Saturday, February 14, 2004

I really need one of these

A company called Moller is promoting the M400 Skycar which they expect to have finished in a year or three. It's a VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) craft that uses a thrust system consisting of fans driven by internal combustion engines. I've heard of fans driven by jet engines and propellers driven by internal combustion engines, but this is the first time I've heard of this combination. They claim a top speed of 380 mph at 20,000 ft, and a payload of 750 lbs.

Now this obviously has a much higher coolness factor than a helicopter, but I wonder if it has any practical advantages. Helicopters can land safely after an engine failure because of autogyration, but this thing would drop like a rock. And I can't believe small fans are as efficient as a big propeller.

UPDATE: (spelling fixed) That's IT, Dave! No more posting directly from the browser where you don't get the benefit of a spell-checker. Next time, you go to bed without your cookie.

close-captioning and the constitution

This article, linked to from Eschaton, complains about the government cutting funds that were used to add close-captioning to various programs. The reason given is that the programs in question don't fit the criteria set out by the legislation that authorized the funds. The Eschaton readership readers are upset about this, but they are blaming the wrong entity. It was Congress that set the criteria. All the current administrators are doing is trying to bring the activity in line with the law. Previous administrators were apparently breaking the law and spending unauthorized tax money. If you think it is a horrible injustice to the deaf that the government doesn't make "I Dream of Jeanie" accessible to them, then the entity you need to complain about is Congress. You know, the governmental body that is responsible to tax and spend, according to the constitution.

Don't call for administrators to ignore legal guidelines in spending unless you are willing to live with the consequences. Not all federal administrators are going to share your ideas about what things are so worthwhile that they should be funded even though there is no authorization to do so. You want sports programs for the deaf? Maybe someone else wants religious programming for the deaf. Or they want to pay for something else that advances their conservative agenda. And they want to spend your tax money on it without any authorization from Congress. Is that OK?

The basic question here is whether we are going to be a nation ruled by laws or whether anyone with any authority just does whatever he thinks is right and then we argue endlessly over whether it actually is right, and try to get him fired or promoted, based on our prejudices. Isn't it a lot better just to vote every couple of years for Congress, let them make the decisions, and then expect the government to follow those decisions?

UPDATE: Opus beat me to the punch on this one (scroll up, the permalink is wrong). I've got to learn to type faster.
The Bob Seger lyrics I posted below are a moving passage in an otherwise unimpressive song. Bob Seger manages to make it sound great, but the lyrics don't do anything for me, largely because I disagree with the point Seger is trying to make (that high school kids having sex is just a healthy part of growing up). Anyway, here is another example from The Eagles Hotel California where the whole song is tremendous. The song is filled with striking images and wordplay, building up to a peak of suspense and then kind of leaving you there at the end. A lot of effect is probably due to the music, I think it's in a minor key, but this song can give you chills. Also, I think that's all the song is: striking images, clever wordplay and a haunting melody. I don't think it is really any kind of commentary on California society. People are always trying to force a coherent meaning on poetry, but coherent meaning is for prose. Here's one of the more striking passages:

Her mind is Tiffany twisted
She's got the Mercedes bends
She's got a lot of pretty, pretty boys
That she calls friends
How they dance in the courtyard
Sweet summer sweat
Some dance to remember
Some dance to forget

great poetry

I'm an anti-elitist in all areas except my specialty, computer science, where people who don't know what they are talking about should just shut up and let the experts handle it. But one of the areas I'm most strongly an anti-elitist is in the arts. It annoys me when people talk about great writers or artists as though this had some objective meaning. Art is deeply personal. Some art manages to deeply effect many people, and it is arguable that this makes it great art but you couldn't use this argument to decide which art is great without some sort of surveying or other objective measure. I believe that what is considered great art by the elites today is largely due to intensive lobbying and campaigning by partisans over the centuries, and there is no reason to credit any of it.

One halfway decent (but still flawed) measure would be how many people are willing to spend their money on the art. By this standard, Star Wars beats Macbeth all to heck. It may be that over time, many more people have gone to see Macbeth, but Macbeth has been around a lot longer. Also Macbeth has received intense lobbying over the years, turning it into a status symbol, a sign that you are one of the enlightened.

For example, here's something that I consider great poetry in the subjective sense that it effected me very strongly. From Bob Seger's Night Moves:

I awoke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off I sat and wondered
Started humming a song from 1962
Ain’t it funny how the night moves
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose
Strange how the night moves
With autumn closing in

file compression hoaxes

From One Hand Clapping, this company named NetZero is advertising that they can speed up your internet connection by compressing files. This isn't actually a hoax, but it's a bit deceptive. Most people having trouble with internet speeds are having trouble with pictures, sounds, and video, and these formats are already so highly compressed that NetZero can't possibly get more than two or three percent more on average. NetZero says they can compress some graphics, but they are probably referring to the few uncompressed formats like VRML or raw tiff files. These are not significant in most surfing.

