Supersonic Man

May 18, 2016

what we need in a president

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 1:44 pm

When we’re electing a president, the quality we need to look for is not experience or knowledge.  It’s not intelligence or education.  It’s not imagination or vision.  It’s not inflexible ideology or even steadfast ideals.  It certainly isn’t friendliness or folksiness or personal charm.

What we need from a president is wisdom.  The choices a president faces are often ones where an unwise decision can have calamitous consequences. What is needed above all else is good judgment in considering all the consequences of each major choice, and in discerning good reasons for action from bad ones.

This is why candidates always have to exaggerate their religious faith: because many voters believe religion to be a source of wisdom.

And this is why most voters dread the prospect of an egotistical blowhard in the White House: because we know that such a person is unlikely to act wisely.  But it’s also why an egotistical blowhard is winning the nomination: because the other candidates have tied themselves to continuing a whole range of policies which have been shown by their consequences to have been very unwise, thereby negating the advantages that should have been theirs by virtue of knowledge and experience.  The untried blowhard has a chance, at least, of turning out to be wiser than they were.

And it’s why the blowhard might even win: because the presumptive opponent, despite having every other quality a president ought to possess, has in the past supported many of those same dreadfully unwise policies.  Repudiating those bad choices today fails to reassure us, because the doubts are not about what side a candidate is on, but about how wisely the candidate would make the next difficult decision.

May 17, 2016

let’s try something easier: special relativity

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 5:21 pm

Here’s a way of explaining special relativity which I wish I had run across at a much younger age.  Thanks to author Greg Egan for finally getting this through my dense headbone.  For the first time, I kind of feel like all that stuff about time dilation and increased mass and so forth makes some sense.

May 3, 2016

a possibly inept attempt to understand the hidden variable problem in quantum mechanics

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 10:40 pm

I’m trying to wrap my head partway around Bell’s Theorem, and what implies for the quantum interpretation conundrum.  I’m sort of hoping that I can explain it to myself in a halfway coherent way here.

top science fiction writers

Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 1:33 pm

Who would be my picks for the top ten or so science fiction writers of all time?  Let’s take an initial stab:

(the inarguable immortals)
H.G. Wells
Olaf Stapledon
Philip K. Dick
Ursula K. LeGuin

Arthur C. Clarke
Frederik Pohl
Alfred Bester
Cordwainer Smith
Kurt Vonnegut
Frank Herbert
John Brunner
Roger Zelazny
Greg Bear
Octavia Butler
Vernor Vinge
Kim Stanley Robinson

(tempting, but probably not justifiable)
R.A. Lafferty
Greg Egan

(ought to read more before rejecting)
Bruce Sterling
Doris Lessing

Names I will definitely not be listing include Asimov and Heinlein… and also Sturgeon and Bradbury.

April 29, 2016

the meaning of money

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 2:33 pm

“Money’s only paper, only ink”, sang Tracy Chapman.  She’s one of a long line of people who view money as something that has no true value and no true meaning, which we fool ourselves into thinking means everything.  These people have a valuable point to make about the importance of keeping money in proper perspective, and the enrichment one can find by seeking detachment from the pursuit of money… but the idea that money is inherently without meaning or value is one I can’t agree with.  Money means something very important.

Economists call it a store of value.  What is “value”?  We can’t just define it as that which makes people willing to pay money for something.  Where does it come from?

One possible answer is scarcity.  But when a rare natural resource is found in the wild, it doesn’t yet have any value; only when someone fetches it back to civilization and sells it does it become valuable.  And most sources of value don’t come from scarcity.  There is certainly nothing scarce about potatoes or vegetable oil, yet people pay an awful lot over the course of a year to keep themselves supplied with french fries, with little of that payment going to the farmers who produce the ingredients.  More tellingly, people are perfectly capable of making their own french fries at home, yet most would rather pay someone else to make them.

We can now see that most of what people pay for, when they buy something, is not any kind of scarce material, but for the work it takes to make something ready to use from that material.  Rough gemstones might be rare and expensive, but they’re not nearly as expensive as the jewelry made from them is.

