Archive for October, 2011

Occupy Reality

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Sound familiar?  It’s Article 1 of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. Hmm. Says there that people can get together and complain about stuff without getting shot with beanbags and rubber bullets and tear gas. Yes, the ‘establishment’ always tries to justify anti-protest violence as provoked by violent protesters. But they really should have learned from the Rodney King beating that people are watching and recording these incidents now. And telling their friends. And posting the photos and videos.

I am struggling today. Recent events have caused me to do a lot of soul-searching. You see, my intention has been to share information for free on my blog and at the same time try to make money from my website.

I am ashamed to admit that I would like the 1% of humanity that is rich to be my friends. I would like their money to rub off on me; I do not despise money, nor do I dislike anyone simply because they have more money than me. That would be a lot of emotional work for me, since a lot of people have more money than me, not just the rich folks.

The smaller part of me does not want to be politically active or involved. I am a scientist trying to become a capitalist. That part of me does not want to make waves. It wants to be a cheerful patriotic american, ignore tyranny and oppression, and just concentrate on making some money.

But the better part of me is rising on a tide of disgust.

I am seeing people getting manhandled and arrested merely because they pointed a videocamera (even reporters??) at a policeman while he was using force on unarmed peaceful protesters. Unbelievable Deja Vu: didn’t they learn anything in the 60s? Mistreating the defenseless ALLWAYS brings in sympathy for them and their causes.

Okay, I understand that you policemen never planned to beat up protesters like your fathers and grandfathers did. I believe that you cops are human beings who usually do NOT enjoy hurting other human beings and ignoring their rights. But you have jobs and orders, and I understand that. Bad enough to have to be following an order that makes you do things you are not especially proud of; I can see why you do not want that Kodak moment captured for posterity to remind you later. But you cops have a choice, too. You can choose to exercise the same self-restraint that these unarmed soccer moms and Iraq war vets are showing as you arrest them as ordered. You don’t have to beat them up too. You don’t have to shoot.

I am seeing Citigroup, which apparently sold securities they figured would go bust to their customers for almost $300 million — and then ’shorted’ the same securities (i.e., bet that they would drop in price by selling them short on the market) to make even more money off the same people they just swindled. Citigroup, I cannot find words for that kind of greed. Didn’t the bailout give you enough bonuses and raises – raises you didn’t deserve for crashing the economy?

I am reading reports that in the last 25 years the income of the poor grew by 18%, the middle class by 40%….and the rich by over 250%. Can anyone justify this morally to me? The 1% who already have more money than they may ever need are ALSO getting richer faster than the rest of us who actually NEED more money! Kudos to billionaire Warren Buffet for standing up and demanding to be taxed more. He knows that he has more than he needs, and he wants the excess to help people. He is man enough to know it is wrong that his employees are taxed at a higher rate than he is. I can only hope that others follow his example. He doesn’t just give away money to charities. He wants to give his fair share to America. And we know America needs it.

There are some rays of hope.

I see that when when they took away the fuel for the OWS generators, people have stepped up and provided pedal-powered generators so that they can keep their laptops alive to keep getting the word out. Proper.

In at least one city, police arrested people for defying a curfew and the judge told the police they didn’t have the right to do that! Outstanding.

In cities across the country and even in other countries people are feeling the call to stand up and be counted. They see what is happening as clearly as we do.

If memory serves, the last time we had anything like this it managed to shorten an unpopular war and remove an unpopular president. Unfortunately, the structures and institutions of the military-industrial complex were left largely untouched by the aftermath of the 60s. I hope we do a better job of it this time.

We are spending too much, true. The budget needs cuts from time to time to prune the inevitable growths that get wedged into bills by special interests. If we let the financial cancer continue, we will never be able to pay for it all, even if we tax the rich more than we do now.

But we are also taxing too little — also true. The persistent reduction of tax rates for the wealthy has been going on too long.  After all, when former Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein, (a man never known for any liberal leanings) says “tax the rich”, then you know that things have gotten serious. Not making this up! Watch it again. Yes, he says we need the money for a bigger army, not to help the poor. But anyway he still says it: tax the rich.

We’re listening to you, Ben. I hope you are listening to us.

