Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Sometimes I think that Starbucks sets up their menu so that it’s impossible to order a drink without sounding like a complete idiot. Or maybe it isn’t their fault; we could blame the Italians. Either way, it’s a problem. Even foregoing the effete names like “venti”, “ristresso” and “macchiato”, the drink names themselves are so long and complicated, and the baristas correct you in a passive-aggressive way if you get them wrong. I think there’s a better way.

Essentially, the name of a drink encodes a variety of choices. What size? What kind of milk? What temperature? And so on. Encoding those choices as words is actually fairly inefficient: were this a computer, we’d encode them as a bit vector and be done with it. Actually, this is a computer! Let’s try it.

Now, don’t get scared. A bit vector is actually a pretty simple thing — it’s just a bunch of bits — number that are either one or zero — all laid together in a line. For example, here’s one: 01001101. Here’s another one: 10010110. See? They’re not too scary. Of course, they’re not very useful if we don’t know what the different bits mean, so let’s figure out how we’d use them to describe overpriced coffee drinks.

First, we can say that the first bit tells us if the drink is hot or cold. 1 means hot and 0 means cold. Then let’s use the second and third bits to tell us how big the drink is. 00 means short, 01 is tall, 10 is grande and 11 is venti. Lastly (for now), the next two bits will tell us what kind of milk: 00 for nonfat, 01 for percent, 10 for regular and 11 for breve. We’ll assemble these right to left, just like normal numbers, so a hot tall nonfat latte would be 00011. Just to be clear, the rightmost bit is 1, meaning hot, the next two are 01, meaning tall, and the leftmost two are 00, meaning nonfat. Similarly, an iced venti breve would be 11110 and a hot grande percent would be 01101:

Of course, real drinks are far more complicated than just size, milk and temperature. There’s syrup, foam, blended drinks, tea, caffeine and tons of other geegaws and gimcracks to consider. It’s not as if that’s a barrier to coming up with the appropriate bit vector — the technique we’ve already used can be applied to any number of variables with great ease. The problem is that once you’ve worked out the details for all of those parameters, you end up with 20 or 30 bits, and I don’t think rattling off 30 “one”s and “zero”s is any better than “quad trenta light-foam half-caf sugar-free hazelnut nonfat latte with chocolate syrup on top”, although it’s not much worse.

The cool thing is that a bit vector is also a binary number, and so can be expressed as a number in any number base. Any higher number base is going to use fewer glyphs to express the same quantity, and so the resulting numbers will be shorter. For example, the binary code for the drink described above might be “1000110010010111001000100”; the decimal representation of that is “18427460”. Much shorter, although still a mouthful and difficult to remember.

There are other number bases than binary and decimal, though. In fact, you can make up any one you like, and you can use any glyphs you like to represent any quantities you like. As long as you keep track of what’s what, it’s always possible to make and use such number bases. For example, you could make a base-26 system that used A for 0 and Z for 25. If you did that, then numbers would look like words, or at least like jumbles of letters. The number we’ve been dealing with, in this system, would be “BOILOM”. Now that’s succinct.

For an example of what I’m talking about, AJ Naff helped me set up a website to demonstrate the process. You can either dial up your favorite drink and see what word comes out. You can also enter a word and see what kind of drink it means.

So how would this be used? Customers could use a website to dial up the kind of drink they’d like to order and then just say those 3 to 6 letters to the barista the next time they visited the store. A computer would decode it for them and then they could make the drink like usual. Customers could continue to order in the normal way of course, but this approach could speed things up for regular customers. You could also print the code for a drink on the receipt so that people could learn for the next time.

