Archive for the 'Other' Category

Bad, bad journalism

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

This here is some really bad journalism from CNN:

(CNN) — A jury awarded $2.5 million in damages on Friday to a Kentucky teenager who was severely beaten by members of a Ku Klux Klan group because they mistakenly thought he was an illegal Latino immigrant, the Southern Poverty Law Center said.

The jury found that the Imperial Klans of America and its founder wrongfully targeted 16-year-old Jordan Gruver, an American citizen of Panamanian and Native-American descent.

Yes, because the Klansmen’s actions would’ve otherwise been acceptable had the teenager actually been an illegal immigrant, right? They lost the case because of bad targeting, not because of hate-based egregious assault, eh?

A philosophy of ethics in the age of digital intelligences

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

I think about the future a lot. Okay, that’s a lie — I think about the future all the time. I place the blame on the vast quantity of science fiction books I read during my formative years. But it really has been the highest privilege imaginable to watch the future unfold right before my eyes these past twenty-three years, even if it hasn’t always happened quite as we imagined it would. And the best part is, it’s a privilege that never ends! Just looking at what’s on my desk right now, I have 500 GB of storage in a hand-portable format. Take that back to just one decade ago and no one would even believe it.

The encroachment of the future upon the present has been occurring at an accelerating rate, too fast for any single person to keep up with it all. Take any given scientific field — only the experts in it are even aware of all of the groundbreaking research, while people outside that field are entirely clueless (witness the recent unfounded public backlash against the Large Hadron Collider, for instance). This lag time between initial discovery and general synthesis of knowledge isn’t getting any shorter, even as new inventions continue coming along at a breakneck pace. It’s a recipe for severe discrepancies between disparate areas of knowledge.

One area we haven’t normalized with scientific progress yet is ethics. Our legal system, for example, is built entirely around the assumption that humans are the only intelligent actors. Harm inflicted against humans is thus either caused by other humans (whether intentionally or not), by accident, or by nature. The latter two do not merit punishments (though in some cases compensation is awarded), while the first category is dealt with mainly through punishments that are geared to work on people, such as incarceration. But as computers continually grow exponentially more powerful according to Moore’s Law, the categories begin to break down.

Look at the case of Robert Williams, an automotive factory stockroom worker who in 1979 became the world’s first robot fatality when a robot’s arm, entirely lacking in any sort of safeguard, smacked into him at full speed, killing him instantly. The courts (rightfully) considered that robot as a simple tool, and the jury found the robot’s manufacturers negligent and awarded Williams’ family $10 million. Even today, robot fatalities are dealt with in the same manner: they are either declared to be entirely accidental, or the manufacturer of the robot is found to be at fault. They have yet to find the robot itself, acting intelligently and on its own, to be at fault.

Read the rest of this entry »

Random awesome link of the day

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

Man, I’d love to go see the Banaeu Rice Terraces in person some day. Unreal. Just look at that panoramic photograph in full screen.

$2 bills are NOT rare. Go out and spend them

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

I like spending $2 bills. A lot. I suppose I’m a bit of a currency eccentric (I also like $1 coins and do the whole Where’s George thing). I find $2 bills a lot more convenient than $1 bills, since they take up half the space in your wallet for the same dollar amount and the “worst” that can happen from not having $1s is that you get a single $1 bill in addition to some coins as change. I don’t particularly believe in carrying around larger denominations, as I mostly use cash for buying food and I frequently run into situations where no one can break a larger denomination bill (say, a coworker has gone and brought back lunch). So at the very least $2 bills are efficient for my purposes.

But spending $2 bills is also some good clean real life trolling fun. The average cashier will go months if not years without seeing a single $2 bill, so spending many at once gets all sorts of fun reactions. I’ve never not had one accepted, but I have gotten lots of flabbergasted cashiers wondering why I’m spending bills that are “rare”. Well, that is at least a misconception I can clear up.

In recent decades, the US Treasury has printed $2 Federal Reserve notes many times, spanning series years of 1976, 1995, 2003, and 2003A. The most recent printing of the 2003A series was in September 2006 (note that series year and year of actual printing can diverge by many years), and the total print run of the 2003A series was 221 million bills. That’s almost enough for every American to have one. So $2 bills are still in print, they’re not rare, and they’re only ever worth above face value if there’s something unusual about them (just like with all other bills). There’s absolutely no reason not to spend them. And if supplies of them ever run low for whatever reason, the Federal Reserve will be more than happy to print more!

All it takes to get $2 bills is to go to the bank and ask for some. Believe me, they’re more than happy to get rid of the ones they have, because they tend to languish untouched in bank register drawers for months on end. The last time I was at the bank I only got 100 $2 bills, but the cashier was practically begging me to take the rest of the ones they had. And if the bank is out of $2 bills, they should be able to order you some more. I had to do this once when my regular bank completely ran out of $2 bills, and as a nice bonus, the bills that I got were completely new, uncirculated, and with sequential serial numbers.

