Mar 24, 2009

I was reading a rant about sci-fi physics (or the lack thereof), and it mentioned how Star Trek had a problem with the transporter being too powerful, requiring a series of increasingly-implausible reasons why it couldn't save the day today. I say "increasingly-implausible" not because it didn't make sense that the transporter would be disrupted by, well, everything, since in some sense that's exactly why they are totally impossible, but because by the end of the run of Star Trek, it is completely implausible that anybody would ever trust their lives to one of these disasters!

It occurred to me that a slight reformulation of them would have solved the majority of problems. Say that the transporters are rock-solid reliable, as long as they can get a lock, but that they absolutely, positively, written-into-the-laws-of-physics require a long setup time, at least fifteen minutes. Maybe if there's a compatible transporter at the other end, we permit them to instantly link up, but blind transportation requires a set up time. I wouldn't even require the transportee to stand in the transporter for that period of time, they can just show up after fifteen minutes, but there should be no way around the setup time.

This makes most of the ways in which the transporter can suck the drama out of the story go away without making it useless. It's still clearly valuable. It's still clearly faster to use the transporter than take a shuttle. In fact it may well be more valuable since my version doesn't break down in a strong wind. But you don't get to use it to beam people out of trouble, or beam a bomb onto a moving ship (can't set up something that isn't stationary or fully predictable), or in fact use it in a conflict situation very often. I believe I would permit the transporter to be set up in advance, as long as the requisite setup time is passed, so if you make it back to the rendezvous point maybe the transporter is waiting for you, but if you don't make it back it's not immediately available.

This seems so much better, from a dramatic point of view.

HR 1: Spreadsheet Breakdown of Division A
Jan 31, 2009

I got tired of politically-loaded summaries of what is in HR 1, the stimulus bill as it passed in the House. Everyone knows they "ought" to read it, but few seem willing to actually do it. (The best version unfortunately resists permalinking: Go here, select "House Bills 1-100", then the first house bill.)

Let me help you out. I still have not read the whole thing, and at 800+KB of text I don't feel too bad. But I did spend four hours last night on the bill.

I will stay non-political in this post, until ofter the end. I ask that you bear with me through some political observation, because after spending four hours with legalese I feel I'm entitled to a bit of commentary.

The bill is organized into two Divisions. Division A seems to primarily be about appropriations, and consists of approximately one third of the bill by textual volume, and by my unskilled calculation, about one third of the reported cost. Division B appears to be a massive rewrite of the tax code. Both sections of the bill contain significant modifications to other law, and I have not had the time to follow the (numerous) references through, but it is clear just looking at some of them that they are major changes. Nobody is understating how big this bill is; I daresay everybody is understating it, because a straight description sounds hyperbolic.

I have broken the appropriations into a spreadsheet, which is available as an HTML table in the main body of this post, or as an Open Office Calc file or a Comma Separated Values file. (In both cases you may have to right-click and "Save Link As..." to save it.) The table below is in the same order it appears in the bill; with a spreadsheet you can reorder it, of course.

I haven't even begun to analyze the tax code because I am not competent to analyze tax implications. Also, unlike the appropriations which are mostly either new law, or simply increases in funding for old law (though not entirely), the tax section primarily consists of significant rewrites of older law, making the exact implications difficult to tease apart even if you were intimately familiar with existing tax code and who pays what taxes. I've considered trying to write a summary, but I don't think I can even do that, whereas I might be able to pull it off with reasonable accuracy for Division A.

Read the rest...

Non-atomic things are not illusions

It's unusual for me to repost something I left as a comment on another site, but I thought this was worth sharing here, even stripped of its context. Tweaked for posting here.

One of the great dangers of brain research today is that as we find the "explanation" for things, we will conclude they are just illusions and not real.

Well, the thing is, we're pretty sure at this point then that everything is "an illusion" by this standard. Religious experience, love, red, pain, it's all just an illusion brought on by neurons firing in certain patterns, right? Moving into the computer realm, the text box I am typing this into is an illusion brought on by clever programming, as is the browser. It's not an isolated series of claims of illusoriness, you need to consider the whole of them at once, including not just the politically popular ones (religion), but everything that argument makes sense for (red, mathematics, scary).

I submit to you that this view, while popular, is silly.

Read the rest...

Nov 01, 2008

The assumption that industry-funded studies are intrinsically inferior to a non-industry-funded study is an article of faith to many people; in the most extreme cases, the mere fact that a study was funded by industry is sufficient evidence to consider it total garbage. This is challenged by an interesting paper in the International Journal of Obesity, where it is shown that industry studies consistently have a higher quality of reporting than non-industry studies in the field of obesity studies.

It's worth carefully reading the sketch of a definition of "quality of reporting" they give in the second paragraph of the introduction to see exactly what they are saying. While still possible that these studies are reporting faked data in high definition, the definition of "quality" does encompass some things that make that more difficult. Not impossible, but difficult.

This paper isn't sufficient to prove that industry studies are always better, or any other absolutist claim on the other end of the spectrum. But I do think this is sufficient to say that the presumption of non-industry superiority is quasi-religious, not based in fact. Studies must be judged on their own merits, and personal attacks remain a logical fallacy, even, perhaps especially, when dealing with science.

Complexity and Society
Oct 22, 2008

Vernor Vinge is well known as one of the originators of the concept of the technological singularity, which is well-known to inform his sci-fi writings.

One of the less well known concepts which informs his sci-fi writings is one possible fate of societies that do not or can not end in a "singularity", which is the eventual unavoidable collapse of the society in a cascading failure state brought on by excessive, uncontrollable complexity in the ever-more-sophisticated systems that drive the society. In this case, take "system" in the broad sense, including not just software, but business practices, government, and societal mores. A failure occurs somewhere, which brings down something else, which brings down two other something elses, and perhaps quite literally in the blink of an eye, you are faced with a growing complex of problems beyond the ability of any one human to understand or contain.

We've seen small-scale examples of this before; Part 1 of The Hacker Crackdown goes into some detail about the 1990 AT&T phone network collapse.

I've always been a bit dubious of this theory. It's not intrinsically bad, but the truth is all software and systems must have some fault tolerance in them, because in reality, faults happen all the time. As I write this, my office has just experienced 6 straight days of faulty internet connection, and yet, our world has failed to end. We've got problems, but every bit of software we use already knows it has to be able to deal with problems like that. Only a few things were confused by the exact nature of the network failure, and even those were non-fatal. Deliveries will be late, networks will be down, contracts will be violated, only the truly foolhardy fail to make plans for those eventualities... unless....

Read the rest...

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