Friday, January 20, 2012

The Airgate Effect

I am a technocrat.  It's taken me some time to reconcile myself to this fact, but I've come to realize that it's true.  I've always distrusted representative democracy, at least as it's commonly practiced.  Every political cycle, we hear rhetoric about a return to common sense.  I no longer trust common sense.  I've become a technocrat, and it's due to something I call the "airgate effect".

For those who don't know what I'm talking about: in the vicinity of my life, pick-up trucks are common.  For the sake of future historians, a pickup truck is a form of automobile with an open cargo bed in the back.  The rear end of the cargo bed is usually a fold-down metal gate, intended to make loading and unloading easier.

Many pick-up truck owners are dissatisfied with this situation.  Vertical planes are bad, they reason.  They interrupt smooth airflow and so reduce fuel efficency, reduce top speed, and so on.  The solution to this problem, they reason, is to stretch a rubberized plastic net - an airgate - across the back of the bed in place of the metal gate.  This, they reason, will let air flow through the gate and prevent the vertical plane effect.  Common sense, right?

There are problems with this. The engineers who design picup trucks in Detroit and elsewhere have access to tools for dealing with problems like this.  They can use scale models, wind tunnels, and computer simulations.  They have test tracks.  And, as it happens, they've solved this problem.  The metal gate causes the cargo bed to be a mass of stagnant air.  Moving air flows over the top of it without interference and without substantial drag.  Replacing the rear metal gate with an airgate ruins this whole effect.  Adding an airgate reduces milage and top speed.

Common sense is wrong.  People who know things about things actually know things about things.  Some topics don't respond well to common sense or to the vox populi.  People relying on common sense probably shouldn't make decisions about whether Pluto is a planet, or how to build pickup trucks, or whether freeway entrance ramps ought to be metered.  Perhaps those decisions should be left to people who know things about things.  This is why I've become a technocrat.

Googlebombing for a cause:

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Value of Nothing

In other news, Megaupload was taken down today.  Dredged out are the claims that the corporations that own recording artists have lost x dollars over y time period.

How are those numbers obtained?  What relation do they bear to reality?  I suppose they simply look at number of digital copies transferred and then slap a price tag on them.  But that, of course, ignores a number of factors:

How many of these people would not buy these products?  Austrian-school economists will tell you that the value of something is what the market is willing to pay for it.  For some of these products, the market has apparently decided that it wants to pay $0.00 dollars for it.

How many people have already bought copies of these products and are seeking a clean, easy-to-use version?  This happens more often than you'd think: format changes, loss or damage to existing physical media, and the fact that the pirated copies are often easier to use or more reliable.

How many of the products wouldn't actually sell at a full MSRP?  A B-movie from 20 years ago will probably not sell at the same price point as an A-lister released on Blu-Ray last week.

Some of these products are not available legally on the open market.  I'm kind of a fan of abandonware games that are not available on the open market at any price.  Other products have extremely limited distribution or are terribly difficult to get a hold of ("Repo! The Genetic Opera", I'm looking at you.)
Putting a price tag on what might have been sold is kinda loony.

Googlebombing for a cause:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Semper fi?

Recently in the news has been a report of U.S. marines who desecrated the corpses of slain Afghani insurgents.  Much give-and-take has been had and will be had on the subject, but there are some angles to this worth bearing in mind.

The readiest is an appeal to that fundamental maxim, "Be excellent to one another."  There's a term floating around, about which much more shall be spoken at another time, as it's become foundational to certain schools of philosophy, psychology, and anthropology, and their extensions into politics.  That term is "monkey sphere".  To illustrate in brief, a person's monkey sphere is the social group towards which the person owes a certain standard of behavior.  One doesn't steal from a member of one's monkey sphere, or deceive them, or treat them badly.  From a strictly evolutionary standpoint, though, everyone else is fair game.  The only limit to what you can do to them is what they can do to prevent it.

However, it's one of the conceits of ethics that one's morality can grow beyond one's monkey sphere.  "[...]for you were strangers in Egypt", "[...]and love your neighbor likewise", and yes, even, "be excellent to one another."  Moral enlightenment comes when we can grow our monkey sphere to encompass the entire world.  Even our enemies.

Our moral aspirations, the "arrow of longing [we] shoot beyond [ourselves]", say that we can exceed our neurobiology.  That we can treat even our enemies with respect.  That being a moral human being means not desecrating the dead, even the hated dead.

"But," you say, "you yourself have in the past held up Achilles as the exemplar of a certain standard of behavior.  A behavior you yourself have felt worthy of emulation.  And Achilles desecrated the body of his fallen foe, Hector."

True, yes, he did.  But remember, Achilles is an 'eros.  He is not quite a god, but more than a man.  He rages as the gods rage, and his slaying of Hector is as a deific act.  Then Priam visited him in the night, and even Achilles repented.  At that moment, he became human, and as a human, he became capable of shooting the arrow of his longing beyond himself.  He could aspire to be a better person.  Achilles repented.