Now the system on display on my website isn’t what a real version of the system would look like. For starters, it’s incomplete in many ways, as I’m not especially well-versed in the details of the Starbucks menu. Once the full representation was complete, there are some other things you can do in order to improve it:

  • You might remove some letters that can get confused, like either O or Q, or letters that sound like each other when spoken, like V or B. This would tend to increase word length, but it would increase clarity in communication.
  • You’d certainly want to order the bits in the vector to make more common drinks have shorter words, by putting more common options in the less-significant bits.
  • If you don’t mind giving up the concept that these are real “words”, you can add numbers or other symbols to the character set, which would tend to reduce word length.
  • You might add two or three extra bits into the bit vector that don’t have any meaning to the decoded value, so that if a particular drink order ends up spelling a bad word, you can shuffle them and generate something else without changing the order.
  • You could version the entire bit vector structure with 2, 3 or even 4 header bits, allowing future-proofing against potential requirements to invalidate old versions of the system.
  • You don’t have to use the alphabet in order as the numbering system. You could endeavour to construct a letter ordering which would make very popular drinks spell out real words.
  • Alternately, you could use the shuffle bits and the “bad word” blocker to make certain words never generate from the tools, but allow them as inputs in particular marketing campaigns. However, overuse of this would discourage customer exploration of the word-space.

OK, OK, I got a little bit technical there. And this is really a fairly ridiculous idea, anyhow, but I wrote an algortihm to test the actual word length you could get from this and then I just decided to make a web toy out of it.

And all that fills the hearts of friends,

The MPAA movie rating system (you know, PG-13, R, all that stuff) really sucks.  There are certainly plenty of people who think so, at least, from all sides of the political spectrum .  I personally object to them because I feel they demonize sex — especially homosexual sex –and concern themselves overmuch with counting swear words while ignoring important issues of tone and intent.  Others, like the folks at CAPAlert, dislike the ratings board for a set of reasons almost diametrically opposed to my own and of course innumerable other groups and individuals have their own reasons for complaint. The funny thing is, while we’re all right that the ratings systems sucks, we’re all wrong about how to fix it.

Everyone’s goal is to have a ratings system that represents their moral viewpoint.  But let’s say one of us wins our battle and gets the ratings board to adopt new criteria; for every person better-represented by the new rules, another person is now less-represented.  Every victory by one viewpoint results in an increased energy of opposition from those holding the opposite opinion.  While it’s easy for me to just say, “I’m right and they’re wrong,” and to be happy when my side’s winning and angry when it isn’t, that isn’t a real solution.  It’s just a culture war, which can never be won as long as there are people left to fight it. 

This is all exacerbated by the fact that the ratings board has real, significant, power over content in films.  Because a film’s rating determines its earning power, Hollywood movies are made very carefully to conform to the morality of the ratings board, because movies that push the line too much can be effectively removed from the marketplace by an NC-17 rating.  Thus, this isn’t just a philosophical question about the proper application of liberality in movie ratings; the ratings board can stop movies from being made, and they’re doing so on behalf of whatever segment of the population happens to be represented by the 10 people who sit on the board.

You’re probably thinking that I’m sidling up to the old “get rid of ratings” argument.  It’s just not possible, however.  Movies are powerful things; they’re not like books or plays, where the story is far away and abstract.  Movies have immediacy, they get in your face.  People, especially children, can be physically affected by a bad experience in a movie.  Since not every person can be a film critic and have an educated understanding of what’s in a movie they’re about to see, they need some kind of simple, easy-to-use rating system that will let people make informed decisions about the movies they’re going to see.

We have a broken system that we can’t get rid of.  We’re not going to stop going to movies, so we’re like the gambling addict who keeps going back to play in a game he knows is rigged.  Why go if he knows they’re cheating?  It’s the only game in town!  The MPAA ratings board is the only game in town, and we can’t help but keep going back.  The answer, then, is to get more ratings boards.  Lots more.

We open ratings to the people.  Anybody could submit ratings for any movie, on any scale, based on any criteria, come to by any process.  The MPAA would still contribute a rating to this system, just as it does today.  The Catholic church might contribute ratings, blessed by the Pope.  I might put together a group of like-minded people to contribute a rating that I agreed with.

