Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Sons of guns

It’s a pretty sad state of affairs when you're so pessimistic about an issue that you worry when someone takes a principled stand on something. Yet I now feel even less optimistic about US gun laws than I did before. 

When Obama praised Australia's gun laws and suggested they should be emulated, I was astonished and relieved. (A large proportion of US citizens fail to see the bleeding obvious link between heaps of guns and piles of corpses.) But I started to change my mind soon after.

Don't get me wrong: Obama's praise of our gun laws showed that he was indeed serious about ending mass shootings. Yet of course, the problem is that Australia-style measures are unlikely to find support with almost half of American voters,who view gun ownership as a fundamental part of their, and their country's, identity.

Remember, Obama didn’t back some half-assed gun confiscation measure today -- he went for the full Monty. When these laws were introduced in Australia, they ended mass shootings instantly. There's only one way to crush gun homicide, if you're serious about it -- take guns away from 'good guys' and 'bad guys' alike. Real life isn't Dirty Harry, and you're endangering everyone around you if you think it is.  

Obama understands that gun laws can only be tackled on a federal level. As Mother Jones pointed out recently, state gun bans don't work that well, because you just can get one from the next state over. (The NRA and its acolytes know this, of course, which is why they're so vehemently against a federal ban.) The exception that proves the rule, of course, is Hawaii

Yet I'm starting to think that Obama's surprisingly tough stance might be the biggest miscalculation he's ever made. For example, I can easily see the Republican Party using this announcement to stymie the remains of Obama's presidency. It would also be very easy for them to tar Hillary Clinton with the same brush, given that she also supports stricter laws.

From there, it's only a short step to Republicans painting Democrats as a threat to glorious liberty. (Oh look, it's already happened.) Considering how crazy and unelectable the Republican Party's become, this could be their best shot at getting back into power. Moreover, if things go wrong, it could be years until the Democrats are able to extricate themselves from being damningly accused of sanity.

As someone who detests nonfictional guns, I can’t believe I’m already starting to see Obama's remarks in such a negative light. Possible outcome: Obama floats rational gun laws, more sweeping than anything that has been implemented in the US. The Tea Party use these suggestions to whip half the public into a frenzy (unfortunately, the vastly scarier half). The whole thing explodes in a vast mushroom cloud of macho states-rights lunacy.

Howard banned pretty much all guns back in 1996. It will be interesting to see whether Obama does the same, or only goes after semi-automatic assault rifles (now euphemistically called 'long guns' by fanboys). Unless he wants to roll the legislative equivalent of an icosahedral dice, he'll stay well away from handguns: the US public will never go for it. Handgun ownership in that country now has the feel of an eternal physical fact, like the chemical composition of hydrochloric acid. 

If Obama & Co. come up with a carefully expressed plan to ban semiautomatics with large clips, he may have a fairly good shot at actually getting this passed. The problem is, supporters of extreme gun laws are much scarier than, say, animal rights advocates. Piss off the latter group, and you may get a few loud protests here and there. Piss off gun rights activists, and who knows what the hell you're in for.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Solar planes?

When the era of cheap air travel ends in a haze of kerosene fumes, we may have to once again view the world's faraway places only in our imaginations.

Yet even though aircraft cause around 5% of CO2 emissions, perhaps there's a way out. I recently read an article about the first viable electric airplane, a creature which was previously deemed unfeasible. For now, it's only small with limited range ... but it's possible.

Let's get serious, though. What about powering 400-person planes, say, with completely renewable fuel sources? What about the entire world's fleet?

Solar-power air travel might be a fix. Not directly -- we can't run a massive aircraft on solar -- but perhaps we can run it on hydrogen made from solar. If solar power continues to expand at its current rate, we might be able to develop a surplus store of hydrogen to supply the aviation industry.

Let's figure out how much hydrogen (H2) fuel we'd need to get from Sydney to Dallas on a 747. (The world's longest route, I think.) A 747's tank holds 240,000L, so let's assume that monster route uses the whole darn lot. 

