Archive for November, 2007

Does science fiction drive real technological development?

November 28, 2007 22 comments

First, go watch this video at Greg Laden’s blog, of a man exercising a prototype exoskeleton.  Take special note of the enclosed mock-ups and the description of its fine control. 

Then read the following excerpt from Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel, Starship Troopers:

But I do want to mention a little about powered suits, partly because I was fascinated by them and also because that was what got me into trouble.  No complaints – I rated what I got.

An M.I. lives by his suit the way a K-9 man lives by and with and on his doggie partner.  Powered armor is one-half the reason we call ourselves “mobile infantry” instead of just “infantry.”  Our suits give us better eyes, better ears, stronger backs (to carry heavier weapons and more ammo), better legs, more intelligence (“intelligence” in the military meaning; a man in a suit can be just as stupid as anybody else – only he had better not be), more firepower, greater endurance, less vulnerability.

A suit isn’t a space suit – although it can serve as one.  It is not primarily armor – although the Knights of the Round Table were not armored as well as we are.  It isn’t a tank – but a single M.I. private could take on a squadron of those things and knock them off unassisted if anybody was silly enough to put tanks against M.I….

There are a dozen different ways of delivering destruction in impersonal wholesale, via ships and missiles of one sort or another, catastrophes so widespread, so unselective, that the war is over because that nation or planet has ceased to exist.  What we do is entirely different.  We make war as personal as a punch in the nose.  We can be selective, applying precisely the required amount of pressure at the specified point at a designated time – we’ve never been told to go down and kill or capture all left-handed redheads in a particular area, but if they tell us to, we can.  We will…

No need to describe what it looks like, since it has been pictured so often.  Suited up, you look like a big steel gorilla, armed with gorilla-sized weapons…

But the suits are considerably stronger than a gorilla.  If an M.I. in a suit swapped hugs with a gorilla, the gorilla would be dead, crushed; the M.I. and the suit wouldn’t be mussed.

The “muscles,” the pseudo-musculature, gets all the publicity but it’s the control of all that power which merits it.  The real genius in the design is that you don’t have to control the suit; you just wear it, like your clothes, like skin.  …

Two thousand pounds of it, maybe, in full kit – yet the very first time you are fitted into one you can immediately walk, run, jump, lie down, pick up an egg without breaking it… and jump over the house next door and come down to a feather landing.

The secret lies in negative feedback and amplification…

- Robert Heinlein, Starship Troopers, p. 79, 80, 81, emphasis mine

Despite its technological prescience, Starship Troopers is a political novel.  (Seriously, it was a crime to apply that title to the scarcely-related piece of cinematic drek spewed out of Hollywood.)  And Heinlein’s work is full of bang-on technological predictions like this.  Amazing what happens when you combine legendary fiction-writing skills with real-world knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, military culture, etc.  He took the trouble to know what the hell he was talking about and it shows.

Anyway, I have a hunch that real military visionaries read that novel and have been salivating over the strategic possibilities for decades, waiting for it to be possible.  What you see in the video is a prototype but there’s no mystery where it’s going.

Categories: Uncategorized

“Dumb” toys lead to smart kids

November 24, 2007 9 comments

Lead paint isn’t the only thing about a toy that could impair your child’s intellectual development.  Just in time for Christmas toy-buying comes this advice: “Simple Retro Toys May Be Better For Children Than Fancy Electronic Toys.” 

Really, that makes sense to me.  I wouldn’t let a child anywhere near a computer until about the age of 7 or so.  Before then, let them play with blocks, scribble on paper with crayons, tie things up with string, bounce a ball, and squish clay around. 

The article offers advice from the co-authors of a book called Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn—and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less

Categories: Education

Science Friday: Our race between education and catastrophe

November 23, 2007 5 comments
  • Highly Allochthonous gives us a glimpse at an old catastrophe in Black horizon, out of the ice age and into the asteroid shower.  I just love stuff like this, it really sets my imagination going.  For example, imagine what it would be like if something like that happened now?  Because, it doesn’t really cost that much to keep our eyes open.

