Monday, 29 January 2007

Non-Newtonian fluids and a question...

I was doing some work related research today (hydrostatics - don't ask), and came across this video (work safe, but you can turn the volume off).

Neat, huh? Cornstarch. Now you too can follow in Jesus's footsteps, as long as you move fast enough.

The viscosity of this sucker increases with force. Hit it hard, and it acts as a solid. Put steady pressure on it and it acts as a liquid.

Now, here's a question for you. Imagine you drain half the cornstarch out and add something heavier that behaves normally - oil, for example. The cornstarch will wind up floating on the oil. What happens if you try to run on it now?

Something to file away for when I have the time, the money, some unsuspecting friends and a shitload of starch...

Sunday, 28 January 2007

Ku, or On How One May Speak A Novel With A Haiku

"We join spokes together in a wheel,
but it is the center hole
that makes the wagon move.

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want.

We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it livable.

We work with being,
but non-being is what we use."

- Tao te Ching

And, as a demonstration:

At Moorditch, Richard Wilbur

"Now," said the voice of lock and window-bar,
"You must confront things as they truly are.
Open your eyes at last, and see
The desolateness of reality."

"Things have," I said, "a pallid, empty look,
Like pictures in an unused coloring book."

"Now that the scales have fallen from your eyes,"
Said the sad hallways, "you must recognize
How childishly your former sight
Salted the world with glory and delight."

"This cannot be the world," I said. "Nor will it,
Till the heart's crayon spangle and fulfill it."

Thursday, 25 January 2007

Not even bothering to Amuse Ourselves To Death

Some time in the future, considerably closer in the future than you might imagine, the Earth will be dead. From a sky which is endlessly slate-grey will forever rain a black snow, the carbonised remains of every man, woman, child, animal or plant that ever formed part of the ecosystem. The land will be dead, the skies will be dead, the seas will be dead. All of the human race's hopes, dreams, fears, anguish and triumph will be meaningless. The Earth will be dead.

Sometime after that, the alien anthropologists will arrive. Lancing down through the atmosphere in their organically grown ships, they will use a gravity drive we cannot imagine to hover above the remains of our cities. They will start methodically sifting through the ashes of our civilization, using vast cranes, human sized robots, microbots, and nanotechnology. They will fit together our languages, our culture, our history, our minds, piece by painstaking piece.

And they will eventually find it. It will register as an anomoly on the inference engine doing the initial analysis, and it will call in a sophont. After five minutes of watching it, he (or she or some pronoun for a neuter or for an egg-bearing non-sexed gender we don't have) will stop and call the entire ship's company to view the artifact. They will sit (or perch, or rest on their tentacles - whatever) and watch.

And an hour and a half later, as the credits to "Epic Movie" are rolling, they will agree among themselves that we had it coming, wipe the memory banks and head off to Canopus to pick over a species that was actually worth a damn.


"Epic Movie" is probably the biggest piece of shit I have ever seen.

I am not engaging in hyperbole here - I have witnessed things floating in toilet bowls that I would much rather watch again for 87 minutes.

If you have a choice between seeing this movie and getting a frontal lobotomy, I recommend you tell the docs to book the OR - the two will have the same effect on the brain, and at least you'll be getting anaesthesia with the lobotomy. Unfunny, unplotted, unwanted and unnecessary.

Look, you remember that scene in "Jackass" where the guy swallows a couple of eggs, drinks some milk, chews up some veges, and then throws up into a pan and cooks the result as an omelette? It's like that - a barely digested mess of allusions to recent movies, mixed with references to some of the more moronic bits of a moronic American pop culture, regurgitated onto celluloid and thrown at you due to a vague resemblence to something edible.

It's bad, people. I would give it a 0 out of 10, but I'll raise that to a 0.5 out of ten because it does make a couple of very weak pokes at Bush which might persuade the complete and utter moron voters to go for the Democratic candidate in 2008, assuming they can figure out how to pull a lever.

Saturday, 20 January 2007

Stages of moral development and political correctness

Consider, for a moment, Kohlberg's theory of moral development. I have several arguments with it, but I think it does capture a few important truths, and I think it's a useful tool for conceptualising why people adopt their moral stances.

