Superheroes Round 14: Spider-reboot 2

2014/08/23 1 comment

They just keep on making these things.  And, well, you know, I was on an airplane.

I might not have watched this otherwise, given that Spiderman 2 is a sequel of a reboot…

… Wait, so is Star Trek (sort of).

Eh, whatever. Which is roughly my opinion of the movie.

Yes, this character does show up in the movie.  But can't we come up with better titles than "Movie Title 2"?

Yes, this character does show up in the movie. But can’t we come up with better titles than “Movie Title 2″?

Read more…

Science Sidebar 3: Relearning A Little Geology

2014/08/18 Leave a comment

Once again, stuff that missed the cut for the paper.

I discuss some geology stuffs.  That links to the article that I originally read, but I’ll be discussing a little of the general background, too.  Those of you on the west coast may find this particularly interesting… or boring, since you’re also likely to have heard it a thousand times before.

This is Mount St. Helens in 1982, after the big eruption.  (Shamelessly borrowed from Wikipedia.) Also, in a bout of tremendous false advertising, it is only tangentially relevant to the post at hand.

This is Mount St. Helens in 1982, after the big eruption. (Shamelessly borrowed from Wikipedia.)
Also, in a bout of tremendous false advertising, it is only tangentially relevant to the post at hand.

Earthquakes

Surprise!  The west coast of the US is prone to earthquakes.

We can blame plate tectonics for that.  The surface of the Earth is like a big jigsaw puzzle where the pieces don’t quite fit.  Floating on top of the more-liquid mantle, they slowly slip past, under or over or into each other.  Except, sometimes, they get stuck, and then move in sudden spurts when the pressure gets to be too high.

That’s the rough explanation for how earthquakes happen.

On the US West Coast, there are three tectonic plates that are relevant.  The first is the North American plate, which includes very nearly all of North America, including Mexico, Greenland, and parts of Russia and Japan.  The second is the aptly named Pacific plate, which covers — shockingly — much of the Pacific Ocean.  Those two border each other along a large fraction of the famed Ring of Fire, but there is one much smaller plate, the Juan de Fuca plate, which is nestled between them along the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and northern California a little bit further south than Eureka.  (And a bit of southern Canada, we can’t forget them.)

The North American and Pacific plates are sliding past each other (mostly) on the West Coast, but the Juan de Fuca plate is actually moving apart from the Pacific one, and sliding underneath the North American one.  The result is…

Subduction

And wow, volcanism.

Off the coast, Juan de Fuca sinks beneath the North American plate.  Deep underground, beneath the Cascade Mountains, the place eventually sinks away, ground up and melted into the Earth’s mantle.  While that happens, some of the material melts, and, being a lower density, rises up.  This forms mountains and powers a certain amount of volcanism — hence, Mount St. Helens.

For bonus points, the fault is large enough that when it slips it can cause very large earthquakes, although there have not been any truly massive quakes recently.  There was a large (~9) earthquake in 1700.  There was a big tsunami in Japan as a result.  The most recent earthquake I remember that was significant was around a 6.0 near Seattle.  (Now, remember that this is in the newer moment magnitude scale, instead of the old Richter magnitude scale, but yes, it’s logarithmic.)

But Is The Big One Going To Knock My House Down?

Don’t ask me.

The main point of the article I linked above is that the expert geologists and seismologists and geophysicists and paleoseismologists (and all appropriate variants thereof) are still working out the details.

The ongoing discussion is about how often earthquakes occurred in the past, over the last 10,000 years or so ago.  Scientists can estimate this by looking for sediment or rock layers deep in the ocean which show signs of having been disturbed by earthquakes.  This lets them estimate the frequency of large earthquakes in the area, and use that information to forecast how likely earthquakes are to occur in a given period in the future.

However, there are complications that depend on when the samples of the sea floor — called cores — were taken from the ocean, where they were taken, how well those positions are known, and how well understood the particular kinds of turbidite are.  In short, the jury is still out, and the science is ongoing.

So, depending on who you ask, the odds of another 9.0 quake happening along the Juan de Fuca subduction zone in the next fifty years is somewhere between 10 and 40 percent.

For bonus points, there’s some evidence that a large earthquake, particularly one that affects the southern part of the Juan de Fuca plate, could trigger a major earthquake along the northern part of the San Andreas fault a couple of decades later.  (Maybe.)

In short: earthquake preparedness, people.

Science Fiction Round 33: A Book Too Horrible To Finish

2014/08/11 1 comment

Yes, we’ve officially found a novel that was too frustrating to keep reading.

And thus, I gave up, some time before page 100.

The book is Cybernetic Samurai, by Victor Milán, published in 1985.

And that has committed some terrible sins.  It may be submitted for ritual recycling after I’m done writing this review.

Did You Actually Research Japan?

I am bothered by a lot of the references to Japanese culture that show up in this book.  Much of it seems to treat Japanese people like inhuman space aliens rather than just people with a different cultural background.  How often is a real Japanese person constantly thinking that Americans are blunt and un-subtle?  Or heard supporting the idea that the Japanese should be considered a separate species from the rest of Homo sapiens?

