Supersonic Man

August 27, 2017

Downsizing, into a larger home

Filed under: life — Supersonic Man @ 11:51 am

So it looks like we’re going to be moving soon from a house to an apartment.  And this is going to require some downsizing, and letting go of a significant number of physical possessions… even though the apartment has more square feet than the house did.

This is because in the apartment, everything has to be indoors.  This is not one of those complexes which offers people a storage closet down in the parking garage.  Imagine if all the stuff you keep out in the garage, in a shed, or just outside in the back yard had to come inside and fit in your closet space.  That’s what we’re facing.  Or rather, what I’m facing, as most of this junk is mine and not hers.  The only major bulky item that’s more for her than for me is a hammock frame.

There are some things we’ll be glad to get rid of, like our old clapped-out washer and dryer, and our window air conditioner.  We might get a few bucks for these.  Our little microwave too.  The patio table can go, along with the hammock, and maybe someone will pay a bit.

After that, I start realizing what I’ll have to give up… and it’s not that the stuff is very important or valuable, it’s that it represents capabilities and options.  If you have tools and junk, you can use handy-man skills to make things and accomplish stuff which are otherwise out of reach.  I value having the skills and inventiveness to make some good use out of tools and junk.  But the older I get, the less real use any of this comes to, and the less economic value this stuff is likely to hold for the future.  And that means there isn’t a good case to make for keeping this stuff around, competing for valuable closet space with all the stuff which is just as important in an apartment as in a house: the folding chairs and sewing machines and snowshoes and toolboxes and bicycle racks and ice chests and etc that have to be put somewhere.

So what I want to do in this post is just make myself a list of some of the stuff that I probably need to let go of, and have a little moment of sadness over the capabilities which I will be giving up, letting myself depend on the services of others in cases where I would formerly be able to do for myself.

One annoying thing is that we might live in a place with a yard again in the future, and at that time, we’ll want some of this back, and will have to buy it new.  But the cost of that is not enough to justify renting storage for years.

Some “garden” items might be able to hang on in our little porch/balcony… a stone Buddha, a colorful chicken-shaped flowerpot… and there’s a little handmade outdoor table we could keep… but probably won’t.

On to the list:

Long-handled gardening tools.  A shovel, two rakes, a hook, a “hula ho” weeder.  Some of those are quite worn, but the hook tool is almost new.

A big wide push-broom, and a telescoping paint-roller pole, which had uses well beyond painting.

An electric string-trimmer (weed eater).  Maybe the 75 feet of extension cord to power it.

Midsize gardening tools: loppers, shears, and a couple of one-handed digging/chopping tools, one with a telescoping handle.  It might be possible to store these away without taking up too much space, but they’ll have competition.

Lumber.  There isn’t very much of it, but it feels disempowering to have none.  Likewise for scraps of pipe and odd bits of plumbing supplies.

A shop-vacuum, and a couple of extra attachments.  It’s a very small one, but no less useful than a big one.

Jack stands and ramps, for getting under cars.  No more changing my own oil or brake pads.

A come-along winch.  Admittedly I got no real use out of this.  The same goes for the stationary bicycle stand I recently obtained, which is redundant as the new place has a gym.

An ugly plastic bird-bath, with gravel in the base for weight.  And a plastic flamingo if anyone wants it.

A 25′ drain snake.  This, unfortunately, has gotten some use.

A filtering water pump that has been used with a hot tub.

Assorted chemicals for outdoor or automotive purposes.  These will have to be culled.

Not an outdoor or garage item, but there’s a terrible battered old electric guitar that ought to go.  I have affection for it because it’s “so bad it’s good”.  Or wait, did I already get rid of that?

Then there’s the crappy telescope.  I can let that go if needed.

A pack frame.  I’m very unlikely to ever backpack again, and even hanging on to tents and sleeping bags may now be getting marginal as something we can justify.  And a barely used bear-canister.

A bookshelf, for paperbacks only, that I made from scratch out of cheap unstained pine.

Then there’s stuff which I definitely want to keep, but may require defending if someone hard-headedly practical challenges them… things like saws and hammers, old electronics supplies, a bass guitar, an ancient Amiga, LP records… I’ve already culled my books, and hope to hold the line there.

We’ll buy a few new things also, such as an upright vacuum and a small desk.  We might buy an easy chair, but only if we lose a couch.

[update] Arrgh, looks like it’s time to give up my big stereo and excellent Infinity speakers… if I can find a buyer for them. Shedding a small tear for the speakers.  Also the karaoke machine that we got for free and used only a couple of times.  There’s a glut of those, it turns out.  There’s some stereo equipment which I could keep but won’t, just because it’s not in good condition anymore: a turntable and a pair of nice bookshelf speakers.  Both have succumbed to a decay of their soft parts.

One couch is going.  The so-bad-it’s-good electric guitar appears to have disappeared in the previous move.  But on the other hand, we decided to play it safe and keep the drain snake.  Whee.

[update 2]  Ordered a recliner.  Keeping the good speakers after all, but selling my synthesizer keyboard, with its stand.

[Update 3]  We ended up backing out of the first rental lease and signing a different one.  The new place is smaller, but does come with a 5×7 foot storage locker.


August 25, 2017

ten percent of our brains

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,science!,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 9:40 am

If it were really true that we use only ten percent of our brains, then being granted the ability to use all one hundred percent wouldn’t really make a dramatic difference. It would be like comparing a desktop computer from 2017 with one from about 2005. Sure, the new one is better, but definitely not as much better as you’d hope it would be. They still both do basically the same things, and they’re both still probably hampered by running Windows.

I think there’s some metaphorical truth to the idea for a lot of people, though, because if they don’t get a good strong educational start, the majority of people don’t really have any chance of developing the intellectual side of their innate capabilities.  I’m pretty convinced that most of the differences we see between people in “intelligence” have nothing to do with one person being born with a better brain than another.  If you’re going to develop into a brainiac, you need to start very early and you need support for it, and most people around the world simply never get that opportunity.  It’s only when drawing comparisons between people who have had those advantages, and are already part of a privileged minority, that you can even start looking at innate differences in talent.

August 20, 2017

“Everyone is a little bit racist.”

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

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

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

Level 1: responsible.  We are all liable to sometimes forming snap judgments based on first impressions, and race is often a factor that plays into this.  But we can compensate for this by taking a moment for a second thought, to double-check our initial thoughtless reaction and make sure we’re being fair-minded.  This may not sound very impressive, but for most adults, this is about the best you can expect.  People in this category may be “allies” of minorities, or not.  Some may have come a long way in overcoming bad ideas from their upbringing, while others have had no need to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 15, 2017

Nazi free speech

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 10, 2017

no Apollo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 5, 2017

makes it easy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 8, 2017

eight-bit nostalgia

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 1, 2017


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

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

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

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

January 22, 2017

Trump’s inauguration crowd is yuge

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 19, 2016

red country vs blue city

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

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


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


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