a bunch of ancillary nonfiction. I have no intention of ever reading all this surplus. Even in Herbert’s own books I never got to the last sequel. Like most long series the returns diminish at a very noticeable rate.

But some of those sequels are pretty important for understanding the original. Because the original, as I said, plays all those chosen-white-heroic-quest tropes kind of straight, so you can read it on one level as a ripping adventure of a young hero righteously kicking villains’ asses. But as Herbert put it, the second novel, Dune Messiah, plays the heroic theme inverted. The former protagonist now lives through a tale mostly consisting of frustration and futility. Only after reading this does the message sink in that it never was right or good to root for Paul Atreides to win — that his victory is no triumph of good over evil, and that the real message is to not be a follower like the poor misguided Fremen.

But is that the real message? Despite his intent, Herbert never did make this subversion of heroic themes, and of the impulse to follow a messianic leader, very coherent or clear in those first two. To this day it’s far from inarguable that this is the subtext, no matter how much Herbert said out loud that it was. So he got more clear and explicit in the third and fourth books. In Children of Dune he returns to a more heroic mode and makes the new protagonist, Paul’s son, into something explicitly like a comic book superhero. Here he casts the futility of Paul’s story in book two as a failure of nerve — he was unwilling to take this extreme path. But in its followup, God Emperor of Dune, our new superhero runs a totalitarian theocratic dictatorship and is worshiped as a god. Yet this never makes him a definite villain, as he has knowledge that supposedly makes it necessary for him to play the bad guy so that humanity will survive a coming crisis. (The nature of said crisis was left as a matter for later sequels.)  This feels to me like kind of a cop-out, so the protagonist can still be the hero.

The message may still be somewhat unclear, but that’s Herbert: he seemingly never makes his themes or characters unambiguous. Villains may sometimes be purely rotten but no hero is purely good, and no noble motive is without its negative side.

An interesting example of this is a non-Dune novel that Frank Herbert wrote in 1968, The Santaroga Barrier. This also involves a mind-altering drug, though one with more subtle effects. This drug exerts a suspicious level of control over its users lives. And the thing is, the question of whether it’s a destructive menace or an opportunity to take a next step of human development is kept balanced and unresolved through the entire novel. Herbert utterly refused to allow the reader a pat or settled answer.

A later novel, The White Plague (which is the most impressive non-Dune work of his that I’ve read) is set largely in Ireland and features an IRA terrorist as one of the primary characters. The guy’s a murderer and yet the most persuasive and compelling viewpoint in the book is his.

The drug in Santaroga, like the spice in Dune, is of biological orgin, and is cultivated in a manner resembling the raising of mushrooms. This is a clear connection to Herbert’s real life hobby of mushroom cultivation… in which his favorite type of ’shrooms were of the “magic” variety in genus psilocybe. Yeah, there’s a reason why his heroes are tripping balls as a way to gain enhanced abilities. Even the way the spice turns the whites of the eyes blue is inspired by the blue color these mushrooms can develop after picking, especially if damaged.  He had been known to do peyote as well.

Even in the original Dune the ambiguity is there throughout.  At every step Paul is striving for survival and victory, and doing everything necessary to pass every test… yet he’s also desperately looking for a way off of the path he’s on, as he foresees the extreme bloodshed which will occur in his name.  He wants a way to get the success without the awful cost, never finds it, and seems unable to choose the path which would save millions.  But since that would leave some vicious sadists in power, the novel certainly doesn’t recommend that as an alternative.  In fact it doesn’t even consider it.  Paul doesn’t even see himself as having the free will to make such a choice — his desire to escape produces a lot of hoping and wishing, but very little deciding and acting.  His capacity to see the future robs him of choice — a process which becomes complete in the sequels. As a way of subverting a hero’s journey, that’s kind of unsatisfying: since we have to mostly take Paul’s word for it that the violence is inevitable, it seems almost as if God is putting a stamp of approval on what is essentially a tragic outcome, and in the end everyone we’ve followed through the novel cheers the bloodshed.

The subversion is a good deal more successful where it deals with the Chosen One trope.  The Fremen do indeed see Paul as chosen, as destined… but only because covert operatives centuries ago seeded hundreds of cultures, including theirs, with carefully chosen myths that would make them ripe for exploitation by a figure like Paul. His mother Jessica is a member of the organization that set this up, and knows how to take full advantage.  That is a pretty sharp barb at how our society has historically combined religion and colonialism.