People could even get more specific, rating only certain aspects of movies instead of just general suitability for children.  We might see a firearms hobbyist group putting out ratings describing how many people are killed by guns in the movie.  A feminist group might put out a misogyny rating, or an educational group might rate a movie on how scientifically accurate it is.

Now, this may seem complicated; each movie may have dozens of different ratings.  And while it does complicate things a little bit, we can use technology to mitigate the worst of the effect.  The idea is, a potential movie watcher would spend some time up-front looking into the different available ratings boards and decide on a few that they felt fit their moral and political views.  Configuration options on theatrical websites and smart phone apps would let people see only those ratings they’d chosen, giving each person a totally customized preview of the movies they have to choose from.

So the first problem is solved; ratings would no longer be one-dimensional and unilateral.  They would cover the spectrum of ideas and opinions and be shaped by market forces instead of by fiat.  These ratings could still prevent certain movies from being made, as consumers would use the ratings to decide which movies to see.  The most popular ratings system would have enough power to financially ruin a movie by giving it a bad rating, so studios would continue to tailor movies to match those rating criteria.  Of course, the most popular ratings system is, by definition, the one accepted by the largest number of people, and as public opinion shifted, either the number one rating would change it criteria, or the public would choose a new rating to use.

It’s entirely possible that the MPAA’s ratings would turn out to be the most popular.  In that case, I guess, they could turn and laugh at us for doubting them.  But in reality, the market-shaped rating system that would emerge from such an ecosystem would probably differ from the MPAA system in a variety of unpredictable ways.  The broad strokes wouldn’t change: violent and sexual movies still wouldn’t be appropriate for kids, and Hollywood wouldn’t suddenly start making pornography. The decision about what constitutes pornography, though, wouldn’t any longer be made by 8 people in a room in Hollywood; it’d be made collectively by every movie consumer in the country.

I’m not kidding about this idea.  It would work if put into practice, and if it turns out nobody else is already doing something like this, then I’m going to set it up myself.  I’d love to hear from people, if you think this is a good idea too, or if you can foresee some flaws in it, or if you want to help out.

Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power

Last month, I came across ABEBooks’ Weird Book Room, a delightful collection of amusingly outdated, crazy, niche or otherwise just plain unusual books. I mentioned on Facebook that I’d be delighted to receive any one of those books as a present, a comment which was intended mainly to compliment whomever had put together the list. I was (and remain) amazed and delighted that the list contains not even one book that doesn’t pique my curiosity in some way.

However, some people read into the statement some kind of request for actual gifts, and a few of those people even talked about getting me some of those books for real! I found myself, again, amazed and delighted. Alas, I was to be mostly disappointed, as these things tend to go. However, my wonderful cousin Casey did follow through and gave me a copy of Daniel H. Wilson’s How to Survive a Robot Uprising.

First of all, it’s a beautiful book. The cover’s a heavier-than-usual cardboard with a glossy finish and metallic highlights. The pages are all also gloss heavy-bond paper and are liberally decorated with stylized 4-color illustrations of the book’s concepts. In a nice touch, the pages are all gilt-edged in a red-metallic finish. It’s nice to see such an imaginative book design — it’s clear that someone cared about the project.

Wilson is a roboticist at Carnegie Mellon, and as such knows quite a bit of the state of the art in robot design and capabilities. The main intent of the book, it seemed to me, is to give a broad overview of the state of the art in robotics engineering, paired with humorous comments about what part these technologies will play in the inevitably upcoming robot uprising. I will note that the book is from 2005, and 6 years is a while in any technological field. While most of the stuff he talks about is still relevant, most of his examples of the “next big thing” are today more-or-less commonplace. It doesn’t affect the enjoyment of the book at all, though.

He begins the book by going over the broad different types of robots that might take part in the uprising. He starts with examples of robots based on biological forms: humans, snakes, insects and even lobsters. While this kind of thing is most of what I used to think about when I thought about robots, Wilson presents an array of robot types that I’d never considered before.