  • The new IPCC report may be waking up all but the most denial-bound.  It certainly got the UN’s attention:  Climate change irreversible?  UN chief urges breakthrough after dire IPCC report released.  It does remind me of that old quote from HG Wells: “Civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.”
  • If you’re a science fiction fan, you are familiar with geoengineering, or changing the surface of a planet to make it more hospitable for human life.  Waddya think, should we try it that first time on our own planet?  Check out David Keith’s TedTalk: – geoengineering for cooler climate”.  He isn’t actually advocating we try geoengineering instead of conservation and new technology, but makes a very cogent case for at least studying the idea.
  • The first-ever “State of the carbon cycle” report was just released, and it ain’t pretty.  Main problem is, a number of carbon-sinks that have moderated atmospheric carbon levels until now, may be reaching their carrying capacity.  The largest of these sinks is our oceans, which have absorbed carbon dioxide by becoming more acidic. This is actually “not” a good thing so the Senate may fund a study on it.  Well if the study reveals that it’s a problem I’m sure they’ll spring into action like they always do.
  • How about an ocean story that has absolutely nothing to do with carbon dioxide or global warming?  It turns out the old sailor’s legends of giant rogue waves in the middle of nowhere, are true.  Well I’m sure that’s some comfort to Davy Jones and all his friends.
  • While we’re on ocean ecology, it doesn’t look good for the bluefin tuna.  Amazing… if you take more adults from a population than it can replenish, the population goes down.  Who knew?  I guess it’s just another darn case of market failure.
  • Just to end on a positive note, there’s an enormous telecom satellite going up that will “deliver high-bandwidth services, such as mobile internet, to Europe, the Middle East, Asia and Africa.”  It will “allow people to set up virtual offices anywhere around the world – on land or at sea. Users get half-a-megabit connections through small, laptop-sized terminals. Customers include business travelers, disaster relief workers, journalists, and people in the petrochemical and maritime industries.”
    • What’s cool about it is that it will enable entirely new business communication models in the emerging African economy, allowing them to technologically leapfrog us dowdy old first-worlders.  If it’s anything Africa needs now, it’s a boost in prosperity.


I’m still trying to decide on the main topic for next week’s SciFri but have run into a lot of neat stuff.  Bionic prosthetics?  Algae diesel?  Train efficiency?

Categories: Uncategorized


November 22, 2007 1 comment

Cherish your loved ones, there is no surplus of them.

(And for our soldiers in Iraq, and Afghanistan too, and all over the world.  We are thinking of you.)


Categories: observations

Washington DC gun ban to be reconsidered

November 20, 2007 21 comments

Since 1976, the US Capital (Motto: “Ain’t got no representation but still paying taxes”) has banned the possession of handguns.  So unlike other American cities, hardly anyone is ever murdered there.  Criminals break other laws, but for some reason they just meekly obey the gun laws. This has given rise to a uniquely DC tradition, the “Whiffle-bat mugging.”

That may be about to change next spring, as the Supreme Court considers the DC gun law.  The supes will decide if DC’s ban is constitutional.  If they go thumbs-down, the law goes and gun shops will be open before you can say ‘nightie-night’.

Just imagine what that could mean!  The gun-free utopia of Washington DC could become like other American cities.  Emergency rooms, unaccustomed to seeing gunshot wounds, would have to study up on the latest rescue techniques.  But it won’t be all bad.  Honest citizens will start packing, and according to the NRA, crime will virtually disappear as ordinary citizens routinely get the drop on hardened criminals. 

OK, you may have gotten the idea I’m not being completely serious about this news story.  What do you think?  Should the ban stay or go?  Does it matter?


Categories: Law, Politics


November 20, 2007 8 comments

On Sunday I set up an Ubuntu system for my son to use while he visits over holiday (it will be a step down for him but better than no computer).  But for all its well-intentioned interface smoovieness, Ubuntu is a bit bloated.  If you want quick and clean, (above all quick)  there are distros that have all the extra baggage pre-removed. Geekalicious goodies from InformationWeek Daily:

  1. Five tiny Linux distros that pack a punch

  2. 7 Reasons why Linux won’t succeed on the Desktop.  I had read this one before and it makes some great points.
  3. Why Linux will succeed on the desktop.  This one unintentionally illustrates a couple points from number 2, but opens a new thought: KDE4.  Though it is still in beta, I am definitely going to have to look into that some more.  But it won’t be for machines that would use the tiny distros.  The developers clearly have the Mac in mind.  Anyway the author believes Gnome needs to go away for Linux to succeed.

Unfortunately one great opportunity for Linux is the utter failure of Vista.  I would rather not see Linux succeed the lazy way, by default.

Categories: Geeky, Software

Idiocy, squared

November 19, 2007 2 comments

Has anyone seen the new ad for Mike Huckabee, featuring Chuck Norris?  He rolled it out on Faux News Sunday as Chris Wallace lobbed him softball questions to give him the opportunity for speechmaking. In the beginning of the ad, Huck explains his plan for securing our borders.  “Two words: Chuck. Norris.”