As to the white part… the relationship of the galactic noble families to the people of Arrakis is as colonial as can be, but he doesn’t overtly bring race into it.  In this future it appears that historical shades of pure black and white are somewhat blended away, and some people have color combinations not seen today, like dark skin with red hair… but still, the lordly families seem fairly close to white, and the Fremen are definitely swarthy, though not as dark as Paul’s friend and combat tutor Duncan Idaho.  Race is not a thing to the people of this future — at no point does anyone care about it… yet the old racial divides still inform the story.  The whitest-looking family, by Herbert’s descriptions, is the Emperor’s.

Anyway,  since I haven’t cracked it open for decades, and I’m feeling a lot of uncertainty about some aspects of it now, it’s time to reread Dune.

September 27, 2021

the strange road to the Big Rock Candy Mountain

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 7:49 am

Some years ago, I looked out of an airplane into the southwestern desert and saw a remarkable sight: a mountain banded with an variety of rich colors. I pulled out my phone and managed to get a GPS fix, and was able to look up the location later. It turned out that what I had seen was the Big Rock Candy Mountain, which I had always assumed was an imaginary place.

postcard for Big Rock Candy Mountain, Utah

So I had to look up whether the song had been named after the mountain or the mountain had been named after the song. It was the latter: when the song became popular the residents near the mountain put up signs claiming the name for this volcanic hill, and also a sign proclaiming Lemonade Springs. And in learning this fact, I also learned something about the history of the song itself, which is a lot stranger than you’d think.


July 17, 2021

civilization is exploitation?

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing — Supersonic Man @ 8:24 pm

In certain circles, it is not difficult to hear someone pronounce the phrase “Capitalism is exploitation.”  Is this valid?  I’m not gonna answer yes or no to that fraught question, as neither is entirely valid. What I am going to do is question the unstated implication that capitalism is somehow distinct in its exploitativity — the suggestion that since we’re equating exploitation to capitalism, this must mean that lots of other -isms are non-exploitative.  If you put capitalism up against all the other organizing systems it has competed with, such as monarchy and theocracy and feudalism and colonialism and warlordism and all the rest… well, it’s less exploitative than most.

The history of civilization mostly consists of an endless succession of different kinds of emperors, god-kings, priesthoods, titled nobilities, conquering hordes, colonial occupiers, and other groups which use some combination of social control and brute violence to put themselves in a privileged position above other people, where they get to keep the lion’s share of whatever they want.  And what they usually want in the largest quantity is labor.  Ever since the human race started to urbanize, the fabric of every kind of society that we call civilized has usually consisted of a set of rules which define one group of people which serve and another which are served.  In every land and in every age, self-appointed lords have declared themselves entitled to direct the labor of the masses, often for the benefit of their own class or their own family.  And fighting and dying for their rulers in warfare was just one more form of this labor.

Pre-urban peoples mostly lived in small groups where the only leadership was whichever elder or elders were most trusted to know what to do if something bad happened.  (And age is definitely a plus for this trusted role — in preliterate societies, the single best asset one can have for making wise decisions is a long memory.)  Such leaders have only such authority as the people around allow them, and cannot enforce their wills through violence. Examples of larger-scale organization among hunter-gatherers — pre-agricultural societies with kings — have existed, but they are far from common.

But wherever some people live as harmless farmers or hunter-gatherers, there will be some who try to parasitize them by living as bandits.  These groups are usually not led by the old and wise, but by the strong and violent and charismatic — those who have the knack for leading people into battle.  So some exploitation always existed, but before cities it was marginal and intermittent.  Before cities, preying on little villages or wandering hunter-gatherer bands could not support big conquering armies.

Herding cultures probably managed to create social organizations on a larger scale before cities, but it was only once it became possible to have buildings and officials and record-keeping that we started to see the emergence of a full-blown ruling class, and judging by the archaeological record, it took a fairly long time.  The earliest cities had an egalitarian layout with no big central edifices.  But by the time urban living became widespread, there were kings and princes and courtiers and ministers and generals and priests — in short, hierarchy.

The common people were as a rule completely uneducated, and pretty much had to take whatever they were given for a belief system.  If the priesthood came out and said that the king was the son of God, or that the crops depended on peasants’ daughters being sent to the temples to serve the priests, then it was probably rare for there to be another narrative or viewpoint to contradict them.

