October 6th, 2010

#2333: Technological musings

I just finished dubbing To Aru Kagaku no Railgun eps 6-10 to DVD. I'm nearing the end of the "Level Upper" arc already.

Benefits of this arc: lots of Ruiko Saten and lots of Harumi Kiyama. Woot.

The series is supposed to be, basically, "present day"; Academy City--as a concentration of intellect and learning--is merely 20-30 years ahead of the rest of the world, technologically.

I don't buy that.

You can't have a single city which is 30 years ahead of the rest of the world and not have the rest of the world following suit pretty damn quickly. Once you make a technological breakthrough anywhere, it'll spread; you can't prevent it.

American research into atomic power bore fruit in 1945. How long did it take the USSR to steal the secrets behind the technology? Well, they detonated their first bomb in 1949. They started their research program in 1943--physics works the same for everyone--but they had to divert a lot of their already-limited resources to deal with Hitler's invasion; they couldn't go all-out on it the way America did. (And, in fact, their first bomb was an exact copy of Fat Man, on purpose.)

And that was something meant to be top secret! What if it's a technology developed by scientists who work for academic institutions, who publish their results?

I think the series is actually set some time in the near future, perhaps ten years from now at the outside. A lot of the technology we see in the series is a matter of engineering, not basic research, but the stuff that isn't possible now requires some serious advances in technology to become commonplace.

Kuroko's cell phone, for example:

It's a tiny stick of a device with a retractable, flexible display. We could make one like that now, though the display would be hideously expensive and probably monochromatic rather than color, like Kuroko's phone. But if we eschewed the esoteric display, it could be done pretty inexpensively with current technology; only the addition of things like cameras and MP3 players keep cell phones the size they are.

That and the fact that they're already hard enough to keep track of, that is. A cell phone about the size of a pack of gum, but longer, would get lost rather easily. (Also, the battery would have to be tiny, and your standby/talk time would be pretty short.)


The trains in the city are maglev trains. Expensive to build now, but perhaps not in bulk.


The city's power--supposedly--comes from windmills. The windmills in the series are always turning, but nearly all the time they're turning backwards. I've theorized before that the generators are acting as motors and turning them, so the gearboxes don't destroy themselves. (Windmills need to be turning all the time; otherwise their gearboxes die. No, I don't know why. Crappy engineering? Something to do with how the bearings are put together? Maybe it's actually a balancing issue, or the blades deform if they're not turning, or something.)

But there rarely seems to be any wind, and in any event the windmills are turning too slowly to be generating much power.

There's no evidence of any solar plants anywhere.


There are cleanup/security robots all over the place. There are cameras everywhere--so many that it takes a genius programmer to be able to set up a program to monitor them. Despite the pervasive security systems, crime is rampant. So it's not a happy technological utopia in any event.

The robots appear to be autonomous enough that we can't build them like that yet; they recognize trash and remove it without making pests of themselves to people and animals. (See my post on memory and machine vision.) Most of the robotics we see in this series are a matter of software, though.

Well, software and battery technology.

* * *

Batteries really are the limiting factor in just about everything we want to do with electricity these days. Electric cars, portable computers, etc, etc--lithium ion batteries are pretty good but they cost too much in larger sizes. We need batteries which are cheap yet have a huge power density.

It's why gasoline ain't going away any time soon: gasoline's got an incredible power density that the most exotic battery tech can't match. And a battery is just a storage tank for electrons, anyway; it's not a power source, so even if you have a magic battery which can store as much energy as an equivalent volume of gasoline, you still have to pump electrons into it for it to be of any use to you at all.

Mind you, a battery like that would be incredibly useful. A kilogram of gasoline contains 45 megajoules of energy; that translates to about 12.5 kilowatt-hours: enough energy to light 125 100-watt light bulbs for an hour. Enough to run a typical central air conditioner for a couple of hours.

One kilogram of gasoline is a bit more than a liter's worth, about 1.3 l or so. (Gasoline's about 0.75 g/cm3 where water is, of course, 1 g/cm3.)

Imagine a battery which was almost as energy-dense as gasoline, and which could pack enough power into 2 liters to run your house's AC for two hours. We can't do it now; but if we could, suddenly an electric car would become a hell of a lot more practical, wouldn't it?

An AAA battery of this type would run my MP3 player for a month. Continuously.

Sadly, batteries like that are still in the realm of science fiction. Everything we've got now isn't even close to this kind of density.

The other problem is, when you have something with that kind of energy density, it can blow up.

Lithium ion batteries got a bad rap for a while because of that: some laptop batteries, if damaged, would catch fire. Some types of lithium batteries will explode if shorted--and that's for a technology that's not even close to the energy density of gasoline.

One of the good things about Terminator 3 is the scene where the CSM-101 (Arnold S.) pulls a damaged battery pack from his midsection and tosses it out the car window before it explodes. The CSM-101 has an operational lifetime of about 100 years; its battery pack must be made of fantastium-plated unobtainium.

* * *

Besides all that, Academy City exists to study and further ESP talents, something we do not have in present day. There isn't even any credible evidence of the existence of such talents.

"Uri Gellar"? Marvin Gardner put the kibosh on that one. I read somewhere about how he was present at a demonstration, and he tossed a handful of styrofoam beads on the phone book of which Gellar was about to telekinetically turn the pages. Mirabile visu he suddenly couldn't do it.

...of course, my own scientific discipline tells me that there's absolutely no reason whatsoever that a psionic talent could not be subject to performance anxiety, just like any other human ability. You can't prove a negative; absence of positive proof is not proof of a negative.

But while I like to believe it's possible, I have to admit that if it were possible we should have seen some evidence that it exists...and we haven't. Not even a little bit.

"Esper" talents are something the Japanese SF/comic industries take on faith as "part of the future", so whenever you have a futuristic setting there are usually espers in it, one way or another. (Not always.)

* * *

But despite all that, To Aru Kagaku no Railgun counts as science fiction, even in my admittedly anal-retentive book. It sets up rules and follows them; plenty of SF exists which is built on psionic abilities and this series is not breaking any new ground in that regard. Once you suspend disbelief and accept the existence of psionic abilities, the rest of it is not at all unacceptable; and the story never, never, ever breaks its internal rules.

The series it's a spinoff from--To Aru Majutsu no Index--manages to do the same thing with magic. (In fact, Jim Butcher's Dresden Files books do that, too. Those books are, essentially, science fiction books about wizards! Go figure.)

* * *

When I worked at Target, every once in a while the management would make nachos for the crew.

What they'd do is melt a brick of Velveeta in a crock pot; then stir in a can of Hormel chili. At breaktime you'd put a pile of tortilla chips on a paper plate, then ladle this weaponized "processed cheese food" onto the chips. It tasted good, even though it was basically bomb-grade soy protein and salt and plastic. I woke up around 1:30 AM this morning wanting evil nachos like those.

It being 1:30 AM, there was no store within reasonable distance which would both be open and stock such items as Velveeta and Hormel chili; so I had to improvise.

We had the requisite ingredients, I was pleased to see: taco mix, ground beef, and nacho cheese dip, all of which we use as components of mexican lasagna. So I set about making the stuff.

Standard taco mix: brown meat and add water and mix. I sauteed onion and green pepper before browning the meat, but that's mainly because I like to have onion and green pepper in my taco meat. And once I was ready to add the taco mix I added corn, because corn is good in taco meat as well.

The cheese dip was Vintners; I'm never buying that kind again, because it's basically cheddar flavor with a hint of jalapeno. (Fortunately, once the stuff is mixed with the taco meat, the flavor of the taco meat obscures the cheddar-ness.) I didn't make a huge batch of this stuff; I kept the taco meat separate and mixed only enough nacho ooze for one serving.

And it worked: my craving for evil nachos was satisfied, as was my hunger. And, in fact, this was probably better for me than the plastic cheese/canned chili kind would be.

* * *

Mexican lasagna:

You take about a pound of taco meat, a can of refried beans, a package of 6" flour tortillas, a jar of cheese dip, and about 8 oz of shredded cheese, and you layer them all in a 13x9 pan. (One of these days I'll make it with a layer of spanish rice, too.) Top with crushed tortilla chips. Bake for about half an hour at 350°. Serve with sour cream (and guacamole, if you like).

The important thing to do is to first put down a layer of tortillas and spread the refried beans on them. This'll make a good substrate for the rest of the dish. Then you put down another layer of tortillas; after that you alternate the other ingredients in whatever manner suits your fancy, with tortillas separating each layer. (I like to apply a layer of taco meat and shredded cheese next; Mom prefers to spread the cheese dip first, then taco meat. Whatev floats your boat.)

You will not have leftovers for long. Mom and I typically eat a pan of this stuff in a couple of days.

* * *

...I really feel sorry for Jewish people. They can't eat meat and cheese in the same meal. Of course, they could use ground turkey, couldn't they?

#2334: I finally figured out what I was trying to say about G.

I mean Big G, the gravitational constant.

What I was trying to say is this: we understand electromagnetism very well, to the point that we can generate the electromagnetic constant (the permittivity of a vacuum, most of the time) by performing arithmetical operations on known properties and quantities. We understand how these things interact.

That isn't the case with G: we know how big it is, but that's all. We know the magnitude of the number, and we know the units we measure it in, but we don't know why.

We can't point at physical properties and say, "This multiplied by that, and divided by these two things, makes G what it is." We can do that with the electromagnetic constant; we can't with gravity.

I'm convinced that understanding gravity to that extent would enable us to unlock the secret of gravity control. Unfortunately (as I said in the linked post) gravity is such a weak force it's hard to experiment with. In fact, EM is the only one of the four fundamental forces which is approximately man-sized, operating on a scale humans can easily comprehend.

The weak force is much more powerful than EM, but it operates within an atom's nucleus, and we didn't learn much about it until just seventy years ago--and while we understand it well enough to be able to control the rate at which fissionable materials fission, we can't make it sit up and beg the way we can with EM. Yet we've got a pretty good idea of how EM and the weak force can be unified, to the point that some physicists now talk about the "electroweak force".

Then there's the strong force. It operates on a scale commensurate with the diameter of a proton, and it's the strongest force there is. It's what binds quarks together to make particles. It requires so much energy to separate quarks that when you finally separate them farther than the strong force can handle, new quarks are created and you suddenly have several particles where you once had only one or two. (Proving Einstein's most famous equation, the mass-energy equivalence, in the bargain.) The strong force requires such titanic energies to explore that we have to build gigantic machines to work with it. Example: the Large Hadron Collider built by CERN. (The so-called "Black Hole Machine".)

It's possible that there might be another force, even stronger and working on an even smaller scale. There's a theory that inside quarks are "preons"; and if there are, there'd have to be some force holding them together. I don't know if there's enough energy in the universe to force them apart, though.

The important thing is that these forces are mediated with particles. For EM, the mediating particle is the photon. For the strong force, it's the gluon. (Not sure what the weak force uses, unless it also uses photons.) But we haven't found such a particle for gravity.

Quantum gravity is the holy grail of the standard model, but no one can make it work. The work being done at LHC to find the Higgs boson might reveal how mass becomes "massy", but Hawking's bet a Franklin that they won't find any evidence of the Higgs boson...and Hawking is not exactly a dim bulb.

If gravity can't be quantized, what then? Does it mean gravity control is impossible? Damned if I know. But it's fun to think about.

#2335: "Commercial success", definitely.

Munchkin Wrangler asks, "If your work could have commercial success or critical acclaim, but not both...which one would you prefer?"

"Critical acclaim" doesn't pay the bills; critics usually don't even have to pay. And critics are idiots, too wrapped up in esoteric nonsense to consider, "Did I enjoy the story?" No, for them it's always about whether or not the presentation of the story is artistic enough.

I want lots of people to to read and enjoy my stuff. I already know that my work is not the greatest writing in the history of English prose; nor do I care that it's not. What I care about is telling an entertaining story, one good enough to get people to give me money for it; if they're willing to pay for it, it means I'm doing a damn good job.

Money is the ultimate validation. "Critical acclaim" can go scratch.

* * *

Obamanomics on parade!

Middle class cuts spending sharply because none of us has any money to spare!

Super-rich are buying gold by the ton because they expect hyperinflation! Gold (and other precious metals) is a safe haven when you expect rampant inflation because it holds its purchasing power regardless of how many fiat dollars you can trade it for.

Soros and Buffet say that gold has "no real value" other than its market price, but they're wrong: it has intrinsic value due to its scarcity. Soros in particular makes his money primarily by trading currencies; it's a bad deal for him if everyone gets out of fiat currency and starts investing in gold, because the pool of suckers decreases and he loses opportunities.

* * *

There's another federal investigation into Obama's meddling with the GM bankruptcy. And there damn well should be, considering it was illegal and unconstitutional.

* * *

Obama put a gag order on scientists who wanted to discuss the magnitude of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Analogy: this would be like George Bush putting a gag order on FEMA about conditions in New Orleans, post-Katrina.

* * *

This will never, never happen. It has been true for the longest time that we could easily balance the budget by simply not increasing spending; but despite the fact that this remedy is easily tried, no government has ever tried it.

Nor will it happen this time around, even if the GOP does take control of both houses of Congress. The federal budget always grows larger, every year, regardless of any other consideration, and its growth always exceeds that of inflation by much more than the 2% Boortz mentions in his post. Congress always starts with the assumption that each line item must be increased by 10%; if that increase is reduced, it's called a "cut"...and the number goes up, every year, faster than inflation.

What Boortz advocates would eliminate the budget deficit. But Congress is not interested in that.

* * *

It's been a while since I went on a rant about Monster Cables. Midwest Chick reminds me of this.

* * *

epic fail photos - Teacher Fail

Because it takes only five minutes per piece! ...or something?

This is just as much "WTF" as "FAIL".

* * *

This morning, before going to bed, I took a short walk up to Main street and back. They were laying the top coat of asphalt.

The mystery of the loud bass thrum has finally been solved: it's a freakin' pavement roller making that god-awful racket. I don't know whether it has a vibration function (to compact what its rolling) or if it's just the engine, but damn is it a loud noise. Especially when you're less than 10 feet from the damn thing.

(I'm betting on "vibrate". I had a theory about a hydrostatic drive run from a pressure accumulator, and the engine only running when the fluid pressure drops too low, but I don't freakin' know.)

Anyway, the really neat thing was the asphalt itself. It sounded like rice krispies. Closer inspection showed a thin oil boiling up between the gravel, even after it had been compacted; that was the source of the "snap-crackle-pop" I was hearing.

...it was in the 60s outside, I was in shorts and a hoodie; standing by the curb I could feel the heat coming off the asphalt, and I was sweating from it.

So the half-assed Exchange repair will probably be finished next week at the latest, if what I'm seeing is any guide. They've just about finished laying the topcoat and most of the other work appears to be finished. There's still some sidewalk aprons to lay, but that's not going to impede the flow of traffic on the road at all.

I don't know. They eliminated a bunch of manholes, so sewer access is going to be limited--I hope nothing goes wrong with that line!--and they replaced a concrete-asphalt road with pure asphalt, from the surface down to the gravel sub-bed. Two feet of asphalt, no concrete--if it lasts ten years it'll be amazing, especially with all the truck traffic Exchange usually sees.

Maybe Crete is going to ban heavy trucks from using Exchange? I doubt it. I don't doubt that the speed limit will drop, though; it always does when they redo a chunk of pavement.

* * *

Interesting bit over on Jalopnik I'm not going to bother linking to: apparently the Russians lost a helicopter atop some mountain; the peak was some 1,000 feet above the chopper's service ceiling.

Someone posted a comment asking why they don't send a bigger helicopter up there to lift it off? After all this bigger helicopter can lift some 2x the weight of the crashed one.

...in thick air, doofus! At sea level, not at 15,700 feet! The lifting capacity of a helicopter on hover diminishes with altitude, because the air gets thinner and you can only spin the rotor so fast.

Ah, those pesky laws of physics....