Art is Art and Water is Water

March 15, 2019

Ablative Humanity

Filed under: Twitter Threads — foone @ 4:39 pm

Original Twitter thread August 10, 2018

So the war comes, and we have to use mechanical exoskeletons to have any chance of fighting back. They’re mind-linked, so you control them by just thinking of moving, and they learn from you to get better, predict your motions, and you become a better fighter.

At first you’re just wearing it for when you go out on raids, or when you’re on guard duty, but after so many surprise raids you end up wearing it all the time. It’s comfortable enough to live in, and with the sensors hooked up you don’t really feel “you” anymore, you feel the suit. After a while it starts to feel weird when you have to take it off for a medical check up. In the early days, you felt “big” in the suit. Now you feel “small” when you take it off. You stop taking it off, as much as possible. Towards the end of the war you’re wearing it for weeks at a time, then months at a time.

Finally, the enemy is pushed back. Security can exist again, the random raids slowly trail off, and slowly things settle down. You remember what “calm” is.

There’s never a treaty, but at least you’re no longer staying up for days at a time watching the horizon with the suit’s far-beyond-human eyes, watching for an attack. You’re no longer keeping a satellite feed up in the corner of your vision, watching for movement. And the day you were waiting for, at least at first, finally comes. You’re going home. The war is over, or over enough that you’re no longer needed here. You can take off the suit for the last time, and go back to your pre-war life.

You approach that appointment with some trepidation. you’ve felt so weak and tiny and powerless when you’ve had to be outside the suit before, will you ever get used to being a normal human again?

It takes three techs and two doctors to get the suit open at this point, given all the armor and modifications that have been made. It’s basically grown around you like a second skin, just a second skin that can shrug off high-explosive anti-tank rounds.

They start with computer connectors and migrate to screwdrivers and by the end they’re using something that looks like halfway between a crowbar and the jaws of life, while you’re busy keeping your automatic self-defense reactions from frying them.

And finally they crack it open, and someone vomits from the smell. There’s nothing but a decaying corpse inside. There’s confusion at first, someone asks if you’re controlling the suit remotely, but they check the dog tags. Then the DNA. It’s you. Or, “you.” Because you’re you, aren’t you? This is just a human body… and you’re still alive.

The suit’s mind-link systems grew into your brain and took over functionality and worked on emulating your reactions so it could do what you want, better, faster. And at the same time, your mind did what human minds do: they adapt. Humans are naturally cyborgs, you only have to pick up a pencil to realize that. It’s part of your body image, and you think of moving the pencil, not moving your fingers to move the pencil.

So your human mind got more robotic, and the suit’s computerized mind got more human. At some point you met in the middle. And then one day on the battlefield when the biological half died, you didn’t even notice. It was just another redundant part, just your ablative humanity.

You’re still you. You’re not the you that was born all those decades ago, but the you that was built and given life by bonding with a biological “you” that you’ve since discarded.

It’s the ship of Theseus, replacing every plank and beam as they rot, and there never being a point when it stops being the original and starts being a new thing. You have continuity of self from when you were born to now. It’s just that the ship of Theseus started as a single-sail wooden ship with oars, and is now an aircraft carrier made of titanium and iron, with nuclear fire in its heart.


Life, the Universe, and Giraffes

Filed under: Twitter Threads — foone @ 4:25 pm

Original Twitter thread September 4, 2018

So, programmers, you know those systems that have been maintained for TOO LONG? That are just too expensive (in terms of technical debt) to replace, that are just hacks on hacks on hacks at this point, are a never ending maintenance nightmare that can’t be killed?

That’s life.

Not in the sense of “your life”, but Life in general. Life™ was a moderately scoped novel idea for a single-celled life form that consumed chemicals spewing out of deep sea vents. Simple, easy, ship by Christmas, we’ll be done and can move on to other projects.


With evolution, there’s no second system. There’s only iterative development over billions of years. It’s frankly lucky that anything works at this point.

It’d be a fun idea for a comedy sketch. An anthropomorphized God comes to review how the “Life” project is doing, and Evolution has to present their work.

