12.27.2004

Cosmic Encounter

Here are the following facts that, I believe, make our little rock conducive to life as a human.

The transparency of EM radiation through Earth's atmosphere
It is estimated that we get 80% of our information about the world around us from our eyes. Our eyes use photons to see. Where do most of those photons come from? The sun. Good ol' sun, churning out a bazillions of photons per second, all for the benefit of bouncing them off things and into my eyes. Oh, and apparently plants use photosynthesis. Yeah, like that ever helped anyone.

Our molten core
From all that we know of planet formation, the center of the Earth should be solid by now. It is, after all, about five billion years old. That's more than enough time for it to chill out, relax, and stop squishing about. The thing is that we got a lot of radioactive crap down there. As these atoms decay oh-so-slowly, they release energy. That stupid energy keeps all that molten gunk glooping around all day long. As our sloshy core mushes around, it happens to create a magnetic field around our planet (check out Van Allen belt, not Van Halen belts). This field sends all of the high-energy, mutation-inducing solar wind (particles of matter ejected form the sun) to our uninhabited, f'in cold poles (and makes pretty colours).

Tilt to the ecliptic
The Earth goes around the sun. You knew that. Well, the plane formed by the Earth going around the sun is called the ecliptic plane. Earth is tilted from that by ~23.5 degrees. This gives us seasons. While most anthropologists agree that early human life came out of the savannah, a nice temperate environment, we would never have invented hockey if it was always so nice out and thus early man would have committed suicide from sheer boredom. And seasons also happen to play a role in plant cycles. Plants! Sheesh! I'm tired of them and their CO2-to-O2 conversion. La dee da! Look at me, I'm so hot... Screw you, atmosphere!

Ozone layer
Ozone (O3) absorbs UV rays (another healthy source of DNA-damage) by getting broken up into O + O2. It also absorbed the 80's trend of giant hair fueled by hairspray.

Astronomical unit
The Earth happens to be 1 Astronomical Unit away from the sun! Lucky for us because that seems to be just the right distance to support human life. Venus is hot enough to melt lead at its surface and Mars is cold enough to pop Arnold Schwartzenegger's eyes out. Also, amino acids and other proteins seem to find it just right between -50 and +50 (though they tend to stay near to the 0 to +20 regions).

24 hour rotation
I'm not sure how yet but I bet plants love an alternating day and night. Note: Just as the moon always has the same face towards us, the Earth is slowly losing rotational energy and will eventually have the same face towards the sun. Of course, the sun, in response, will explode.

Lots of water
Life apprently loves the crazy chemical that is H2O. If you didn't know that water was useful until I just said it, well, you're an alien and I just outed you. In your face, xeno!

Checklist of naturally occurring elements from the periodic table
I don't know who did the collecting but someone definitely had "gotta catch 'em all" fever. And they did. We gots 'em all from 1 (Hydrogen) to 92 (Uranium), except 43 and 61 which have no stable isotopes, in abundance. With this variety of tools to play with, I can't wait to see the silicon-based life that you know is coming. Not just any old system or planet gets all these goodies. In The Beginning there was only Hydrogen. It takes a lot of Hydrogen before you can get hot enough to make Helium (2). And anything above Iron (26) requires a supernova. Seriously. Do you know how long it takes for anything to go supernova? I'm still waiting for Star Xb-7465-21 to go (I gots money on it). So looking around at all the freakin' atoms with more than 26 protons makes me think, hot day-um! That's a lot of kablooie...

That's all for now, if I think of anything else, I'll post later...

12.25.2004

Tradition!

On this fine Christmas day, the trees adorned in their white finery, the sky ablaze with blue, I'd like to take a moment to talk about one of my favourite Christmas traditions: Voodoo Day.

Peter and Karen are a brother and sister duo that I've known for years. When my wife-to-be first moved out of her home for college, they were her roommates. The four of us hit it off quite well and we've been great friends ever since. Each year they return to their parents' home in Kingston for the holidays. The last day we're all free before they leave is the day we exchange gifts and get together for dinner. This day has gained the name Voodoo Day (taken from a SNL skit).

Sonny, Karen's new hubby, has been joining us for the last few years and was initially confused by Voodoo Day but now embraces it as much as the rest of us. We normally have Voodoo Fondue as the meal but this year we skipped the cheese fondue (no alcohol for Tasha) and the Chinese broth (no potentially raw meat for Tasha). The choclate fondue, however, went over smashingly. Also, all of the gifts are "From: Voodoo Man". You are not allowed to give a practical gift on Voodoo Day and if you try you will be beaten to death (perhaps with chicken entrails or some similar voodoo cliché). This year I got the Lego Mos Eisley Cantina.

