Friday, September 28, 2007

Northwest Passage

I wanna go on a cruise. Not just any cruise. In fact no cruise line has this route scheduled yet. I want to go on a cruise through the Northwest Passage. This trip has been a dream of sailors and cargo haulers since 1492 or thereabout.

A painting of a ship trapped in the ice. Most photos are of ships trapped in the Antarctic ice because sailors long ago learned not to fuck with the North Pole.
Photo lifted from

Contrary to popular opinion, as long as there have been sailing ships people have known that the world is round. Columbus was trying to get to the Indies not only for a trading route but also in hopes of finding an easy way to get behind the front lines of the Muslim armies trying to fight their way North from Gibraltar. Instead he found this huge sodding land mass in his way. In the decades and centuries that followed sailors started trying to find a way around this worthless lump of dirt. The way to the south was open but it was a really long way. They tried taking the rivers across America but that didn't work. They really wanted to take the northern route over North America. But even at the height of summer there was still ship crushing ice. Eventually they gave up. The Panama Canal was built as an alternative to the Northwest Passage or the trip around South America.

But a week or so ago the European Space Agency announced that their satellites have shown that the Northwest Passage has cleared. The glaciers have retreated and the ices have thinned that much.

A photo built by the European Space Agency from their satellite footage showing the open route.

As excited as I am this is not a good thing. Not just for the polar bears that can't catch seals or find a place to stand. Forming ice on existing ice is fairly easy. Forming ice on salt water is much less so. Russia/Soviet Union is so large, in part, because they had no open waterways in the summer. They had to conquer down to the Black Sea. The waterways to the north would close during the winter. Or, rather they used to. Their northern border is almost clear, too. But it was glaciers moving in that closed the route more than just being really bitter cold. The glaciers no longer advance. The fact that the water is melt water and fresher than normal ocean water should help.

But since this has happened I want to do what history's greatest explorers never could. A cruise through the Northwest Passage gets put on my list of things to do before I die along with seeing a Space Shuttle launch, visit Devil's Racetrack, and see the Northern Lights.

In addition this past summer's melt from Greenland has spiked dramatically. It lost enough ice to cover the United States twice. I'm just not sure how thick a covering they're talking about.

Ghastly Old Patriarchs

Second verse,
Same as the first.
A little bit louder,
and a little bit worse

I was getting ready for work this morning and heard a familiar issue on the radio.
See, way back in the 2000 Presidential campaign there was some talk about how George Bush vetoed a hate crimes bill in Texas. A hate crime bill makes stronger punishments if you beat the hell out of someone because of some bigotry than you'd get if you beat the hell out of someone during a mugging, crime of passion, and the like. The new bill would have expanded on the existing bill by adding gays to the list of blacks, women, hispanics, asians, muslims, etc. who receive some measure of protection with the threat of extra punishment.
When this came up in one of the debates George Bush took the attitude that since a hate crime bill already existed they didn't need another. Al Gore had the opportunity to slam George for refusing to extend the bill to cover homosexuals. He didn't. This is one of the reasons I say Al Gore had more to do with losing the election than Ralph Nader ever did.

Anyway, this morning NPR was talking about how the Senate added a bill onto the increased military budget that would include gays and handicapped in the federal hate crimes bill. Republicans tried to filibuster but enough of the GOP recognize this as a popular bill that the filibuster1 was voted down. The bill now goes to the House where it should get through fairly easy.

The question now is whether George is willing to give up his war money to prevent gays from getting hate crime protection.

Remember, America, this is what being a Republican means. Tacit approval for beating homosexuals within an inch of their life.

1Remember, filibusters? A few years back the GOP thought filibusters were treasonous and unamerican and should be illegal.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Three bags full.

I just started my third bag of mortar. I'm rather proud of this. The first bag lasted from March 13 to August 13. The second lasted from August 13 until Sept 25. This time I bought some help instead of doing it on my own.

A co-worker of mine has a son with some real promise as a geek. He built his own computer and then sold it on Ebay. He then took that money and bought a G3 laptop of Ebay. I think he got taken twice. He was underpaid for his computer and then the laptop had all sorts of problems. He brought it into the office where I was gonna load him up with some older software that we'd abandoned. But we couldn't make it work. So now he's without computer. Or, rather, he has to borrow his mom's and she needs it. I intended to remedy this by loaning him something from my museum but I kept failing to bring it into the office.

So, I told my co-worker that if she'd help me haul home a bag of mortar we'd use her car to bring my extra Mac G3 tower to the office and I'd rig it up for her son.