–MRK

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Playing City of Heroes for free

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

I have to love City of Heroes for many reasons, and I was amazed to learn that you can now play CoH for free — all the way to level 50! Here you see a free CoH Fire/Radiation Corrupter of mine called Pyrocalc. I’ve always loved throwing Fire with the Fire Blast power set and healing myself and debuffing bosses with the Radiation Emission power set.

Here you see me showing a simple technique for soloing groups of baddies with bosses. The boss of the group I hit is a Damned, which means he has Fire Blast powers just like me. That could be inconvenient, because as a Corrupter archetype I do not have great health and defensive armor like a tank.  So I target him before I within aggro range and select Radiation Infection. When I then approach his group, the power triggers. This power “debuffs” the Damned, reducing his accuracy so he can barely hit me. But even more than this, his clumsiness is contagious; as you see, his minions attack and surround me, but I just fly straight up out of them and over next to the boss. This drags them closer to him and they start getting infected too and become even wimpier than the boss. I barely have to heal myself at all to keep my health above 50%, and I just toast one minion after another, saving the Damned for last. Then I get restless, and fly up to find some more groups on the rooftops. They are too low, mere grays, so I head over to the park entrance and find some better groups.  But I wanted to keep this first CoH video short, so I just stop it at that point. –MRK

Locations of Site Visitors

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An Age of Magic

Friday, October 28th, 2011

We live in an age of magic.

You don’t believe it?  Let’s talk about it.

You might wonder why I, with my training in science (especially Physics) and my career in technology, writing software and developing web pages, would even mention the word “magic”.  It’s a word for pre-scientific history, a word relegated to the mental dumpster where we file such subjects as spontaneous generation, flat Earth, animal magnetism and the “aether”.

Oh, really? Then why is the word ‘magic’ still used all over the place, especially in the advertising we use to sell everything from soup to semiconductors? We use it because, like the other words, symbols and signs, it has a meaning to people. When we see a word we recognise, it triggers a picture, a concept, a belief, and so on in our minds. So when we are told that the latest product cleans “like magic!” obviously this is supposed to mean something to us that will indicate that it is a desirable product. Obviously, “like magic” means something, and it is something that we will want. But what?

Since I have never used “magic” to clean anything, no past experiences are evoked. So what is?

When I think about it, I have to conclude that getting something done “like magic” must mean that it happens with a minimum of human effort. That cleanser is supposed to dissolve stains so you can just wipe them off the shower tiles instead of scrubbing hard.

There seems to be the recurring theme that magic either does the work for you or lets you do things you were never able to do before. For example, the Magic Jack I bought a couple of years ago plugs into a USB port and then you plug a phone jack into it and you can make calls for free using the Internet. Even more surprising is that the company gives you a phone number associated with that little USB-to-jack, and people can dial that number. If the software is active and I am connected to the Internet, a phone plugged into my Magic Jack rings when someone calls the number and I can answer the phone. If I am not plugged in, the software takes a message and emails it to me as an audio file. But what part of all of this was “magic”? It is a technological device plugged into our information infrastructure.

The answer is: all of it.  Have you heard of Clarke’s Law? It was coined by Arthur C. Clarke, scifi author of 2001 A Space Oddysey and the inventor of the geosynchronous communication satellite. It says basically, “Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

When I was young and first read this, I thought all it meant was that sophisticated technology impresses more primitive cultures. I was unconsciously editing the Law to mean: “Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic to people who don’t know how it works.”

But the original version of the Law is better, I came to learn, as I was learning more about electronics, solid state theory, and quantum mechanics. Because there is stuff we can do now that does seem like magic to me — even though I know how it works. And I don’t think I am alone in this; I would be willing to bet that there are plenty of you out there who are like me, who can still feel the magic…even when we know how it works.

As a physicist I am perfectly aware that sound is ‘merely’ a succession of pressure waves that our senses can detect and mine for information. But somehow, it still amazes me sometimes that I can hear the voice of someone who died before I was born. This is especially the case with Hypercube loudspeakers, where the distortion is much lower and they sound even more realistic. And even though I am co-inventor on the patent, and analyzed the physics mathematically, so that I can claim to know how the hypercube speakers work, it still seems magical to me that changing the boundary geometry can so profoundly improve the performance of a 100-year old technology.

