The Long View 2007-03-09: Physics, Warrior Robots, Glottochronology, & Reforms Good and Bad

A small sample of the high-temperature superconductor  BSCCO -2223.  By James Slezak, Cornell Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

A small sample of the high-temperature superconductor BSCCO-2223.

By James Slezak, Cornell Laboratory of Atomic and Solid State Physics - Own work, CC BY 2.5,

High-temperature superconductors are much like nanotechnology: just another kind of vaporware that has gone nowhere. I should probably update my cocktail party theory of why science can’t seem to do anything cool anymore on this in light of an additional ten years of experience.

Also interesting to note that John J. Reilly was a fan of the national popular vote, and not a fan of daylight savings time, at least as implemented.

Physics, Warrior Robots, Glottochronology, & Reforms Good and Bad

It's about time, that's all I can say:

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli defense firm on Thursday unveiled a portable robot billed as being capable of entering most combat zones alone and engaging enemies with an onboard armory that includes a machine-pistol and grenades.

Click on this totally misleading image to see what the robot really looks like:

I am inclined to think that this is just a minor improvement in SWAT technology rather than the beginning of the end of infantry, but I could be wrong. In 1914, hardly anyone appreciated the implications of the machine gun. In any case, we have a way to go before we see the slinky Cylons of Battlestar Gallactica.

* * *

Why are there no flying cars in the early 21st century? In part because so little came of this:

Twenty years ago this month, nearly 2,000 physicists crammed into a New York Hilton ballroom to hear about a breakthrough class of materials called high-temperature superconductors, which promised amazing new technologies like magnetically levitated trains...But today the heady early promises have not yet been fully filled. High-temperature superconductors can be found in some trial high-capacity power cables, but they have not made any trains levitate. The rise in transition temperatures has stalled again, well below room temperature. Theorists have yet to find a convincing explanation for why high-temperature superconductors superconduct at all.

In those days, Chaos Theory had just recently been the flavor of the month, and was still supposed to be a new, culture-transforming model of causality. Room-temperature superconductors were supposed to provide the hardware component for the new world. Only the geekiest geeks and a few SF writers had a clue about the Internet, which really was an important technological development (and whose effect, as I have argued at tedious length, has been essentially conservative).

Let those of us take a lesson who think that neuroscience will make all things new.

* * *

The peoples of the British Isles are all pretty much cut from the same genetic cloth, according to a piece in The New York Times. For the most part, they have been there since the ice age, if not before, so we can forget about all that Saxon versus Celt business. Well, okay, but genetics is one thing; what are we to make of conclusions like this?

Dr. Oppenheimer has relied on work by Peter Forster, a geneticist at Anglia Ruskin University, to argue that Celtic is a much more ancient language than supposed, and that Celtic speakers could have brought knowledge of agriculture to Ireland, where it first appeared. He also adopts Dr. Forster’s argument, based on a statistical analysis of vocabulary, that English is an ancient, fourth branch of the Germanic language tree, and was spoken in England before the Roman invasion.

The hypothesis that Anglo-Saxon was spoken in England before the arrival of the Angles or the Saxons is, perhaps, counterintuitive, but no doubt the argument is more persuasive in detail. In any case, this attempt to date language change is based on glottochronology. That procedure is based on a reasonable notion for estimating how long one language has diverged from another with the same ancestral language: count the cognates in a list of 100 or 200 basic words in the daughter languages. Morris Swadesh estimated that 14% of that vocabulary would diverge in a millennium. That worked well for the Romance languages, but there were counter examples in different language groups. Sergei Starostin suggested that a count should be made only in "autonomous" changes in the basic wordlist, excluding loan words. With that stipulation, the rate of change falls to 5 or 6 native replacements per millennium.

The problem is that, to apply these rules, we need to already know so much about the histories of the languages in question that the glottochronological estimate will usually be superfluous. Alas.

* * *

Friends of civil peace must regret the failure of the House of the Colorado legislature to pass the National Popular Vote bill, after the Senate had approved it. As the measure's proponents put it:

Under the National Popular Vote bill, all of the state’s electoral votes would be awarded to the presidential candidate who receives the most popular votes in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The bill would take effect only when enacted, in identical form, by states possessing a majority of the electoral votes—that is, enough electoral votes to elect a President (270 of 538).

The most discouraging thing about the opposition to this necessary measure is the transparent nonsense of arguments like this:

Law professor Robert Hardaway from the University of Denver was equally critical.

He said problems with a candidate winning the popular vote but losing the electoral vote are rare, but result in cries for changing the system.

Without the electoral college, close votes would be a nightmare, Hardaway said.

"You think 2000 was bad? You’d have recounts in every precinct, in every state," he said.

In reality, of course, the NPV mechanism does not change the local rules about when a recount can be demanded. No matter how close the national vote, districts with 60% to 40% majorities for one candidate would not have a recount. Districts with electoral results that are close within the definition of local law would have recounts, just as they do today. The NPV does not abolish the Electoral College; the College would still turn pluralities into majorities.

And why is the NPV necessary? It's necessary because if George Bush had won an Electoral College victory in 2004 there would have been gunfire. It is necessary because the US cannot promote democracy abroad if its chief executive is chosen by gerrymander. It is necessary so that the rural populations of the big electoral-vote states are no longer disenfranchised in presidential elections. The last point is maddening: it's the Republican Party that is chiefly handicapped by the current system.