“So, how are those sulfur-eaters doing? I know you had some schedule slips, but I bet they’re really optimized now.”

“Well… let’s focus on the positives. They made it to the Moon!”

“The… Moon?”

“And they built global communication network! They can transmit messages around the world in milliseconds, and they use this for all sorts of things. Entertainment, commerce, diplomacy…”


“Let’s not focus on the ‘Human’ branch so much. Check this branch out: The Blue Whale! Largest animal, EVER, even bigger than those award winners back before we had that crash back 65 million years ago. we’re talking 190 tons, 100 feet long.”

“Amazing. Well, at least you’re sticking with the sea-bound branch. I never really believed in that ‘land-based’ fork.”

“Uh, well, about that”


“They’re descended from land animals…”

“You’re telling me that you took my design for single-celled life, built it up into multi-cellular life, built the whole ‘fish’ branch, then they developed that into land-based animals, developed mammals as a specialized sub-class of land-animals, then PUT THEM BACK IN THE SEA?”

“Yeah. They’re actually related to giraffes.”


“Steven, can you bring in the Giraffe?”

“Check out the long neck on this baby!”

“Why? Why would you do this?”

“Well, we thought it’d be useful for eating leaves higher up in the trees, but it turns out they don’t really do that. Instead they mainly use it for watching for predators and keeping track of other giraffes.”

“Wait, wait. I remember seeing an earlier document on this. How’d you handle the recurrent laryngeal nerve problem?”


“Yeah, yeah, in vertebrates the left nerve goes under the aortic arch. You clearly had to redesign that for an animal as long-necked as this ‘Giraffe'”

“Uhh… well, you see…”

“Don’t tell me that you didn’t…”

“We ran out of time, and couldn’t do a full redesign of that system. We just had to hack it into a working state, so we just…”

“You just what?”

“… made it longer?”

“You made it longer? But it only goes from the larynx to the vagus nerve! Those are both up there in the top of the neck!”

“Yeah, but for historical reasons we designed it to go around the aortic arch in the heart. It made sense back in the early tetrapod era, with fish”

“So how long is it now? In Giraffes?”

“Uh… it’s about 15 feet long”


“Yeah. Man, you should have seen some of those sauropod designs back in the day! We’re talking 92 feet, 30 meters!”

“No wonder we canceled that project.”

“Don’t worry. The ‘human’ branch is working on canceling the rest of the projects for us, so we’ll finally be free of this mess.”

“Good. I’ve been meaning to start working on the Europa site, it looks like it’ll be a lot more fun. No ‘land,’ just miles and miles of sea.”

/thread and /usr/thread

Filed under: Twitter Threads — foone @ 3:51 pm

Original Twitter thread November 4, 2018

Since I posted that thread about CP/M decisions from 1974 influencing Windows 10, a few people said “This is why I use Linux!” Well, here’s the problem: Linux is Unix, and Unix is older than even CP/M. There are design decisions from farther back affecting it today!

Like let’s look in the root directory. There’s a bunch of folders, and most of these are relatively recent additions. But the “classic” ones are like /etc, /bin, /lib, /sbin, right?

But wait: Let’s check in /usr. And hey, /usr has a “bin”, a “sbin”, and a “lib”. Why are there two bins (/bin and /usr/bin), two sbins, and two libs?

So the traditional answer you get for which files go where is that /usr files are “less important” and contain stuff needed for normal functioning, but /bin, /sbin, and /lib contain files that are needed even when doing emergency maintenance.

So like, bash is in /bin and fdisk is in /sbin, but things like firefox are in /usr/bin, cause if your system is broken and you need to repair it, you definitely need bash and might need fdisk, but you’re unlikely to need to go to Twitter.

But that’s a retro-explanation applied later. That’s not WHY there’s a /usr. To answer why we have a /usr, we have to go back to 1971, and the RK05.

See, Unix was originally developed on a PDP-7 minicomputer, starting in 1969 at Bell Labs. They used this computer for two years.

Then in 1971 they got funding to upgrade to a PDP-11, and ported Unix to run on that. This machine was a 16-bit powerhouse with up to 56 kilobytes of ram, and cost $20,000 in 1970. That’s about $133k today!