A solar plant can make hydrogen via electrolysis -- that is, splitting water into its constituents of hydrogen and oxygen. According to Popular Mechanics, creating 150 million US tons of hydrogen (around 140 million metric tonnes) would take '113 million 40-kilowatt systems'. This works out at 4520 GW. 

Let's say we need four times as much hydrogen to fuel the plane as we would need kerosene -- near enough to 1,000,000L. (Hydrogen has less energy content than kerosene.) One litre of liquid hydrogen weighs only 70g. So, 1,000,000L of hydrogen -- the amount needed for our flight -- would weigh 70,000kg, or 70 tonnes.

Now, we have to figure out how many times 70 goes into 150 million. Answer: 2.14 million. 

So, 4520GW/2.14 million = 2.1MW. A 2MW solar plant like this one could theoretically produce enough hydrogen fuel for a single Sydney--Dallas flight every hour. Let's say this particular solar array could produce 5 flights' worth a day. 

There are around 15,000 commercial aircraft in the world--say, the equivalent of 5,000 747s. That means you'd need 1000 2MW solar arrays to produce enough hydrogen to supply the world's passenger aircraft fleet. 

I feel like there are many, many places I could have made a miscalculation. What are people's thoughts on my back-of-the-envelope calculations? 

Monday, June 10, 2013

Minor Irritants

These are a part of life. Not just my life, of course. But what I'm thinking of is bodily irritants -- small imperfections or injuries on the surface of the body that aren't large enough to be worrisome, yet aren't small enough to ignore.

My latest acquisition is a burn on my RH thumb, received for absent-mindedly testing the toasted sandwich maker to see if it was still on. It was. The burn is small, quite hard, and perfectly circular. It's a reminder of the gap between what I would like my body to do and what it actually will do.

That's because the thumb pulp that's burned comes directly into contact with the pen while writing. When I'm not writing, I don't even remember that I have a burn. Yet when I pick up a pen, it's suddenly annoying.  The small circular burn temporarily becomes the centre of my world.

My consciousness of the burn, and the necessity of performing an action (such as handwriting) that counteracts my body's present wishes, shows the difference between humans' and animals' experience of bodily irritation.

Most non-human animals see discomfort as something to be avoided, even if that means modifying otherwise rewarding behaviour. If the original behaviour is retained despite the irritation, then the reward obtained must be substantial. (An example of this would be a rat knowingly receiving an electric shock by pressing a live food-release lever.)

Yet humans seem to have a different attitude to their minor injuries and abrasions. Instead of becoming something to ignore, they become something to obsess over. Our centre of consciousness is temporarily relocated to become engulfed by the burn, cut or bruise.

I'm going somewhere with this, but I can't figure out where. More thinking needed. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Circular Thoughts

Most of the time, I'm amazed at the sheer versatility of the human mind. It's been said before ad nauseam, but our mental capacity and imagination is pretty amazing by any standards -- even if we're inevitably biased in the matter.

Yet some things make me think of the engineering problems in our mental processes. Or, should I say, my mental processes. It's often difficult to determine how easy it is to step outside of one's own perspective and inhabit someone else's; evaluating the efficacy of one's own thinking patterns is particularly fraught.

Still. The flaw I'd like to focus on is the 'feedback effect' in thought: that is, the human tendency to focus on a trivial detail or irritant, and return to it again and again, multiplying it several-fold in the process.

This is extremely familiar to us, but why does it come about? Many of our other habits of thought are cleverly designed--attention, for example. The 'cocktail party' effect, where we are able to snap our attention into focus when we hear our name in a crowded room, has obvious utility for our ancestors.

But the gradual amplification of a small grievance through repetition seems to help no-one. If I had to come up with an evolutionary just-so story for this trait, I'd guess that attention feedback was designed to prevent us losing track of small grudges and grievances. Early humans, whose brains were focused entirely on keeping detailed accounts of their immediate social sphere, would have had plenty of cause to crystallise a specific hostility towards another member of their tribe.