As a programmer I know the ‘mysteries’ of binary representations and program logic. I know the difference between an instruction register and an accumulator, the subtleties of indirect and indexed addressing, and like my father, I have written programs in pure machine code, although he coded on the Whirlwind at MIT and my code ran on the 6510 processor in my Commodore 64.  Yes, I’ve used interpreters like BASIC and APL, compilers like COBOL and FORTRAN and C, client-side scripts like JavaScript, and server-side programming in VBScript (ASP) and PHP. I have, in a word, been around the block of technology.

But it still seems like magic to me. Maybe it’s counter-intuitive, but sometimes I wonder if non-technical people ever appreciate just how magic it is. Yes, the program code is logical and straightforward, the silicon wafer was grown in ultra-clean factories and etched into processors, the copper wire was smelted from ore and drawn through tool dies, all technological blah blah. But what powers the stuff is electrons (and maybe only a physicist can imagine how magic electrons are) and holes that move in the opposite direction like a gap in traffic moving back as the cars move forward into the gap.

You don’t have to tell physicists (or anyone else who has taken quantum mechanics) how magical electrons are, because they already know.  Atoms used to be thought to be indivisible, until we started smashing them apart. But no one can break an electron. You can annhilate it with a positron (anti-electron), but you cannot break it into smaller pieces. It appears to have no size at all, like an ideal point, and it can be in more than one place at the same time. And it travels through solid metal wire like water in a pipe.

Holes seem even more magical to me than electrons, because a hole is a missing electron. It’s simply the place in a matrix of silicon atoms where an electron could be, but isn’t. And this hole, this empty gap in the molecular bonds, like an empty chair in a almost-full classroom, this hole moves. In semiconductors we can speak of electron-current or hole-current.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find the idea of empty holes moving from place to place rather magical, like something out of an old Roadrunner cartoon. And you might try to say the holes are not *really* real, that they are just missing electrons. You could say that speaking of hole current is just another way of saying the electrons are going the other way. But there is more to it.

When I was born music was recorded on vinyl discs called “records”. Do you know why music, movies and software are all on CDs and DVDs now? Because of semiconductor lasers. We used to store sound waves as scratches on metal or wax or plastic like Edison did; spin the disk (or cylinder, in Edison’s original invention) and let a needle pass over the scratches, and the needle wiggles and can make a signal to the amplifier.

Technologists wanted to store in formation using lasers, but back them lasers were large, needed a lot of power and often water cooling to prevent overheating. Semiconductor lasers changed all that, because researchers discovered that under the right conditions, an electron can combine with a hole, cease its travelling, settle down into a stable position, and emits surplus energy as photons. In other words, the same stuff we use to make transistors and diodes can be used to make LEDs (light-emitting diodes) and lasers that work at very low power and do not overheat. So now, every CD player, every DVD player, and every computer that can read or write CDs or DVDs has a laser in it smaller than a grain of salt. And holograms are so easy to make they are on credit cards and product wrappers.

And even though I know how it all works, it still amazes me that it all works so well. It is still magic. And then there are the things that I don’t understand, that also seem like magic to me.

For example, I don’t understand how my parents stayed married for 54 years until my father died. Anyone who has tried to make a relationship work — and last — knows that what my parents did was pure magic.

I also do not understand how I understand, and I doubt anyone else does either! For example, I understand that I spelled the word ‘either’ correctly in the preceding sentence. But how does this happen? As a physicist I understand a little about light and optics; I have seen those biology textbook drawings that show a candle’s rays focussed by the eye’s lens to make an upside-down image on the retina. But the word ‘either’ does not look upside-down to me, so we go further. As a programmer I can conceive that the photoreceptors in the retina send signal pulses to the brain centers connected with vision, and that wired-in software converts my upside-down image of the word to rightside-up.