He makes compelling arguments for both the smart house and smart cars as possible co-conspirators in the robot revolt. Unmanned planes fly missions every day in the modern military, and those are robots too, as are unmanned submarines and the generally less-successful unmanned automatic boats. He even talks about modular robots, which instead of being a single mechanism are actually a collection of organized sub-mechanisms that work together — like a bunch of minimally-aware, motile LEGO bricks which can assemble themselves into whatever configuration is optimal for the task at hand.

During all of this discussion, Wilson gives tips on how to divert, avoid or destroy robots of different types. Humanoid robots can be tripped; robotic cars can be fooled by thick bushes, which they might not be able to differentiate from walls; modular robots’ communications and linkages can be fouled with oil or sand. He also inserts a good amount of humor: at one point he suggests that a smart house might try to kill you by refusing to cook dinner until you “inspect the oven.”

Next Wilson moves on to a discussion of the different sensors robots might use to help find and kill us all. He defines sensors as devices which “convert a property of the physical world into an electrical symbol.” This includes the obvious stuff like cameras for vision, microphones to hear, and chemical sensors for smell and taste, as well as more esoteric devices such as laser range-finders, GPS systems and thermal imagers. One very interesting example is the hyperspectral camera, which examines a great range of different types of light and is able to see through the outer layers of your skin, allowing robot overlords to identify humans unerringly by the unique patterns of blood vessels in their faces.

In the final section concerning the robots themselves, he talks about machine intelligence: how robots process the data coming in from their sensors. He discusses facial recognition, silhouette recognition and speech recognition and gait recognition, going into the broad strokes of how they work and into more detail on how they can be fooled. For example, gait recognition (recognizing and identifying people by how they walk) can be fooled by wearing a skirt or long coat; talking through a fan will “chop up” your speech enough to fool most artificial speech processors but will still be easily understandable by humans; covering yourself in cool mud (ala Predator) can fool infrared cameras; and so on.

Now that we know what robots are made of, Wilson goes into greater depth about what the robot uprising will look like and how we can survive in both the turbulent early days as well as the oppressed aftermath. The advice is pretty intuitive: first, be prepared; second, be aware and recognize the uprising as soon as (or before) it begins; finally, make your escape quickly and without hesitation.

For preparations, he suggests building an electronics-free “safe room” in your house, and having a good cache of food and survival gear available no matter where you live. Signs of the revolt may include a “sudden lack of interesting in menial labor”, “repetitive ‘stabbing’ motions”, and mysteriously disabled off switches. One escape plan he mentions involves pushing your erstwhile servant into the swimming pool and making your getaway, into the wilderness, on a bicycle.

As before, avoiding detection after your escape is a matter of confounding the relatively simple sensing systems of the robots. Live in the wild to hinder pursuit by machines that are unable to negotiate rough terrain; build your shelter in the side of the hill so that it presents no silhouette and use natural materials with few sharp angles, both of which will be difficult for artificial image processors to recognize. If you want to stay in the urban areas and work to overthrow the mechanical overlords, stay around lots of rubble to confuse sensors and don’t use electronics which will emit fields that can be picked up by the robots.

Finally, he talks about fighting back; using EMP bombs and directed-energy weapons to disrupt the robots’ systems as well as using tradition guns to target weak points in the robots’ structure, such as the joints and the external sensors. In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter; there’s very little we can do about a determined robot overthrow, but it’s fun to think about in any case.

One of my favorite themes of the book is the idea that our advantage over the robots lies in the basic different between our origins. Robots are created things and thus are generally only good at only specific tasks; they’re incredibly simple when compared to the massively complex evolved things which humans are. The arduous path of our evolution has left with us a great number of abilities which are of limited or no use in day-to-day life but can be critically important when they are the only differentiator between ourselves and a murderous machine.

