steuard: (lake)
Wednesday, July 29th, 2015 11:48 pm
I want the whole concept of "juvenile charged as an adult" to be eliminated from the American legal system. (Maybe the US could then stop being the only UN nation other than Somalia not to have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.)

I want police officers to be trained under the assumption that protecting innocent civilian lives is even more important than their own safety. (And reminded that our society believes in a presumption of innocence.)

I want police officers and departments to consider any death (or injury) at police hands to reflect a failure. Officers should be trained to prioritize deescalation whenever possible. (Among other reasons, many violent or threatening individuals are mentally ill.)

I want black people carrying fake guns to be treated with at least as many rights as white people carrying real ones.

I want law enforcement officers to be legally classified as ordinary civilians under all circumstances unless their actions are recorded by a body camera and successfully uploaded to a public server. (Live wireless backup could be an important part of this.) (Any recording relevant to an actual civil or criminal trial should be publicly viewable, but I could accept restrictions on general access to all recorded footage.)

I want statistics to be kept on every police officer and every police department, including counts of officer-involved deaths, major injuries and minor injuries, as well as percentage of encounters that escalate to violence, all annotated with race and gender. Departmental statistics should be public, and tracked at the state and federal level. Individual officer's statistics should be confidential but regularly reviewed at the local and state levels. (For both individuals and departments, careful statistical analysis is of course necessary: some outliers are statistically inevitable even under normal behaviors and conditions, and careful attention would be necessary to develop proper apples-to-apples comparison groups. Statistics alone should never lead to censure or punishment, but they could prompt a more individual review, including recordings of the incidents in question.)

I want police officers (and society at large) to recognize that one bad apple ruins the bunch, and that their fellow officers must be held to standards at least as high as the general population.

I want a guarantee that the proceeds of civil forfeiture will never be shared with the officers, department, or local government directly responsible for confiscating the property in question. (Proceeds could be given to local community service organizations, or to state or federal governments.)

I want a (low) nationwide cap on the fraction of a municipality's revenue that can come from fines. (Excess could be returned to local citizens as some sort of tax rebate or given to local non-profits.)

I want a ban on military-style equipment for most police officers and departments. The use of such tools should be limited to small, highly trained teams to be deployed only in the most dangerous situations, and whose numbers are subject to strict caps based on local/regional population and violent crime rates. (Note that British police are almost entirely unarmed, and overwhelmingly want it to stay that way. That might not work here, today, but clearly our current model isn't the only way.)

I want the importance of affirmative, active consent to be taught in every school (and discussed as explicitly applying to sexual activity beginning at least by middle school).

I want drug possession to be treated as a public health issue rather than a crime. (Retroactive reductions in prison sentences to match would be a good corollary.)

I want the sale of any drug whose likely harm to the individual and to society is no worse than tobacco's (or maybe even alcohol's) to be legalized, taxed, and carefully regulated for safety. (More nuanced updates of that Lancet study would of course be very welcome.)

I want the US population to collectively decide that convicts deserve humane conditions and that rape and assault are just as important to prevent in prison as they are outside of it. (And that it's worth the investment of money and attention to ensure all that. I'm willing to accept a lot of cameras for this one.)

I (probably) want most of our national social safety net programs to be replaced by a universal basic income (along with some sort of access to Medicare/Medicaid or a similar program), too, but that's a more complex issue than most of these.


There's probably a lot more that should be on this list, but that's a start.
steuard: (lake)
Saturday, May 31st, 2014 08:41 pm
I saw this comic recently.

Somewhere in the house is a box containing the plans I drew up around age 12 for pretty much exactly this. (Without the Oculus Rift part, but instead with a complicated multiple controller setup for large-scale team play.) As I recall, my drawings were heavy on the concepts and light on engineering details. :)

My childhood vision began as "Battlestar Galactica fleet vs. Cylon Basestar fleet in the sky", but I gradually expanded it to include at least two additional very distinct teams. I don't think I quite recognized at the time just how far out of reach my ideas were for the technology of the day, but it's awesome to think that someone could conceivably do it for real right now.
steuard: (physics)
Saturday, May 24th, 2014 04:19 am
We live in a remarkable era. If you brought an ancient Greek astronomer to the present day and dropped him off in a field somewhere, he would be awestruck, and maybe terrified. (Heck, it probably wouldn't even need to be an astronomer: I think that most people were quite familiar with the night sky until recent times.)