Now, consider the way (mainly American) conservatism has framed the concept of "Political Correctness" to mean a type of group-think hewing to the party line on progressive issues.

They're right - it exists.

The fatal flaw with their argument, of course, is that this does not invalidate the stances labelled "Politically Correct", nor does it mean that everyone agreeing with those stances does so because of group-think. In terms of Kohlberg's theory, people can follow the same ethic whether they do so because of stage two moral development ("I get something out of it"), stage three development ("it's what all of us good boys and girls believe") or stage six ("It's consistent with that which is right").

Consider a possible analogy - the abolitionist movement in the States. Someone might have been an abolitionist because their spouse was one and they sought domestic harmony, because everyone in their circle thought it was a good idea and they went along with the crowd, or because they had intellectually considerd a set of ethics from which human equality genuinely derived. But pointing out that abolition was "politically correct" didn't justify slavery.

The test for these positions would be dissent, especially dissent within the ranks. Consider someone who stated that slaves were trained to be subservient and therefore very few of them could every really be freed. If you were an abolitionist for post-conventional reasons - because it was right based on your system of ethics regardless of what other people said - you might consider this proposition on its own merits and engage with it. If you were an abolitionist for conventional reasons - because it's what all good people believed, or because it's what your peer group believed in, and you were obliged to go along - then you might consider this proposition a threat and attack the person who made it or their motives for doing so.

Indeed, in the latter case, we would expect to see a certain dynamic showing up. The person making such a proposition would be vilified, and their right to speak would be questioned. If possible, it would be taken away from them (*). Their actual argument would be distorted as people reacted to what they thought he or she was standing for, rather than what he or she was actually saying. And people would engage in Two Minute Hate sessions against them to reinforce group bonds around what was Correct.

These, I submit, would be clear signs that a position was held because it was conventional for the group the person identified with rather than due to actual moral consideration, regardless of the validity of the position.

These are obvious behaviours on the wingnut sites. But the wingnuts are right - you don't have to go too far to find the same on progressive sites either.

(*) I've gone through three copies of James Carse's "Finite and Infinite Games", and now I can't find that third copy! I suspect a certain goth friend is sitting on my third copy - if he isn't, I'm going to have to go shell out another twenty or thirty bucks for yet another copy. Read up on what Carse has to say about "Evil" if you can. Hell, read the whole goddammned thing - it's an excellent book.

Friday, 19 January 2007

On national stereotypes

Oh dear. And we were doing so well, too.

Conservatism, Liberalism and humour

Recently at Pharyngula, Myers started discussing the difference between conservative and liberal characters. There's one point I want to expand on here - humour.

There are two major areas of humour I'd like to consider - not the only two, but they cut a large swathe through the field of laughs. The first is subversion or category displacement. The joke teller sets up an expectation and then subverts it. They lead the audience into making unexpected mental connections. The second is that of cruelty, of inviting the audience to engage in shared derision of a target. You'll note this doesn't cover the entire spectrum - "The Aristocrats", for example, falls into neither category.

So let me suggest a crude spectrum which correlates with libralism/conservatism - that of neophilia vs neophobia. Neophilia is a liking for the new - people who enjoy learning, who enjoy ambiguity and incorporating new concepts. Neophobia is a dislike of the new - people who are made uneasy by the ambigious and resist concepts which clash with those already held.

Neophiliacs gain considerable enjoyment out of the first kind of humour mentioned above. They enjoy having their expectations subverted, being led into a constant stream of category misfirings. Neophobics do not. It makes them uneasy. They don't enjoy playing with expectations. At worst, they are unable to follow the huimour because they are unable to process new concepts fast enough. There's something happening, but they can't figure it out.

Both ends of the spectrum, however, can enjoy cruelty.

Now, consider Mallard Fillmore, that most conservative of comic strips. Its sole payoff is group identification through stereotypes and derision of "The Other". Solely. It doesn't do irony or humour as liberals understand it.

Consider Chris Muir's Day by Day. It tries, but it so often fails to get that category misfiring. But, boy, does it press the shared derision button. And the tits-and-ass factor, of course.