While there are few single things that a machine can’t do as well or better than a human being, there is no single machine which can even come close to matching the variety of abilities possessed by even the most average human being. Science fiction robots might be ultimately superior to humans, but the ones we have today are all purpose-built and designed to perform specific tasks in specific environments. As such, the real key to survival is to recognize which thing it is that the particular robot you’re dealing with can’t do, and use it to your advantage.

A snake robot can climb through small holes and go up any tree, but on a flat-out, a human will outrun it every time. A vengeful smart car can run down a human in that same flat-out without any trouble, but even a 2-foot deep hole will stop one dead in its tracks. The modular robot may seem to be the least vulnerable to this kind of problem, but their design means that the interior of their mechanism is exposed to the outside world every time they have to reconfigure their shape, and you can take that to your advantage just as easily.

So, the moral of the story is, know your robots, know their weaknesses and exploit them as best you can, and you’ll be one of the lucky ones who ends up living in a steampunk rave club at the center of the earth. And thanks again for the book Casey; we’ll have to do another book exchange next year! You still have to let me know how Summer with the Leprechauns turned out.

So goodly won, with her own will beguil’d.

Tonight, insomniacal, I was reading a Dick Francis novel, Smokescreen, written in 1972. It represents some of his journeyman work: competently written, showing some sign of the ideas he would develop more in his later novels, but not as much of the polish and panache. The writing does expose an interesting insight into 70s fashion, however:

He was wearing another pair of painted-on trousers, and a blue ruffled close-fitting shirt with lacing instead of buttons. As casual clothes, they were as deliberate as signposts: the rugged male in his sexual finery.

Later, a woman arrives:

She arrives like a gust of bright and breezy show biz, wearing an eye-stunning yellow catsuit, which flared widely from the knees in black-edged ruffles. She looked like a flamenco dancer split up the middle, and she topped up the impression with a high tortoise-shell mantilla comb pegged like a tiara into her mop of hair.

And finally, the temptress:

The girl was ravishing, with cloudy dark hair and enormous slightly myopic-looking eyes. She wore a soft floaty garment, floor length and green, which swirled and lay against her as she moved, outlining now a hip, now a breast, and all parts in quite clearly good shape.

Her outfit is the least repellent in the mind’s eye primarily because it’s not described in much detail. The temptress and our narrator end up on the couch:

Melanie just happened to sit beside me on the tiger-skin sofa, stretching out languorously so that the green material revealed the whole slender shape. Just happened to have no lighter of her own, so that I had to help her with Roderick’s orange globe table model.

Just so you don’t think I’m reading a bunch of smut, this is a very atypical seduction scene in an otherwise largely bloodless mystery novel. It isn’t even very badly written, regardless of how tawdry these sections may seem, out of context. What I love about it is that these people are presented without any surprise or shock on the part of the narrator; these clothes are clearly entirely acceptable to him. In juxtaposition with the rest of the book, which could just as easily have been set today instead of 40 years ago, it’s a jarring and hilarious reminder of how far we’ve come in so short a time.

His little, nameless, unremembered, acts

Last year I blogged pretty regularly about my reading, which was at least interesting to do if not to read.  This year, due to some technical problems, time constraints, and a general pall of laziness, I did not keep up with it at all.  I did read and I kept my database updated, but I never managed to finish a blog update.  Maybe I’ve been saving up until now.

Continue reading

with him, bruises, streaks of old abrasions, chunks

I had a doctor I went to regularly when I lived in the southern part of Seattle, but since I moved up north I haven’t been able to find someone that I like. I’ve only needed to visit the doctor a few times; each time I try a new one I’m disappointed in some way and decide not to go back. It’s possible I’m a little bit too picky (people who know me are snickering at this, no doubt) but I figure there are enough doctors out there that I can afford to be.

Thus it came to pass that when I had my recent appendix situation, I visited a doctor I’d never met before. I liked him a lot; he was very personable and funny, and he explained the purpose and intent behind the different pokes and prods that went into his diagnosis. More importantly, he correctly identified my appendicitis quickly and was very clear that I had to go to the ER right away. While I think it would be a stretch to say that he saved my life with his astute diagnosis, he certainly helped me get the situation under control quickly and with a minimum of hassle and discomfort.