Even more distressingly, bushido is treated as the ultimate morality and the best way to do things.  Even when its precepts have many issues — such as the ritual suicide part.  And the classism aspects.

Radiation Poisoning Does Not Work That Way

The story is set following a World War III scenario, which sees major US cities getting nuked.

One major character has, as a part of her backstory, visited a city shortly after said nuking, to look for her partner.  (Said partner is very dead.)

As part of the description of the attach, it’s stated that this was a ground bombing, which causes less damage on the ground.  And that, and I quote, “Air bursts produced no fallout to speak of.”

Which is mostly true.  It depends on other details, like wind patterns, and just how high up you are, and so forth, but it’s basically because the nastier radiation in the fireball doesn’t get blasted around in dust from the ground.

On the other hand… it’s stated that the character “somehow” survived the radiation exposure from her visit, even though she was expected to die due to having been massively exposed (note: not always fatal, but at the high doses, it is; and either way, you need meds) and then not given any treatment due to being expected to die.  And is, later on, suffering bizarre symptoms that don’t match up with anything I’m familiar with, handwaved by the character having some different genetic quirk or… something.

Um, no.  Just no.

Machine Learning Does Not Work That Way Either

I was really hopeful about the clever little AI’s story.

And yet… it falls apart so completely, it’s hard to know where to begin.

The initial idea sounds a lot like machine learning.  Set up a program, have a computer change it regularly in a particular, perhaps random, way until the program does something like what you want it to do.  Seeing that as a setup for making an intelligent thing?  Okay, sure, I can buy that.

But there are several problems.  First, there are already very high level artificial intelligences in this setting.  They are intelligent and adaptable.

The only quality that they are stated to lack which separates them from human beings is initiative.  Which is defined as the ability to do something without being prompted by an external stimulus.

Think about that for a moment.  How many things that you do don’t have an external stimulus starting them at some point?  I like baking cookies, but I took in a lot of pro-cookie culture as a child, and also like to eat them when prompted by hunger or delicious smells.  I like daydreaming about stories, but I’ve been previously exposed to the idea that daydreaming is a thing and have read or heard lots and lots of stories.

Tokugawa (the AI) is determined to be sentient when it acts of its own volition to stop an annoying input data stream.

That isn’t a response to an external stimulus?

Now, I may be misunderstanding things, and perhaps the author was actually trying to go for something more akin to free will.  Okay; so, what happens if you take your lesser AI, and make some small modifications so that they can do things for which they have not been given orders?  How is Tokugawa that different from the prior generation?

Third, they start with, essentially, a child of an AI which needs to learn things.  This is fine, and makes a certain kind of sense.  Any good AI should be able to learn and adapt.

Except they’re teaching it by having it experience simulations of life in feudal Japan.  What?

Look, it’s an AI.  You don’t have to try to turn it into Data (yes, I know there was no Data when the story was written).  Why not have it interact with real people, in real time?  You know, like how most humans learn about people?

And, last but not least: AI.  It’s an artificial intelligence.  Cybernetics is something else, usually taken in the context of scifi to be the melding of man and machine… which may involve AI, but is not AI alone.

Maybe that changes by the end of the story, but I’m not going to look to find out.

Science Sidebar 2: Dark Matter

2014/07/31 1 comment

Another item that didn’t make the paper.

So, dark matter.  It’s stuff.

The comment is prompted by the announcement a little while ago that the US Department of Energy has chosen which three next-generation direct detection experiments it’s going to fund.

So, what is dark matter, and what are these experiments doing, anyway?

This is a doodle I made once of a sparticle, or supersymmetric particle.  Dark matter WIMPs may be sparticles.  (No, it's not an insult, stop waving that spear around.)

This is a doodle I made once of a sparticle, or supersymmetric particle. Dark matter WIMPs may be sparticles. (No, it’s not an insult, stop waving that spear around.)

Cold Dark Matter Search

Dark matter is like the force: it surrounds us and penetrates us, and binds the universe together.  (Thank you, Obi-wan.)

We know dark matter exists because we can see its effects on ordinary matter, which has a convenient tendency to glow in the dark.  We see stars orbiting around their galaxies too fast to be held in place unless there were dark matter we can’t see; we see galaxies orbiting each other, or in clusters, at such a great velocity that they would fly apart… unless there were dark matter.  And on and on.  There’s also evidence for the existence of additional, weakly-interacting matter imprinted on the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), the afterglow of the Big Bang.

There’s more evidence than I want to go into right now, but if you’re still skeptical, check out the Bullet Cluster.

The predominant current theory is that dark matter is a weakly interacting massive particle — or WIMP, because physicists can’t resist a good acronym.  Something like a supersized neutrino — bulky instead of super-light, and only interacting very infrequently with normal matter.  We’re inside a galaxy, so there’s conveniently a lot of dark matter around and in us all the time, but it generally doesn’t do much.