And most importantly for how Linux works today: it had a lot more storage. Bell Labs bought the PDP-11/20 with a RK11 controller (supporting up to EIGHT hard drives), and initially fitted it with two RK05 hard drives. Each of these drives had a MASSIVE 2.5 megabytes of storage!

So originally Unix was running on the PDP-7 with one hard drive. One big partition, containing all the files. It had directories /bin and /usr at least, and /usr was USER DIRECTORIES! Not /home (which is user directories now, if you’re not a unix-er). /home came later. Originally it was /usr. And when they upgraded to two drives on the PDP-11, they thought: hey, let’s split this up logically: disk 1 is root, disk 2 is users! So disk 1 contained /bin and other files, and disk 2 was /usr. All the users now had NEARLY INFINITE SPACE and everything was great. Until they ran out of space on disk 1.

The OS was under active development, and all sorts of tools were being added. And they were running out of space, quickly. RK05 hard drives were expensive, so just adding a third drive would be a pain… and /usr wasn’t very full…

So they duplicated the layout of / onto disk 2: /usr/bin & /usr/lib were created. Some utilities and libraries were moved there. Which ones? Which ones would fit, mainly. The only real limitation on what could be moved there and what couldn’t is that they had to make sure not to put anything that was required for basic booting onto disk 2. (Because if /bin/mount got moved to /usr/bin/mount, they wouldn’t be able to mount disk 2)

So that pseudo-rule exists because of the chicken-and-egg problem you’d get into if important early-boot tools were on disk 2. So less important stuff ended up on disk 2, important boot stuff on disk 1. Other than that, the only guideline for placing files was “where it’d fit.”

So yeah. That decision made sometime between 1971 and 1973, to reuse /usr as a second drive of /bin & /lib (and possibly /sbin, I can’t recall when that started), still echoes into modern linux. Your brand new Ubuntu 18.10 has /bin and /usr/bin cause one specific system in 1971-1973 ran out of disk space on one of these 2.5MB fixed disk drives. (This is the drive cartridge that goes into the RK05)


March 10, 2019

Enterprising Spacecraft

Filed under: Twitter Threads — foone @ 7:45 pm

Original Twitter thread March 9, 2019

So mentioned the SpaceX Dragon 2 capsule being docked on the “front” of the International Space Station and that made me think about something I’ve always vaguely wondered and never really put into words:

Is there a “front” to the ISS, with regards to how it orbits?

And it turns out the answer is: Yes! Other than occasional rotations to help with docking (or re-boosting), it maintains a consistent orientation relative to the direction it orbits in. So in the above picture, it’s always orbiting with the part on the top of the picture as forward. It maintains this orientation in 3 ways (aside from simple rotational inertia: it’s rotating, so it’ll rotate at that space without external input):

1. Thrusters on Zvezda. This module has 28 small attitude control thrusters (and one main engine)

2. Control moment gyroscopes. These are devices similar to reaction wheels which spin up a rotor and then tilt it with a motorized gimbal, creating torque on the station to rotate it, using only electrical power (and no propellant)

3. Attached Spacecraft! Along with reboosting the ISS back up, spacecraft docked to it can be used to rotate the station to a different orientation, when needed.

Image result for gif of craft docked to iss

Keeping one part of the space station facing forward at all times makes sense for a couple reasons, like making it easier to communicate with earth, and simplifying micrometeorite shielding: it’s far more likely to get hit in the “front” than the “back.”

For the record, since the ISS is divided into US and Russian sections, it means one of them is in front. It probably won’t surprise anyone to learn it’s the US. (But that does mean the US modules are more likely to get punctured by impacts!)

Random tangent I thought of while looking at that top picture: You see these big white things on the ISS? Those aren’t solar panels! The solar panels are the pivoting (to track the sun) black panels. So what are they?

