Supersonic Man

October 26, 2016

the popularity of football

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 17, 2016

Consider the roundworm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not done yet.

October 13, 2016

a pre-post-mortem of the 2016 Republican debacle

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

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

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

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

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

(more…)

October 3, 2016

a tribute to the HTC One M7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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