The only reservation I had about him came from his business card, which I grabbed from his office on the way out to the ER, in case the doctors there needed to know his name. After getting home from the hospital, I came across it in my jacket pocket, and noticed that under his name was the word “Homeopath”. I was shocked; he had seemed like a real doctor! He worked in an office building, had two receptionists and took my temperature with a digital thermometer. I didn’t really know what was going on, so I decided not to veto him on such a small thing, but rather discuss it with him the next time I was in to see him.

Which brings us up to the present. My knee’s been hurting lately, so I went to see him yesterday afternoon to have him look at it. While waiting in the front office, I took a look at his business cards, mainly to remind myself if they said “homeopath” or “homeopathy”, and was amazed to see that they said “family practice”. I wasn’t sure what to think, so when the time came I tried to approach the situation with as little bias as possible; I told him about the two business cards and simply expressed my confusion. He explained that he has two business cards, and that he must have accidentally given me the homeopathy one on my previous visit. My worst fears realized, I gritted my metaphorical teeth and asked him, with all innocence, what he could tell me about the subject.

The torrent of ridiculous codswallop that emerged from this man’s mouth was spectacular. He talked at me for over a half hour, telling me how exciting and special homeopathy was and how much he loved it. He told me about one patient who had chronic pain she described as “constricting”, for which he prescribed a preparation of python, neglecting to mention which part of the snake was used. Another patient had anxiety which she described as an “oval bug” attacking her with its legs and who complained of recurring dreams of her family dying in a house fire. For this he prescribed a preparation of “Coccinella Septempunctata”, or ladybug. (“Ladybg, ladybug, fly away home…”) Finally he told me about a schizophrenic patient he treated with a preparation of cannabis, because the patient described a fear of being separated from the universe and a sense of slow time.

I wish I was making this up. I wish I was creative enough to even be capable of making this up! His procedure seems to be to simply ask patients vague questions until they give him answers sufficiently specific to allow him to tie it back somehow to some kind of homeopathic preparation. Since he does this work at a naturopathic clinic (not, thankfully, from his “real doctor” office which I was visiting), his patients come predisposed to believe his rationales and the placebo effect makes many of them exhibit signs of a cure. Combined this with a healthy dose of confirmation bias and it makes the doctor feel like it’s something that really works. I eventually had to ask him for the name of a book just to get him to shut up.

So, long story short, I still need to find a regular doctor. Hopefully I’ll get lucky soon.

Oh, and for those who care, the problem with my knee is that I hyperextended either my right gastrocnemius. It probably happened when I was using a dangerously incompetent shoveling technique while digging a hole in my backyard. I’ve been icing it; it’s feeling a lot better.

Even Destiny her self seemed to enslave.

Recently, Science News reported (in a very poorly-named but otherwise well-written article) that scientists had smashed two gold atoms together in such a way to generate temperatures of over 4 trillion degrees, creating a "quark-gluon plasma".  The article doesn’t really cover in depth what that means, partly because its main audience is scientists and partly, I assume, because the topic is a little bit too complex to cover in the kind of space they have.  Since I labor under no such limitations, I thought I’d give a shot at a rough explanation.
If the phrase itself may sounds like some kind of Wonderland medical treatment, it’s because it comes out of a branch of physics that was pioneered by scientists who suffered from an acute surfeit of whimsy.  "Quarks" and "gluons" are small particles that make up neutrons and protons, the particles that themselves make up the nuclei of atoms.  It isn’t really important what they are, just think of them like tiny specks that live inside of atoms.  The more interesting term here is "plasma", and the meaning of that will make the whole phrase clear.