Those are the “External Active Thermal Control System“, or EATCS. They’re actually radiators! Ammonia is pumped through the space station and along the radiators, where it’s cooled back down and recycled along the heat pipes. They’re needed because despite space being “cold,” you can’t actually cool down that fast in it, because it’s also a great thermal insulator. It’s like being inside a giant pile of blankets in the middle of the antarctic. And all the people and machinery on the ISS do generate heat, so it has to be radiated away or the station will just get hotter and hotter. And keep in mind it’s in direct high-noon no-atmosphere-to-block-it sunlight half the time, too!

So heat is a problem in space. With the EATCS it can remove up to 70 kW of heat from the station. It’s an upgrade from an earlier system that could only do 14 kW, installed back in 2001. There’s a neat design thing here you might not notice: See how they’re all in the same plane? It’s a flat surface, rather than looking like a computer heatsink, with lots of little parallel pieces of metal.

This is because they’re radiators, in the strict sense: they remove heat through thermal radiation, and not convection or conduction. So you get lower and lower efficiencies the more each surface can “see” each other. Basically the idea is that each surface is going to emit thermal radiation in a random direction from its surface, and if they are placed in such a way there’s a direct path from one surface to another, some portion of that thermal radiation will end up hitting the other radiator. So you have more surface for your radiators, but at the cost of lowering the efficiency. and in an environment like the space station where every kilogram you launch costs something like $50,000? You want maximum efficiency!

The awesome Atomic Rockets page by has a great section on Heat Radiators as part of the Basic Spacecraft Design page:

Warning: Don’t click that link if you have anything else you were planning to do today. That site is (amusingly for a site about space) a black hole of time. Way too much interesting content on there.

He points out this is how the Shuttle bay doors worked: They had integrated freon cooling loops, so while it was in orbit it’d keep the doors fully open to better radiate away heat.

BTW, if you’re not familiar with why it has to be radiative cooling, there’s four basic mechanisms for heat transfer:

  1. Advection, which involves heat moving within a fluid. The space station isn’t a liquid unless something very bad happens, so that doesn’t help.
  2. Conduction (diffusion). This requires contact. Since the space station is in orbit, it’s not touching anything, so it can’t transfer any heat to it using conduction. So this doesn’t help.
  3. Convection. This transfers heat between an object and its environment, using the motion of fluids/gasses. Since there’s pretty much no atmosphere as high up as the ISS is, this doesn’t help either.
  4. So we’re left with only: Radiation. (Not the uranium sort) This is where a surface emits electromagnetic waves, lowering the thermal energy left in the surface. So it works in space! Unfortunately it’s the least efficient of the four, but that’s the price you pay for being in space.

BTW, keep in mind that the ISS needs radiators this big for a space station that maxes out at only 120 killowatts of solar power, with a usual crew of 3-6 people, maxing out at 13 during a handover.

So your cool spaceship in your favorite sci-fi universe? it should have HUGE FUCKING RADIATORS!

And the bigger your cool reactor is at the heart of it, whether it’s Fission, Fusion, Antimatter, or something even more exotic … the bigger your radiators. Otherwise the question is always going to be: where’s all that heat going?

It has to go somewhere. Thermodynamics doesn’t play around.

It’s something you have to worry about even without the reactor, to be honest. Let’s take everyone’s favorite fictional starship, the USS Enterprise D. It supposedly has a complement of about a thousand people.

Which is actually quite low but let’s pretend. So ignoring that some of them are gonna be non-humans, a human expends about 8 million joules of heat a day. Given there are 86,400 seconds in a day and a watt is a joule a second, that means each person puts out about 93 watts. So the Enterprise D would have to dissipate at least 93 kilowatts EVEN WITH THE REACTOR TURNED OFF, just from all the people on board!

Recall that the ISS has nearly half a square kilometer of radiators just to keep our dinky little 6-people-and-no-reactor space station cooled. Sure, by 2361 they’ve probably built more efficient radiators so they might be smaller, but it still needs to dump heat somehow.