Of course, such social control is never perfect, and such a power structure will also have violence at its disposal.  Some went for full authoritarian police-state brutality — the Assyrians, for instance.  And of course this would also happen if one group were conquering and assimilating another, as the new people would believe different stories and ideologies until made to conform to their new rulers.

At best, the ruling class was a management structure that kept civilization running with relatively little greed and graft, and at worst they drained so much from their underlings that the whole society became unsustainable. And the incentives were always to increase the exploitation to a bit more than it had been before.

Urban agricultural society depended on heavy manual labor in a way that hunter-gatherer or even small-scale subsistence farming did not. The new lifestyle doubled or tripled how hard the average person had to work. Without constant labor there’d be famine. And that labor would need to be managed and supervised, to make sure that all necessary tasks were covered. And the people would understand the necessity, as the possibility of a food shortage was never very remote. Bad crop years were not rare events, and their consequences could be severe. So generally the ruling class’s position and authority was secure, though competition within that class could be vicious.

So this basic way of life does not change very much from before the bronze age all the way into early industrial times. Even if there’s no king, organized society would build around gentleman farmers who control lots of land, and hence lots of people. Either you find a way to do your own subsistence farming privately on land that nobody decides to take away from you, or you participate in a class system divided between owners and laborers. All that the development of industrial capitalism did during its early heyday was to move this arrangement indoors.

There are, I would say, three approaches to combating this tendency for society to divide between rulers and ruled. First there is the anarchist or libertarian approach, in which government and social organization are minimized, and each household can essentially be a law unto itself as long as it doesn’t cause trouble for its neighbors. This is often favored by pioneers moving into empty land, such as in the American west, or when Vikings settled Iceland. The second is the commune approach, much favored by utopian idealists. The latter has much more internal structure and governance at the community level than the former, but both mostly try to deal with questions of large-scale social organization and governance by having as little to do with the larger society as they can manage. Neither has found a way to scale up and create an alternate form of civilization.

The third alternative, however, can do so. What is it? Democracy. It’s the one thing that’s shown itself able to both run a full-sized modern civilization, and also put sharp checks on class privilege, when it chooses to do so. When it does, it’s a constant fight, as those with advantages will constantly seek out ways to leverage and increase those advantages, and whatever owning class remains will always work to increase its class privilege. Democracy can never eliminate this class; it can only minimize its elevation above the general populace. And of course even that only happens when the people are persuaded of the need to do so.

Revolutionary communism tried to be another way, but its success rate at ending privilege was so dismal that I am not even counting it as an option.

Capitalism can thrive in democracy, though always in subtle conflict with it. The older feudal systems of power and wealth are less compatible with democracy. There are countries that combine the two, by reducing old feudal privileges to a symbolic level. And there are countries where communists are just another party that competes in elections. There are countries which are now kingdoms in name only, and countries that are communist in name only. But being not really monarchist or not really communist is no benefit unless the replacement authority structure is democratic.

I conclude from this that what matters is not whether your economic system is capitalism or feudalism or communism or subsistence agriculture… what matters is whether everyone gets a vote or not. You can have equality or oppression in any of them, depending on whether the voice of the people has the authority to make changes.

There will always be a caveat on this. Equality is always imperfect and exploitation always exists, but democracy can reduce it to a tolerable nuisance rather than something which dominates the shape of society. (And as a side effect, this can also increase the economic growth that capitalism produces, because it thrives best with a strong middle class.) With democracy, capitalism may be exploitation, but we can choose how much exploitation it is. And without democracy, it looks to me like every form of large scale society is exploitation.

When apologists for capitalist exploitation make arguments to defend the ruling class, what they argue most vigorously against is the idea that the people can choose to vote for reducing exploitation. This is why they try to argue that social inequality is some kind of moral law or natural inevitability, and that opposing it is utterly unconscionable as a matter of principle — because if they admit it’s a matter of free choice, they’ve already lost the debate. Never forget that you hold the right to make this choice.