But this is an opportunity to discuss the computer version of the perpetual motion machine -- the perfect compression program. There have been various hoaxes where some con artist has convinced people that he had a computer program that can compress any file by 50% or some other impressive number. It's easy to see that this is impossible. First, let's say you take a picture of your dog Bowser and name it Bowser1.jpg. Now you run the compression program on it to get a compressed picture and call it Bowser2.jpg. Since Bowser2.jpg is a file, you should be able to run the compression program on it again to get Bowser3.jpg. Repeat until the file gets down to the smallest possible size, one bit. Now do the same thing with a picture of your cat and again with a picture of your goldfish. You now have three one-bit files. But there are only two one-bit files possible, so two of the images must have compressed to the same one-bit file. How are you going to uncompress two identical files into different images?

It is possible to prove this more generally (without the recompressing) based on the fact that there are only so many different files of a given length. There are two different 1-bit files and four different 2-bit files. Obviously you can't compress all 2-bit files to 1-bit files, there aren't enough 1-bit files to represent all the 2-bit files. The same holds true for files of any length. There are more different files of longer length, so you can't possibly compress all the longer files into shorter files, there just aren't enough of the shorter files.

I really need one of these

This is the Phoenix 1000 submarine from U.S. Submarines Inc.. From the fact that they only have drawings and not photos of the luxery submarines, I'm inclined to think they haven't actually built one. That's why I'm not getting one. I would just be too impatient to order it and wait for it to be built because I need instant gratification.

This particular model is 65m long (that's a 210 ft yatch BTW), has an operating depth of 305m and can stay submerged for up to 140 hours (probably depending on how big a party you are throwing).

Friday, February 13, 2004

I just found out I know a movie star

Lorraine never told me, but someone spilled the beans as she was getting ready to leave the company. Can you imagine? She was in a movie with Wessley "Blade" Snipes and never bothered to tell me. And I never would have guessed she was one of those Hollywood types since she's so nice. Except now that I think of it, she did always drink up all the decaf after I made it and never bothered to make more. That's kind of an inkling of a sort of "I'm showfolk royalty and your just one of the little people" sort of attitude but maybe I'm reading too much into it. She's a babe too (I can say it now that she is leaving and I don't have to worry about sexual harrassment issues). I'm going to miss having you around, Lorraine. Especially the times you wore the black fishnet stockings. By the way, if you get a chance to shop my screen play around, there's a commission in it for you. You can even play Turna.

Cool Stuff

In case anyone was wondering, no, I don't get paid for posting links to cool stuff like hovercraft and amphibious vehicles. I just like cool stuff and I give links to the company web pages because it only seems fair. Also, I don't own any of this stuff (hence the title "I really need one of these"). I'd love to hear from people who do own cool stuff like this and would like to share their stories and pictures. Especially anyone in the SF Bay area who wants to give me a ride. Really especially anyone who wants to let me drive.

I'm thinking about making this a regular feature on the blog.

I really need one of these

My office is right on the San Francisco Bay. I live near the office since I hate commuting, but I've had this fantasy about living on the other side of the bay and commuting to work via a hovercraft. I think I could live with a ten minute commute across the bay. I've even gone so far as to examine the nearby coast to see if there is anywhere I could drive a hovercraft out of the water and found not one but two sites. One of them comes right up into a parking lot that I'm sure I could get permission to use.

This is even better though: It's the UHSPW18 Hoverwing from Universal Hovercraft. The wings are removable. Without the wings, it's a very fast hovercraft (they claim 75mph). With the wings, it's a wing-in-ground vehicle or WIG. You can follow the link for more info on WIGs, but basically they are aircraft that fly so close to the ground that they get extra lift and reduced drag from a special effect called, oddly enough, the wing-in-ground effect.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

An alternative to the Federal Marriage Amendment

A lot of people who are opposed to gay marriage are not thrilled about the FMA as a solution. Other are opposed to the FMA because they favor gay marriage even though they generally support the conservative agenda. So how about an entirely different amendment that would use this popular issue to do something worthwhile? Instead of a Federal Marriage Amendment, we could have a Federal Constitution Amendment that says we are a constitutional federation of states governed by elected representatives, not an oligarchic monolithic state ruled by appointed judges. With the growing outrage over judicial activism, this may be our best chance to get such an amendment passed.

