Larry Hosken: New: Tag: mad-science

If you're a San Francisco-area* man who has sex with other men and have grumbled at my blood-donation humblebrags: There's a study going to confirm that the you-can't-give-blood policy is stupid; Go sign up.

In related news: After I helped save lives by donating platelets and plasma this morning, I sure was embarrassed when I tried too hard opening up a trail mix snack-pack and sent snacky bits flying all over the cantina. I know you're supposed to take 15 minutes resting, but it took me that long to find all the frickin' raisins. Those things have something like kitchen-appliance camouflage, I swear.

*Or LA, NOLA, Memphis, WashDC, ATL, Orlando, Miami.

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Book Report: The Doomsday Calculation (How an Equation that Predicts the Future Is Transforming Everything We Know About Life and the Universe)

Back when I was a humble computer science university student learning how to write operating systems, we learned a simple trick.

A computer might run several programs at the same time: a web browser in one window, a text file editor in another window, several programs that don't even have windows… There are so many programs running that they can't actually run at the same time; there aren't enough CPU chips to go around. Instead, the special operating system program sets up a schedule: a fraction of a second for the web browser, a fraction of a second for the text editor, etc. To make an efficient schedule, it helps if you can predict how much longer a program needs to run. For example, that text editor program probably doesn't have much to do, assuming the user hasn't typed anything in the past ⅛ second. That program probably just needs to wake up, re-draw the blinking text cursor, and go back to sleep. On the other hand, a program that reads and sorts all the text of Wikipedia needs much more time. A naive operating system that scheduled equal CPU time to each of these programs would leave that CPU twiddling its metaphorical thumbs much of the time.

We learned a trick to predict how long a program will want to run. Consider how long the program has already been running. On average, it's about halfway done. If the program has run about a quarter second so far, it probably needs another quarter second. This trick isn't always right—if you just start running that Wikipedia-sorting program a quarter second ago, this trick gives you the wrong answer. But on average, it gives you about the right answer.

Other folks, not just computer science students, use this trick for guesstimating mysterious durations. For example, if you want a guess about how long a musical production will continue its run on Broadway (when we get Broadway back), consider how long it's already been running. There's a name for this trick: the Copernican Principle. Well, the Copernican Principle isn't exactly about estimating durations; it's the idea that the observer of a phenomenon shouldn't think they (the observer) are too special. Copernicus was famous for not-assuming that the earth was the center of the universe. It's similar to think "We're probably not at the very start of this thing; we're probably not at the very end; on average, we're probably about in the middle." This trick isn't great. If you have any information about how long something should last, you should use that information, not this trick. E.g., if the sun rose an hour ago, this trick guesstimates that the sun will set in about an hour; but your knowledge of how days work yields the much better estimate of 11 hours.

Some folks used this trick to guesstimate how long the human race will stick around: several thousand years of civilization followed by a couple of hundred thousand years of species survival. This was a terrible mistake. I don't say it was a terrible mistake because I disagree with its estimate. I say it was a terrible mistake because many philosophers and pundits have opinions about the immanent or not-so-immanent end of [civilization|human life|whatever], and all of these people and their opinions crawled out of the woodwork to yell at each other. This book, The Doomsday Calculation, tells the story of their arguments.

For example, the human population has surged in the past few centuries. It's all very well for someone to have said "When you're trying to guesstimate how long human civilization will last, on average you can guess you're about in the middle," but the chances that they said this in the 1600s or later, because most humans were in the 1600s or later. If someone says "Maybe we'll be around much longer than 'the trick' suggests—like someone an hour after sunrise estimating when sunset is coming," you should raise an eyebrow: odds are, you're a modern Indian not an early Sumerian. (Some folks, including this book's author, think this implies that doomsday is coming soon—perhaps in 700 years or so. I think the trick suggests that in 800 years we won't be doomed—but we can expect, on average, to have declined to an existence like that humanity had 800 years ago: not great.)

The book gets into some interesting territory. Given that humans are intelligent but haven't been contacted by intelligent aliens, what does "the trick" suggest? If the rules of Physics were just a little different, the universe couldn't support life—and "the trick" uses that fact to suggest that ours might be a universe within a multiverse just like the comic book movies told us (but maybe with fewer Spider-Men).