July 15, 2021

a comparison guide to asshole space billionaires

Filed under: spaaaace! — Supersonic Man @ 9:26 pm

Elon Musk (SpaceX):

  • wealth comes from overvalued Tesla stock that he can’t sell without crashing the price, so it’s mostly illusory
  • forced the entire car industry to start shifting to electric motors, so he has probably done more than any other person to reduce global warming
  • approaches all problems by thinking first of basic physics, then engineering, then manufacturing at scale, then financial stuff last
  • the only private space entrepreneur to successfully sell satellite launches in quantity and make a profit at it
  • reusing boosters forced the other rocket builders to scramble just as hard as the auto companies
  • in that scramble, the ones who suffered the worst losses were the Russians
  • will soon send tourists on a multiday orbital flight, which makes the brief suborbital hops offered by the next two look pretty feeble
  • is now filling the sky with thousands of internet satellites which will make life tough for astronomers and might trigger a catastrophic space junk crisis (google “Kessler syndrome”)
  • wants to move a million people permanently to Mars
  • had a child with pop star and art dilettante Grimes; naming the kid “X Æ A-12” was apparently her idea
  • can’t keep his mouth shut when ordered by the SEC to stop tweeting things that influence stock prices
  • other mouthing off has gotten him in legal trouble… and he’s in court right now, arguing that it’s good for the company because being “entertaining” saves advertising costs
  • denied the severity of covid and tried to force all his workers to stay in factories at the height of the pandemic
  • generally overworks employees, and responds with threats if they mention unionizing
  • abusive tirades have been reported
  • has a hiring philosophy of “no assholes”, but is one

Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin):

  • wealth comes from paying people the lowest possible wages for the hardest possible warehouse labor, with intentionally high rates of burnout and turnover
  • Amazon makes very little profit, so all the money it makes somehow ends up owned by Bezos rather than the company
  • said to be intensely envious of Musk, trying to equal his accomplishments without realizing that you’d have to equal his brains first
  • a Trump-aligned tabloid once tried to blackmail him over infidelity, and found out that Jeff don’t blackmail
  • but what they found may have brought about the biggest divorce property division of all time
  • spent billions and billions on space for twenty years without launching a single thing for a paying customer
  • sold United Launch Alliance (the Pentagon’s favorite rocket builder) on a new engine for their forthcoming Vulcan rocket, and is now failing to deliver the engine, forcing the Vulcan to be delayed
  • also wants to fill the sky with thousands of internet satellites, but will probably fail to compete with SpaceX’s version, thereby rendering the satellite swarm useless as well as obtrusive
  • wants to move a million people to Earth orbit, along with heavy industry to relieve the environment down here
  • suckered some schmuck into bidding $26 million to sit next to him on the first brief tourist flight of the New Shepard
  • is a way bigger asshole than Musk… some of the time

Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic, Virgin Orbit):

  • wealth comes from selling music, airline travel, railroads, hotels, gyms, clothing, advertising, cellphone service, motorbike taxis, books, business services… just about anything they could think of, all under one name
  • but for some of those he just sells companies the right to use the Virgin name, like Trump does
  • why just have one space company when you can have two?
  • unlike Bezos, has actually delivered a satellite into orbit, and people to zero gee (though Bezos is days away from catching up on the latter)
  • started accepting money for SpaceShipTwo tickets back in 2006, but the first flight with private passengers was not until 2021
  • but on the other hand, was offered a billion dollar investment by the Saudis and turned it down over their human rights problems
  • has no plans to move a million people anywhere
  • was an “adventurer” before he ever dabbled in space… crossed the Pacific in a hot air balloon, etc
  • his love life is apparently adventurous too, with at least one open marriage, and a tendency to inappropriate behavior when drinking
  • likes recreational drugs and wants them legalized
  • likes to come up with creative ways to cheat on taxes, even after once being jailed for it
  • has gotten four people killed working on his rockets, and four more severely injured, in two separate incidents
  • yeah, these things qualify him as an asshole

Max Polyakov? (Firefly Aerospace):

  • I can’t verify for sure whether he qualifies as a billionaire
  • wealth comes mainly from commercial real estate and e-commerce
  • grew up in Ukraine, where his parents worked in aerospace, and where he has founded a new engineering school
  • moved to Silicon Valley and then to Scotland
  • was a co-owner of dating websites accused of being scams; for this reason, subject to distrust in the business world
  • …on top of the distrust they already have for the idea of mixing American national security work with Ukrainian aerospace companies that may be influenced by gangsters
  • Polyakov’s main goal other than profit is probably to revitalize high-tech industry in his homeland, which has suffered many setbacks
  • Firefly was sued by Virgin Orbit and bankrupted by legal troubles; that’s when Polyakov bought it and revived it
  • Firefly built their first completed rocket about eight months ago and delivered it to Vandenberg, but we’re still waiting for them to attempt to launch it
  • Firefly’s only advantage in competing with Virgin Orbit or Rocket Lab is that they can (theoretically) lift somewhat heavier satellites, at a substantial cost increase
  • much less public than the others, so I have no solid data on to what degree he’s an asshole

In summary, Musk is the most innovative, Bezos is the most despicable, Branson is the most reckless, and Polyakov is the most unimportant.