The computer left the office the next day with Photoshop 7, Illustrator 10, Office, sound editing software, Scratch (MIT's programming language for kids), and the web server turned on. I wanted to install PHP and MySQL but it rejected them. I couldn't find my old copy of Flash and the backup wasn't responding. I think I had already loaned them to him. Oh, shoot. I meant to give him Painter, too.

10 years ago this would have been my dream machine.

Also, my green bean plants did finally put out a few pods late in the season.

This drought has been pretty hard on all my plants. I've drained my rain barrel twice this summer. It's kept the plants alive but not happy.

Someone left two very large pots along the sidewalk up the street from my house. I hauled them home the other day and transplanted some of my brother's uber-mint into them. It should be happier there if it can take root before it gets too cold.

Mosquitoes are supposed to hate this stuff. The bees seem to love it, however. This is fine with me. I like bees.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Book review: Sixty Days and Counting

Back in March I mentioned that I went to a book signing by Kim Stanley Robinson. While the book reading was pretty lame the book turned out to be the best of the trilogy. See, during the reading he didn't want to give away any spoilers so he read lots of quotes by Thoreau that appear in the book and some OK banter from one of the families in the book.

"Sixty Days and Counting" is the third and final book in the Science in the Capitol trilogy. In the first two books, "Forty Signs of Rain" and "Fifty Degrees Below", most of the interesting stuff happened in the last 100 pages or so. In this book we have a new president who is aware of global warming and dedicated to doing something about it. Our leading characters finally get jobs where they can throw some weight around. They get to argue with and smack down the head of the World Bank. People who try to stand in the way of dumping the oil based economy get fired. Some technologies are discussed that are really being considered that were works of science fiction only ten years ago.

My post a few weeks back about how to make sure nuclear power is only a transitional power source was inspired by discussions in this book.

This whole series is a bit of work, but if you read the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy of books then you can make it through this.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Book review: The Other End of Time

Frederick Pohl is one of the grandfathers of science fiction. Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke read his stuff before they started writing.

I just finished reading his book "The Other End of Time". It's hard to know how much to tell you. It's a good book, but half of the fun is the ongoing revelations as the story progresses.

Earth has received a message from space. It shows the expansion and contraction of the universe from Big Bang to Big Crunch. A second one shows the same thing but with seven alien races that become known as The Seven Dwarves.

Our lead characters go up to a defunct observatory satellite to investigate some strange radiation. They meet one of the seven alien races who zaps them. One version of them goes back to Earth with altered memories. Another version is replicated in a mirrored room where they're studied by more of the aliens.

The aliens believe that Heaven comes after the big crunch. There everyone who lived comes back to life and lives forever. They're being attacked by an 8th alien race that they view as terrorists. The few messages our heroes get from the terrorists give a different viewpoint. But they would, wouldn't they? If and when they escape who should they support? Who should Earth listen to?

The book ends with a happy ending and a twist.

This book doesn't go in my top 10 but would probably make my top 100. It's kind of like "Ringworld" in that the characters are there largely to explore the world the author has created.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Fall Equinox

Above is a somewhat disappointing result to our analemma experiment.

You may remember back in April or May when someone announced the discovery of an extra-solar Earth type planet. They didn't mean that you could live there or that there was life. It's just one of the first solid planets found outside our solar system. Most of the hundreds of planets we've found have been gas giants big enough to make Jupiter look piddly. Any they were only found because they were so huge.

A co-worker asked me how far a light year was. I explained that it's how far light can travel in a vacuum in one Earth year. Being a science geek I've had years to get used to dealing with these kinds of distances. I had to bring her up to speed. It takes 8 minutes for light to reach Earth from the sun. The nearest star to the sun is are the Alpha Centari stars ~4.5 light years away. There were also charts of our local neighborhood and some other stuff to help explain it.

This led to other questions including how did people know how long a year was thousands of years ago. So we started building an analemma on her office floor.

Here's how it worked. I put a sticker on her window. Having a west facing office we had to wait until 3:00 to see where it's shadow fell. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 3:00 I'd find the shadow and put a sticker where the shadow fell. What you see above is the result. For awhile things went well. The bottom of the arc falls around June 21-22, the summer Solstice. At that point there's not much of a change from day to day. But late July-early August you can see there's a gap since we only put the sticker every other day and a larger still gap on weekends. Then the clouds came. Big gaps appear as we had a week of rain. A few times we had sun all day but a cloud came at 3:00. A bit of a wobble in the line shows that we didn't always hit it at exactly 3:00. A few times we got as much as 15 seconds late.

Then the sun went behind a tree. We didn't get to the equinox on Sept 21-22. I'm hoping for the dot to return when the leaves fall but I'm not counting on it.

