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Friday, November 30, 2007

Plasma is the fourth state of matter. There are are four commonly known states of matter: Plasma (which should arguably be the first, since it is the most common state of matter in the known universe), gas, liquid, and solid, and a handful of less commonly known states. A plasma is what you get when you raise the temperature of gaseous elements so high that the outer electrons can freely move from atom to atom. This makes a plasma highly conductive, and sensitive to electromagnetic fields. Our star isn't a big ball of gas, it's a big ball of plasma.

It's possible to create the stuff of stars in a regular microwave oven at home. All one needs is a way to start conduction in air (a.k.a. dielectric breakdown), and then the energy provided by the microwave magnetron will takeover, feeding enough energy to keep air in dielectric breakdown, or rather, in a plasma state. Beware! This might damage the microwave. Damaged microwaves might damage you. Beware!

I made a small non-powered device that would start an arc at low temperature. Here's the first video:

Once the video is loaded, go frame by frame back and forth - you'll see how fast the plasma takes off. The camera is going at 15fps. The plasma runs off to the top right of the microwave, where you can see the plasma change the colour to blue (in frame by frame) because of the energized outer electron shells of the caked on foodstuffs, just before it gets sucked into the vent.

For my next try, I set up a rickety little structure to hold a glass jar upside down over my plasma source. With the plasma rising so fast, I could trap it in a jar like a bubble of air in a tub of water. Here's the video:

The plain glass jar (think it was from grape jam or cheez whiz) lasted about five seconds before it broke from the heat. Then things caught on fire. (mental note: next time use pyrex)

I've since found out that this method emits a nonzero amount of toxic gases. This may be dangerous. Don't consider doing it - just don't do it. Remember - Danger! Death is bad. Even if it doesn't kill you, toxic gases are bad in any amount. Don't risk it.

Audio isn't included in these clips, but there was a loud 120Hz buzzing noise coming from the plasma. Either the magnetron had a 60Hz mains signal modulated into its microwave carrier (you don't need to filter it - you're just cooking food, not sending information), or the plasma field is reacting to the 60Hz radiated by the mains lines running through the house.

Either way, the whole experiment was fun, but that was before I read about the toxic gases.

Burton MacKenZie

p.s. these videos are not linkjacked. I am the original author.

p.p.s. I'm always fascinated with the google ads that are machine-selected for the sidebars of these diverse technical topics. They're often "howto" kind of links, but me clicking on them violates my ad contract with google, and I find I'm just too lazy to type in the URL by hand. If anybody finds anything related and interesting, let me know. I won't even get to see the topics until I post this.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Poverty is a contraindicator for survival. If you are poor, on average, you will die sooner than if you were not poor. People are generally not poor by choice [1].

Poverty is not a strong indicator of intellect (i.e. there are lots of smart poor people), but childhood poverty is linked with reduced intellectual abilities [2]. In 2003, 12.5% of the population of the USA (or 35.9 million people) were living in poverty. Simply being poor doesn't make you less intelligent, but it could have an effect on your children, the next generation.

In addition to this, poverty reduces available options for education, which exacerbates the problem. The 1998/99 World Development Report specified "narrowing knowledge gaps" and education to be top priority for the poor, with case studies of how national education programs have bettered peoples lives and improved economic growth in developing nations.

It's hard to argue that having a lower overall intelligence (measured by any standard) is somehow beneficial for a society (although I'd guess that some ruling castes disagree). It's hotly debated whether or not education has any influence on innate intelligence (which is amorphously defined anyway) but that's a side point. A better educated society acts more intelligently because it has more knowledge and understanding on which to make its decisions.

Knowledge is power, and better education is correlated with higher pay, which in turn is correlated with higher survival rate. By educating populations, we can reduce poverty, increase survival rate, and (ostensibly) make better decisions in domestic and world affairs. However, education costs. As Derek Bok (or Andy McIntyre) said, "If you think education is expensive, try ignorance". Unfortunately, as always, money and the decisions on where to spend it is locked up in the pockets of the rich, and the very rich don't even value education for their own children as highly as everybody else [3], so why would they be interested in bettering others? [4]

The most bang for the buck we can get in education is with the low end. The Flynn effect describes the rise in the IQ scores, in cultures all around the world, in the last century. Most of the gains have been in the lower half of testing and little in the top half. That is, whatever factors placed people's abilities in the lower bracket have been improving. It is my personal belief that we will benefit more as a species from raising the floor of general intelligence than raising the ceiling.