But it is still just a pattern of pixels, like the CCD sensors in my webcam reporting a grid of light and dark spots that I see as an image. Who sees the pattern from my eyes? No answer yet, so we must go further. From courses in biology, I know that the image gets processed much more in my brain, with help from my Broca’s area, a region of the brain involved with speech. At this point my brain decides that the pattern of light and dark in the ‘either’ is a recognizable pattern — and that it is spelled correctly.  And if we had good enough sensors and a lot of computer power, I am fairly sure that, given time, all of the steps I have described could be traced and mapped and diagrammed.

But where am I in the diagram? You notice that I said “my brain decides” rather than “I decide”.  Because if you think about it, you realize that I do not appear on any map: you can see my blood, my bones, my muscles, my nerves, my brain. You can watch my blood flow, see my muscles tense, detect the arrival of my nerve impulses. But in all of these things, you do not see me. You see the amazing machine that is my body…but not its software. You cannot see a personality.

You see matter in my structure. You see energy in my processes. But you cannot see the information that is deciding what to do with this matter and energy. You do not see me. You are only seeing the car, not the driver. There is no little man in my head watching a movie screen like in the textbooks. Let’s not go there, because it is an infinite recursion: then the man watching the movie must have eyeballs projecting the scene onto his retina…and another man inside his head to watch that, and so on ad nauseum.

So I call the question: where am I? Where is the driver that is driving my body? Yes, the retina gets an image, its receptors report their individual pixels to the brain, and the brain processes the data. But when does this information reach me?  Where am I in the diagram? How does the information get to me?

Perception is a mystery. Two people can look at the same painting and see two different pictures. People can see things that are not even there…or they can manage to not see things that really are there, like your blind spot in each eyes that is automatically “filled in” so you don’t see where it is. People can stand in a party room with 100 people in it and they can tune out 98 voices and hear the one next to them that they are interested in.

And I am the central mystery. I, that perceive yet cannot be seen myself, only inferred. You presume that there is someone in my head because intelligible speech comes out of me (early in the party at least) — as I infer that there is someone inside your head, too.

But we are mysteries. The magic is all around us, and in us. It is us. We are magic. –MRK

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DNA: The Sentient Message

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

When we are talking not about some individual gene or gene group but about entire chromosomes, we are talking about long sequences that can include many genes within them. Are all of these genes active? Surprisingly, no. Many genes are suppressed in a given cell’s DNA — some permanently, some temporarily.

The permanent “on” and “off’ genes help determine what kind of tissue this cell belongs to: muscle, nerve, bone, etc. These are set when the generalist stem cell ancestor specialized to produce a particular needed type of specialist cell.

The more interesting “on” and “off” genes on a chromosome are the temporarily suppressed genes. They become fascinating when we learn that genes can talk to each other — that genes can interact. The output of one gene can include molecules that bind to another gene to disable it, such as antisense RNA that binds to a particular DNA sequence, blocking it from being “read” and transcribed. The first gene has blocked the second. this is an example of an inhibitory interaction.

A gene can also encourage the expression of another gene, either directly or indirectly, by deactivating the gene that is suppressing the gene you want to turn back on.

These interactions can involve many cascade sequences where certain genes turn on banks of other genes that influence other genes. When we start to see all of the potential interactions between genes we begin to realize that DNA is not merely a message, an anthology, with each chromosome a list of files. Since the parts can interact with each other, the message becomes in a way sentient — that is, it responds to its environment instead of merely playing a rote melody. The message talks to itself, gathers chemical data, and re-configures itself based on what appears necessary at a given time. The bewildering myriad of molecular machines needed to make a cell work are all produced in usable numbers and ratios so as to make the functioning of a cell routine, and respond to changing situations when needed.

There are those who claim that supplying more than adequate amounts of certain nutrients can “re-program” your DNA to counteract aging or digestive deficiencies. Whether or not this is true, it is undeniable that DNA is a sensitive and alert template factory that juggles a million eggs and keeps on keeping on.

DNA isn’t a long song. It’s a collection of recipes for making various molecules, and many of the recipes talk to each other, making them act more like semi-sentient programs than simple construction procedures. And the DNA, containing all of these, sums up the semi-sentience of all the component processes and products into a bustling factotum that gets it all done.