The shape caused by tracking the sun's motion is called an analemma.

Below is a more respectable analemma that I lifted from

I'm hoping that some of my readers will continue the experiment for me. If you have kids, a class, or just a south facing window please continue the experiment. I'd like to see pictures of your analemma along with the time of day you recorded it and your latitude.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Movie review: Resident Evil: Extinction

This third chapter in the "Resident Evil" movie line is the best of the lot. This isn't saying much. The story has more holes than it takes to fill the Albert Hall. I wanted to play "MST3K: The Home Edition" through the whole thing.

You don't have to have seen the first two movies or played any of the games to understand what's going on in this movie. It might help a bit, but really, it's not worth seeing the earlier movies.

"Resident Evil" are basically zombie stories with the evil corporation and heartless scientists thrown in for good measure. Raccoon Corp. created some immortality treatment that became a zombie virus. It spread beyond their underground complex, beyond Raccoon City, and tore off across the planet. Unlike most zombie viruses this one attacked more than just humans. Dogs, birds, bugs, and plants all died or became zombies. Most of the planet is a desert. A band of survivors moves around in a caravan looking for food, fuel, and other living people. They meet up with Alice. Alice is another creation of the Raccoon Corporation. She has a natural immunity to the virus, physical superiority, and telekinetic powers.
The remains of Raccoon Corp are stuck in their underground compounds all over the world. They've been cloning Alice to try to get their own cure but they really want her back. They use the blood from some of the clones to make super zombies that they release to kill Alice so they can sample some of her blood.

There's machete fights, assorted gun play, flame throwers, zombie dogs, mutant zombies, cities in ruins, a small band of people led by a bunch of strong female leads, and lots of scenes where you just wanna say "awesome!"

I'm not getting it on DVD. It's a fun movie and I suggest watching it with people who like to make fun of movies.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Blood of patriots: check

"The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." - Thomas Jefferson

This quote has been thrown around a lot the last few years. It's usually used by Bush supporters to explain why we had to invade Iraq and depose Saddam for the crimes of some Saudi terrorist operating out of Afghanistan.

This quote is right. Every so often we must suffer through the deaths of patriots and kill off some tyrants. But who is the tyrant in question? Whose been systematically dismantling the Constitution? Who has been holding American citizens without charge. Who has been invading and occupying foreign nations without cause? Who has been torturing POWs and imprisoning people who we know are not and were not ever terrorists? Who has been giving multi-billion dollar government contracts to his friends to provide spoiled food and toxic water to troops? Who has been tapping our phone lines without warrants? Who refuses any sort of oversight?

The tyrants are George Bush and his administration. 3,787 American soldiers are dead and another 27,848 are wounded just for the Iraq war. The blood of these patriots helps to show who the tyrant really is. The blood of these patriots helps to show where our liberties are being stripped away.

Impeachment is for criminal politicians. You don't impeach people like George Bush, Dick Cheney, and the members of their administration. Politicians like these go before war crimes tribunals.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

That's it for summer

It was 51°F when I rode to work yesterday morning. This means that it's time to dust off my winter Segway helmet and figure out where I put those gloves.

It's now late enough in the year that I think it's safe to say that I also went the whole summer without turning on the air conditioner. I did it last summer, too, but I kind a cheated by spending the hottest two months sleeping on the floor of a heavily air conditioned office. The two settings were stifling and freezing. This summer I did it for two reasons.

1) To see if I could.
2) Because my house is so leaky that all the cold air would leak out.
3) Because the AC was covered in a tarp so I wouldn't drop dirt and rocks in it as I cleaned out my spare room.

THREE! Three reasons not to turn on the AC.

It was both more and less miserable than I expected.

I had expected to buy a moisture vaporator, a device that makes drinkable water from humidity, to cut the humidity in my house. Most of the misery comes from humidity. I don't need cooling all the time. And the city water is lead filled and smells like lake.
Alas, the people who make it didn't want to sell to me for some reason. I have money, they have product, I don't see the problem here.

Opening the windows at night and closing them before going to work managed to keep the indoor temperature at around 83°. No breeze and varying humidity, but topping out at 85°.

In July I built a small fan from a solar experimentation kit that my brother got me for Christmas and a D-cell battery. I pointed it at my face at night. In August I finally bought a small fan that clipped onto the bird cage. It blew on me at night and everything was good.

Night was the worst. During the evenings it was hot, but I wasn't doing much. But the humidity made sleep difficult. Thus the fan. If there was a ceiling fan over where I was sleeping I wouldn't have bothered with the little fan.

Think about it for next summer.
A fan or two, opening and closing the windows at strategic times, shading exposed windows, and not moving much will allow you to avoid a lot of AC expense.