If we want to increase the average intelligence of humanity, we need to remove financial barriers for anybody with an ability to become further educated. An old doctor of mine was educated in Britain. He spoke of how in his day, anybody who qualified for post-secondary education got it, paid for by the state. By freely educating anybody who wants it (and qualifies for it), we incrementally increase the average effective intelligence of humanity. There are a finite number of people on Earth, and we're not all smart (we all live with the cards we're dealt), but poverty should not be a barrier to education. "Good help is hard to find" is equally true at all levels of intelligence. For increased economic prosperity, both locally and globally, we should be increasing the educated pool of help as much as we possibly can. To do this, we need to optimize the training of all the capable minds we can find, not try and train only those who can afford to be trained. The number of humans is countable. Let's make the best use of the minds we have. Would you rather see one Einstein and Ramanujan every century because we got lucky, or a hundred of them because we removed barriers?

It's debated if there is any genetic component to general intelligence, but there's no good reason to believe there isn't. (Update: there is a genetic component - see update, below) Many people won't touch the topic because they do not want to be put in the same camp as racially-discriminating eugenicists. People have different hair, different heights, and a multitude of obvious physical differences. The brain is part of the physical body, and will vary from person to person just like any other physical trait. I am most definitely not saying that one person is better than another because of any genetic brain structure variation. However, if we remove poverty as a barrier for furthering general intelligence through education and general intelligence really does have a genetic component, selection will increase the average intelligence of humanity (by raising the floor) over the generations because of the higher education->higher pay->higher survival rate correlation. For selection, only a tiny (but real) advantage is needed to swamp the genetic pool over generations. This does not necessitate that genetic lines will be wiped out, it means that the best traits will more quickly spread through the population.

The beauty of it is who gets to decide what are the "best traits". It's not me, it's not you, and it's not some fascist leader bent on eradicating people who he or she thinks of as a threat. [5] With equal education available for all, based on ability, whatever intelligence traits actually increase our survival will be selected naturally as "best traits".

Unfortunately, I don't think any of us thinks this will happen in our lifetime. Those in power (i.e. money) have little reason to empower the peons, especially when they could possibly pose a threat to their power down the line. Education of the population is the antithesis to controlling them.

"Experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind; for I can apply no milder term to describe... the general prey of the rich on the poor." --Thomas Jefferson

If you have any suggestions on how to universally improve world education, let me know. I don't have any good ideas. I suppose we should do it one person at a time. Think globally, act locally in education as well.

Burton MacKenZie

Update: In November 28, 2007 News, "Previous research, based on twins and adopted children, suggests that about half of the variation of intelligence is due to upbringing and social factors, and the rest is inherited. [...] a complex trait like intelligence clearly results from the cumulative effect of a wide combination of genes [...] Intelligence is a function of the way the brain is put together, and at least half of our genome contributes in some way or another to brain function"

Update 2: I found the following to be a really interesting New Yorker book review on the topic of IQ/Ethnicity: "None of the Above: What IQ doesn't tell you about race"

[1] Possibly with the exception of those who take vows of poverty, etc.

[2] "Growing up in poverty is associated with reduced cognitive achievement as measured by standardized intelligence tests, but little is known about the underlying neurocognitive systems responsible for this effect.", Childhood poverty: Specific associations with neurocognitive development; Farah, Shera, Savage, Betancourt, Giannetta, Brodsky, Malmud, Hurt; Brain Research, Volume 1110, Issue 1, 19 September 2006, Pages 166-174

[3] From "How the Rich raise their kids", "Barely more than half of those surveyed who have net worths over $10 million said educational achievement was an expectation they had for their kids. Compare that to the 'working affluent' (those with between $1 million and $10 million net worth), for which 84% cited educational achievement for their kids [...] as expectations".