The meteor shower was pretty much a bust: I was outside for a decent stretch and only saw two for sure, plus a couple more "maybes" that were too brief and dim for me to judge whether they came from the expected radiant point. (To be fair, from where I was in our backyard I was seeing far less than the full sky.)

But in the same time, I saw at least half a dozen satellites, ranging from "almost too dim to see" to "easily the brightest object in the sky". It's obviously been too long since I just lay back to watch the stars: those things are now a near-constant presence. So I really do wonder how that Greek time traveler would react to the modern sky: what would those swift-moving, variable brightness points of light mean to him? What would Plato make of it? What stories would Homer tell?

For that matter, I'm sure that there are still plenty of societies and communities today that have little knowledge of high technology, from isolated tribes to rural villages. What do *they* make of the satellites that now pass constantly over their heads? This is a recent phenomenon: its origin is easily within living memory, and it has only gradually become as frequent as it is today. What stories do those people tell? Do they know or guess that these are the work of human beings? Do they fear that the newly mobile stars are an omen of some approaching doom?

And what stories might we tell about ourselves, as we alter the face of the heavens so deeply without ever pausing to think what an astounding achievement that is?
steuard: (lake)
Saturday, May 25th, 2013 11:48 pm
I've recently read two science fiction stories that proved to be more closely related than I expected, given that they were recommended by entirely different sources in (as far as I recall) entirely different contexts. Some of that may just be a matter of who I am right now and what I've been thinking about lately (apart from physics teaching and research), but I thought I'd share them. Both are worth reading, though the second has had a firmer grip on the back of my mind in the time since I read it. I may say more about my thoughts on these later, but I'd rather give anyone who's interested the chance to read them first, so for now I'll just give the titles and links:

The Women Men Don't See, by James Tiptree, Jr. Much of the point of this story lies in the choice of narrator. And yes, trust me, it's sci-fi, though it's fair to say that the overt sci-fi isn't itself the point of the story.

Bloodchild, by Octavia E. Butler. This is one that sticks with you, which may be why it won a Hugo and a Nebula. [Edit note: This deserves a trigger warning for pregnancy complications. My apologies to anyone who was caught off guard.]

Edit: Since I've commented on awards for "Bloodchild", it may be worth mentioning that well-known anthology editor Gardner Dozois said of the 1974 Hugos that, "The award in novelette should have gone to a story that wasn't even on the ballot, Tiptree's 'The Women Men Don't See'."
steuard: (Default)
Monday, August 20th, 2012 10:13 am
I was thinking about color this morning (yes, I do these things), and I was struck by a disturbing thought: when did I last see violet? Not purple, which I see all the time, but actual violet. [I'm not the first person to wonder this: here's a very thorough discussion.]

Purple, as you no doubt recall, is a compound color: it's what we perceive when we see a mixture of red and blue light. But violet is a pure color: light with wavelength somewhere a little over 400nm. (Side question: anyone have a clue as to why purple and violet are perceptually similar?) So what's the problem? RGB monitors, that's what. The shortest wavelength of light produced by an RGB monitor is blue, which is probably around 460nm or so. That means that your monitor is incapable of producing a violet color. Looking at a picture of a rainbow on your computer screen is inevitably a less vibrant experience than seeing one in person.

So, fine, look at a printed photograph. Well... not so fast. I don't know how all the different types of photo printing work, but a lot of printers are RGB or CMY themselves (and I think that CMY has the same problems as RGB in this regard, or worse). I have no idea what the process is (or was) for traditional photo printing from the analog era, but I'm willing to imagine that there are photo printers today who are capable of printing with actual violet dyes. But wait: what sort of camera took the photograph? Again, I don't know how good traditional film cameras were at capturing violet, but today's digital cameras are (as far as I know) also RGB.

So: when did you last see violet? Think back: what does it look like?
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Friday, July 8th, 2011 05:28 pm
We have a moment of calm right now (but not long enough for a nap), so I wanted to record a rather remarkable news experience that I had Tuesday night and Wednesday morning before other events completely drive it from my mind.

I think of myself as someone who follows the news reasonably closely. (Too closely, really: it's not as if a decent knowledge of world events gains me much in life. But as vices go, it's not too bad.) Most of that comes from skimming through New York Times headlines regularly and reading articles that catch my eye, plus reading a smattering of articles from technology news sites and watching the Daily Show online.