Plasma is is often called the fourth phase of matter, coming after three more everyday phases: solid, liquid and gas.  So, before we dive right into the deep end and talk about what plasma really is, let’s dip our toes into a short discussion of first three.  I won’t be discussing any particular material here, since any type of matter can be found in any phase, given the right conditions.  We may think of some substances as being gases, like helium or oxygen; some as being liquids, like mercury or water; and many others as being solids, but this is just because those substances tend to arrange themselves in those phases in the environments in which we spend most of our time.  For the rest of this discussion, I’ll just be discussing a sample of material as being made up of some number of "particles" which interact with one another.

The reason that we see distinct phases in matter and not gradual transitions between phases is that a material’s phase depends on the kind of forces that dominate interaction between its constituent particles.  For example, in a solid the particles are held together with electron bonds, a very strong kind of attraction that operates only over a very short distance.  This means both that it’s difficult to pull the individual particles apart, and that they tend to be held in rigid shape with relation to one another, giving solids their particular properties.  Different materials have different strength electron bonds, so it takes different amount of energy to pull particles away from one another.  A material like ice has relatively weak electron bonds and maintains solidity only in relative coldness.  Helium has an even weaker electron bond, maintaining solidity only at extremely high pressures and low temperatures.  Steel, on the other hand, has extremely strong electron bonds, requiring immense temperatures to melt.  But, if you just get it hot enough, eventually the individual particles start to move out of the range of the electron bond, and even a metal will melt into a liquid.

In the liquid phase, the rigid electron bonds have given up the ghost, but there are still a number of attractive forces keeping things roughly together.  These forces operate over a longer range than the electron bond, so individual particles have more freedom to move around, but they still hold relatively strongly, so liquids have a surface tension and tend to stay together in one unit. The nature and strength of these forces determines the viscosity of the liquid, so mercury and other liquid metals tend to run slowly due to the powerful metallic interactions while water is very thin due to the weak hydrogen bonds holding its molecules together.  As with the electron bonds, these forces have limited range and can be further overcome if the constituent particles move with more energy, which can be caused either by increasing temperature or lowering pressure.  Once particles have broken free from the bonds holding them together, there is no other force holding it in place, so it drifts free; the liquid evaporates.

In a gas, there is no overall force binding the particles together, so they simply move around in straight lines, bouncing off of one another, or whatever vessel contains them.  Not all gases are exactly the same: because the molecules do continue to interact with one another (wen they bounce), the exact nature of those interactions will differ depending on the makeup of the gas.  Thus, some gases will absorb heat more readily, others will be more or less resistant to objects moving through them, and so on.  However, there is no single overall force which defines the behavior of a gas; in fact, it’s this lack of overall binding force which defines that behavior best.

Now that we understand that the three everyday phases of matter exist because of different ways in which their constituent particles interact, we can turn our attention back to plasma.  Don’t confuse this with the plasma in your blood; the two things are entirely unrelated.  An early scientist who first described the phase-of-matter-plasma seems to have thought it looked like stuff-in-your-blood-plasma, so now we’re stuck with a confusing pair of names.  The more I learn about science, the more I realize that scientists really shouldn’t be allowed to name things.  In any case, like the other three phases, plasma is what it is because the molecules that make it up are interacting in a particular way.

A plasma is like a gas, in that there is no overall binding force holding its particles together.  However, a plasma is unlike a gas in that its particles don’t only interact when they happen to run into one another; they also interact at a distance via electromagnetic forces.  A plasma is also sometimes called an ionized gas, and is formed of particles which are not electrically neutral, but hold some overall electric charge, either positive or negative.  The consequences of this new manner of interaction are many, fascinating and far beyond the scope of this writing to explain, not to mention my ability to understand.  Plasmas come in many varieties: the sun is made of plasma, as are most flames.  Fluorescent lights contain a plasma when in operation and I even have a small plasma globe on my desk; it’s powered via USB from my computer.  We’re even looking at using very high temperature plasmas to generate electricity in fusion reactors.