[4] President Bush (who keeps requesting hundreds of billions for war-making) vetos child health and education bill.

[5] Although, of course, this could still happen. Many leaders have nuclear bombs at their disposal, and may have an agenda to push.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The friend wheel application for facebook is the most interesting data visualization tool of social networks that I have seen. Here's a recently generated friend wheel:
On the outside of the circle are all your facebook friends. If they are friends with any of your other friends, a link is shown between the names across the circle. It allows you, at a glance, to see the connectivity of your social network. It's a reasonable job of grouping tightly connected friends together so you can see clearer associative links, some with whom worlds collide.

I tried out the flash version on facebook as well, and it's even more interesting! It allows you to drag the "friend nodes" around while maintaining their connectivity. Try moving your friends around so that there are no overlapping lines between friends (you probably won't be able to totally untangle it). An unwound friends wheel gives even greater visualization of your social network:The unwound network of social connections more aptly shows subgroupings of friends and degree of "tight"ness in the subgroup, defined as how proximate each member in the graph is to each other. Friend "islands" can clearly be seen as isolated. Some chains of connections may uncover surprising full-circle "degrees of Kevin Bacon" associations. A heavy locus (impossible to untangle in two dimensions) clearly shows the more well connected members of your social groups.

Go try it. It's cool. (Of course, only do this after you've read and agreed to the application's privacy policy) It reminds me a lot of doing place-and-route with circuit boards. It is a fun, challenging puzzle.

On a topic tangential to social networks, has some interesting things to say on Depersonalization of Modern Society via Greater Connectivity and Availability. (my description, not his) From TFA: "Communication is so inexpensive so as to be almost free. [...] 'keeping in touch' becomes a tiresome and ultimately undoable exercise, unless one starts using canonical mass forwarded messages. But then, what does that 'keeping in touch' mean if one is only forwarding stock messages?"

I think overall he makes good and probably accurate points in the article. However, I think that greater accessibility only leads to stronger social connectivity. There is not enough time in the day, week, or year to keep meaningfully updated with any but a modest number of close friends. In my experience, enhanced instant (or time-shifted) connectivity doesn't diminish close friendships, but brings a greater feeling of camaraderie through pseudo-proximity, a extension of what one feels in person. For those who have busy days drinking from the firehose of life's other commitments, the portable, instant, time-efficient, and cheap communication offered by modern technology is a panacea for what formerly would have resulted in increased communicative isolationism. (When was the last time you sat down and wrote a letter on paper?)

A formal social network site like facebook also allows greater intellectual interaction with all your friends, not just the tightly connected, via a method unavailable (in degree) to the previous generation: Posted Items. People post links to interesting things they've found on the internet, which you are free to ignore, read at your leisure, or discuss with friends in a quasi-private way. Since many associations/friendships have been formed through common interests, the posted items of your friends are more likely to have an interest to you (as compared to a given random news portal). The intended-for-a-small-audience posted items of those to whom you are socially connected come with a higher signal to noise ratio. That is, while the user-submitted-content of web portals generally needs to rise in a large-scale meritorious evaluation to be seen by the maximal number of eyes, the personal network postings spread memes between individuals whose opinions are (in theory) respected by each other. Popular url web portals are like published "best seller" book lists, but Posted Items in facebook are much more like a friend recommending a book they liked.

I like getting recommendations from friends. If a friend is willing to say "this interested me and I think you should look at it, too", I want to see it.

If you think one of your friends should read this, let them know. There is a social bookmarking tool at the end of this article. Also, if you're on facebook, link up with me. I'd like to see the shape of the network of "random people from the internet". I suspect Christine Gambito's friends wheel is large, but poorly connected.

Burton MacKenZie

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A few months back I wrote about the War in Iraq costing the USA as much as 11 manned missions to Mars. This was based on reasonable cost estimates of the time.