I mention this because while Kim was in labor earlier this week, I occasionally went down the hall to refill our water, and almost all of them seemed to be about the same thing: it sounded like there had just been a verdict in some sort of highly publicized trial. While waiting to be called into the operating room the next morning, the waiting room TV was tuned to a morning news show that focused entirely on reactions to the same court case.

I had never, ever heard anything about this before.

Apparently, there has been this mass cultural event that has transfixed the nation, so much so that one morning news show reporter commented that she'd been covering twists and turns of the trial almost every day for months. How in the world was it possible that no whisper of it had ever caught my attention? I felt a great deal as if I'd walked into a room in late 1994 and asked, "OJ who?" I don't have the impression that I missed much (why exactly was what sounds like a sad local story national news?), but I'm still a bit uncomfortable that I didn't even know I was missing it. Does this news filter of mine only exclude unimportant major stories (yay!), or do I miss big things at random?

Ok. Time to check a diaper.
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Thursday, June 30th, 2011 11:47 pm

I've been soliciting suggestions from various social networks to help me make a list of surprising but important bits of life knowledge that my college students may not have heard. I gave three examples to start things off:

  • Tylenol/acetaminophen OD can be awful: no symptoms for 12 hours, but without help in 8 you need a liver transplant to live.
  • Unless you need help, NEVER talk to police without a lawyer (innocent or not). WATCH THIS: www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wXkI4t7nuc.
  • A tender, warm, swollen spot on a leg could be a blood clot waiting to dislodge and kill you: see a doctor fast!

My twitter tag #WowGood2Know utterly failed to draw interest, but on Facebook this is easily the most commented post I've ever had. Early consensus was "This is the scariest FB post ever" (followed by "Steuard, walk. away. from. the. computer."), but it really took off. People have suggested some rather silly things ("Each human has a unique tongue print") and some very valuable ones ("Always be friendly to the secretaries"). I plan to keep collecting and summarize my favorites eventually.

So, any new ideas from folks here? What important insights do you think more people ought to know by college?

steuard: (physics)
Wednesday, December 1st, 2010 07:29 pm
There's been some attention on the intertubes lately to a study based at the University of Colorado about reducing the persistent gender gap in intro physics. One good description of the idea and results is a blog entry at Not Exactly Rocket Science: the gist is that by having students write two 15-minute essays at the start of the term justifying some of their most important values (nothing to do with physics!), the usual gap between male and female course grades (and assessment scores) was essentially eliminated. That's a Big Deal(TM), because physics has the worst gender imbalance of all the sciences (including math and CS, and I think even most engineering specialties).

That blog post is a very nice summary of this research, which is much more than I can say for the article on Ars Technica where I first saw this study mentioned. One major flaw of the Ars article was its title: "Self-affirming essay boosts coeds' physics skills". I loathe the word "coed" used in this way, so much so that I suspect that its use here actively makes physics gender inequality worse. (Seriously, does anyone under the age of 40 use "coed" to mean "college woman" in any context except porn?)

The other big flaw of the Ars article (which left me horribly skeptical about the research) was that it gave no indication of how a physics professor is supposed to nonchalantly slip a completely irrelevant essay assignment into the class. Happily, the blog post explains that it was billed as an exercise to improve writing skills. That actually feels plausible, and it's a great fit for my class: I've always insisted that students explain their equations with English sentences (for many good reasons). So I may very well try this myself, if not next semester then next fall. I hope it helps!
steuard: (Tolkien)
Sunday, October 24th, 2010 01:54 am
A few months ago, a newsgroup conversation inspired one of the biggest shifts in my perspective on Middle-earth since I first started reading Tolkien. I figure at least a few people here might be interested, so I'm finally taking the time to share.

As a reader of Tolkien's stories, it's obvious that Middle-earth is a very different world than our own: it's deeply infused with "Faerie" on every level, from magic spells to enchanted items to fantastical beings. Fundamentally, that difference is absolutely true. But the essence of my epiphany was that our view is tremendously atypical: to the overwhelming majority of its inhabitants (at least in the era of The Lord of the Rings), Middle-earth would have appeared no more magical than our own world.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of this is Sam Gamgee, whose longing for a glimpse of magic was a key personality point from his first introduction. He was eager to believe his cousin Hal's report of a walking tree, and he was entranced by Bilbo's stories of the Elves. You've got to figure that Sam had as much experience with Elves and magic as almost anyone in the Shire. But what did it amount to? Glimpses and legends, nothing more: at the start of the story, Sam "believed he had once seen an Elf in the woods." And while he did meet quite a few Elves once his journey with Frodo began, even as late as his last days in Lothlorien Sam was still wishing for his first clear taste of "Elf-magic". But as readers, we can't sympathize at all: we get to skip straight to the scene where he finally sees some, and in any case we've been treated all along to excerpts from the Elves' magical history.