This is where CDMS comes in, with SuperCDMS as the successor.  Both versions work with large chunks of germanium or silicon metal, waiting to get lucky and have a dark matter particle slam into one of the nuclei.  Those particular elements are chosen both because they’re a convenient mass (close to the DM particle), and because they have nice properties for detecting collisions.

To avoid confusion with other particles (like neutrons from radioactive decays or cosmic rays or other things like that), the whole experiment has to be way underground.  The same is true for…

LUX-ZEPPELIN

Nope, it’s not a band.  And the acronym gets shorted to LZ.  They’re combining two previous experiments into one collaboration.  This one is similar in principle to SuperCDMS, except that it uses liquid Xenon instead of silicon or germanium.  (Cool, right?)

Anyway, the main difference in results is that LZ will be more sensitive to higher mass WIMP-type particles than SuperCDMS is.  But, there is a region of overlap: low-mass LZ may overlap with high-mass SuperCDMS, allowing the two different experiments to cross-check each other.

It’d be cool if dark matter existed there.

ADMX-Gen2

This is where stuff gets weird.  Weirder.

This experiment doesn’t try to detect dark matter with atoms.  Instead, it’s using microwaves.  It’s looking for a particle called an axion, which is much less massive, and hypothesized to have some strange properties when it interacts with light.

That particle was postulated to solve a fundamental problem in particle physics related to what’s called “CP violation”, but maybe it can handle the dark matter problem as well.  It’s not as popular as some of the more massive WIMP theories, but it should still be tested.  Since we don’t know what the right answer is yet.

 All The Other Things

Yes, there are lots of other experiments.  I have serious doubts about their claimed detections, though.

Also, it’s quite possible that dark matter is more than one thing.  Hey, maybe it’s two different kinds of WIMP, plus axions and something else we haven’t thought of yet.

And that’s that.  … no, let’s leave dark energy for another day.

Science Fiction Round 32: Paycheck

2014/07/23 Leave a comment

The film is Paycheck.  The basic premise is that the lead character, Michael Jennings, works for companies to reverse-engineer their competitors’ technology, and then have his memory wiped when he’s done.

The general theme is [GIGANTONORMOUS SPOILERIFICNESS].

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s do some analysis.

 

This is Jennings.  And yes, the train tunnel actually shows up in the movie.

This is Jennings. And yes, the train tunnel actually shows up in the movie.

The Author Is A Spoiler

The movie is based on a short story written by some guy named Phillip Dick.

Given that he’s the author behind the original print versions of Minority Report and Blade Runner, as the poster above says, among other things, you can infer that mind-bending is imminent.

I am reminded of Achron in many ways.  The last job Jennings takes is to [SPOILER] help build a machine that can see into the future.  No time travel, mind you, just see the future.

Turns out, seeing the future makes the world go bonkers in the future, more or less, so Jennings has to set things up so that, after his memory is wiped after the job, he can destroy the machine that lets people see the future.  And uses his past future knowledge to make it work.

Reverse-Engineering The Future

That’s how Jennings approaches the whole situation.  Before his memory is wiped, he uses his foreknowledge to send himself a package of useful goodies.  Once he’s back out in the world, he’s confused about why he gave up his payment… and why he sent himself a back of junk.  A few “coincidental” convenient things push him to realize that he sent himself a bag of tools that he would need to change the future.

Admittedly, this is pretty cool.  Solving the puzzles along with him and watching how small things can change the course of events is great fun.

There’s just one part that has me concerned.

A huge world-war in the wake of future-viewing tech (predicted by said tech) is what causes Jennings to send himself a package in the future to make sure he destroys what he created.

Now, this is all well and good.  Except, he and a friend go back to the machine to destroy it… after looking into the future one more time.

That “one last look” showed Jennings getting shot on a catwalk.  Jennings sees this, and plans to change the future to work around this issue.

But… in between his successful escape and his reading of the future, one of the bad guys has access to the machine.  And looks at what Jennings was looking at, to see him getting shot.

But, if Jennings had changed the future to avoid getting shot, why wasn’t the evil executive able to change the future such that Jennings did get shot?  The only way this makes sense would be if the bad guy was looking at a record of what Jennings saw, rather than the actual future… which isn’t made explicit.

Bad Guy Computer Security

I think the villains had the idiot ball in this one.

I mean, seriously.  You didn’t make backups of the plans for the future-watching device?  You aren’t most of the way done building a second one at a separate facility?  You just let Jennings back into your facility to get at the machine?  You assume he could only be going in there for the power of seeing the future, despite the fact that you know about all the looming disasters if the machine continues to exist?

… yeah.  That, and, to some degree, I think the premise of the device itself is an issue.  Seeing the future inevitably means war, plague and devastation?  I think the problem is that people seem to assume the future is immutable… or their attempts to mitigate that future, cause it to happen… in the future.  Very confusing, of course.

But, for once, could the future we see be a good one?  And our efforts to bring it about cause it to happen only once we see that it can happen?  Or, alternatively, seeing that the future can be good causes everyone to be complacent, leading to a worse future, necessitating the destruction of the device

That might be a more interesting twist.

Categories: Clement's Game Tags: ,
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