Would it be possible to craft an amendment to the US constitution that would stop or dramatically slow judicial activism while preserving the power of the court to protect minorities from the majority? I don't know. Nothing really good comes to mind except to restate some of the more egregiously ignored passages in the current constitution and adding "and this time we really mean it!" In addition to the odious social meddling courts have engaged in, there are also frightening cases where courts have failed to uphold basic rights for political reasons. Can any principled person really support a right of the government to "arrest" property that negates the right to be secure in our persons and property or a right to paternal support that negates the accused's right to defend himself?

This amendment should stop courts from imposing gay marriage and throw the question back into the political arena where it belongs. Would people who oppose gay marriage agree to that?

UPDATE: Back of the Envelope proposes something similar but I scooped him by days.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

The difference between "imminent" and "urgent"

In a previous post on this subject I just asserted without argument that "imminent" and "urgent" mean something different, but I can understand that people will think that when talking about threats they come to the same thing. Not so, and here are a couple of examples to show why.

Example 1: Dagwood is supposed to be mowing the lawn, but instead he retreats to his favorite lawn chair to take a nap. After a few minutes, he hears Blonde calling for him and knows that in a minute she will come out and make him get to work. Blonde represents an imminent threat at this point because the damage is about to happen but not an urgent threat. There is nothing that Dagwood has to do right now in response to the threat. He can just lay there and take the consequences, because he knows that at most he can delay the inevitable for a few more minutes.

Example 2: Police chase an armed suspect through a park at 3am. When they finally catch him, he doesn't have his gun anymore so they know he threw it away during the chase. Kids play in this park, which makes it urgent that they find the gun immediately. No kids are likely to be there at 3am, so the threat isn't imminent, but it is still urgent because any delay can lead to drastic consequences.

So a threat can be imminent without being urgent or urgent without being imminent.

Capitalist Pigs in Space!

Transorbital advertises themselves as the first commercial venture to the moon. I gotta say their business model looks a little weak and I'm not running to the phone to call my broker, but I'm pulling for them. I think the future of space and ocean exploration is commercial. Government exploration is too burdened by fear-of-failure and by the political winds but if someone can actually make a profit out of exploration, that's when it takes off.
I really need one of these

Cool Amphibious Manufacturers International, LLC has some super-cool stuff. Like an amphibious RV that looks like a motorhome on the highway and looks like, well a half-submerged motorhome on the water. But you get a boat and an RV in one package that probably costs no more than twice as much as buying the two separately. They also have a luxury amphibious SUV.
Confessions of a Gizmophile
It all started innocently enough. I needed a recording device for a project I'm doing. Nothing fancy, just a decent quality recording device that can record a couple of hours of conversation. I decided to go digital for reasons of, well, a small electro-prurient interest I suppose, but it was relatively innocent. I wasn't going to go crazy or anything, just get something a little cool, a little gizmoish. I haven't had any gizmophilic satisfaction since I bought my cell phone. So shoot me for being interested. MORE...

Lots of people have emailed me about my blog description (well, no one has actually emailed me, but I'm sure lots of people wanted to). They want to know how I can claim to be the world's foremost metahero. The answer is that I'm the world's foremost metahero by definition. I invented the term, so I get to decide the parameters for deciding who is the foremost. This is all relating to my theory of blogdom. You see, any field of literature (and I include blogdom here) has various stages that it follows in terms of the protagonists it deals with. In the beginning it deals with normal people who do things like have babies or get killed in battles in normal literature. In the blog world this corresponds to the early internet sites where people wrote dumb diaries about their dog's mange, or how their Windows partition got screwed up.

The second stage is characterized by heros. People who are bigger and brighter than the normal human being. In literature these people tended to win wars rather than getting killed in them, and in the blog world they set up internet sites that provided a valuable service so that people actually wanted to read them. Examples are are Gizmodo and Angband. The next stage is the age of superheros. Not just the kind who wear brightly-colored spandex costumes, but people who are superhuman, who have powers that no real person does. In literature, these superheros include not only Spiderman (my personal fave) but also Hercules and Tarzan. In the blogging world, this corresponds to people who manage to attain high readerships while offering no obvious service other than their own random musings. In the world of blogs, Lileks is Tarzan and Atrios is The Joker (actually, I'm going to have to rethink that whole Lileks/Tarzan thing, but Atrios is perfect as The Joker. He's got a secret identity and he's got that whole good-natured malevolence thing going).

In the next stage come the gods. These are creatures so powerful that they are beyond anything that normal humans can even comprehend. In literature we had Thor, who could smite with lightening and Loki who knew the secrets of magic. In the blog world we have Instapundit who can smite a server with an instalanche and Andrew Sullivan who knows the secret of making money from blogging.