And all the different versions of the DNA, the different instantiations of the basic set of chromosomes, make up the various cells of our bodies; the basis set of gene vectors in their various combinations spans the space of all needed cell types. Not only the sequences but even the variations in the sequences are meaningful and important.

And all the individual organisms of the species with their individually-varied genome instances  make up the gene pool of the population, which itself responds to changing circumstances with mutation-driven evolution to develop structures and processes needed to thrive and compete in a changing world. It is an interlaced fractal web of interacting information that codes the machines of Life. –MRK

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Molding a Tesseract: Shaping Sound

Saturday, October 8th, 2011

hypercube
The interesting thing about waves is the different ways in which a wave can be wavy.

The technical terms for this are longitudinal and transverse.

If you stand 20 meters away from a friend, the two of you holding the ends of a rope, and you suddenly raise and then lower your arm that is holding the rope, a wave will travel to your friend which will pull their arm up when it arrives. This is a transverse wave. The same thing happens when an electron is dragged back and forth on an antenna, emitting an electromagnetic wave that eventually drags another electron back and forth on the receiving antenna. This is called a transverse wave because the “waving” is up-and-down when the wave motion is from left to right.  Transverse means that the waving is happening in a direction  different from the direction of travel of the wave.

Sound waves in air are not transverse, because there is no structure in air to provide a sideways restoring force. If you drag an air molecule left or right as you pass there is no springiness in the air (like there was in the rope) to push the air molecule back into its original position. So air cannot support transverse waves. It can support longitudinal waves.

In longitudinal waves the “waving” is happening in the same direction as the direction of travel of the wave.  In air we usually express the intensity of a sound wave by the amount that it raises or lowers the local air pressure when it arrives. The only way for this to happen is if the arrival of the wave makes air molecules crowd up against the region of measurement or pull away from it.  Both of these motions are in the line of the direction of motion of the incoming sound wave. Instead of waving up or down, the sound wave is compressing and rarefying the air — squeezing and relaxing it, raising and lowering the air pressure.

We can get standing waves in a string if we fix both ends and pluck it like a guitar string. This only works if both ends are anchored because they have to be displacement nodes where the string wave will reflect back.The distance between the ends and the tension in the string  determine the frequency of vibration of the string waves.

Standing waves in a pipe are different because the waves are longitudinal and can reflect from open as well as closed pipe ends. At closed pipe ends the reflection is like the string wave reflection because the closed end of the pipe forbids air motion through it, thus making it a displacement node for the waves. The reflection from open pipe ends is different because the air can move in and out of the open pipe end so it is not a displacement node but a displacement  antinode. At the open pipe ends the air can move back and forth so its pressure stays at atmospheric normal – it is a pressure node.

Imagine a pipe open at both ends. Both ends are therefore pressure nodes so there must be one or more pressure antinodes inside the pipe. Think of the sound waves coming from both ends meeting at the middle. Since the incoming waves are coming from opposite directions the pressures from them squeeze the air between them in the middle of the pipe where the air cannot move because it is being pushed from both sides. The pipe middle is thus a pressure antinode and a displacement node.

Now imagine the same situation except the pipe has a square cross section and the ends taper down to points. Once again, because of the tunnel reflection effect, the ends of the pipe are displacement antinodes because thee air can move back and forth at the point where the crowded cross section causes the wave to reflect back on itself. The difference here is that the tapering creates a continuum of narrowing cross sections that guarantee a continuum of supportable standing wave patterns. Instead of one main “note” and its harmonics, the air “hypercolumn” enclosed by the tapered ends supports a quasi-resonant pattern: a continuum of resonant frequencies.

Another way to say this is to say that the shape of a boundary “molds” the sound wave patterns it can interact with. Putting a woofer on one end of a box molds a patterns of planar standing waves moving in the air column inside the box.

Putting the woofer on the face of an inside-out projected tesseract “molds” the standing wave patterns into cube-shaped standing waves as the internal reflections trace out a tesseract of wave fronts centered in the air hypercolumn inside the rhombic dodecahedron. A mold is the inside-out version of what it makes: start with an inside-out tesseract and reflect sound waves off the “interior” of it and you are going to make a rightside-out tesseract in the air patterns.

– MRK

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