More examples )

I could go on and on along similar lines (I haven't even commented on the folk beliefs of Rohan and Gondor as compared to those in the real world). The point of all that is that my next reading of the books will probably feel rather different now that I've thought of all this. To realize that practically every human being in the story who wasn't raised by Elves would react to elements of Faerie pretty much the same way that you or I would, and that they haven't read The Silmarillion or even heard (or heard of!) most of the stories there... that's a big shift from the way I've approached the book. I'm quite looking forward to what I'll find.
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Wednesday, September 22nd, 2010 10:59 pm
Here's what I want as my computer desktop image, or maybe as a screensaver:

I want a pretty landscape, maybe a mountain lake with some nearby woods. I want the lighting of the scene to follow a more or less real time 24-hour day/night cycle (including shadows, appropriate tints for dawn and dusk, things like illumination by moonlight, and stars in the sky at night). If possible, I want the appearance to adjust to follow the seasons in real time, too. (Including a bit of variation in weather or at least clouds would be interesting as well, though I'd want to be able to forbid completely overcast skies.) Something like this may exist: anyone know?

But... I want this simulated landscape to be located on a habitable, Earthlike moon of a gas giant planet. (Rings? Maybe.) The scene's lighting should be based on not just the sun but also light reflected from the sunlit parts of the central planet (and perhaps on any other moons that pass nearby in their own orbits), and the planet's appearance in the sky should be scientifically accurate. The seasonal cycle should be based at least generally on some calculation of solar heating based on the orbits involved. (That might not be much different than what we're familiar with, but I'd want to check. Would there be any significant monthly cycle on top of the annual one?) It might even be fun to include some mildly spectacular feature somewhere in the night sky, too: a nearby nebula or cluster, maybe. Bonus points if there is a practical orbit for another inhabited moon of the gas giant to occasionally come close enough to see continents and weather patterns (and city lights at night).

I'd be amazed if anyone had actually written a program encompassing this whole idea, but I think it should be possible today. If it were done well (with good attention to both art and science, and with configurable details if possible), I'd be willing to pay a fairly substantial price for it.
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Sunday, May 30th, 2010 01:23 am
(I don't think I've posted this geeky take on driving before.)

I grew up driving in Nebraska, where "limited access highway" more or less implies "sparsely traveled" (except for a few places in Omaha), so learning to drive well on Chicago and LA freeways was quite an experience. After I'd more or less figured it out, and more importantly after a bunch of conversations with Kim, I hit upon a possibly useful analogy to explain the difference.

In Nebraska, I naturally used a "particle" model of interstate driving. I was able to track all the other cars on the road individually (maybe even for a mile or so in each direction), and I had detailed expectations about their motion. But on big city freeways, that mental model was overwhelming: there were just too many cars to track in such detail, and their constant interactions meant that predicting individual behavior was futile.

Instead, my approach to city freeway driving seems to use a "fluid" model. I don't really track individual cars: I track "the surrounding traffic" as a whole. I see when it's speeding up or slowing down, when it shifts from smooth to chaotic, and the like. I also track significant disruptions in that flow like aggressive drivers or stopped cars. Just like a real fluid, it's the collective motion that allows me to grasp what's going on amidst the underlying complexity. (And just like a real fluid, scientists and engineers have studied phenomena like wave propagation and turbulence in traffic: I should have known to make that mental leap much sooner than I did.)

One day, I'd like to be able to match Kim's LA-native comfort level with traffic. She seems to use an improved fluid model that also manages to keep careful track of the nearby cars (or perhaps the nearby gaps... hmm) to make lane changes a breeze. Meanwhile, I'm just entertained to see again how naturally our brains do complex physical modeling to adapt to new situations.
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Friday, May 28th, 2010 12:42 am
My earliest memory is actually almost the memory of a memory: my fifth grade teacher had us write the story of our earliest memories, and I've remembered what I wrote even as the memory itself became less and less vivid. I was three years old sitting behind my mother on her bike as she sped down the steep hills of our neighborhood, and it was terrifying. She went so fast, and all I could do was watch helplessly as she whizzed around corners and parked cars. I still remember the images and feel of it a little, but I know that when I first wrote the story it was crystal clear. I've often thought about that change and what it might imply about memory in general.