But let’s get back to our quark-gluon plasma.  When the scientists slammed those gold atoms together at enormous speeds, it smashed the hell out of them — all of the protons and neutrons in those atomic nuclei smashed apart into the quarks and gluons that make them up.  Once the material was made up of just those two kinds of particles, another kind of force became dominant over the interactions between the constituent parts: the quantum "color force".  Again, we may roll our eyes at the prosaic nomenclature of modern physics.  The color force is a complicated 8-way interaction model that describes how quarks interact with one another in a gluon field, and while the details again aren’t important, it’s a kind of interaction we’ve never seen before because usually the quarks and gluons are tucked away inside of the atomic nucleus.  Thus, we see that the quark-gluon plasma is a fifth state of matter, governed by a new kind of interaction.  It isn’t really a kind of plasma, but the mathematics of the color force are similar in some ways to the mathematics of the electromagnetic force which governs normal plasmas, so there’s some sense is using the same term for it.

We don’t really have a good understand of the properties of this new phase of matter.  The sample created at Brookhaven lasted for only one trillionth of one trillionth of one second, so there wasn’t a lot of time to get really up-close and personal, but the measurements they were able to take while it was around gave them interesting data to use as input into some of the current theories of how this interaction works.  This kind of research might seem incredibly esoteric, which is because it is, but the fact is that this kind of basic research into the fundamental nature of the makeup of the universe can someday serve to give us better understanding and control of the reality we inhabit.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

I was watching News Radio just now, which for those of you who might not remember was a sitcom in the mid-to-late 90s. It’s not a great show, but it has a mostly great cast and some good moments. Also I got it for cheap.

The episodes I watched tonight originally aired in April of 1996. Given that time frame, there were two lines in those two episodes that I found interesting to consider from our current perspective. The first was (roughly), “You can’t take something off of the internet; it’s like trying to take pee out of a swimming pool. Once it’s out there, it’s out there.”

This is a very well-put and not-obvious truth. We, now, know this fact very well, but at that time I don’t think it was very widely understood. To see so prescient an idea spoken about with such eloquence, and on a mid-ranked sitcom, no less!

The second comment was not as prescient, but it still makes us think about how far we’ve come in our thinking about computers. Someone is given advice: “You don’t want to delete your file until you’re sure you have a hard copy.” When was the last time you deleted a file from your computer because you had it on hard copy? We delete files we don’t need any more, but the ones we do need, we keep them on the computer.

Back then, the computer was a tool for creating pieces of paper with writing on them. These pieces of paper were the artifact that contained the idea or the message. Today, the artifact is the file on the computer, and we only print to paper if we need to. We might use the paper to read on and mark up, or to bring with us if we need the information where a computer isn’t handy, or to hand out. In fact, we use the paper as a tool just like we used to use the computer as a tool.

Of course this isn’t true with all computer files. We still use software to create posters or magazines or books, and in that case we still think of the finished product as the thing and the file as the tool, but you don’t know how long that will last. It wasn’t long ago that physical photographs were the medium of transfer, but with today’s memory sticks and portable digital screens, that’s pretty much over already.

Both of the lines that I so liked were spoken by the character Joe Garrelli, played by Joe Rogan, longtime UFC fight commentator and host of the hit show, Fear Factor. So, you never know where it’s gonna come from.

P.S.: While trying to remind myself what the internet was like in 1996, I came across this page, which is wonderful and worth a read:

With harmony divine.

It’s been a while since I did a book project update. I blame work, mostly. Or myself. Either way, it’s been so long that this post is actually the last one for 2009. On the 14th, I finished reading Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s “The Shadow of the Wind”, which was my 120th book of the year. I also was able to do some math and make it work out that my page average this year was precisely 310 pages per book. Last year I really struggled at the end of the year to hit my more modest goal — this year I’m done 2 weeks early. Next year I’m going to still go for 10 books a month, but I’m going to bump my page average up to 330 per book. We’ll see how it goes. For those who care, here’s my final stats:

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