If you want a one word answer to what “value” is… it’s labor.  That ephemeral abstract quantity which is stored and made fungible by money is actually something very concrete: it’s the work that people do every day — the sweat and skill that we put into our jobs.  When you pay money for something, what you’re doing is claiming the fruits of someone else’s work.  The magic of money is that, by storing “value” over an indefinite period, it lets the work be accomplished without needing to find out first who it is that wants the work done.  The labor and the benefit from it are uncoupled in time.

What does it really mean to be wealthy?  If you’re rich, it means that a disproportionate number of people spend their time and effort working for you instead of for themselves or each other.  They labor to satisfy your whims, and you have no need to perform any further labor of your own to benefit them.

This gives us a new way to look at people’s dreams of easy money and get-rick-quick schemes.  It may seem like a harmless fantasy to dream of winning the lottery or finding buried treasure — after all, you’re not taking anything from anyone else — but what the dream really amounts to is a desire that people labor on your behalf while you do no labor for them.  It’s not so harmless when you think about it that way.  What people are craving in these dreams is, in a word, privilege.

It’s also a different way to think about the social issue of concentration of wealth.  Sure, it may seem only right and proper that some who perform their labor wisely and adroitly should accumulate greater rewards than those who don’t… but does that justify the creation of a class of people with permanent wealth?  Think of it in the extremes: if everyone had only a tiny amount of money and we all had to work and trade for everything we got, it can’t be denied that we would all have great freedom.  But if, at the opposite extreme, you imagine that all the money was owned by one little group and everyone else had nothing, and depended on the rulers who own everything to dole out the means for sustenance, then the effect in practice would be slavery.

I don’t think it’s an oversimplification to say that concentration of wealth implies a general loss of freedom, and the degree of concentration makes a pretty good metric for how unfree most people are in practice.  This is ironic in that those who defend such concentration often do so in the name of liberty.  Their argument may be coherent on paper, but in practice, the more concentrated wealth becomes, the more difficult it is for someone not already privileged to find any path for bettering their own circumstances; when the problem becomes severe, most forms of labor end up enriching only the already rich, rather than the person who performs the work.  If this were not the case, the concentration would already be correcting itself.

So money certainly isn’t meaningless.  The balance of how much you can get against how much you need determines the degree to which you are personally free to choose how you spend your time.  And that’s why we admire those who speak of detachment from chasing money: because they are speaking of reclaiming freedom.

But we can be free without money only to the extent that we are able to be self-sufficient.  If we have land to grow food on, natural resources around us, and a capacity to work hard to make things for ourselves instead of buying them, it’s possible to live quite well without money.  But if suddenly you can no longer do that — if you have, say, a disabling injury or a chronic medical condition, or your land and property are lost in a catastrophe — the ability to be free without money can vanish in an instant.  It doesn’t even have to be you that falls ill — it could be a family member.  Even without such losses, for millions of people there are insuperable obstacles to overcome before it’s even possible to reach a bit of ground from which one can obtain food or water by one’s own efforts.  If you’re stuck in the middle of a refugee camp or a shantytown or an urban ghetto, with no way out that doesn’t cost money, the freedoms that can come from renouncing pursuit of financial rewards are nothing but a myth.


April 21, 2016

precious substances

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 6:38 am

Are there any substances that are worth a million dollars a kilogram?  I don’t just mean stuff that costs a thousand dollars a gram — I mean stuff which it it possible to buy a whole kilogram of.

April 12, 2016

If not for the South…

Filed under: fun,Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 10:29 am

The reason Hillary Clinton has a delegate lead over Bernie Sanders is because she won big in Southern states — specifically, in the Confederate states. What if that weren’t a factor? What if we imagine, say, that the Confederacy had seceded peacefully, gone to hell in its own way, and left the United States to move forward without them?

March 28, 2016

some fatuous computer industry predictions

Filed under: Hobbyism and Nerdry,the future! — Supersonic Man @ 11:15 am

I think I’ll call some trends in where the computer industry is going to go in the coming years. And yes, these are pulled straight from my lower gastrointestinal tract.