There is also a clear physical incentive. Embellishing and deepening the antipathy felt for a rival through obsessive mental repetition would give the aggrieved individual a motivation to take action against him. In a small band-like society, where assuming a position of power must have meant physically overthrowing your opponent, being able to 'work up' a head of anger over a minor incident would have been a great asset in the right circumstances. If there are serious strictures preventing an usurper from killing a rival, mechanisms that temporarily override those apprehensions might be necessary to move up the food chain.

Of course, our current society doesn't reward the escalating feedback effect of anger. Instead, this impulse is punished. Those with a particular tendency toward anger may have been rewarded far more than a similar character would be today. The casual culture of violence toward one's enemies has only recently faded, and there are still many noble examples of it

I know that we aren't completely trapped within the biological structures handed down through the generations. Still, having spent the best part of an hour constructing elaborate fantasies of retribution over a trivial matter, I realised this: we're more in control of our behaviour if we remain aware of when our impulses override our thoughts.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Glittering Commodities

You can be as sceptical as you like about your susceptibility to materialism's gleaming surface. I know I am, most of the time. I look at all those people in shopping centre car parks, blindly grasping at whatever happens to be on the bargain rack in a futile attempt to convince themselves that it's all important. I'm not like that. Advertising doesn't work on me.

And then one day, I get it into my mind that I absolutely must have a particular object or other, and I find out (again) that the impulse is shockingly close to the core of my soul. In this case, it was a TV -- and then, of course, all the magnificent and absolutely necessary accessories that go with it.

Being fully on board in this case -- looking at speaker package deals uncharacteristically late at night, in the interests of shaving off a hundred bucks or so off my coveted 5.1 dream system -- makes me think that the feelings many people get from shopping on a regular basis might be worth it after all.

What I mean is: a common criticism of consumerism as an ethos is that it is only fleetingly satisfying. After all, no sooner have you purchased the latest model of car, say, than you crave the next one. Chasing a concrete object is a doomed quest, because your disappointment is engineered into your lust.

Still. The chase, if it's prolonged in a productive way, can bring a lot of pleasure. I can understand the perils of being able to have anything and everything you want straight away --  King Midas and Co. taught us that pretty well when we were kids. Yet if there's a temporary barrier between you and your chosen object, then perhaps the pleasant time spent imagining its reality is valuable in itself.

Since purchasing the TV -- which I spent several months beforehand mentally placing in a corner of the lounge -- I am now engaged in the same activity with the speaker system. Drawing pictures of speakers in the air has amused me greatly, to the point where I have to remind myself to think of more pressing matters when absolutely necessary.

I understand that I'm channeling intentions and focusing my resources onto hypothetical lumps of wood and plastic. But I'm still letting my imagination roam happily among the always-open, fully-stocked 'On Sale' aisle of the mind. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

MYKI -- Cargo Cult?

I mentioned Cargo Cults on Facebook yesterday, and it got me thinking about the Myki ticketing system. I'm aware that this issue has done its dash as the water-cooler topic du jour, but please indulge me.

Myki could perhaps be usefully thought of as a cargo cult. For those who aren't familiar, the original Cargo Cults of the Melanesian Islands were instigated by people who wanted to spark a repeat of the massive influx of US supplies during WWII.

The people looked back at the circumstances in which supplies were last received, and tried to replicate them precisely. This involved painstakingly setting up 'airfields' -- complete with wooden aeroplanes and an air traffic controller -- which superficially resembled a US Air Force's base. Surely, if the physical circumstances of the original event were replayed, the desired bounty would return.

Everything was perfectly arranged, yet it didn't work. The Cargo Cultists had mistook the outward sign of a phenomenon for the phenomenon itself.

It seems that we're in a similar situation with Myki. Here's my guess: The people who decided to implement the system in the first place must have looked around the world, and saw many excellent public transport systems. Curiously, each of these amazing PT networks also boasted a brand-new, shiny, ticketing system.