Some have said that the dead enemy should be desecrated.  That they "did it to us, first."  Is that how we want to be remembered by this cold, uncaring universe once we are gone?  As not being any better than we are, not any better than our enemies?  Has the arrow of our longing fallen so short?  Or have we forgotten to fit it to our bow?  Surely we can do better than that.  Nothing we do means anything, therefore what we do means everything.

What if we could imagine a new species of warrior?  Ones who could mourn and praise the dead, even as they fall? "Teach us to care and not to care."
"If we do this, then we will show our ferocity."  There is no doubt that fear is a force multiplier.  When one must use force or the threat of force, then fear becomes a tool in the toolbox.  The Assyrians built pyramids of skulls.  The Mongols conscripted their defeated enemies to be fed into the maw of the next seige.  The Luftwaffe fit sirens to the Ju-87 (and apparently the Galactic Empire did the same with the TIE fighter, in defiance of the conventional acoustics of vacuums).

But desecrating the dead is not a force multiplier.  It does not gain one an advantage.  One looks monstrous, yes, but not terrifying.  There is no use for this is the mathematics of conflict.

Doing this sort of thing simply disgust those who would try to allies.  It disgusts foes.  In a war of signs and propaganda and ideology such as the U.S. is engaged in, the only victorious endgame is to make peace with the enemy.  To remove the reasons the enemy is fighting.  To paraphrase Lincoln, "I make my enemy my friend."
At the same time, this sort of behavior is predictable.  War, as so many have noted, is hell.  It takes its toll on those who fight it.  In order to fight effectively, one must eschew being a man of peace, and become a man of war.  "One who fights with monsters must take care that he not become a monster."

One must expect atrocities in war.  There is no such thing as a war crime, because in truth, all wars are crimes.  Because the sword is so terrible, one must always use exacting care in choosing to unsheath it.  Acts like these are the ugly consequences of war, and one of many reasons why war must never be entered into casually.  Even the living are casualties of war.

Googlebombing for a cause:

Monday, January 9, 2012

Sherlock, series 2

One of the guys I live with has recently turned me on to Sherlock, the latest English reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's tales of Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective.  This particular series updates the legend for the 21st century, which is a fresh take.  The basic stories have been rewritten, but are packed with sly allusions to the canon.  Sherlock also continues the recent television meme of the super-genius investigator, drawing off of such series as House, Bones, Psych, Lie to Me, and others.

This is, unfortunately, where the series tends to stumble.  The original canon tales carry with them a sense of wonder.  They're set in the late Victorian period, when forensics was an emerging science.  The study and classification of fingerprints was new, Bertillion had just started using his invariant biometrics, and the idea of investigating crimes after the fact was still something of a novelty.  The Holmes stories carry some of their strength by their view of the monomaniacal, eccentric genius who is willing to study 143 different types of tobacco ash and so gains an advantage by doing so.

Of course, in the modern age, forensic science is a well matured field.  The research has been done.  Any competent medical examiner knows how to judge time of death, identify post-mortem injuries, examine blood pooling, and so on.  Identifying the type and brand of cigarettes from their ash is now a routine job for lab techs with mass spectrometers.  It no longer takes a supergenius to examine and draw conclusions from this sort of evidence.

Warning: spoilers for the second season of Sherlock follow.  Assumption is made that anyone reading this will have seen the first season and at least the first episode f the second, "A Scandal in Belgravia"..

No really.

Consider yourself warned.

Oone of the fun aspects from the original stories that is still preserved is the Sherlock scan.  Sherlock is still able to quickly scan people and determine their occupation, habits, and something of their personality.  This, too, is a field that has developed over the last century, but still remains somewhat ad hoc.  People transmit messages every moment that most of them are unaware of.  How they sit or stand, the clothes they choose to wear, the words they choose, the constructions of their speech, their expressions... these all tell a patient and acute observer something about them.  One of the delights of the Sherlock Holmes mythos is how he reads these signs (a sort of applied psycho-anthro-semiotics).  This new series continues that tradition, even going so far as to highlight these observations with graphics that pop up on the screen as Sherlock completes his scan.

The other fun innovation in this new series is the attempts by people to fool or mislead Sherlock's scans.  Irene Adler in this latest episode is a valiant attempt: knowing that Sherlock could read so much from her clothing, when she meets him, she appears naked.  It works: Sherlock is apparently unable to read anything from her.  A nice moment, narratively.

But should Sherlock really draw such a blank?  He shouldn't.  He may not be able to read the minute signs he's used to reading, but he should still be able to draw information.  For instance:

Adler presents a body image that corresponds to contemporary beauty standards.  She's slender and obviously not overweight.  This is a body image that takes some discipline and effort to maintain.