I will be attempting this again next summer WITH a moisture vaporator.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Movie Review: Dragon War

This is a movie about dragons fighting military weapons and other dragons. Ok? You're going to see this to see dragons fighting. If you expect anything else out of this movie then you WILL be disappointed.

This movie should have been Anime. Anime or maybe an 80's TV show. The Anime would have explained the bizarre logic and weird fantasy world they created. It would also explain the stilted dialog. But the 80's TV show would explain the lousy acting, the plot holes you could drive trucks through, and the strange pacing.

One particularly glaring example is when they discover some dragon scales partially buried in the ground. They explain that they are scales, but not why they're buried or anything about them. When doing test on the scales someone says "Do you know what the hardest substance known to man is?" someone else replies "Diamonds." and then the subject is dropped COMPLETELY. Never again is the subject of diamond brought up or any comparison to the hardness of the scales made.

The movie starts with a young reporter, whose hair and clothes indicate that he just stepped out of 1975, going to a disaster site where the scale is found. Seeing the scale triggers a flashback to when he was a kid. During the flashback there is another flashback to 500 years ago. Very awkward story telling.

We learn that every 500 years or so that one dragon is rewarded for it's good deeds by being given a spirit that manifests in a particular woman when she turns 20. This turns the good dragon into Super Galactic Happy Happy Good Time Dragon or some such weirdness. But there's an evil dragon that also wants it. God forbid anything be done to protect this woman. Sure, she's given some guy with a necklace, but they have to face down an army of Cylon/Stormtrooper hybrids, many of whom are riding giant lizard creatures on loan from Skywalker Ranch (LucasFilm Studio) and sporting energy cannons.

This is all assuming that 70's Necklace Boy is willing to both protect the girl and feed her to a giant good dragon.

See? Add some tentacle rape and it's Anime.

With all that said, the special effects are Lucas quality and the fight scenes are pretty awesome.

Still, I'm not gonna get it on DVD. I suggest waiting for a second run theatre or Dillon's cheap-ass rental.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Office cleaning

I have an office of my own.

This is not because I'm some high ranking so an so within the organization. I have an office because I'm the resident geek. As resident geek I am the keeper of the electronics. Old computers, computers in need of repair, dirty keyboards, extra keyboards, software storage... all this falls to me. Nobody wants to look at this junk so they give me the space with the door that can be closed.

This works out fine for me. I always have multiple projects going on so my desk is covered with paper, books, blank disks, monitors (plural), and vats of keys suspended in cleaning solution. As my boss told someone she was giving a tour to yesterday, I thrive in this environment. I do the work of three people by my estimate and five people by hers.

It's also, at the moment, storage for lots of our old books. For reasons I won't get into now my office was filled with boxes of our old book. I finally got permission to unbox the books and put them on the shelves. This left me with lots of empty boxes. I gave a few away, but most were just gonna go to the dumpster. I couldn't allow this to happen.

I broke down the boxes and layed them out flat. With some carpenter's glue I started gluing them together slightly offset so the folds never line up. I made an eight foot section of seven layer thick cardboard. Yesterday, after I went off the clock, I pulled out my jigsaw and shaped the big cardboard monstrosity. Off with the flaps that closed the top and bottom of the box. Off with anything less than seven layers and over eight feet.

This morning I dug out the vacuum cleaner and vacuumed my office. I know how to run it, I just usually don't. I've got a Roomba at home and at work I just turn off the lights. It really did look like the floor of a high school shop class in here. There's a fine layer of dust over everything now. When I run my finger over stuff it turns brown. I'm gonna need a new plan for the next piece.

What am I working on? I'm making shelving. Hopefully for books, but even if it can't handle that weight it'll serve for lots of other junk. I'll take pictures as I make the other side.

Science lesson 4: Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

Having nothing better to talk about...

Lets talk about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: the very short version. It states that when observing subatomic particles you can't know the location and speed at the same time. By observing one you alter the other.

This is related to why observing equipment screws up the double slit experiment mentioned earlier.

This principle is also the basis for much geek humor.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Movie review: In the Shadow of the Moon

In the Shadow of the Moon

Between 1968 and 1972 twenty-four people went to the moon and back. Not all landed, but they all have a story. The surviving astronauts are all about 77 years old now. With this movie Ron Howard collects their stories.

Science fiction does some cool stuff, but it almost never manages to convey the power and emotion that footage of the real thing does. "In the Shadow of the Moon" shows lots of footage that I've never seen, and some footage that the public at large has never seen. Rockets exploding in an orderly upward manner and rockets exploding in a less orderly outward manner. Instead of just the Apollo 11 footage this movie shows footage from all the moon launches and landings. Good quality shots of landers and rovers with the astronauts themselves telling what was going on in their heads.