I haven’t mentioned the tendency to overpromise and exaggerate what their companies will do, because all new-space rocket company owners do that to roughly equal degrees, whether they’re billionaires or not.

June 25, 2021

speciation of words

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 9:03 pm

When you look at the roots of our vocabulary, a surprisingly small set of root concepts gets elaborated into an amazing variety of particular terms.  By making little changes to an existing word you can split it into two distinct words, and by making metaphorical use of a word consistently enough, you can change its perceived meaning until its new form is heard as literal and concrete.  We don’t think of, for instance, the word “indented” as meaning like a toothmark, or “digital” as meaning like fingers. We don’t think of words like “inflamed” or “florid” or “petrified” as metaphorical, but they are, referencing fire, flowers, and rock respectively.

For an example of this divergence, consider the words “glazier” and “glacier”.  One is a trade profession and the other is a geological phenomenon, yet they differ in only one letter, and both have roots in the same glac- root word, which referred to ice in Roman times, and before that to anything shiny.  Glass, the substance, might well have been so named because it looked like ice to the first people who dealt with it… but apparently that’s not actually the case: the sense of “shiny” passed through Germanic languages into English without going through Latin and without specifically meaning ice.

Some other words in English coming from the same origin include “gloss” and “glaze” and “glare”, and medical terms like “glaucoma”… maybe even “glow”.  Our modern words for the sheen of varnish, the frosting on a donut, and a hostile stare may have originated with them being metaphorically compared to ice or glass.

For another example, consider words like “plan”, “plane”, and “plain”.  We use these for all sorts of meanings: a scheme or plot, a scale diagram, an abstract surface in geometry, a heavier-than-air flying vehicle, a tool for shaving wood, a meadow or prairie, and the quality of being bland and unadorned and ordinary.  We even use it for the name of a musical instrument, by borrowing the Italian version of the word, “piano”, which has almost all of that same range of meanings, from scheme to meadow, and also meanings such as floor or deck.  What do they have in common?  Every one of them got its name, directly or indirectly, from resemblance to a flat surface.  The sense of scheme or plot apparently derived from the sense of, like, “floor plan” — a 2D diagram for how you intend to build something. (And there are plenty of additional similar words related to flatness from the same or similar roots, such as “plank” and “flake” and “placid” and “flag”.)

There’s nothing flat about a piano, but in the Italian musical tradition they started using the word “piano” in the sense of bland ordinariness to mean playing softly, and then they combined it with “forte” (strong) to make a portmanteau word to describe a keyboard instrument that could play soft or loud notes at will, and people shortened it to piano, keeping just the part of the name that described its ability to play some notes without emphasis — you might say, flatly.

It’s pretty common for a foreign word such as piano to be borrowed for a narrow specific meaning when, in its original language, it had a much broader and more general range of meaning.  For instance, in English we use “chef” to mean a haute-cuisine cook, but in French the word just means any kind of chief or boss or leader.  The German word “gestalt” basically just means “shape”, but in English we use it only in particular abstract and abstruse ways.  In Japanese the word “sensei” means any kind of teacher, and “bukkake” just means “splash”.  “Kung fu” (or gōngfu in modern pinyin) means mastery or accomplishment in general, without referring to any particular area of skill.

The process goes the other way as well.  “Handy” is a fairly broad word in English  but when borrowed in German it means cell phone.  “Smoking” in French or Spanish means a formal jacket or tuxedo, and “pull” in French means a pullover sweater or jersey.  Words like “surf” or “piercing” have many senses in English but usually only one when borrowed into a language like Spanish.  In Japanese, the borrowed German word “arbeit” (or arubaito), means specifically a part-time job rather than work in general, “bike” (baiku) means motorcycle but not bicycle, and “charge” (chāji) means making an electronic payment, and only in some contexts.