Though the book is interesting, it does point out that it's silly to use "the trick" to predict how long homo sapiens will be around. Remember: if you know how long a day lasts, you shouldn't use "the trick" to predict sunset time; instead, use your knowledge, knowledge is more accurate. Fossil-studying scientists know some things about how long species last before extinction. We should use that knowledge instead of just shrugging and guessing "We'll be around about as long as we've been around, on average." (Fossil knowledge doesn't make the doomsday-timeline-arguments go away; we're in a mass extinction event so you need to follow up that "species tend to last 3 million years" with "…uhm, unless there's some mass extinction event going on, that could pull in the timeline, uh-oh.") But the book doesn't look too closely at this—there are other books for that. This book is about high-falutin' applications of the Copernican Principle.

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Book Report: The Making of the Atomic Bomb I've read plenty of books about the development of the atomic bomb, but concentrating mostly on Los Alamos. It's a tale kind of like Camelot for nuclear physicists—for a time, the world's best...

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Book Report: Kraken I guess this book's genre is horror. Or urban fantasy. In modern-day London, some normal folks are drawn into conflicts between wizards, armageddons, and objects of worship. So there's a secret Lo...

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Comic Report: Meanwhile... The local members of the National Puzzler's League had a party last weekend, their Equinox party. I didn't go—I'm still not quite enough of a puzzle enthusiast to want to join the NPL. But I wa...

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Comic Report: Suspended in Language Last night I had dinner with a few co-workers and conversation of course turned to what Albert Einstein would do if we extended his lifespan 1000 years. Would he ever get used to quantum physics? F...

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Comic Report: Girl Genius Collection #8 (Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones) | Act-i-Vate Primer It seems kind of silly to post an online review a comic book when folks can go read the comic online and decide for themselves. And yet, here we are: Girl Genius. Girl Genius is a darned fun story ...

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Book Report: Lewis Carroll in Numberland This book is about Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson as a mathematician. There were errors in the parts that I understood. So I didn't trust the other parts to help me to understand new stuff. Maybe I...

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Comic Report: Ex Machina (the first several collections) When I first heard about the comic book "Ex Machina", I stopped paying attention too soon. I heard that the protagonist is a superhero who can talk to machines. And those do what he says instead of...

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Book Report: Stiff (The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers) There's some interesting stuff in this book about scientific, medical, and engineering-testing uses of human cadavers. There's some interesting stuff, but there's some "humorous" reportage to slog t...

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Book Report: The Eyre Affair This book is set in a parallel universe. In this universe, mad science reigns. People care about literature! There are vampires! It's all different from our universe! And yet somehow similar! Y...

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Book Report: He, She, and It During BANG 18, I found out that plenty of local goyim puzzlists don't know what a "golem" is. A puzzle required players to recognize monsters by looking at pictures. I thought that was pretty tough...

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Book Report: The Air We Breathe This was a fun novel. As with other Andrea Barrett novels, the heroes are scientists, so I'm inclined to be sympathetic. This novel is narrated in the first person plural, by a community of people....

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Book Report: The Middle Kingdom I didn't plan to spend today filling out an alternative minimum tax form for my friends at the IRS, but they insisted. I thought maybe I'd write something. But I didn't write anything. Except numb...

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Book Report: iWoz It is Steve Wozniak's autobiography, as told to Gina Smith. It's a fun read. Keep your wits about you as you read--they didn't fact-check all of this material. So when Wozniak tells you what was g...

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Book Report: She's Such a Geek This is a book of essays by women geeks. It's pretty inspiring. That's partially because geek stories can be inspiring. But also because the stories from several years back tend to be about women ...

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Book Report: Girl Genius vol 4 (Agatha Heterodyne and the Circus of Dreams) Tonight is Sleater-Kinney's last concert before they "go on indefinite hiatus." I tried to get tickets, didn't try hard enough. But you know, it's not the end of the world. Each of the Sleaterians...

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Book Report: The Control of Nature I'm still sick, a little. I'm better than I was. This morning I thought I was all better. So I hopped on the bus to work. I had a coughing fit on the bus. And another few during the day at work....

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Book Report: Tuxedo Park Jennet Conant's biography of Alfred Loomis is fascinating. Loomis was an interesting character. He was a physicist, founding a Physics lab in the hoity-toity community of Tuxedo Park, NY. When WWII...

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Book Report: The Curious Life of Robert Hooke Robert Hooke was a scientist during the 1600s. Did you read Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle? Of course you did. Or you at least got started. Robert Hooke was one of the mad scientists that figure...

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Publishing News: Opposite of Google Print Today I went to a talk by best-selling author Neil Gaiman. There was a question and answer period. Someone asked for Mr Gaiman's take on the recent Google Print kafuffle. (Some authors did not dei...

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