If you lived through this you'll want to see this movie. If you have children you'll want to take them to see this. If you're like me and too young to have been alive then and kinda pissed about that then you'll want to see this.

This is a great documentary and should win some awards. I will definitely get this on DVD.

I'd also recommend the movie "The Dish". When sending people to the moon we need to be able to see them all the time. So NASA made a deal to use the huge dish in a sheep paddy in Parks, Australia (also known as PKS in radio chatter). "The Dish" tells the true story of what was happening and what went wrong at Parks in the lead up to and during the 1969 landing.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Science lesson 3: quantum computers

Quantum computers are mostly theoretical. Some simple versions have been built but the technology is unstable.

You should remember in the double slit experiment that electrons fired at a wall with two slits in it give the appearance of going between both slits and interfering with itself. Quantum computer rely on the ability of sub-atomic particles, like electrons, to simultaneously exist in multiple states. The idea is that they'd be able to use each of the multiple states as a separate processor. No, that's not quite right. They'd be able to calculate multiple solutions at the same time. The answer returned would not be a hard yes/no answer like with current binary computers. Answers would be more like pie charts listing all the possibilities and how often certain answers popped up. This isn't an accurate description, but I'm not sure how to put the more technical answer in layman's terms.

Current computer encryption codes can get up to 128 bits. If you don't have the decryption code your grandchildren would have to get the answer for you. A quantum computer should be able to get the answer back to you in a few hours.

WHY am I telling you all of this? Why have I spent three lessons giving you the broad strokes of quantum physics? Because more and more these fundamentals are key in various science fiction stories.

In the Hominids/Humans/Hybrids trilogy Neanderthals are experimenting with a quantum computer. They're calculating larger and larger numbers causing the individual quantum processors to reach into more and more parallel realities where other quantum computers exist. When the numbers got too big the computer reached into a reality where there wasn't a quantum computer. They reached into our reality.

In "Calculating God" there's an alien race that spends almost all it's time in prayer. Remember how putting an observation device at one slit made the electron pass through only one slit? By the aliens' thinking God is the observer so God determines which of the many universes is real. Only by constant prayer can they keep God watching their universe and continue making their reality THE reality.

In the Discworld series there have been a few references to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (which I haven't explained yet) influencing leopards that move so fast they can't know who they are and where they are at the same time.

Even Star Trek seriesesesees have mentioned the need for Heisenberg Compensators to fix the nebulous nature of individual electrons when scanning the person to be transported.

For you and me it's just a curiosity that makes life a bit more interesting.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Nuclear energy

Major changes need to be made to our power generation system. Coal and oil need to be completely abandoned. Gone, done, over. But what to replace it with? We can phase over to solar, wind, waves, etc. but getting there directly is gonna take awhile. We need to convert about 15 years ago.

The fastest way to get major cleanish power is nuclear. Sure, there's toxic waste, but at least that can be kept localized. That is to say that the waste stays in one place instead of blowing all over the place.

The big question is how to do it. How do you get safe nuclear power and how do you get it to go away so we don't stop there but push on to even cleaner supplies? I think most of our problems can be solved by making sure that the government runs all the plants. I'll explain why.

1) Safety in design.
Talk to the French. Talk to the Japanese. Talk to the US Navy.
The French are already mostly switched over to nuclear power. Their plants are pretty safe, too.
The Japanese are heavily into nuclear power, too. But that's due more to being an island with few natural resources and the fact that it's really hard to bluff people who've been nuked about the dangers of radiation.
The US Navy has had a nuclear program for several decades with nearly no accidents. no significant unclassified accidents anyway. In a pinch they can back a battleship up to a small city and keep the lights on. They wanted me to be a nuclear engineer on a sub. I'm just not a military fella.
These three can help design the safest nuclear plant possible. The Navy can tell us how to operate and secure them the best.

2) Safety in operation.
Corporations are all about profit. Get the most money for the least work. Most any American nuclear power plant you go into shows signs of cut corners. By keeping them in the hands of the government and/or military they're gonna be working to keep them safe and charge the public only what they need to.
I know that many government organizations are slackers and screw ups. FEMA used to be one of the pride and joys of the federal government until Mad King George cut their funding and stuffed them into Homeland Security. The point being that when it's important they can do it right. And while we'll want the Army securing the plants we'll want the Navy inspecting them.

