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Saturday, April 28, 2007

Big Sun, Tiny Burton

In the news recently, astronomers have discovered the smallest extrasolar planet to date. It is only half again Earth's diameter, and five times its mass. Most importantly, its mean temperature is between 0 and 40 degrees Celcius, giving a high probability that liquid water exists on it. So far, the only examples of life we have need liquid water for survival. This narrows the field of where we should start aiming our long range sensors (i.e. telescopes of various types). It's 20.5 Light years away from us. I don't have a good visceral sense of what 20.5 LY means yet.

I was recently out at a friend's cabin with a bunch of us guys. We're all trained scientists/intellectuals to various degrees, so we'll all discuss everything and anything from Jessica Alba being hot (see below) to some finer point on the topology of gravity, world grain economics, or simply how you shouldn't build your own soapy tower of methane to light on fire.

I think I was off on a rant about steps to walk your brain through so that you can get a visceral feel of really how fscking big the sun is. (No, really, it's fscking big.)

First, you have to get an idea of how big the moon is. It's an average of 1737.055 kilometres in radius, which makes the Moon roughly half the size of Earth's mean diameter of 6372.797 kilometres. The Moon is smaller in diameter than Canada! (My friends and I have a good sense of how big Canada is since we live here and have travelled across it)

Second, now picture Canada out in space so you can see it all at once, and make it far enough away so that it's roughly the same diameter as the disk of the moon. The moon has an mean angular size of 31' (arc-minutes), or about half a degree. That means it is approximately Eleventy-One (111) times far away from us as it is wide. (This can also be verified by dividing its mean distance from Earth by its mean diameter) Based on the visceral feel of how big Canada is, you can extrapolate this to how freakin big the Moon really is, and how far away it is for you to see it so small in the sky. (It would take you about 160 days to drive there at Canadian posted highway speed)

Third, you have to think about how light falls on a spherical object. Light from the object (let's say it's a point source for the sake of argument, even though it's not) will fall on exactly one half (1/2) of the surface of the disk presented by the spherical object. So to with the Moon and the Sun; When not in eclipse, approximately 50% of the Moon is always illuminated by the Sun. With the point source light and the sphere, the direction from the sphere to the light source will be the normal to the sphere in the centre of the illuminated side. By observing the phase of the Moon and knowing that the Sun has illuminated half of it, you can judge the direction in which the Sun lies relative to the Moon. When the Sun is in the sky simultaneously with the Moon, you can do some visceral triangulation. Triangulation feels "built in" to my brain as much as catching a ball; that is, I don't have to think about it consciously to do it. Using the chain of comparisons, I have been able to make (real or imagined) visceral leaps to getting a sense of the size and distance to the Moon, and ultimately to a sense of distance from the Sun. I'll tell you - it's pretty damn far away, which is exactly the distance that native Earth species should be from that gigantic fusing ball of plasma.

Forth, now that I can get a visceral feel for the distance to the Sun, all I do is link that sensation to my sense of visual perspective, and suddenly BLAM!, the mind is blown with a sense of how really fscking big our Sun is!

I was telling my friends about when I first realized this. I was driving down a concrete-divided highway over a bridge. Luckily it was early morning and there were no other cars on the road. I was crossing the bridge looking at the Sun (kids, don't stare at the Sun!), and it hit me (BLAM!), and I nearly careened off of the concrete divider. For the record, I was not under the influence of any intoxicant or mind-altering drug.

One friend mentioned he didn't think the auto insurance company has a form that goes

Reason for smashing car (circle all that apply):
  1. Fell asleep
  2. Swerved to avoid animal
  3. Suddenly realized how big Sun is

Burton MacKenZie

Update: I've being going out again to stare at the Moon at night to get a sense of scale with it, distance to it, and triangulation to the Sun. I'm starting to get a perspective I haven't had so viscerally before - the abstract written notion of planets and stars cannot convey the feeling of first-hand perception of seeing them in the sky for what they are: other. fucking. worlds. It's one thing to read about it and conceptualize it, but it's totally another to go out and point to the bright giant three-dimensional-perspective sphere hanging in our sky! With this new perspective, I feel I fully understand exactly why Carl Sagan described himself as "a citizen of the Cosmos" - the Cosmos are our neighborhood and always have been! Don't just believe me - go outside and look up!