So I suppose there’s one last question to address: if the $2 bill is so infrequently seen in real life that most people mistakenly think that the bill itself is rare, why does the US Treasury still bother printing them? There’s a one-word answer to that: seignorage! Seignorage is the profit that the Mint makes on the difference between how much the currency costs to produce (in the case of bills, a few cents) and its face value ($2 in the case of the $2 bill, obviously) if the currency is taken out of circulation. The Treasury makes comparatively little in seignorage on $1 bills, because they’re so incredibly common that hardly anyone intentionally takes them out of circulation by saving them. But $2 bills go out of circulation very frequently due to to people saving them and then never spending them, so the Treasury makes a pretty penny.

So the next time you’re at the bank, ask the teller for some $2 bills and then actually go out and spend them. They’re a great way to strike up random conversations as you’re buying things (which is otherwise a very boring process). Waiters love receiving them as tips. And they truly are the most beautiful of any of the bills currently in circulation, with Thomas Jefferson on the front (what a cool dude) and the signing of the Declaration of Independence on the back. Eye-pyramid of the Illuminati, eat your heart out!

Getting nostalgic for stop signs

Thursday, August 21st, 2008

Is anyone else getting nostalgic for stop signs? Oh, I’m not talking about the everyday stop sign, the kind that is unnecessarily put at any intersection between two small suburban streets. I’m talking about the real stop sign, the kind on an intersection between busy streets that actually requires that vehicles stop. At the stop signs I’m interested in, having multiple vehicles at the intersection at once isn’t a rarity, it’s the norm. These real stop signs used to be a lot more abundant in number, but they’ve been whittled away at over the years, being replaced with traffic lights.

Why am I nostalgic about stop signs, you might ask? Because they create actual human interaction on the road, which is so rare these days where nearly every real crossing is minded by mechanical masters. Following a colored signal on a box in the sky is a menial task an unskilled robot could do. But tracking every car in queue at an intersection and negotiating who has the right of way next — that requires human interaction. And it creates a feel-good feeling too, graciously letting others that arrived at the stop sign before you proceed ahead, then receiving that same courtesy in turn when it is your turn to go. Stop signs restore faith in humanity. And they even restore faith in human intelligence, as it’s especially nice when more sophisticated coordination occurs and more than two vehicles pass through the intersection simultaneously — for example, two cars in one set of opposite roads making rights and then two cars in the other set of opposite roads making lefts.

The best stop sign intersection I’m aware of is at the corner of Edgewood Rd. and Rhode Island Ave. in College Park, MD. Edgewood Rd. has a median down the center of it, and each of its faces onto the intersection is two vehicles across. This allows the negotiation of some nice simultaneous intersection crossings with more than four vehicles, the kind that are pretty much only handled by traffic lights anywhere else. The dance as as a long line of cars during rush hour make a nice, orderly crossing of the intersection is a sight to behold. And I’m going to cherish that intersection as much as possible, because inevitably the county is going to come through and put up a traffic light at some point, ruining all of the magic and taking just another tiny step toward removing all human interaction from our journeys on the road.

Random scifi thought

Tuesday, June 10th, 2008

Just to give you a peek into my frequently absurd musings, ponder this situation:

Assuming full-body holography becomes possible, will it be considered rape if an ugly man uses the technology to impersonate a good-looking man and has a one-night stand with a woman who would never consider having sex with the real him? Certainly there’s a large element of deception here, but does it rise to the level of rape?

Someone wants to get rich the easy way

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

In my idle time I occasionally like to over-analyze some of the visitor stats of this blog. One could go crazy trying to find a hidden meaning in the random traffic fluctuations, so instead I focus on the search engine terms that bring people to this site. They can be funny at times. Sure, there are lots of kids searching for Zwinky (which I wrote about awhile back). There are always lots of searches for space that somehow manage to find my post on space debris. And the Russian hiker mystery has been a popular topic since I first wrote about it.

But all of these search results are pedestrian. Yesterday, however, someone came to my blog on the search term “how to marry rich”. Presumably they’re finding my blog entry commenting on a ridiculous article on MSNBC about how to marry the ultra-rich. But reading that short blog post, I realized I never cut loose and expressed how I really feel about the topic. For the purposes of this blog post I’m going to be talking about female gold diggers, because a man getting really rich by marriage is a much rarer occurrence (in more ways than one).

If your goal in life is nothing more than to marry someone who’s rich and have everything taken care of without having to put in any work on your own beyond landing the rich guy, you’re basically admitting that you have no value to society, and the only worthwhile aspects to you are your looks and your “charm”. The vast majority of people who succeed in life do it on their own merits by putting in hard work to make a decent living for themselves. The number of people who are able to circumvent that process and just leech off of someone else’s success is very small (much smaller than it used to be when many women didn’t work). It’s hardly a goal worth aspiring to.