It's now probably impossible to know whether someone held a meeting and said: 'If we change the tickets, perhaps the trains will run on time!' I'm sure nobody said it in such bald terms, because they would have been laughed out of the room.

Yet I'm not so sure that it wasn't a large factor. Consider: converting a battered, borderline-dysfunctional PT system into a substantially better one is punishingly hard and expensive. However, rejigging a single component of this system -- unfortunately, the one whose existence is predicated on all the other components functioning perfectly -- is much easier. It's still hard, but nowhere near as gruelling as making substantial improvements to trains, tracks, signals, and all that heavy infrastructure drudgery.

To see this more clearly, stop focusing on whether Myki does or doesn't work, and what you can do on it. It doesn't really matter, because even amazing ticketing systems can only provide marginal improvements to the complex, decaying system which support them. Even if Myki had worked as promised, it would still have represented a massive misallocation of resources -- the equivalent of repainting your house when its foundations have been eaten through by termites.

Thinking back, it's strange that more people didn't find the initial claims made for the system fishier. The information that would be collected, remember, was going to help the operators run things more efficiently. This is a category error, though. Fine-grained information, such as the frequency of passengers at certain times of day, is next to useless if there aren't enough resources (read: rolling stock) to redistribute in the first place.

So next time you're cursing Myki for not reading your ticket properly, don't. Instead, curse it for having been conceived at all.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Enforced patting

It's been a long time -- so long, in fact, that I'm not sure whether this blog actually functions anymore. We will see.

I'm starting this sucker up again to encourage me to write stuff down. With luck, the ideas that I'm going to throw around on here will be good fodder for articles eventually, probably published in obscure journals if I'm lucky. However, that should be no obstacle for a writer.

Anyway. Since I last wrote on here several years ago, I've lost one dog (my first) and gained another couple. This piece is based on my thoughts about one of these dogs, named Marlon.

Marlon, like all dogs, enjoys being patted. He's a dog of the 'gently roughing up' school -- nothing too precious. Yet one quirk of his behaviour got me thinking about an important difference between their consciousness and ours.

When I stop patting Marlon, he tries to force his head into the gap between my arm and my body. In other words, he will try and instigate a pat by force. In once sense, this is perfectly understandable: pats are pleasant, and all animals seek to maximise pleasure.

If this action were performed by one human to another, though, it would be profoundly odd. This, of course, is because an affectionate touch between humans only has meaning due to its voluntary nature. The sensation itself is not the point -- a hug, for example, is special not because of the physical sensation it engenders, but because of the feeling behind it.

In order to take pleasure from a hug, one must understand that one is being shown affection by another person. The gesture of a hug represents the recognition of another person as a 'being in itself', rather than a 'being for others'. (I am rusty on Satrean terminology -- if I've got this backwards, I'm sure my non-existent readers will correct me.)

The dog, on the other hand, does not seem to experience me as a self-contained being. True, he understands that I don't always do what he wants me to. To Marlon, I have more autonomy than a plastic toy or a slipper.

But I'm still not fully autonomous for him. The strange feeling that we get when we suddenly think about all the self-contained perspectives that exist in the world doesn't occur for a dog. Judged on Marlon's behaviour, I guess that I don't really exist for Marlon when I'm not standing directly in front of him. From a dog's perspective, humans resemble the radical sceptics' idea of objects: they only really exist when you look at them. After that, you cease to be a part of the dog's universe.

The enforced pat brings this home vividly, because the willingness of me to pat Marlon clearly doesn't enter the equation. It's a strange disjunction. From my perspective, I'm patting Marlon because I'm fond of him. Yet from his perspective, a pat from a patting machine that shared my physical characteristics would do just as well.

When I'm doing the patting, the illusion of two perspectives that recognise and respond to each other is inescapable. Yet as the enforced pat suggests, this may just be a human way of projecting more agency onto the dog than he actually possesses.