After the gods, you are sort of hitting the end of the trend. It's not easy to invent challenges for omnipotent beings, so the next stage goes the other direction and brings us the antihero. These are deeply flawed individuals who nevertheless manage to undertake heroic actions. Think Dirty Harry or the star of "Everybody Loves Raymond". In the blog world we have Gwielo who exploits pictures of attractive and incompletely clothed young women to attract people to his page (of course I only read the page for the articles) or ScrappleFace who prints nothing but lies. Everything he says is a lie, he even admits it.

In the final stage, we have a group of people who don't actually have anything to say or any reason to start a blog, but they feel left out, so they start one anyway. These are the metaheros. "Meta" is a greek-root word meaning "after" or "beyond". So a metahero is one who comes after the heros. And the foremost metahero is by definition the first one who posits this historical trend in a blog post. The closest analogy to metaheros in literature would probably be found in romance novels.

As evidence for my thesis, I note that Geilo is now copying Scrappleface's dishonesty. What will we have next, Scrappleface showing pictures of scantily clad network news hosts?

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

How The Democrats Can Win In November

Bush has lost the loyalty of his base. Oh, they're still voting for him, but they're holding their noses when they do it, and only because of the war on terror. If it weren't for that, they would abandon him in droves. Maybe they wouldn't vote for a Democrat, but they would just not bother to vote. Likewise, the president has many supporters who are Democrats. Again, these are people who are going to vote for him largely because of the war on terror. Without that, they would go home to their party. This creates a tremendous opportunity for the Democrats, but one that they have all bungled terribly with their constant whining about how bad the war is going. You don't get lots of undecided points by attacking the commander-in-chief during a war, you just piss people off.

The Democrats need to reverse themselves entirely and talk about how well the war is going. They need to emphasize the positive signs. They need to say that the terrorists are on the run, that their organization is practically destroyed, that they are disorganized and demoralized. The Democrats need to start saying this now. Then in a few months, when the campaign is in full swing, they need to declare that the war is over. The forces of good have won and the forces of evil are destroyed! Yeah! Oh, there's still a little cleanup to do, but nothing that requires a war footing, or a war budget. The Democratic nominee needs to graciously thank George Bush for saving us from the terrorists and then say that his time is done. He was a great war president, but the war is over and it is time to get back to the things that matter.

Americans don't like changing presidents in the middle of a war, but they like changing presidents after a war. The Democrats need to convince people that the war is over.

That's how the Democrats can win in November.
Well, I first advertised my speaking services a few months ago on my web site, and the result so far has been underwelming. Actually, non-existent. I've decided the problem is probably my lack of experience which, of course, will make event schedulers nervous. To help alleviate their fears and demonstrate my professionalism I'd like to point out that I actually have a speech outline that I follow, presented below as proof that I know what I'm doing.

Doc Rampage Speech Outline
1. Check teeth for green stuff.

2. Smarmy comments to get audience on your side.

3. More smarminess. Really need audience on your side for this joke.

4. Tell joke.

5. if audience laughs, goto 6
5a check microphone by blowing into it
5b try to explain joke
5c goto 5

6. Make self deprecating comment to cement relationship with audience.

7. Talk about stuff.

8. Wind up with more self-deprecating comments so audience will feel
too guilty to be critical.

Monday, February 09, 2004

The Center for American Progress has posted another shot in the tiresome war about whether Bush lied (link from Spinsanity). This article does us the service of posting a large set of quotes that prove two things: first, that the Bush Whitehouse did not claim Iraq was an imminent threat, and second, that the authors of this article don't know what the word "imminent" means.

They give over thirty quotes by administration people discussing what a big threat Iraq was, and only five of them contained the word "imminent". In one of those quotes, the person is saying that Iraq was an imminent threat to Turkey if we invaded. This was not part of the discussion of whether Iraq is a general threat that needed to be handled, so it doesn't apply. In one of the quotes the word is used only to deny it. In another Rumsfeld is speculating over whether the threat is imminent, not claiming it definitely is. And in the last two, it was a reporter who used the word and an administration official agreeing with it. These last two are the only examples they could find of someone in the administration actually saying the threat is imminent. Now given that the phrase "imminent threat" is a cliche, and given that the people who brought us this list were clearly looking for the word, this proves beyond a reasonable doubt that the administration had a specific, rigidly enforced policy of not using the word. There is no other way to explain the relative absence of the cliche to express how worried they were about the threat. That also explains why McClellan could be so certain that no one had used the phrase. He obviously didn't review every statement made by any administration official, rather he knew it was policy and he knew no one had gotten in trouble for violating the policy. The two actual slips show that constantly reminding yourself not to say a word doesn't always help you notice when someone else uses it.