  • Is Windows going to start dying off?  Yes, but it will be very slow.  Home use will disappear before office use.
  • What will replace it?  A windowed variant of Android, or something Android-compatible, which doesn’t even exist yet.
  • Will that be Google’s planned merger of Android with ChromeOS?  Maybe, but I think it may be more likely to come from an independent outfit.  And if it’s advertised as being half Android and half ChromeOS, it’ll really be 90% Android.
  • Will ARM architecture replace Intel ’86 architecture?  Yes, but only temporarily.
  • Then what will win out in the long term?  Something designed for massive parallelism, like a GPU.  I predict that in The Future, when comparing the size and power of different computers, the main stat that will be quoted is the number of kilocores.
  • Will these cores be similar to full-blown processors such as an ARM core, or will they be more basic and stripped-down like a GPU core?  I think the trend may be from the former toward the latter — quantity over quality.
  • Will we still be using Android variants when things get into kilocore country?  Nah, something fundamentally more advanced will replace the whole current idea of desktop-like interfaces.
  • Will neural networks be important?  Maybe.  They’ll remain a specialized minority of architectures, but I think as the massively parallel architecture evolves toward having more cores and less in each core, it will converge toward neural-net architecture and then replace it.
  • What about software?  I think it will be stored in portable binary format and adapted to individual architectures with JIT compilation and/or automatic local optimizers.  The actual coding of highly parallel algorithms will rarely be done by hand, and will usually depend heavily on automated assistance.
  • What about quantum computing?  It’s impossible to tell how big an impact it will have.  It’s essentially a form of analog computing, and as such may be confined to niche specialties… but you never know: it could end up beating conventional computing at its own game and become much more general-purpose.  If this happens, the need for automated assistance in coding goes double.
  • Will we eventually use computers through direct brain interfaces?  Yes, but progress toward that will be frustratingly slow and gradual.
  • Will these new architectures lead to Artificial Intelligence?  Yes, though in a quite limited sense for the shorter term.  See this article for how I think that will go.
  • Does this mean that a computer will take your job?  It sure does, and it’s going to be a very difficult social challenge to adapt to.  See this further article.

March 23, 2016


Filed under: fun,Hobbyism and Nerdry — Supersonic Man @ 7:45 pm

I grew up sort of unconsciously assuming that there were fairly straightforward rules, fairly consistently applied, for how to turn a place name into the term for the people who live there. Once I actually looked, it turned out I had not appreciated how complex and inconsistent it is. I think it was during the 2000 election controversy, when people on TV kept talking about “Floridians”, that it sunk in for me that there’s no requirement for similar sounding place names to be consistent: it could just as easily be “Floridan” and “Nevadian” as the other way around.

I think I will now inventory the demonyms for people who live in the US states and territories, according to what rule they empirically seem to have used. And I’ll throw in Canadian provinces and Australian states too.

Global rule to apply before other rules: if the place name is a plural, convert it to singular before looking for a rule to apply below.
Cases following this rule: Mariana Islands, Virgin Islands, Northwest Territories.
Exceptions: none.

First rule: if the place name ends in “ia”, just add “n”.
Cases following this rule: California, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, South Australia, Western Australia, Tazmania, Victoria.
Exception: District of Columbia (people just say “Washingtonian”).

Second rule: if the place name ends in “a” but not in “ia”, just add “n”.
Cases: Alaska, Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Samoa, Alberta, Manitoba. (Also, America.)
Exceptions: see next rule.

Third rule: if the place name ends in “a” but not in “ia”, and you don’t want to follow the second rule, you can replace the “a” with “ian”.
Cases: Alabama, Florida, Indiana, Louisiana, North and South Carolina. (And Canada.)
Remaining exceptions: none.

Fourth rule: if the place name ends in an “ee” sound, add “an”.
Cases: Hawaii, Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, Northwest Territories.
Minor exceptions: Kentucky (the “y” is replaced with “i”), Tennessee (the last “e” is dropped), Northern Territories (just “Territorian” with no “Northern”).
Real exception: Australian Capitol Territory (similarly to D.C., it gets covered by “Canberran”).