Sure, trophy wives may lead comfortable lives, but very few people respect them. They took the easy way out. They cheated. Sure, they live in large houses and drive expensive cars, but what about their self-esteem? It would drag me down every day just knowing that I never really did anything with my life. “Trophy wife” is an insult instead of a term of endearment for a reason — although society doesn’t prohibit people marrying for money, it sure as hell looks down upon it. Can you really be proud of yourself knowing that the only thing separating you from a hobo out on the street is that you managed to land a rich guy?

The basic fabric of society is structured around rewarding those who put in work. Obviously it wouldn’t work any other way. Don’t want to be a hobo? Get a job and make something of yourself. Want a nice car? Ditto. But marrying for money is circumventing that whole system. Trophy wives are a drain on society. They’re nothing more than a glorified call girl with a clientèle list of one (if they’re faithful) — because let’s be honest, they’re trading sex, their looks, and their wombs to a man in exchange for leeching off his income for the rest of their life without actually contributing to society.

And it goes nearly without saying that someone querying Google on how to marry rich is not the kind of person who is going to be successful at it. Hopefully that person who was searching for tips on the easy way out of marrying rich will meet with complete failure, return to Google in a couple month’s time to repeat the query, and then find themselves here reading this.

And you thought our legal system was bad

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

In 1396, a dispute between two rival clans in Scotland was settled with armed combat. Thirty men from each side fought in the crown-sanctioned battle. Only twelve survived.

Just be thankful we don’t have the judicial concept of trial by combat anymore.

Possible resolution to the 9 dead Russian hikers mystery

Sunday, March 9th, 2008

In 1959, nine Russian hikers died in an extremely unlikely set of circumstances. I shan’t rehash everything here, so do read the linked post. But I happened to be hanging out with my friend Greg last weekend and he imparted to me an interesting theory he had about what caused the deaths of the Russian hikers. It seems plausible to me, much more plausible than anything I came up with (and certainly better than the laughable alien theories).

Russia entered the nuclear era with a bang, not a whimper. They saw nuclear technology as the next revolution in generating electricity. As such, they strove to use it everywhere, even when the safety concerns would seemingly override the value of using nuclear (but that’s Communist Russia for you). In particular, Russia employed a great number of Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators (RTGs). The particular model they used was about one meter by one meter by two meters, small enough to fit in pretty much any building. It generated energy not by conducting full-scale atomic fission like in a nuclear reactor but by harnessing the heat given off by the radioactive decay of Strontium 90. It’s the same technology we use to power our spacecraft which journey far away from the Sun (beyond the usefulness limit of solar panels).

The U.S.S.R. employed up to a thousand RTGs that we know of, many in remote lighthouses and navigation beacons. They are slowly being phased out with solar cells and battery packs today, but that technology wasn’t around in the 50s. All they had were the RTGs. And while the radioisotope source in the RTGs is theoretically well-encapsulated inside of a double layer stainless steel, aluminum, and lead casing, it’s easily possible for anyone with tools to gain access to the inside, inadvertently exposing themselves to a deadly dose of radiation.

With all of the background on RTGs taken care of, we return to the case of the nine dead Russian hikers. It is Greg’s theory that they stumbled across an RTG (which is not at all impossible given how widely they were used). The RTG was broken open, either by the hikers themselves, some outside actor, or a simple manufacturing defect. It was giving off heat and the hikers took it back to their tent to keep warm with, possibly mistaking it for some kind of heater. When they realized the true nature of it, probably after experiencing the onset of radiation sickness, they departed their tent in a hurry, stopping not even to put on their clothing.

Read the rest of this entry »

The World War I era is about to draw to a close

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

We’re drawing very close to the end of an era. The United States only has one remaining living soldier who served in World War I. He’s 107 years old. I’ll be blunt: he’s going to die soon, and with it, the World War I era will draw to a close. It will eventually be consigned to the history books, much like the Revolutionary War is today.

My dad tells stories of how, when he was young, some of the last living Civil War soldiers would be paraded through town on holidays. Although I’ll never be able to say I saw any World War I veterans in parades, I will at least be able to tell my children that I was around at the same time as them. That’s a powerful connection to the past. It makes it more meaningful than if you just read it in a history book. The Revolutionary War is long dead and we only consider it in the realm of history, but the Civil War was recent enough that many people living today remember having seen or met people who fought in it. World War I will retain that quasi-contemporary status for awhile longer, but its primacy participants will all be dead within a maximum of a few years.

So take the time to form a permanent memory of a time when World War I veterans still walked the Earth. Your chances are running out.