* * *

Brothers and sisters, I can no longer keep silent, since we are just days away from the fulfilment of this scripture:

And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws:

And what is Microsoft doing about it??

IT workers have been waiting three or four hours to get telephone support from Microsoft [regarding the start of Daylight Saving Time on March 11 under the new federal law], whose Exchange Server serves as the official calendar for many of the world's largest businesses.

Aiming to shorten that wait, Microsoft has boosted the number of people addressing the time change issue. Earlier Thursday, the company opened up a "situation room" devoted to monitoring customer issues and providing support to the software maker's largest customers.

Unlike Y2K, this change could be a real nuisance. Supposedly, businesses like this change, because it gives people more daylight in which to shop. Again, I can only ask: why not just institute spring and autumn schedules? If federal offices were directed to open at 8:00 A.M. in March and 9:00 A.M. in November the rest of society would follow suit and we would not need to reset the damn clocks.

Copyright © 2007 by John J. Reilly

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The Flagstaff Dialect

Courtesy of Peter Sean Bradley comes this map of American English dialects.

I learned from this map that Flagstaff has a distinctive dialect. A link was provided to an interview with R. Carlos Nakai as an example. I had never heard him speak, so I expected a Navajo accent, but he really does have a Flagstaff accent!

If you want to know what a Kingman accent sounds like, here is Andy Devine who voiced Friar Tuck in Disney's Robin Hood.

The Way of the Pilgrim

Way of the Pilgrim
By Gordon R. Dickson
$4.50; 439 pages

I came across Way of the Pilgrim by means of Jerry Pournelle's There Will Be War series. Chapter 2 of Way of the Pilgrim appears in Volume IV: Day of the Tyrant. I thought the story was intriguing enough to make it worth reading, and I was right.

Way of the Pilgrim is a good example of the value of hard sci-fi. The core of a good hard sci-fi story is built around some insight into how the world really works. Sometimes the plot is an afterthought to this, and sometimes not. This insight need not actually be from physics or engineering, although that is standard. The core insight in Way of the Pilgrim is all about language, and how hard it is to conceive things for which your language does not even have a word.

Way of the Pilgrim turns the typical sci-fi story on its head, both for its setting, the utter conquest and subjugation of humanity by a foe, the Aalaag, that is ridiculously superior, and for its relative uninterest in the technology of the conquerors, which is so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic. Resistance really is futile. There will be no grand revolution of the oppressed masses. Merely eternal servitude.

While there is action and intrigue here, the real meat of the book centers on extensive dialogue and psychological deductions.  Ultimately everything turns on a moral question. The problem the book posits: what is the value of a human being? The conquerors refer to us as cattle, because they are superior to us in every way: bigger, stronger, faster, smarter, healthier, longer-lived, more rational, more moral. The Aalaag are simply better than us, and they know it. The humans feel otherwise, but they have no ability to effectively protest. There are not even words to express the idea in the true language. The Aalaag do have a word, yowaragh, for the irrational failure of a beast to submit to its rightful master. Humans are exceptionally likely to suffer from this sickness.

The central drama of the protagonist's life is also moral. Shane Evert serves the commander of the Aalaag as an interpreter/courier, because of his unusual linguistic abilities that allow him to speak the Aalaag language. He enjoys great privilege from his position, as a favored pet might. Naturally, everyone else hates him for serving their indifferent masters. I would say cruel, but the Aalaag are too practical to be cruel. They will not waste good cattle unless they need to. However, they often need to, because humans persist in resisting their masters.

Shane tries his best to be indifferent, partly as a matter of survival, for the Aalaag expect their servants to be as stoic as they, but Shane cannot reconcile the objective superiority of his masters with an inchoate intuition of human dignity. He cannot help but care for the fate of his fellow humans. He commits his own act of yowaragh, sketching a hooded pilgrim beneath the corpse of a man executed for daring to challenge an Aalaag that nearly trampled his wife. Shane's act of rebellion does spark a worldwide revolution, which he finds himself drawn into against his will.

Shane initially wants to exploit this revolution for his own ends, because it is completely without hope of success, so he is looking to position himself for its inevitable failure. However, the intuition of human dignity that caused him to sketch the pilgrim also causes him to begin to love his fellow men for the first time in his life, and he seeks a way to actually drive the Aalaag from the planet.

The climax of the book leaves the tension between Aalaag and human unresolved. There is simply too little common ground to come to any kind of satisfactory resolution. The ending is quite startling in its refusal to settle the issue at hand. Perhaps even more interesting than the bleak setting and inconclusive conclusion is what remains unsaid throughout the book.  

The Aalaag stand as a rebuke towards any instrumental view of human nature that seeks to define us as worthy of moral respect because of what we do rather than who we are.  The Aalaag's view of humanity is disturbing because it is correct. The Aalaag really are superior to us. If what makes us worthy of respect is our behavior, or our consciousness, or our ability to make free choices, we have no hope of standing as equals. Yet, for all that, they are ultimately just as broken as we are. It is just less obvious from a modern point of view why this is so, because a clean, orderly, crime-free, egalitarian society is what we all really want, right?



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