Fifth rule: if it ends in a vowel sound not covered above, replace that vowel (and any silent letter following it) with “an”.
Cases: Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Ontario, Puerto Rico.
Exceptions: see next rule.

Sixth rule: if it ends in a vowel sound not covered in the first four rules, and you don’t want to follow the fifth rule, add “an” without removing anything.
Cases: Idaho, Ohio.
Remaining exception: Utah (it’s “Utahn”).

Seventh rule: if it ends with “as”, replace the “s” with “n”.
Cases: Kansas, Texas.
Exceptions: none.

Eighth rule: if it ends in a plosive or unvoiced consonant sound, but not with “as”, add “er”.
Cases: Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Mariana Islands, Virgin Islands, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Queensland. (Also, New Zealand.)
Minor exceptions: Connecticutt (the last “t” is dropped), Quebec (any of “Quebecker” or “Quebecer” or “Québécois”).
Real exception: Nunavut (“Nunavummiuq”).

Ninth rule: if it ends with a voiced nonplosive consonant sound, add “ian”, or just “an” if the last letter is a silent “e”.
Cases: Delaware, Oregon, Washington, Labrador, Saskatchewan.
Exceptions: see next rule. Also, Michigan can follow this rule, but it’s optional, as it has two competing official demonyms.

Tenth rule: if it ends with a voiced nonplosive consonant sound, and you don’t want to follow the ninth rule, add “ite”, after dropping any silent “e” at the end.
Cases: New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Wyoming (most people pronounce this nonplosively).
Remaining exceptions: see next rule.

Eleventh rule: if it ends with a voiced nonplosive consonant sound, and you don’t want to follow the ninth rule or the tenth rule, add “er”, or just “r” if the last letter is a silent “e”
Cases: Maine, Yukon.
Remaining exceptions: Michigan (the second official demonym adds “der”), Guam (“Chamorro”), New South Wales (“New South Welshman”).

I’ve restricted this list to English-speaking nations, but I excluded the British Isles themselves: the adjectival forms “English”, “Scottish”, “Irish”, and “Welsh” have their own rule, and for added inconvenience “Englishman”/”Scotsman”/”Irishman”/”Welshman” are gendered. “Briton” doesn’t fit with anything else. And I wouldn’t know where to begin with smaller regions such as Middlesex or Yorkshire or Cork. Given the existence of a case like “Manx”, I don’t even want to look.

And once we get into nonanglophonic areas of the world, anything can happen, even if sticking to Englishized names.

March 5, 2016

how fascism survives

Filed under: Rantation and Politicizing,thoughtful handwaving — Supersonic Man @ 9:19 am

Can fascism be friendly?  We think of fascism mainly by remembering its most virulent examples — the ones with brutal repression and all-out warmongering.  Those regimes usually self-destruct in a generation or two, and overt examples such as Syria are now rare.

But can fascism stick around long term by toning down the violence?  How would you recognize it — what would be its remaining characteristics?  Peaceful fascism would be a single-party government which primarily promotes, and/or is primarily supported by, the major business interests of its homeland, with plenty of patriotic nationalist rhetoric, and optionally some military belligerence against manageable enemies.

Viewed in this light, fascism is abundant around the world today.  China’s government calls itself communist but nowadays is actually fascist.  Putin’s Russia is fascist — this being a more traditional specimen.  Even some very benign and peaceful regimes are technically fascist, such as Japan in the second half of the 20th century, and Singapore to this day, both of which had grest success with their business interests.  And some not-so-peaceful and not-so-successful examples are around too, for instance in Central Asia.

In this light, yes, we’ve certainly got fascists here.  After 9/11, some neocons came pretty close to openly advocating single-party rule and suppression of dissent.  Fortunately our tradition of democracy was too strong for them to ever quite dare being open about it — such ideas didn’t publicly go beyond the level of trial-balloon anonymous leaks.

And then as now, such movements don’t lack for willing followers, here or anywhere.

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