Flash forward to two days ago. While sorting through boxes of old papers, I actually found the fifth grade story itself. It was almost exactly as I remembered it, except for one crucial change: I wasn't scared at all. The story said a lot about how exciting it was, but there wasn't the slightest suggestion of fear or helplessness. Now I really want to know what happened (and when) to transform that memory from positive to negative. (For that matter, I want to know when I went from enjoying that sort of thrill to disliking it. And I wonder if the two are related.)
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Sunday, November 1st, 2009 08:21 pm

A month or two ago, Kim and I started playing Rock Band; it's a lot of fun. I've mostly been playing drums, in part because I've always been a little interested and in part on the theory that the skills there could transfer reasonably well to the real instrument. Better than the guitar, anyway!

I began to wonder if someone would eventually create "Orchestra Hero" so I could indulge my love of classical music, too. Kim and I spotted some significant difficulties, like:

  • Shorter songs are good for game play, so rock works well but classical less so. Playing through a single piece (or even a single movement) could take up a whole game session. And how obnoxious would it be when the clarinetist "fails out" ten bars before the end of Beethoven's 9th?
  • Rock band requires just three or four controllers for a standard rock setup, while to field an orchestra you'd need at least a dozen. Sure, not everyone would need to buy every controller, but it still fragments the market for those items. (And if you did get a dozen friends together to play, how would you show all the parts on the TV screen?)
  • While a lot of people might end up enjoying Orchestra Hero, many fewer would think they'd enjoy it: the market just isn't there. (Related is the point that one fun thing about Rock Band/Guitar Hero is getting to play songs you already know. Fewer people know a wide range of orchestral music.)

By the end of that conversation, I felt disappointed to realize that Orchestra Hero probably wouldn't ever happen, but I moved on.

So it was a bit of a surprise to see an article on the NY Times website today entitled "Orchestra Hero". The article isn't actually all that great (the author spends half his time talking about his composing, which has pretty much zilch to do with the topic), and it doesn't really touch on any of those difficulties or suggest ways to overcome them, but it's still neat to see other people considering the idea.

It's made me start wondering if something like this could actually work. There are lots of classical CDs with titles like "20 Romantic Classics" or "Bach's Greatest Hits" that pick out short, well-known pieces, so maybe length isn't such a big concern if you're willing to give up playing full symphonies. You could reduce the number of controllers by combining similar instruments (e.g. one controller design might work as a clarinet, oboe, and even flute). Maybe someone will eventually create Orchestra Hero after all.

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Saturday, March 3rd, 2007 08:21 pm
Perhaps because I recently read Jared Diamond's book Collapse, I've been wondering just how lasting humanity's impact on the world has been. If we were to disappear today (say, due to a rampaging disease rather than some sort of violent catastrophe) and a civilization of intelligent cockroaches[1] rises in our place (or even just human survivors rising again), how much time would have had to pass for them to not realize that we'd been here? I'd say that a thousand or even ten thousand years is way too short a time (heck, the Pyramids will probably still be around that long). I'd guess that a billion years would be enough (wouldn't most of our continental material have been entirely re-made by then?). But that leaves an awfully broad span to narrow down in the middle.

Of course, the question is considerably more subtle than what I've described. For starters, I can think of three parameters to vary that would have a clear impact on the answer: (1) Time between our civilization's collapse and the rise of the next (as described above), (2) Technological level of the observing civilization (some traces such as skyscraper skeletons would be blatant signs, while others might require more advanced science to find: radiation levels or ice core analysis of other pollutants come to mind, or happening upon the US flag on the Moon), and (3) Point in our history when we disappeared (if those cockroaches were in our place today, would they realize that the Neanderthals were intelligent? Will any such signs be left a million years from now?). There are certainly even more factors to consider than that, but these three seem like a bare minimum.

I have a habit of wondering what we'll leave behind when and if we go, or how we could preserve our knowledge and a hint of our culture against catastrophe for future societies. (That's why I quite enjoyed Orson Scott Card's book Pastwatch, even though it's not that high on my list of "good" books.) But of course, this line of thinking also raises the natural question, "How many other times might intelligent life have arisen on Earth in the past that we just haven't noticed?" After all, who's to say that we aren't the cockroaches?


[1] All named "Squa Tront", for some reason.