New data is in. According to the JEC Report, “War at Any Price?”, as reported at the Democratic Caucus's Senate Journal, the Iraq war will cost 1.3 Trillion Dollars by 2008. [note 1] This translates to thirty-two (32) fully manned missions to Mars! (see previous article for Mars costs) Please note that the estimated cost of the mission to Mars was based on "doing everything from scratch" costs, which would certainly not be the case if we went there multiple times.

To put thin in perspective, we have left this planet and landed on another heavenly body, our local moon, only six (6) times in the entirety of human history!

I just don't know what to say. This makes me feel angry, powerless, and then angry some more. Even the American citizens seem powerless to stop this. It's going to get a lot worse before it gets any better. I also don't like the way the USA is looking at Canada's fresh water supply.

Burton MacKenZie

[1] Note: this amount was reported by the Associated Press as 1.6 Trillion Dollars, and this appears to be based upon the original report. At the Joint Economic Committee web journal, they state that there were numerous multibillion dollar factual errors in the report that were a number of these errors have been quietly corrected in the web version of the report on the Democrats’ JEC web site. Thus, I am assuming that the $1.3 Trillion currently reported on the website is the corrected amount.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Two Faces of One

Do you always write the number one as "1"? Did you know there's another, exactly equal way to do it? What do you think about "0.99999999..."? (9s repeating to infinity) It turns out, they are exactly the same thing, and it's easy to show why.

Simple proof:

  1. one third (1/3) can be written as "0.333..." (3s to infinity)
  2. three times one third, 3 * 1/3 = 1.
  3. since 1/3 is "0.333...", we can also write this as 3 * "0.333...", which is "0.999..."
  4. so, 1 = "0.999..."; both are equal.
Slightly less simple proof:
  1. let a = "0.999..."
  2. 10 * a = "9.999..."
  3. 10 * a - a = "9.999..." - "0.999..." = 9
  4. 9 * a = 9
  5. a = 1
  6. 1 = "0.999..."; both are equal
Convergence of infinite series proof:
  1. represent "9.9999...." as an infinite series; 9* Sum (xk for k = 0..Inf) - 9; with x = 0.1
  2. since x < 1, this series converges to ( 9 / (1 - x)) - 9 = ( 9 / 0.9) - 9 = 10 - 9 = 1
  3. so again, 1 = "0.999..."; both are equal.
When learning this for the first time, many people don't believe it, but this is not a trick. It's difficult to get a visceral understanding about infinity, so this seems counter intuitive. On polling a few students, I found they felt that "it never quite reaches 1" because there will always be a small difference left between 1 and "0.999...", regardless of how many digits you use. This is reasonable and common sense, given our experience in the world, but it's a misunderstanding. The problem is that our experience in the world doesn't prepare us for infinity. There is no difference between 1 and "0.999..." -- none at all! The digits have no end. Ever! Any difference is filled with an infinite regress of smaller segments.

I still don't think it'll work on my cheques, though. Infinity is a harsh mistress.

Burton MacKenZie

Update: There is more explanation of the why and what's going on in these proofs in the comments, below.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

A few years ago when passing through Florida, I found this sign:

It was at night, everything was closed, and I only had enough time to snap this picture, but it has haunted me ever since; what the hell are discount pets?! It may just be regional semantic variation, but when something is discounted where I come from, it's usually damaged in some way or factory seconds, etc. All I can envision are cats with the mange, deranged budgies, or three-legged rabid dogs. Why are they discounted? Are they refurbished customer returns? Perhaps a ferret that won't stop urinating the couch and now it's available to you at a low-low price? Then again, maybe it's a no-kill animal shelter. That would be really great if it was. But it's not.

If you'd like to convert a click of your mouse into food for real rescued animals, look between the google ads on the right of the page. There is a colourful button for The Animal Rescue Site in the Altruism section. Click through to their site. 100% of their ad click-through revenues goes to feeding rescued animals. Take 5 seconds of your day to help an animal. Then help people with the other buttons in the Altruism section. Thanks. :-)

Update: Just to be clear, I make no money from the Altruism links - it all goes to the named charities.

Burton MacKenZie


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