3) Moving on.
Part of the reason... strike that, most of why it's proving hard to move away from a petrol based economy is because there's huge profits in gas and oil. If we move to nuclear then the big money will be there and moving away from that will be the challenge. But by keeping the profits low there'll be less resistance to switching to renewables.

I know that a lot of people think that privatized everything is better. Competition and market forces and all that. In some cases it is, but in many cases it's not.
CNN was a good news agency before Fox and MSNBC came along. Now they sacrifice news for ratings. Competition hurt our ability to get informed. Meanwhile the BBC, a government funded news agency, remains one of the best in the world.
Hiring soldiers for Iraq is proving to cost us more by at least a factor of 10 above using the Army or Marines.
My office is full of boxes from when the Government Printing Office privatized their warehouse. Truckloads of boxes just started showing up here one day.
The base is full of handymen who were brought on as contractors after the old handymen were fired. They don't know where stuff is or the history behind the various problems and they cost more money.
Our health care system is one of the most technically advanced but functionally worst in any developed country. We're also about the only one who doesn't provide universal healthcare.
In fact, most things that have been privatized have wound up costing more and being worse than when run by the government.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Nerd stuff

How do little kids afford comic books? They don't have any money.

I started collecting comics late in high school. It was back when Superman "died". The second time I went to Prairie Dog Comics it was like walking into Cheers. As I walked through the door one of the staff greeted me by name. I'd only been there one time and they knew me. When I went off to college I picked up some stuff at a Clay's place near campus and picked up some stuff in Wichita. When I moved to Kansas City I had PDC pull stuff for me to pick up when I came back to visit family. When I moved to DC I had them start mailing me stuff every $50 or so. Around holidays they make sure to see if I'm gonna be in town so I can pick them up in person. They're just great about working with me.

Why do I remain loyal to PDC? It's partially because they knew who I was and partially because it's so hard to find anyone who can compete. I've been to several comic book places around DC. Some people tell me I've been going to the wrong ones. Most that I've visited have been terribly snobbish. The store was mostly Manga and graphic novels. The comics they had were mostly off brand and obscure titles. The staff got uppity and snobbish if you said you were looking for actual comic books like Batman and Spiderman. It happened several times in several different stores.

A new comic book store has opened on 14th st NW. I forget the name of it but it's a branch of another comic book store in the area. The staff was friendly and tried to be helpful. They had a TV setup to show the cartoons they were trying to sell. They had lots of graphic novels but not the one I wanted. One small room in the back had the comics - Batman, Superman, Spiderman, etc - but there was no back issue collection. When I asked about a specific title they said the owners made a decision not to carry that. It was also about 1/3 the size of PDC's old store and about 1/8 the size of their new store.

So hail to Prairie Dog Comics. The only store with a clue.

I finally got a Wii this weekend. Since I'm supposed to be doing housework I told myself that I wouldn't get one until I could walk into a store and see one on the shelf. Even so, I wanted one by Christmas so I could hook it up at the family gathering at my parents' place. Most stores will tell you not to expect to see it just sitting on the shelves until after New Years. But I found a non-chain store out near the University of Maryland called "Pandora's^3" or "Pandora's Cube" that had several. It's located in a run down little mini-mall. While it has video games and video game systems that doesn't appear to be it's main business. Half the store was dedicated to Manga and Anime. Even browsing that area felt like casually strolling through a porn shop.

Yes, I do react to Manga and Anime the way people in the comic book shops I mentioned respond to popular comics. I've seen a couple of good Anime films, but they're still just Speed Racer and tentacle rape to me.

A couple more shelves had Japanese foodstuffs like Pocky. Behind the counter they had several Japan only releases of some Transformers.

The shop keeper was friendly and helpful. He cut me a couple of deals. If they weren't so far out of the way I'd go back in again. I still may.

If you, too, have a Wii I can be reached at 4106 1848 4070 3967. If you don't have a Wii this number will be meaningless to you.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Science lesson 2: Schrödinger's Cat

In 1935 Irwin Schrödinger came up with the thought experiment known as "Schrödinger's Cat".

In yesterday's lesson how we learned that subatomic particles, like electrons, don't really seem to exist in one place until you see them. Instead they give the appearance of existing in a cloud of places where they possibly or probably are until they're observed.

Here's how Schrödinger suggested you imagine it.

One can even set up quite ridiculous cases. A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): in a Geiger counter there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of the hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer which shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid. If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed. The psi-function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.

It is typical of these cases that an indeterminacy originally restricted to the atomic domain becomes transformed into macroscopic indeterminacy, which can then be resolved by direct observation. That prevents us from so naively accepting as valid a "blurred model" for representing reality. In itself it would not embody anything unclear or contradictory. There is a difference between a shaky or out-of-focus photograph and a snapshot of clouds and fog banks.