She initially appears unperterbed by her nudity in front of a stranger, presenting herself somewhat brazenly.  She may be accustomed to nudity in semi-public settings (we have already been told that she is a dominatrix by trade, so this is a reasonable conclusion); she wouldn't choose nudity as a tactic unless she were at least somewhat comfortable with it..  She flaunts herself: she may be intending on the shock value, eliciting confusion and possibly arousal.  She's using both a breach of convention and sexuality as power.  But within a few minutes, she sits in a chair, crossing her arms and legs, covering up.  The nudity becomes more obviously a ploy; someone without a modesty taboo (a naturist or nudist) won't become self-conscious.  She covers up because she feels vulnerable in some way.

Her nudity was a tactic, meant to shock and confuse.  She knows Sherlock by name.  Her nakedness prevents him from reading anything from her clothing or the way she wears it.  She knows who he is and how he operates.  She's making a deliberate bid to confuse him and restrict what he learns.  This is useful to know.

Her hair and makeup are neatly done, which also argues against naturism.  She's chosen a specifically blood-red shade of lipstick.  This is an assertion of experienced sexuality.  That particular shade also implies an assertion of power and control.  As we already know, she's a dominatrix by trade: a woman doesn't typically blunder into the business.  That implies a certain awareness and fascination with power and control.  That's an interpersonal paradigm she knows and is comfortable with.  This makes her somewhat predictable.

The room is an unremarkable sitting room.  It is clean and uncluttered (a housekeeper is inferred).  This is not an intimate room.  There are no personal emblems on display, except a somewhat ornate mirror over a similarly ornate mantle that serves as the visual focus of the room.  The prominence of the mirror suggests a reliance on appearance and seemings.  Combined with the centrality of power and control, this suggests a pattern of interpersonal striving dependent on bluff and deception.

This is the room that Sherlock was ushered into, rather than a kitchen, a washroom, or a bedroom.  The sitting room is distant and impersonal, which is at odds with Adler's nudity; more confirmation of a ploy.  Sherlock has gained access to the house by pretending to be injured and in distress, a facade that Adler quickly penetrates.  Once again we have an attempt to assert control by the manipulation of appearances: by penetrating Sherlock's facade while attempting simultaneously to avoid revealing any information transmits that a game is being played in which appearances are central.

And the above doesn't even account for that infromation which someone with the right skillset could derive from such things as facial features, calluses, skeletal formation (showing itself through posture and movement), static facial features, facial expressions, and so on.

All of this can be learned in just a few minutes.  Much more information than just a blank because there are no clothes.

Googlebombing for a cause:

Sunday, January 8, 2012

This is not the FCC's Fault

Science education in American schools is in a disgraceful state.

A customer (and by "customer", I of course mean the product my company packages up for sale to our real customers, the advertisers) decided to call me the other day, wondering why he could hear Rush on his local AM station, and not Jason Lewis, his preferred source of conservative obfuscation.  He seemed confused as to why the signal would disappear late in the day.

Here's how it works:

There is a layer of charged particles in the upper atmosphere known as the 'ionosphere'.  The ionosphere reflects radio waves in the AM frequency band.  AM radio takes advantage of this phenomenon by deliberately reflecting its signal off the ionosphere and back to Earth, thus allowing AM extend its range without a larger draw of power.  This is why AM radio stations tend to be cheaper to buy and run, and thus less-popular formats like talk radio manage to be commercially viable.

The FCC is the quasi-governmental organization within the U.S. charged with managing the radio-frequency spectrum.  One of the goals of the FCC is to prevent interference and cross-talk: two stations on the same frequency are not supposed to broadcast to the same geographical point, lest their signals overlap and become mutually unintelligible.  Although digital radio, particularly encrypted digital packet radio,  offers solutions.  But that requires an infrastructure not yet in place.

When night comes, the ionosphere rises to a higher altitude.   This has the effect of increasing the range of a given AM radio station, allowing it to cover more area.  This leads to a tendency for more stations to overlap and come into conflict.  The FCC counters that effect by requiring roughly half of the AM stations to power down or off during nightime hours.

Thus, one stands roughly a 50% chance of losing the signal to a given AM station as night comes on.  The time in which that happens will tend to get earlier and earlier as the days get shorter.  Short of drastically changing the composition of the atmosphere, altering the axial tilt or rate of rotation of the planet, or traveling off-world there is nothing at all that can be done about this.  This is not Obama's fault, voting for Santorum or Bachman will not change this (although if either one takes power, I'll lay money that an an increasing number of Americans won't understand why they can't). 

Whether one believes is an naturalistic process of planetary formation or prefers to believe in divine intervention, this is the inherent nature of the planet we live in.  Denying scientific inquiry will not change this.  No longer teaching science in schools will not change this.  Stuffing one's head in a bag, ignoring the complexities of the world, and relying only on "common sense" will not change this.  The funny thing about the natural world is that it doesn't care whether or not you believe in it.  The solar system will keep doing its thing despite all of your denials, pleadings, or conspiracy theories.

Googlebombing for a cause: