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Why I think the cost of manned space flight is justified
There is a lot of controversy over whether the money we spend on manned space flight is worth it, with many opponents of it claiming that that money would be better spent on social programs or other things.
Those in favor of funding space flight most often tout the scientific benefits of the space program as its justification. Problem is, it's a weak argument. From a short-sighted economic standpoint, the science potential doesn't justify the cost of human space flight, by any reasonable definition (especially since a very big chunk of that science can be accomplished remotely via robots). Some would even say unmanned space flight doesn't justify the cost.
Of course, one can always argue that this is more than an economic issue (which is valid but lost on a lot of people), or that the science will ultimately pay dividends long term, even if we don't live to see it. But it would be missing out on a much better argument:
The most immediate and tangible benefit of the space program is not science, but engineering.
There's an old riddle that goes something like this: What's the difference between science and engineering? Science costs money, engineering makes money.
Well, in the space program that isn't true.
Unlike science, engineering is very much goal oriented. Generally, that goal is to make money. And, in the process of engineering so that we can make money, we learn a lot about how to make things better (i.e., safer, more efficient, more reliable, etc.).
But the thing is, when you're trying to make money, there's only so much risk you're willing to take, and therefore, there are only so many goals you're willing to aim for. But, when you decide to put humans into space at a cost, you create engineering goals that never could have been created simply from people seeking to make a profit. And, in striving to meet those goals, we learn things we wouldn't learn otherwise.
To me, the engineering benefits justify the money we spend on space flight. I think we should spend more.
I'm not just talking about the Tempurpedic mattress, either. Thanks to the space program, airplane and cars are safer and more fuel efficient. Computers are faster. Many products are cheaper.
And what about all those homeless people we should be feeding instead? The engineering advances we make to achieve space flight could make it more feasible to feed those homeless people. (Not saying it has or will, but could.)
My new conlang (constructed language): Bowtudgelean
As many of my friends and family are aware, I am currently writing a video game, The Ditty of Carmeana, an action-adventure title set in the fictional Kingdom of Bowtudgel. Also as many people know, I am very interested in linguistics. Therefore, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to create a new language for my fictional kingdom. The (in progress) result is Bowtudgelean.
Here's a summary of some of the aspects of the languages.
Nouns and Adjectives
Nouns in Bowtudgelean are inflected for number and state. Number is familiar to English speakers: a noun can be singular or plural. State—also called definiteness—is the distinction between something specific (usually signaled in English by the definite article "the") and something not. State is not an aspect of grammar in Indo-European languages (the family that includes English, French, Latin, Russian, Greek, and many others), but it is in Semitic languages such as Arabic. Bowtudgelean is like Arabic in this respect: adjectives agree with nouns in state. However, Bowtudgelean takes state to the extreme: it has ten different states.
Briefly, here the states and their usages:
Here's an example of the declension of the adjective gæðu ("whole").
An interesting effect of this aspect of grammar is that there are technically no personal pronouns. The word that is used to translate English "I" (næ) is actually the 1st Person singular state of the demonstrative pronoun.
Besides number and state, I'm leaning towards adding a gender distinction to nouns as well.
There is one notable disctinction nouns are not inflected for: case. Bowtudgelean neither uses cases nor word order to determine a noun or pronoun's role in the sentence. Instead, Bowtudgelean prefixes a noun or pronoun with a particle, called a marker, to determine the role. What makes these markers different from case endings is that they are part of the verb, not part of the noun.
Any given action involves a certain set of participants. In Indo-European languages, the participants fill fixed grammatical slots, regardless of the verb. One of those slots is called the subject, another called the direct object, a third is called the indirect object. In Bowtudgelean, there is no such framework to fit participants into. A participant for a particular verb exists only for that verb; a different verb has a different set of participants. The participants a verb has make sense for it; for some verbs it makes sense to have different participants than the subject-object system would supply English. A few verbs have as many as five participants, and some verbs (for example, ŋejreð "it is raining") have none at all.
Let's consider an example: æð, which can be translated as "come" or "go". Whereas come and go are intransitive in English, in Bowtudgelean æð has three different participants. There is the person going, which is marked by the particle ho. There is the place being moved away from, indictated by the marker tamæ. And there is the place being moved to, indicated by nuð. Here is an example sentence:
(Key: voŋ = "he,she,it,him,her", -ga = past tense. Also, notice the referred state ending -n on the nouns.)
In Bowtudgelean, the set of markers used for a given verb (the signature) are not predictable and must be learned, though sometimes they do follow patterns. The most notable is the za-epu- signature used mostly by verbs of manipulation, where a person (marked by za) physically manipulates an object (marked by epu). But in general there are a lot of irregularities in these patterns.
One little side note is that there are a few verbs that have no stem at all; only markers. Naturally, the verbs that mean "to be" are among them (there are two variants: i-linum- and i-nui-). Another is ak-gwa-has-, which means "to say" (ak marks the speaker, gwa the listener, and has the words being spoken).
Unfortunately, there are only two sounds that exist in Bowtudgelean but not in English, and they're very rare. (They are the velar fricatives: the sounds of German ch in ach, or of the letter gamma in Greek.) I didn't plan for it; I wanted to have at least one common foreign sound. I had written a word generator to generate random words, and tuned it until it got words that looked like I wanted. Unfortunately, the velar fricatives hardly ever come up.
However, there are plenty of consonant clusters that are not found in English, so it's not all bad.
Here's a quick, and approximate, pronounciation guide. The alphabet is phonemic: meaning that letters correspond exactly to sounds (thanks, King Hengou II!)
The letters b, d, p, t, k, l, w, f, v, s, z, y, w, m, n, h are all pronounced as in English.
One of the rites of passage when inventing a conlang is to translate the story of the Tower of Babel. Here's mine, presented (for now) without further comment.
Bowtudgelean is the Anglicized name of the language. Bæwtujdelix is the language's own name for itself.
Why time travel is impossible
If one were to extrude the space-time continuum along a fifth dimension, and define existence as the limit at infinity along this dimension, then any time travel would be unstable and would never persist until infinity. Whatever effect a future event had on the past would alter time to prevent the future even from ever taking place (this is along the extruded dimension so that is "possible" to alter time).
Even if the effect is only to displace a few electrons, it will change circumstances ever so slightly. As you proceed along the extruded dimension till infinity, circumstantial changes accumulate until at some point the effect of those changes changes future circumstances enough that the time travel doesn't occur. At that point the discontinuity in space-time collapses.
This thought experiment demonstrates how there could be instabilities in existence. Even if you discount the fifth dimension, the fact remains that the time travel would have to have exactly the effect on the past that produces the circumstances that led to the time travel taking place. If even a small circumstance differs from that that time travel cannot exist. It would be like balancing a perfect ball on the tip of a perfectly sharp needle in a perfect gravitational field, and having it still be there at the end of time. If the ball is 1/googol off center, it'll eventually topple.
So it is possible, though exceedingly unlikely, that time travel could occur. The possibility of a free will in the time loop is almost certain to be enough of a disturbance to prevent the time loop from ever happening.
While I'm on the subject, let me share a pet peeve about portrayal of time travel in movies. For the most part I can't stand time travel in movies. With time travel there's an inherent lack of drama (if at first you don't succeed, you can just go back in time to prevent your own failure). Also, the logical effects of time travel don't lend themselves to escalation or payoff. Moviemakers deal with these difficulties with artificial time travel rules. This allows dramatic tension and explains the effects of time travel, but such rules invariably cause logical inconsistencies.
Logical inconsistencies are not a deal breaker in and of themselves; there's something called suspension of disbelief that moviemakers can expect to a degree from the audience. But when the movie tries to explain these articifial rules, it only creates more and more inconsistencies. The more it tries to exlpain the rules, the more inconsistent it gets, until the story is nothing but a confusing mess, and that pisses me off.
Therefore, here are my rules for creating a time travel movie that doesn't suck:
Here are some movies that handled time travel well.
And now for some movies that didn't do it well.
Minor Python (Programming Language) Complaints
Python is my favorite programming language.
Like all programming languages, it has things I don't like. The thing about Python is, it has a lot fewer things I don't like than other languages. A lot. Even the things I don't like are relatively minor in the end.
So of course I made a page listing what I don't like.
So that's it. (Well, that's all I could think of right now.) All in all, if these are my biggest gripes, it's a pretty good thing. They are really very minor issues compared to other languages.
New Web Host!
If you can see this (and it's sufficiently close to February 2008), then this file is being served on my new web host, Dreamhost.
Dreamhost is now hosting all three of my domains: aerojockey.com, tamperedevidence.com, and virtualfief.com.
My old host, Total Choice Hosting, was a very nice service, and I would highly recommend them to anyone looking to do a basic homepage or small business site. It's great if your site is mostly static pages with maybe a few CGI scripts thrown it, which is what my site was. They were very responsive to issues that would come up. The price was very reasonable.
However, I pretty much outgrew it. It had a few major limitations that eventually cramped my style too much. They did not allow shell access; this was a biggie. Sometimes shell access is indispensible. (I often worked around this by writing CGI shell scripts that I could invoke, but it was terribly inconvenient.) Another limitation was a ban on hosting multiple domains; multiple domains meant multiple accounts. This wasn't an issue when I had only one domain. When I got my second domain it was. I actually had two different accounts with Total Choice Hosting for about a year.
Finally a need arose that Total Choice Hosting couldn't help me with: namely the need to host a Subversion repository. (It's not open source, so I couldn't use Sourceforge or Google Code.) I figured it was time to move on.
What I needed was a fewer limitations, and certain bells and whistles. After reading a bunch of reviews on the Web I came across Dreamhost. Many of the reviews I read for Dreamhost were by web developers who'd moved on from it. They basically said it workable but suboptimal for their highly advanced. Some of them even continued to used Dreamhost for serving static content. I don't need highly advanced stuff, though, so that sounded pretty good to me.
For the price, Dreamhost has a ton of disk space and a ton of bandwidth. (When I saw Dreamhost's claim that they offer 500 GB of storage, I kept looking for an asterisk. The only catch I could discern was that they slam if you go over the limit.) Dreamhost will host an unlimited number of domains for a single account. They allow shell access. They host Subversion repositories. Also, most the tricks I that I used with TotalChoiceHosting (using mod_rewrite, for example), were also supported by Dreamhost.
The downside, that their customer service has a reputation for being not so good, is not really a big deal to me. I think I filed maybe two tickets in 5+ years with Total Choice Hosting. It might be a problem if there were a lot of downtime, but I would guess most people's problems are their own fault. (That's never happened to me, of course.)
Pandas are stupid
Ok, what is the big deal with pandas?
I mean, really. Whenever you go to a zoo that has pandas, people will line up for miles just to get a glimpse of these idiotic evolutionary flukes. What is the big deal? All they do is sit around eating leaves all day. They're probably the most boring mammal on earth aside from koalas.
When I go to the zoo, I want to see animals do something interesting, which most animals manage to do at least slightly. Foraging for ants? Interesting. Pacing around their enclosure looking mean and intimidating? Interesting. Having scaly skin? Interesting. Sniffing things? Not world-shattering, but it's something. Laying around eating leaves? Mind-numbingly boring.
So what is the big freaking deal about pandas? Why do people stand in line for half an hour to see a couple animals do nothing?
While I'm at it, I have a few things to say about the stupid names pandas have. You see, pandas are the property of the People's [sic] Republic [sic] of China, and one condition China reserves when lending them is the right to name any babies they pop out. For example, this little leaf-eater was named Zhen Zhen, which evidently is Chinese for "Precious", and it's a stupid and unnecessary name, even if you disregard the obvious problems it'll cause with Gollum.
Therefore, on behalf of The United States of America, I am declaring jus soli rights to name the panda babies. Henceforth, this panda's real name is Democracy. Officially she'll still be known as Zhen Zhen, of course, in same way that officially Taiwan is a province of China.
Democracy's older brother (who was born in 2003 and is officially called Mei Sheng) is now called Freedom. And Freedom's older sister (1999, Hua Mei) is now called Inalienable Rights.
Major works of literature I've read
Here is a pretty complete list of literature (excluding short stories and poems) that I've read. I tend to go for quality over quantity.
I very much liked these:
I liked these:
These I didn't like too much:
I completely disliked these:
These are the books I've found too boring to finish (so far):
Then there is Shakespeare. I find it too hard to pin down exactly how much I liked most of the plays; it changes all the time. Each one I've read twice was better the second time. The ones I liked, roughly in order:
And the ones I didn't like:
And the ones I found too boring to finish:
An open letter to the Kansas Department of Transportation
Dear Sir or Madam:
I was recently very disappointed to see that your state does not make your official road map available at the rest stops, unlike every other state I've ever driven through. I make it a point to collect road maps from every state I drive through, and was unable to procure a road map from Kansas.
Now, I realize that, with Kansas being a state where the only industry is agriculture, and agriculture being a low profit margin business, your state is trying to avoid unnecessary overhead of supplying maps at the rest stops. This is understandable, especially considering the fact that almost no one ever wants to visit your state, and thus would have no use for a road map of Kansas. In fact, when the shortest path between places people actually want to visit happens unfortunately to fall through the state of Kansas, travellers almost never venture out of sight of the interstate, and no one needs an official road map just to navigate interstates.
So, on the surface, not making road maps available in the rest stops seems like a wise decision. However, I advise you to consider the following benefits of supplying roadmaps at your rest stops.
Kansas is a large state, in the sense that it covers a large quantity of square miles and in no other sense whatsoever. Should a traveller make an unfortunate wrong turn, he or she could get lost and end up miles away from familar roads, and thus be forced to spend unnecessary time in Kansas. Having roadmaps available in rest stop would give such unfortunates a chance to correct their position before any significant psychological damage occurs.
Furthermore, Kansas is one of the Fifty States, and thus the legal equal to every other state (at least on paper). So, unlikely as it might seem to you, there are actually people who want items associated with the state of Kansas (only to complete the collection, of course, and not on account of any merit of Kansas itself).
Finally, it's likely that very few would ever bother to take a roadmap; after all, besides collectors and people prone to getting lost, who would really want one? And while people prone to getting lost are likely to take a map, they're almost certain to return it at the final rest stop, unopened and in mint condition (since there is no reason to actually look at the map unless unfortunate wrong turn occurred). Other than that, you can rest assured no one would take any maps of Kansas. Even thieves wouldn't take them, since thieves prefer to take things that have some value. Therefore, supplying maps to rest stops is pretty much just a one time cost, with a tiny upkeep.
In light of these considerations, I would suggest that there is, in fact, some slight demand for Kansas roadmaps, but not enough to bankrupt the state (which is admittedly a rather small number of maps). Therefore, it should be no problem to provide this common service to the people who would use it.
Why Software Engineering is not Engineering in the classical sense
I recently had some odd experiences with some software engineering firms that made me realize, poignantly, how different software engineering is from engineering in the classical sense (that is, mechanical, civil, elecrtrical, etc.).
(I'm not going to play word politics here and say that software engineers are not engineers . Software engineers can call themselves whatever they want, as far as I'm concerned. But regardless of what you call it, software engineering is not in the same job as mechanical, civil, electrical, etc., engineering.)
Anyways, I recently interviewed for two software positions, one of which I was extremely qualified for technically, the other borderline qualified . I was quite surprised to be rejected for both positions, not because of any lack of technical merit, but apparently because I didn't seem excited enough about the job. Even for the job I was only borderline qualified for, my interviewer's main objection was that he couldn't see any "passion". Coming from a background in engineering in the classical sense, it was inconceivable to me that it would even be a factor.
Now, I know for a fact that, at least in aerospace, many engineers walk around all day with about as much passion as a block of wood, and yet do their jobs just fine. I was one of them myself. But, apparently, software engineering is different. "Passion" or "excitement" is a common requirement for software engineering jobs (that is, unless you work for Microsoft, which is well known to be one of the most emotionless companies there is).
But is outward passion really necessary to do the job? At first glance, it seems that if aerospace engineers can do their job without passion, software engineers should be able to, too.
But first glances can be deceiving.
Compare the subject matter of the two fields. Computer programming has a subtle human warmth to it that classical engineering tasks (say, control theory or truss analysis) lack. There's a level of expressiveness in writing software that is utterly absent in truss analysis, and I believe that this expressiveness attracts passion. In other words, software engineering is inherently passionate. In this respect, it is a lot closer to architecture than engineering.
Whether passion is actually necessary or even helpful for software engineering is not so certain. Personally, I doubt it. Regardless, the fact that software engineering can even generate passion demonstrates what aa different beast it is. Though classical engineering and software engineering are both technical fields, the expressiveness of software leads to crucial differences between the two.
Bottom line is: Engineers in the classical sense don't get excited. Software engineers do. Therefore, software engineers aren't engineers in the classical sense.
Tags: engineering, software_engineering
Last Edited: 30 May 2007, 4:19 PM
Believe it or not, Scrubs is actually a good show
When I first saw Scrubs, I thought it was a stupid show. It seemed to be a bunch stupid characters incapable of making an intelligent decision, the kind of show that makes me cringe and shout at the TV, "It is inhumanly impossible to be that stupid!" Those kinds of show annoy me more than they make me laugh.
In fact, it reminded me a lot of Three's Company. Now, Three's Company probably had the stupidest, fakest, and shallowest characters ever known to man. It would be wrong to call Jack, Janet, and Chrissy one-dimensional caricatures; that would be an insult to one-dimensional caricatures. No, Jack, Janet, and Chrissy (and her replacements) completely lacked any dimension at all. They had no capacity to change or learn or grow. They were inhuman. They were (poorly) preprogrammed androids hopped up on speed, unable to adapt to anything.
The thing that made Three's Company successful was that it consistently kept the laughs coming, in spite of the shallow characters. To be sure, you were laughing at them, not with them. You didn't care much about the characters, because you knew that no matter what happened, nothing would ever change. But laughing at them still counts for something, and on that show, you laughed at them an awful lot. It almost made the cringing worth it. Almost.
Back to Scrubs. When I first saw Scrubs, I got the same impression as I got from Three's Company: these were stupid characters incapable of making an intelligent decision. Only Scrubs was a lot less funny. And if I can hardly sit through Three's Company, I'm certainly not going to sit through something much less funny. Thus, Scrubs went into my "not interested" bin pretty quickly.
Over the past few months, however, I couldn't realistically avoid watching the show without avoiding the telly altogether. These days, it's syndicated on about 50 different channels at any given time of the day. Plus, the blonde on it (Sarah Chalke) is oddly cute. Inevitably, I ended up watching it a few times.
That's when I saw that the stupidity of the characters was all an act. The Scrubs gang really does have a lot of depth; their outward shallowness is only something they project as a defense against a stressful work place. In fact, the way their true character manifests itself is very interesting, and goes a long way toward building sympathy and making the characters believable.
So when someone on Scrubs does something stupid, we don't have to roll our eyes or cringe; they're not acting that way because they're manifestly compelled to always do the absolute stupidest thing possible. We understand why they did it (somewhat). And when something funny happens, the joke is more heartfelt and enjoyable because we can sympathize with the characters.
Needless to say, I am converted. Sure, it's cliched and relies on stereotypes too much (that'll probably date it a few years down the road). But overall, it's really a good show. Although it doesn't hold a candle to some of the great sitcoms of the 70s and early 80s (All in the Family, Good Times), it's probably the consistently funniest non-animated show that's been on TV for at least ten years.
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