The 60-second “Chuck Norris Approved” commercial show Huckabee and Norris going back and forth on various “facts” about the two men.
“Mike Huckabee is a life-long hunter, who will protect our Second Amendment rights,” Norris says.
“There’s no chin behind Chuck Norris’ beard, only another fist,” Huckabee says.
“Mike Huckabee wants to put the IRS out of business,” Norris says.
“When Chuck Norris does a push-up, he isn’t lifting himself up; he’s pushing the earth down,” Huckabee says. “Chuck Norris doesn’t endorse, he tells America how it’s gonna be,” he adds.

Lordy, is this what we’ve come to?  This man is actually running for President of the United States.  I don’t know whether to file this under Politics or Stupidity.  Or maybe those two categories should intersect. 

Categories: Politics

The decline of violence in modern times

November 19, 2007 Comments off

Steven Pinker talks about The Decline of violence compared to the so-called good old days.  It’s a useful antidote for anyone inclined to return to a simpler time.  He also notes that since violence has been going downward through all human history, we must be doing something right, and we should be trying to figure out what that is.

This is one of those TedTalks videos, runs about 30 minutes.

Categories: Uncategorized

If we needed another reason to seek the post-oil future

November 19, 2007 6 comments

This story shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone.  Briefly a 19-year-old Saudi woman was gang-raped, and the seven men are being severely punished with five-year prison sentences.  The woman, however, violated Islamic law by being in a car with a strange man and was given 90 lashes.

What’s that you say?  They tortured her as if she hadn’t already been through enough?  Well you know, she was probably asking for it.  Did you see the way her head scarf was slightly open?  If you think I’m being cruelly cynical, read the letters in response to the BBC article linked below.  Many of them compliment the Saudi court for their right action. Anyway, the story does not end there…

She protested, saying her punishment was excessive.  So the judge increased her sentence to six months in jail and 200 lashes, and punished her lawyer too.  You can read all the details in the links below, along with some interesting little factoids about what it means to be a woman in an Islamic country.  For one thing, it means seeking redress for rape may very well land you in jail, bruised and bleeding.  And then, probably, an outcast for life.

Think about that the next time you fill up your car.  Think about who you’re doing business with.  Forget for a moment the US oil companies and their funding of global-warming denial thinktanks, and remember where they get the oil.  Think about that woman in jail, slowly healing from 200 lashes (does that ever heal) and recovering from the trauma of being gang-raped and then blamed for it (probably never heals) and realize that a good chunk of the proceeds from your credit-card swipe went to the Saudi royal family, to finance Islamism.

And don’t say it isn’t Islamism, that it doesn’t represent Islam.  The Koran is Saudi Arabia’s constitution.  Legal arguments are made in their courts on the basis of Islamic tradition.  Would they have so much power if it weren’t for oil? Do you think for one minute we’d be doing business with these jerks if it weren’t for oil?  Would we be defending them with our military?  Would we be ignoring the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia?  Would we push the whole damn world to the brink of disaster on their behalf if it weren’t for oil?

This is one place where environmentalism and simple human decency coincide.  It isn’t a plea to give up a technological lifestyle, but it does seem as if some Americans purposely go out of their way to consume more oil than they have to.  That shouldn’t be any more socially acceptable than is drunk driving.  As citizens we can drive the conservation market by consistently making more carbon-frugal choices. 

The post-oil future isn’t going to fall into our laps by accident, but we can help make it happen.  Huge corporations are mindless beasts; they’re not capable of altruism but they’re not inherently evil either.  They just move in the direction of consumer money, the way water flows downhill.  Wave our cash in the right direction and they’ll lumber off toward it.

Consumer choice is only one way to influence corporations – there are other carrots and sticks too.  Time is short: let’s use every tool available to us.

Update: comments closed on this post because some very persistent spammer has found it.  But thank you to all the real commenters below!

Categories: Uncategorized

Photo album: Hannibal, Missouri

November 17, 2007 2 comments

Are you an insomniac?  Are you so bored you’ll even look at some joker’s vacation pictures? Are you writing a school paper on Mark Twain, or Hannibal, Missouri, and you need space-filling pictures to make the page requirement?  Well here you go:

The old-timey drugstore was very cool, as was the vulture.  And the cave.  And I thought the levee was interesting. 

Categories: Personal