One notorious example of divergence is the set of words arising from a root of blu- or ble-, which referred to the sky, from an earlier bhel- that indicated brightness.  This gave us not only the color “blue”, but a whole range of words related to paleness or featurelessness including “blank”, “blanket”, “blanch”, “bleak”, “bleach”, “blush”, “bland”, “blonde”, “blend”, “blink”, and “blind”.  In romance languages it became blanc, meaning white… yet by another path some say it is also the origin of “black”.  The closely related alb- root, meaning “white”, has plenty more derivatives.

Words from “edge” to “aggressive” to “acumen” to “acid” to “acne” to “exacerbate” to “mediochre” to “paragon” to “oxygen” all come from a common ak- root which means sharp or pointy.  Even the word “hammer” shares this origin according to some, though all resemblance is now lost.

In these various kinds of mutations, at least the spelling and pronunciation often change to accommodate the added meaning.  We can easily hear the difference between, for instance, “extract” and “traction” and “tractate”.  But what about the simple word “track”?  In the dictionary I see about three dozen distinct meanings, from the act of monitoring a flying object’s location by radar to the linked steel belt that a bulldozer rides on, all using exactly the same spelling and sound, and all derived in some metaphorical way from the concept of a footpath, or footprints.

And there’s another gotcha here… some of the words I mentioned earlier, and related ones like “tractable” and “tractor” and “tract”, are apparently derived from a separate root unrelated to “track” — maybe even more than one other root.  And “trachea” is from yet another distinct root, though it sounds like it could plausibly have come from a word for a path.  Sometimes as words diverge from each other and spread to cover a wider area in the space of pronounceable sounds, they run into other words traveling in the opposite direction… for example, the noun “egg” (what birds lay) has a different root from the verb “egg” (to provoke or goad), with the latter being another derivative of ak-.  They’re probably no more connected than the Japanese car make Mazda (a flattened form of Matsuda) is to the Zoroastrian deity Ahura Mazda (since flattened to Ormazd)… but it’s hard to be certain. Some of these may be words that started together and drifted apart in ancient unknowable times before swinging toward each other again, while others may have begun farther apart than we’ll ever know. However far apart they began, often when they get close together people will just start pronouncing and spelling it the same as a familiar word, snapping them together. For instance, the Germanic word “schrubben” (to clean with a brush) may have become “scrub” in English because that was already a familiar word for bushes and small trees.

I still prefer this kind of back-and-forth spread over the situation where more and more meanings are piled onto a word without it changing.  The worst case I can think of is the word “set”.  One dictionary I checked listed 93 distinct meanings for this word!  It does seem like most of them derive in some way from the concept of remaining in a particular place, though that’s not very apparent in cases like the setting of the sun, or a set of golf clubs.  And the words “sit” and “site” and “settle” and “sediment” and “situation” clearly derive from that same sense of fixed location… so it could have been worse.

Personally, I’m glad of the variety — I appreciate the value of having words drift far enough apart so that the musical term “opera” and the mathematical term “operand” are not easily confused with each other.  (Both derive from a root that means work or effort.)  And it’s impressive what a range of variety and specificity we’ve come up with, starting from a far more limited range of simple words for things like stone and sky and wind and water.

In this, evolution of words really does resemble the evolution of life.  Seeing all these root word relationships, it would be pretty much impossible to argue, say, that language was created whole and complete in one act.  It’s clearly grown over the years to be much larger and wider than it once was.  But the diverging nature of life is nearly as self-evident, and people deny that all the time.

May 29, 2021

the end of Windows hegemony — update

Filed under: computing,Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 1:06 pm

More than eight years ago, I wrote a post here called “the end of Windows hegemony?”.  It was quite premature at the time, and for year after year nothing seemed to happen to make any of the predictions or possibilities mentioned in that post move any closer to reality.

But in the year of the pandemic, it’s finally starting to look like people are reconsidering their automatic default allegiance to Microsoft Windows.  At the time of that post, according to, the desktop market share of Windows was 84% in North America and 91% worldwide.  Now it’s down to 63% in North America and 75% worldwide.  The biggest gainer has been MacOS, though it looks like they may have started trending back down again in the middle of 2020, perhaps due to caution over the change of CPU architecture.  Back then they were at 15% and 8%, and at the peak they hit 28% and 18%.  The other main beneficiary has been ChromeOS, which has gone from essentially nothing to 6% in North America and 2% worldwide.