It's a little humbling to realize that of all the places we can see directly in the sky, we've only been to that local Moon. A handful of times. Thirty years ago. Unless we forever wish to remain the child in the cosmic cradle, we need to bloody hell figure out how to not only travel to all the local planets/asteroids ourselves, but also to be able to do it as a matter of course, like getting on a train. Next, we need to get out to those stars! We need to understand what's out there. I think that until that point we cannot credibly call ourselves voting members of the cosmic anarchy, we're just some low-tech space-hillbillies out in Sector BumWad-D.

I bet all space faring races in the universe, if they have humour, have a joke of the form "When my space-dog runs away, you can watch it run for 5000 years. (After that it redshifts out of the visible spectrum)".

Burton MacKenZie

Update 2: check out a pictorial scale of cosmic sizes. It fills me with awe and wonder, and that is not sarcasm.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

I haven't played nethack (a.k.a. gradewrecker) much these past few years, but I still get a game in now and again.

Today I was idly reading about the Symbiote species in the Marvel Universe, which was first introduced on Spiderman in Secret Wars #8 and in Spiderman #300.

It made me think "hey, that would be a good species to play in nethack". Rather than eating nethack food, you must cling to other creatures as a symbiote for sustenance and strength. It would like being a were-jelly or a were-slime. When you're in slime form, you can carry nothing and do nothing but move. When you find a creature, you can slither over to it and use its powers until it wears down (unless you charge them? ;-), or maybe it levels with you, as if you were polymorphed into that creature - its experience is your experience. Maybe when you're attached to an intelligent creature (e.g. a vampire lord), your actions are a battle of wills.

I see the symbiote race in nethack as being akin to a voluntary challenge in nethack (i.e. only for good players), except after choice of race it is no longer voluntary, so I guess in that it is no different of a challenge than any race choice, just one of the harder ones. Maybe easier.

Burton MacKenZie

p.s. YKYBPNHTMW means, in standard usenet nethack lingo, You Know You've Been Playing NetHack Too Much When.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

For years, former Vice President (of the USA) Al Gore was said to be a robot. Of course, I always took this to be a metaphorical joke about his deportment. Today the reality of it dawned on me. I was thinking to myself "If I were an artificial intelligence making humanoid robots to infiltrate and influence society, I'd probably give them names that were representative of what they were doing, but not too obvious, effectively hiding them in plain view". (I feel this is related to how The Riddler would always give away clues about his nefarious plots, which were always ultimately his undoing)

I was thinking of names the A.I. would choose, and I thought it might name one of its servants after a specific algorithm it might be following. Then it struck me like a cold ham pressed against a hot window: an "AL GORE ithm". Al Gore is already named, not for a specific algorithm, but the entire field of deterministic computing! Whatever A.I. released him into the world has some pretty big cajones giving him a name like that! At least our new sentient overlords have a sense of humour.

Wouldn't you know it, though. Every time I think I'm coming up with a new idea, it turns out some other clown has already thought of it. Now I have to compete for originality with artificial intelligences, too!

I wonder why the A.I. wants to stop global warming. I guess I should go watch An Inconvenient Truth and try to find out. You probably should, too. If you happen to see Al Gore, tell that artifical construct that BMac says 'hi'.

Burton MacKenZie

Monday, April 09, 2007

I was reading through the comments on Scott Adams blog. He had made arguments about copyrights and called out the inanity of some rationalizations. Adam Williams replied (in part) to this with:

"Should you be allowed to download a movie if it was shown on TV? (you could have just as easily taped it on VHS). If so, then should you be allowed to download anything thats shown on TV for free?"