-Aside for gushing over Star Wars Lego-
This set has some really cool pieces (the Dewback is not so hot, you can pretty much make a Dewback out of it and that's it) but the best parts are the Sandtrooper mini-fig and the Greedo mini-fig. A Greedo mini-fig finishes third in my collection of cool Star Wars mini-figs. The Stormtroopers look awesome (my second and third faves in the same set!) but my favourite remains Boba Fett. They did a really good job on him. And now they have a new Falcon out! It looks better than the one I bought myself because it doesn't have those moulded pieces that are uncool.
-Aside Terminated-

This year's celebrations culminated in a great game of Apples to Apples, which we also got for Voodoo Day. Much wine was consumed, much joy was spread and much partying was done. Another stunning success!

Hope your holiday season is as cooltastic as mine...
Merry Christmas!

12.20.2004

When I Grow Up

My wife had friends from work over and they couldn't get over my hobbies nor the quantity of accoutrements scattered throughout the house. Lego, Magic: the Gathering, video games, board games, toys, figurines and gadgets can be found in abundance in pretty much every corner of our place. One of my wife's friends remarked: "It's like an adolescent day-care in here."

Touché.

12.16.2004

Essential

Three things that should be taught in high school...

Statistics
Ok, this might be a little optimistic but I think you could get the basics out in a final year class. I know a lot students have a hard time with polynomials but a linear regression should be teachable in context of statistics. Error analysis, confidence intervals, the Gaussian distribution, these are important ideas that would greatly affect society's perception of the world around them, the data they are bombarded with daily and teach some critical thinking. Which leads to...

Logic
Sadly, this one is being taught in high schools (at least it was in mine). I recall going over geometric proofs, English comprehension tests, some basics of the scientific method in various science classes, however, I don't think the tools are there for students to pull the gist from these lessons. I think and introduction to logic would be useful. Once they have a grounding in that (I mean a rigourous one) I think you would get a lot more out of all the other classes.

CPR and First Aid
Imagine a population of citizens where everyone has at least had exposure to some first aid and knows the basics of CPR. I've had the class and you're certified only for a couple years because after that you forget exact details. Who wants to get that wrong? That said, is there anything in there that a graduating student can't handle? A whole generation with that knowledge walking around. Surely, it could only be a benefit. It would perhaps be a foundation for future refresher learning as well. Even if they are only good for a few years, there's always another batch coming through the ranks. As the saying goes, "I keep getting older but the eighteen year olds always stay the same age." But, uh, that's in a different context, I guess.

12.08.2004

Le Foot

I really want to go see the World Cup in Germany 2006. The (exorbitant) ticket prices have been released and so has the schedule.

Now I don't think it's unreasonable to spend 90 EU to go see a match. When I was in Madrid, I obviously wanted to see Real Madrid play but they were out of town. Madrid, thankfully, has a second team, Atletico Madrid. I managed to get scalper tickets outside the stadium the day of the game (the wicket was sold out). I paid 75 EU for a 60 EU seat, the cheapest one available and, to my mind, a bargain. Check here for the prices to Real Madrid games. Take a good look at the prices for the game against Barcelona (their ancient rivals). Yeah. That's right. Now these are scalper prices but good luck trying to get a regular price ticket to their games. From what I hear, there is a multi-year waiting list to get season tickets. Crazy!

In any case, my decision is: do I want to see two round-of-16 games (45 EU) or a semifinal (90 EU)? If I take the two games, well, I get to see two games. But I also have to arrange to be in these two possibly distant cities (not too difficult by train, I'm sure but hotels might be problematic). If I do take the semi-final, I only see one game but, hell's bells, it's the semi-final! A game of utmost importance and sure to be two very high quality teams.

Of course, this is supposing I can even get tickets. The demand is so damn high for these tickets worldwide that they hold a lottery for all the tickets requiring a ton of personal info. If you win, you get a personalized, holographic, non-transferable, laminated (not plasticised) mega-ticket with, I believe, your photo! They go to great lengths to stop counterfeiting these tix.