Huh? Let me rephrase.

Take a box. In the box you put a cat. Next to the cat you put a vial of poisonous gas. The vial of gas is sealed by a complicated device containing an atom of a radioactive element that has a 50/50 chance of decaying in the next hour. When that element decays it will release the gas and the cat will die. Now seal the box.

When you come back in an hour the radioactive element may or may not have decayed. In fact the math shows that it has both decayed and not decayed and it has neither decayed nor not decayed. The only way to find out if it has decayed or not is to open the box and look at the cat. Until the box is opened the state of the cat is in flux. The cat is both dead and alive and neither dead nor alive.

Irwin regretted writing this explaination for the rest of his life. Most people misunderstood what he's explaining. The cat isn't real. The experiment wouldn't work. It's only told to try to explain subatomic behaviors on a scale we can better grasp

Among physicists this thought experiment has provoked several philosophical physics questions. You can read more about them at Wikipedia. Among non-physicists this provokes mostly misunderstandings. In the crap-science film "What The #$*! Do We Know" they try to make this a point of religious thought for worshipers of a 35,000-year-old warrior named Ramtha.
Some eastern philosophies make the point that we control our own universe. This is true as far as how an individual views his own life. Getting fired can be a crushing blow or a breaking of chains. Your car breaking down can be a point of great stress or the beginning of a story you can tell for weeks. But your viewpoint can't change the nature of water or manipulate matter as the movie tries to claim Schrödinger proved.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Science lesson 1

I am a geek of all trades. Among the many kinds of geek that I am, I am a sci-fi geek. The best kind of sci-fi are the kinds where the science is based on real science. An understanding of the fundamentals is key to appreciating some books. So I'm going to give some simple lessons in areas of physics that most people aren't likely to have dealt with.

Let me start by insulting your intelligence and work up to more complicated issues.

Things that you can touch are called "matter". If you smash up matter into little bitty pieces and then smash it up some more you get what are known as molecules. Break down the molecules and you get atoms. Atoms break down into neutrons, positrons, and electrons. In charts of atoms you get a picture that reminds many people of the Solar System picture. That is a big thing in the middle with smaller things going around it. In an atom the thing going around is called an electron. But instead of having a nice orbit where you can point at the electron and say "there it is" the best you can do is point to an area around the nucleus (the big thing in the middle) and say it's in here somewhere. You can chart the probability of where it is, but if you actually measure it then you've changed it.

At the subatomic level - I mean when working with the electrons, neutrons, and positrons - there's all kinds of weirdness.

Watch this film that explains the double slit test.

Dr. Quantum Explains Double Slit Experiment

Posted Jun 07, 2007

This is the strongest experimental proof of alternative universes.

Remember what I said about not being able to know where the electron was around the nucleus? Just where it PROBABLY is. Similarly, in the experiment you just watched you only get to know where the electron you're firing PROBABLY is. Some scientists think that the electron is in all the locations it could be but in parallel universes. So even when firing just the one electron at a time all the possible electrons in all the possible universes interfere with each other and make the pattern on the wall. BUT when you put up something to see which slit the electron goes through you force one of the universes to become OUR universe. This is what Doc Quantum meant when he said that it "collapsed the wave form". All the possible universes collapsed once observed.

Think of "Back to the Future". By going back in time they changed things and reality split into two alternative time lines. So Marty had to go back and fix things so that the two realities collapsed back into one. It's fun to think about alternate realities where Hitler died in that WWI gas attack and what not. But what about that reality where the only difference is you wore a green shirt one day instead of the blue one. The color of your shirt didn't change anything so those two realities collapsed back into one once two versions of you take the shirts off. Similarly, all those parallel and interfering universes with the electrons collapse into one. When they collapse depends on when they're observed. If observed before going through the slit only one hits the wall. If you wait to observe until after it hits the wall then all the other universes have messed with it. Only one of the many possible electrons in the many possible universes gets to hit the wall. But all the possibilities influence the path it takes.

I know, freaky, huh?

We have nothing but science fiction writers to allude to multiple universes on a super-atomic scale. It's just a helpful allegory to help understand the weirdness of the double slit experiment. And it's a fun "what if" thought experiment.

Next time I have nothing better to talk about I'll explain Schrödinger's Cat or maybe how what we've learned today is the foundation of research into quantum computing.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

DS9 Clothes

Just sort of thinking out loud here.