Consider relatively apolitical comic strips which, on my observation, have a huge following amoung liberals. Opus, for example. Or consider the politically liberal cartoons, such as Doonesbury. Or consider the Colbert Report, Jon Stewart, Bill Hicks, the whole swathe of liberal comedians. They get the vast majority of their laughs out of category misfirings - that's what satire is, and irony too, to a lesser extent.

Now, consider a recent thread at Pandagon on the vocabulary of the White House. I'm quite proud of one of those entries - "Isolating extremists", which a commentator named Cris described as "humor that hurts". That makes it a success. That's what it was supposed to do - express a sense of righteous fury by presenting an image that triggered horror and pity at the exact same time it was funny through category misfiring. The backstory is, of course, that that little Iraqi girl screaming on a concrete floor is an orphan - she's covered in the blood of her parents shot in front of her at an American checkpoint. She's about as isolated as I've ever seen another human being. You get that. I get that.

I suspect the wingnut end of the conservative grouping simply wouldn't get that. They don't play around with subverting categories - to them, I would just be poking fun at the kid. They might consider it a bit tasteless, they might consider it disgusting, but they wouldn't consider it funny.

Especially not funny in a way which allows us to demonstrate our fury at such situations.

Thursday, 11 January 2007

2007 and everything's moving (part 1)

Okay, time to get back into this. I'm currently on holiday and, naturally enough, the weather has been crap in Wellington and, as I understand it, in most of the country. In the middle of summer.

I have a friend - let's call her the Short Dominatrix - who just went camping in the Coromandel. Seeing her yesterday, I gloated that she must have frozen her ass off. "Oh no," she chortled, "it was fine all the time. I have pictures. Including many of girls in bikinis. Wanna see them?"

I think I'm getting too predictable.

Anyhow, I picked up a few extra bookcases in an idle moment, and am in the process of sorting my collection and moving all the mediocre SF and non-fiction into the bedroom away from the gaze of those I wish to impress, or at least not to sneer at me. I am going to leave a short shelf of SF that I wouldn't mind being associated with in plain view, that which I would press on casual browsers.

So here's part 1 of what PiatoR suggests you read, assuming you can't avoid a SF geek:

i, Tim Powers, The Drawing Of The Dark - an excellent fantasy novel set at the seige of Vienna, 1529. A down-to-earth protaganist, and Arthurian themes moving in the background.

ii, Ursula Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven - a classic. Le Guin takes on Phillip K Dick's territory with her own sensibilities.

iii, Greg Egan, Quarantine - Egan is a writer much better at short stories than novels, where his hard sf leaves readers cold. Quarantine is the exception - a story solidly grounded in a real protaganist in a believable world led step by step into Egan's flavour of high weirdness

iv, Tom Robbins, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas - Robbins's best, IMHO.

v, S M Stirling, Drakon - Stirling is pretty contemptible as a person, and as a writer given to overwritten alt-history military sf. Passable, but others do it better (John Birmingham, for example). Drakon, however, is the exception where his talents are actually harnessed in a good story. Imagine the film "Predator 2" done intelligently...

vi, John Steakley, Armor - a story that takes the tropes of military sf, powered armor and the war against the bugs, and twists them to tell a very humanistic tale. What exactly happens to a man stuck in a war he can't survive if he refuses to die?

vii, Garfield Reeves-Stevens, Dark Matter - What at first appears to be a competent attempt at a standard serial killer novel turns weird. What if the psychopath running around gruesomely slaughtering innocents in search of some mad insight into the universe - was right? Definitely give this a try if you're into slasher fiction.

viii, Charles Stross, Sigularity Sky - a cutting edge (i.e. post-Vinge, post-cyberpunk) retake on space opera, with more than a hint of satire thrown in. The New Republic is at war with - what, exactly? They're taking the planet - how, exactly? And when their mighty war fleet confronts the Enemy - will it even notice?

ix, John Brunner, TeheCompleat Traveller in Black - classic high fantasy as it should be done. Should be read at least once by anyone who thinks they like fantasy.

x, George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman - the start of the series. Fraser mixes stories grounded in firm historical detail of the heroic or more obscure parts of the Victorian era, a quick and funny imagination, and one of the most memorable characters around. If you haven't met Lord Harry Flashman, coward, lecher and blaggard yet, do yourself a favour.

Okay, part 2 follows in a day or two.