Finally, I know my wife and I want to go to Germany and see the sights but I'm not sure she'll want to go to the game itself. I'll go alone if I have to but, really, I need to find someone to go with me.

12.07.2004

Yeah, Right

There's the old idea of a Dyson Sphere. It captures all of that lost energy emitted by a star. We, on Earth, only receive what tiny bit of sunlight hits our planet's surface but the sun is blowing out a TON of energy every second in all directions, not just in a tiny beam pointed at us. So the Dyson Sphere is a giant artificial ball built around the sun that stores the energy released by the sun.

Now, Earth is a big place. The Sun, well, that's just a truckload or two bigger. So, a sphere right around the sun? Even making one slightly larger than the sun is pretty much a no-go for the foreseeable future. Some believe that the sphere radius should be larger than the Earth's orbital distance (1 AU). Those people need to be hit in the knees with a steel pipe.

In any case, this idea will remain science fiction for a very, very long time. My thought, and I can't have been the only to think this up, is perhaps a baby step in that direction. What about a ring around Earth?

We could build a flat solar collector that faces the sun, and harnesses at least some of the energy that is simply flying unused right by our planet. It would be shaped like a washer or a flattened donut. It doesn't have to be thick, it just has to have a good cross-section so that solar photons can hit it. Each meter of increased radius would capture an exponentially larger amount of energy. It would be crazy!

Now, I know, I know, it's not all roses and jewels. There is the slight problem that a giant ring around the Earth is an unstable proposition. But you could take a percentage of the energy captured and use it to keep the ring positioned right. And, yes, all those massless photons have a momentum that would exert a significant pressure on the ring at the scales we're talking, but again, if the efficiency of the ring is high enough, we could still use some of the energy to push back and have plenty left over. (Or would you? I'm really tired. I'm going to go think about this when I'm awake.)

12.02.2004

I Ran Out of Ten-Foot Poles (Or: Not Enough People Hate Me)

Abortion

I support a woman's right to an abortion if her life/health is in danger. No question. First come, first served.

I support a woman's right to abort, unqualified, in the first trimester. I don't consider a group of cells life and if a woman doesn't want the baby, well, who would want a mother that didn't want them. I do not advocate first-trimester abortion as a form of birth control. I think that's just poor judgment. If you don't want a baby, don't do the things that make one. But, again, that's my opinion in a grey area and I understand if you disagree so I wouldn't legislate my opinion.

Unless the life of the mother is in danger, I am against third trimester abortions. If the fetus can survive outside of the womb (yes, it's not great odds early in the trimester), it's alive and, well, I don't condone murder (inflammatory rhetoric? moi?).

In between, well, hmm. I'm not a big fan of harming things with heartbeats and brain activities. There's a pretty big gap between first trimester glob-of-cells and third trimester i-can-get-hiccups. I'm undecided, leaning towards putting the second trimester with the third one. Maybe the fallout from this post will help me come to some decision.

Obviously, I'm using trimesters as rough guides. I'm sure legally you require a more precise standard. Also, as far as quality of life issues go, uh, pray you find out in the first trimester. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy.

Gay Marriage

The state has no place in our bedrooms, nor does it have one at our altars. Marriage carries with it many legal responsibilities and advantages. I'd say download them all to Civil Unions, stop calling the legal aspect of it marriage (because people are swayed by semantics) and let the restrictions to forming a Civil Union stand as the bar for gaining the rights of marriage. Leave the word 'marriage' to the churches, let any two people form Civil Unions and let's move on with our lives, shall we?

I'm actually not against things like polygamy, either. If a man or woman wants to hook up with any combination of men/women, then more power to them. I suppose that could get complicated, not sure if the law can scale to more than two people. But, really, if three or four or twenty people want to do it commune-style, and the law can support multi-person relationships (perhaps business ownership models can apply?) give them all visitation rights and pension payouts. An ye harm none, do what ye will and all that rot. Hell, I'd even allow a brother and sister form a Civil Union. If it would have helped Matthew and Marilla raise Anne, I am all for it.

Marijuana

Can we please legalize this? It's no worse for your health than cigarettes and can impair your judgment about as much as alcohol. Society hasn't imploded with those two around, Prohibition didn't work, people are gonna do it anyways and it's not a drug that leaves you in an alley looking like the undead. So can we just start a new industry, create a bunch of jobs, cut off a source of criminal revenue and tax the hell out of it, already?

Prostitution

See above, except add the improved health and welfare of a lot of women.