Perhaps as a response to this downward trend, Microsoft is now planning a fancy new update to the Windows look and feel… and unlike previous major updates, this one is pretty much mandatory.  They’d probably call it Windows 11 if they hadn’t committed to using the name Windows 10 until the end of time… and maybe they will anyway.  Time will tell whether there are good options available for those who decide they hate whatever new style they come up with.

In this, Windows is  becoming like Android, though with less ability to choose different aesthetic styles of UI by picking a different hardware maker.  As with Android, those who make the effort to dig into alternatives will probably have pretty good options to change some things they don’t like, but most non-techy users will not benefit from this, and will take what they’re given.

Mostly what they want, from what I’ve seen, is lack of change.  They want the time and attention they’ve invested in learning software systems to not be lost.  Automatic and mandatory changes are likely to be met with resentment, if they require any relearning.  The time when they feel open to change is when they buy new hardware, which is why Android suffers less of this resentment.  It used to be that paying money for a new OS version would also open this window, but that’s not something that happens anymore.

Marketing-wise, Microsoft was never well served by trying to switch to an evergreen software model in which they pump out updates when they see fit rather than when the user wants them.  Their users, outside of corporate IT departments and technical professionals, are willing to take what they’re given, but want it to be stable and predictable once they’ve gotten used to it.

And I think that what Microsoft has failed to appreciate about its own position is how much their entire Windows business has depended on people’s willingness to take what they’re given.  Aside from gamers, almost nobody chooses windows for themselves because they actively want it.  They take it because it’s what’s been given to them.  Because it’s the default — because it’s what you get automatically if you don’t make an active choice.  Because it’s what everybody has always gotten, and they don’t need to think about it.  I suspect that, like many others before them, Microsoft has mistaken a historical privilege for an earned reward.  They’re probably having thoughts like “They love what we’re doing, so let’s give them more of it.”  Decisions based on such thoughts will not mesh well with reality.

Soon, with Apple gaining by leaps and bounds, now having superior hardware thanks to in-house silicon chips with no x86 baggage, and ChromeOS rapidly becoming more visible and viable, customers are going to have to start thinking about it again.  The time is near when the average computer shopper might no longer get Windows automatically, but will actually make a mindful decision about what OS they prefer.  And I don’t think very many are going to actively avow that they really like and prefer Windows.  After all, the first bar that any competing OS has to clear, in order to be commercially viable at all, is to do better than Windows.

April 28, 2021

Is Russia too broke to be a space power anymore?

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,spaaaace!,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 7:26 am

Long ago, Russia was the unquestioned leader in spaceflight. Even after we beat them to the moon at enormous expense, they still notched up lots of firsts in other areas. And even after we took clear leadership with shuttles and Mars landers and space telescopes, they were still the clear second best. But now the big space rivalry is USA vs China, and though Russia has many announced projects and plans, they’re having a harder and harder time following through on the execution. If it weren’t for their great heritage, and the national prestige that they’ve got tied up in spaceflight, they might by now be a minor space power, less active than the European Union, and surpassed by the rapid advances now being made in India.

But because of that prestige issue, they have to do their best to act the part of a space superpower, though it’s getting more and more difficult to keep up. The gap between what is planned and what’s possible in practice seems to be getting steadily wider. The Indians might surpass them yet, if they don’t pull off some of these projects.

Let’s run through their announced projects, and see where they’re at:


April 22, 2021

SpaceX’s enormous Starship as lunar lander for Artemis — does that make sense?

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,Rantation and Politicizing,spaaaace!,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 10:48 pm

Surprisingly, it makes more sense than it appears to at first glance, both as an alternative to a small lander and — for the near term — as an alternative to just using Starships for the entire trip. But it’s not clear that it leaves us with any need to use the boondoggle SLS rocket. So NASA’s recent decision to use SpaceX’s next generation rocket to land on the moon with, but not for the rest of the Artemis mission, may not be perfect but is also not wrong.


January 22, 2021

Sanity is your responsibility as an adult

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 4:24 am

When people hear the word “sanity”, they tend to think of it as pertaining to medical or psychiatric conditions over which an individual may be powerless. But those cases are actually the exceptions, not the norm. For most of us, how sane we are is actually a matter of choice. We choose every day whether to remain fully engaged with reality as it is, or to fall into some form of denial or delusion. Some of us make these choices mindfully, including many who have to deal with mental health challenges, and some of us do not.

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