It was an epiphany! TV stations could pay for extra rights to not only broadcast the show/movie over the airwaves/cable, but also to provide a download from the television station! I would have no problem with watching a downloaded movie, even with commercials embedded into the file at strategic locations. I think commercials on TV are a fair cop and I don't see why a download is realistically any different. Sure, they could be easily edited out and the file redistributed, but that's going to happen anyway with analog broadcasts if somebody cares enough to do it. In the meantime you will have a large audience watching the tv-network downloadable commercial version because that is the easiest thing to do. Forget the pirates. Focus on the people who will watch the commercialized downloads because that is the path of least resistance - those are the people to whom you optimally wish to make your product known.

Next, the question is "For how much would the producers of content charge for distribution of their material under this new license scheme?" I don't know, but they better smarten up and come up with a workable number fast. I believe the only reason Joe Average downloads TV shows or movies off of the internet is because it is substantially easier than waiting for it to come on tv, driving to the video rental store, or futzing around with the VCR. Joe Average is lazy. If it were easier for him to just grab the commercialized shows from the TV network to watch, that is what he would do. He'd get his stories, advertisers would get willing eyes, content producers would get paid, TV networks remain relevant, everybody's happy. So, licensors of content, get off your collective asses and come up with a rate structure. I don't even care what it is to start off with, as the market will push it to a fair level eventually.

TV Networks should be hopping onto this like rats clinging to the floating debris of a broken ship. Eventually all video content will be available for download (or "local caching"). This is not an if, it's a when. TV Networks, when this happens, you are going to find your business model seriously diminished. What you should be doing now is trying to financially and technologically insert yourself in the middle of the content distribution channel before the content producers figure out that you've become irrelevant to them getting their product to the end consumer. Hammer out licensing schemes and royalty structures now, before your bargaining position is gone and it's too little, too late.

Large Corporate Content Producers should also be clawing their way to a reasonable free-to-consumers online distribution channel (like TV is now if you remove the "online" part). If you think you have time to sit, think, and wait it out, Google is going to leave you in the dust with the convergence of a large load balanced distributed data network, amateur TV, and freely available video editing tools (also here, here, and here). Don't discount amateur TV! Think of it as millions of monkeys banging out ShakeSpeare - within the endless sea of barking insanity on the internet, the law of large numbers says some of these amateur productions will be gems!

So, anyway, I'm calling it. These are some of the ultimate paths of least resistance for the future of television: a) downloads available, b) rendered irrelevant by downloads direct from content producers, and c) rendered irrelevant by google television. Get it together, TV stations!

Burton MacKenZie

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Spiderman Masturbates!

Here's a picture as some evidence that Spiderman Masturbates. He must have been working up a sweat thinking about Mary Jane. (One month from now we can see her played by Kirsten Dunst in Spiderman 3)

Anyway, don't just believe me! See the results of Spiderman's Sin of Onan for yourself!

I dunno. It made me laugh. Your mileage may vary. ;-D

Burton MacKenZie

ps. On a tangent to this topic, go read Larry Niven's Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex (from the book All the Myriad Ways). It is a (light) dissertation on why Superman's sperm would ultimately destroy humanity. It's the first writing of his I ever read. It was recommended to me by a woman who I think some people suspected of being a modern Druid. If it were true, I can't say it'd surprise me.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Google's April 1 2007 Pranks

They had me for about 0.4 seconds before I caught on. They're good ones, though. :-)

Google's Gmail Paper - have your emails snail mailed to you in dead tree format - all 2.8GBytes if you want!

Google's Google TiSp - free wireless broadband for the home! (Routed through your sewer system, with service levels listed as "Trickle", "#2", and "The Royal Flush".

Google gets a golf clap from me. Seriously though, as I mentioned in another article, get ready to really having free broadband access from google. Soon.

Note that Google's gmail service was announced on April Fool's day, and a lot of people didn't believe it! One GigaByte of storage! It must be a joke! At the time of this writing, gmail is at about 2.8GB email storage per user, and yahoo announced a few days ago they will provide no-limits email storage by May 2007!

It's hard to tell what's crazy these days.

Burton MacKenZie