A coworker is loaning me his "Star Trek: Deep Space 9" DVDs. The clothes in Star Trek intrigue me. Nobody wears anything with a corporate logo or cartoon character on the front. Most non-Starfleet characters wear fairly simple clothes, except for the ones who have very elaborate clothes. Lots of solid colors. No stripes or dots or patterns... typically. There's the rare exception, but only among either the very rich characters or the Dabo Girls.

I've got this mental image of how they get their clothes. I imaging the replicators have a small library of simple clothes that you can get for free. Like a lame clip art collection that you get for free because you'd never use anything on the CD. If you want something flashier you can buy a new replicator pattern from the Apple Clothing Store or you can find a tailor.

Similarly, in that universe, they have replicators with a library of food you can have at home, but there also appears to be certain food programs that you either have to buy for yourself or go to some restaurant that has it. But there's also still real restaurants with real food and chefs.

It's the perfect blend of socialism and capitalism. They can fulfill the needs of those with the least, but you can also achieve and gain more if you so desire.

The point that I started to make was that we should have a similar line of clothes. As well as food stamps there'd be garment credits that could be spent on some low cost, no frills clothing. Or would the fact that you're wearing them serve as an announcement that you're poor and encourage mockery and beatings?

Next, the logistics of such a task. My clothes are already pretty much as cheap as they come. Except when I try to buy hemp clothes, that is. Tee shirts and jeans. Cheap shoes. Child labor in south-east Asia somewhere. How the hell am I gonna get cheaper than that?

Simple, dummy. Start your own sweat shop in VietChinSingMalayistan, double the wages over the sweatshop next door, simple designs with no licensing fees or celebrity endorsements ("I'm Michael Jordan and I wear 'Poverty Clothes'!") and even after shipping you should be able to sell your stuff for 1/3 (or less) of what the stuff from the sweatshop next door goes for. This is assuming you're not in this for the money like the neighbor.

Or do I need to wait for the invention of the replicator?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Movie Review: Halloween

Before I get into the review I need to say a thing or two.

"What the hell's wrong with you!?! Get that toddler out of here! This is a a slasher flick!"
"Seriously? ANOTHER phone call! This is a movie. Why are you on the phone? Why are ANY of you people on the phone?"

Ok, the movie.

I don't recall much about the original version of "Halloween" I saw it on TV fairly young. Not toddler young, but too old for trick-or-treating but too young to drive. I wasn't impressed. Sure, it was edited for TV, but still. Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers, these are not scary people. Daleks are scary. Cybermen are creepy. The robot from that Dr Who episode called "Robot" had me behind the couch. But these slasher flick are not at all scary.

Since it's been so long since I saw the original I can't compare the two. But I know that I liked this one more. Not enough to get it on DVD, but on a gut level I was more impressed by this one.

The first half of the movie is a psychological horror. We start with a young Mike Myers and his screwed up family. His mom is a stripper, his step-father is a nasty, hateful, unemployable sleeze, and the two scream at each other constantly. The older sister is the standard production of a home like that, the baby sister screams at key points of the parents' fight, but for mercifully short periods. Michael is about ten years old, one of many victims of his step=father's verbal abuse, likes wearing a clown mask everywhere, and is already torturing and killing animals. But his mom really is pretty nice when not fighting with the drunk-of-the-house.

At school Mike is the target of a couple of bullies. After being jumped by the bullies in the bathroom and saved by the principal he lashes out at the principal. This gets his mother called in, a therapist lined up, and pictures he's taken of animals he's tortured found in his bag. While they're talking Mike slips out and kills one of the bullies in the woods.

That night, Halloween, his mom goes off to work. His sister was supposed to take him trick-or-treating but goes to have sex with her boyfriend instead. The boyfriend has the William Shatner mask that becomes Michael's trademark. So instead of making the candy rounds Mike kills his step-father, his sister, and her boyfriend. When Mom gets home he's sitting out front holding his baby sister and the cops are just showing up.

Mike goes off to an institution. Mom gets to visit once a week. He doesn't recall, or says he doesn't, killing his family. He spends his free time making masks. Some time later he kills a nurse and stops talking. His mom shoots herself.

Fifteen years later Mike escapes and goes looking to reunite with his baby sister. But she doesn't know about her original family. Mike still doesn't talk. That and the wake of brutally murdered corpses makes the reunion a bit ... awkward.

A lot of thought was put into establishing the character and motivations of Michael Meyer. This gives the movie a lot. The first half of "Halloween" feels kind of like that "Silence of the Lambs" prequil that came out not too long ago. The second half benefits from the first half, but is more of the bloody slasher flick that we expect a "Halloween" movie to be.

I won't be getting it on DVD. I'm not suggesting that you run out and see it. Not unless you're into this sort of thing. But I feel it was better than the original. Rob Zombie did well.