So if I'm right that this policy existed, even if you find a slip or two, that doesn't change the fact that the administration, as a matter of policy, did not consider the threat imminent. They didn't claim it and then deny it. The most you can say is that a couple of them made a slip and said something that was different from the official policy. Careless but not dastardly.

As to the second thing we can learn from this article, I confess it took me a week to get it. Someone is trying to prove that the administration said the threat is imminent, and as proof they give a bunch of quotes, five sixths of which don't even contain the word or anything related. But then I re-read the article today, following the link from Spinsanity and this quote hit me:

... McClellan himself and others did use the phrase "imminent threat" – while also using the synonymous phrases "mortal threat," "urgent threat," "immediate threat", "serious and mounting threat", "unique threat," ...

Yowza. These guys think "imminent" means "serious" or "important" or something like that. It doesn't of course. "Imminent" means "close in time, about to happen". Those other phrases all mean something different. They aren't all synonyms even with each other either, which suggests the authors simply have poor reading comprehension. In fact I'm now wondering if a lot of the hot air is caused by people talking past each other. When Bush's defenders say "he never said imminent" a lot of his critics think they are arguing over trivial terminology (sort of like arguing over what "is" means). They think the claim is that Bush never used a particular word, but they are frustrated because they think the argument is over whether he ever said the threat was urgent, and he clearly did say that. But that isn't what his defenders are arguing. They are arguing whether he ever claimed the threat was about to happen. Bush never said that any day now, there is going to be a biological attack on New York that kills hundreds of thousands, and the only way we can stop this is to attack. He said that the threat is growing. That we should stop it now before it gets to the point where we have to fear an attack any day now. That's what people mean when they say "Bush never said the threat was imminent." Of course he said it was "urgent", "immediate", "serious and mounting", etc. Those don't mean the same thing.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Frederick Turner has an interesting take on libertarian vs. "communitarian" on Tech Central Station. He seems to be arguing that the set of everyone who disagrees with libertarians on any issue is an emerging political entity, growing in unity. This would be bad news for libertarians if it were true, but it's not. Mr. Turner is shoe-horning a bunch of different ideologies into one. Take for example the following quote:

Communitarians, on the other hand, believe that a free democracy cannot function, however excellent its constitution, without a virtuous population that is capable of judging objectively, voting responsibly, taking into account the needs of the whole community, and serving the public if called upon....Thus a society (not necessarily the state) should preempt the free market and provide the basic security from want and illness that is the ground of virtue.

I don't believe anyone has made this argument, and in fact it is a non sequitur (the premise has no bearing on the conclusion). In order to make an argument out of this, you would have to include a premise that providing basic security somehow encourages or creates virtue (this premise is kind of snuck into the conclusion). And although this implicit premise does not directly contradict the explicit premise, it sharply contrasts with it. People who believe that virtue is a prerequisite for civil society generally hold that virtue is a personal choice, something that you maintain in spite of circumstance, not because of it. People who believe that virtue is a consequence of a soft upbringing and a secure life are likely to consider virtue, not a prerequisite for civil society, but rather a consequence of it. You've got two entirely different answers to the chicken-and-egg problem here.

The article misstates the chicken-and-egg argument by contrasting the view that virtue is a prerequisite for civil society with the view that freedom is a prerequisite for virtue. These are not opposite, but closely allied views.

Here is another quote that forces unity on an inherently diverse bunch:

Libertarians tend to view with optimism the emergence of political and economic units larger than and smaller than the nation. They do not mind regions and cities developing their own cultural institutions and foreign policy; .... Communitarians view such developments with alarm...

Most people anywhere view these emerging political units through their own political preferences. If the emerging political unit is closer to their politics than the larger one it is emerging from, they applaud it. If it is less to their political liking than the larger one, they condemn it. When states try to defy the federal government by liberalizing drug laws, the legalizers applaud and the criminalizers condemn. When a state supreme court justice defies the federal courts to keep a monument of the 10 Commandments, the religious people applaud and the anti-religious condemn. When a city institutes it's own anti-Iraq War policy, the anti-war types applaud and the pro-war types condemn. The libertarians may have a consistent view on this (I couldn't say), but no one else does.
This has been a test of the Blogger blogging system. This is only a test. If this had been an actual blog entry, you would have been directed to some piece of interesting news or trivia, connected with my own insightful, humorous, or lame commentary on same.