BTW, if you’re writing a sci-fi story and want to easily fix this problem in your universe without resorting to sticking giant fragile “wings” on all your space ships? One alternative is to have exhaustible heat sinks in your ships. The idea is that you have some material you can dump a lot of heat into without it melting (or with it melting, optionally!). Tungsten for example, or if you just want to go the cheap route, plain ol’ rock from asteroids. You take that heat sink and cool it way down, using radiators or convective/conducting cooling at a planet or asteroid. Now as you fly around, you’re slowly warming it up. It’s like a battery, but for heat. So eventually you have to either stop off at a planet/asteroid to cool it back down, or deploy the radiators. But it’d be real handy for things like combat, where otherwise your radiators make big tempting targets to shoot holes in.

In any case, to get off this tangent of a tangent of a tangent and back onto an earlier tangent I didn’t expand on: 1000 people on the Enterprise D is silly, and you know why? Here’s the other Enterprise. No, not the Kirk one, the first nuclear powered aircraft carrier.

It’s about half the length of the Enterprise D, right? 342 meters vs 642 meters. But in terms of volume, dear god, it’s so much tinier! It’s basically a long stick, the Ent-D is a big fat thing. It has lots of internal volume. The aircraft carrier has a volume (well, displacement, but it’s close enough) of 84,626 metric tons. That’s pretty fucking huge! You see these 4 little specs on it? Those are grown men. This thing isn’t a boat, it’s a small town that can move.

The Enterprise D has a volume of 4.5 MILLION metric tons. It’s not a spacecraft, it’s a CITY that can fly through space.

So, given that the Ent-D has a thousand people on it, and it’s got 4.5 million metric tons to the 86,000 of the aircraft carrier, you’d expect the crew of the aircraft carrier to be what, 100 people? And even that’s stretching it. By the math, if it scales linearly, the carrier would only have 18 people on it. Does that number seem at all right to you?

Wanna know what the actual crew of the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier was? 4,600.

By that scaling, the Enterprise D could have the same population as Boise, Idaho.

And that’s silly, of course. The USS Enterprise aircraft carrier was a military vessel so it had lots of cramped quarters and lots of excess crew to be backups and second backups and third backups and fourth backups. Because otherwise you could get hit with a torpedo and it kills all 3 of the guys who know how to fix a coolant leak in your nuclear reactor, and guess what else the torpedo broke? All 4,597 of you left better evacuate fast before you glow in the dark.

And the Enterprise-D is not a military vessel. I mean, the people running it have military ranks and it’s very heavily armed. But it’s not a military vessel, still. There’s civilians, it’s not packed that densely, it’s not as heavily redundant as a warship. But the thing has (according to the technical manual) at least 250 Photon Torpedoes and they have a minimum yield of at least 64 megatons so it’s a “non-warship” that could level every city over 150,000 people in the US without having to reload.

I’m just saying, that sounds pretty fucking Warship to me.

In any case, I’m always amused by fan discussions about the “1000 people on the enterprise” number. They always seem to think “WOW THAT’S A LOT OF PEOPLE!” When really it’s “how the hell do they run that ship with only 1000 people who aren’t all active staff?”

Cause for the Ent-D that 1000 people includes lots of scientists (who aren’t gonna be able to re-route warp plasma around the hole the Klingons just shot in Deck 13) and families. You’ve got kids running around, and kids means you got teachers & babysitters and pediatricians and now you’re pretty much a small city in space to be able to handle all that and that’s okay, the spaceship is giant and can fit them all, but still: 1000 people!?

Automation will help with that, yes (the aircraft carriers the US is replacing the Enterprise with will have fewer people on them, but only by about a hundred), but you still need people there to fix the automation when it breaks. And if your automation is so good and complete that you don’t need all the people on hand to fix it, why are you even sending humans into space anyway? Leave them on the ground and let the robots explore. They’re far more disposable. (and I don’t mean Data. We might cry if Data dies, but no one is shedding a tear when the damage control system for Deck 5 is blasted to bits by a Romulan Warbird).

Anyway. Tangents, won’t you? I’m gonna stop here before I rant about star trek forever.

March 1, 2019

The EYES Have It

Filed under: Twitter Threads — foone @ 11:14 pm

Original Twitter thread July 3, 2018

You want to know something about how bullshit insane our brains are? OK, so there’s a physical problem with our eyes: We move them in short fast bursts called “saccades,” right? Very quick, synchronized movements. The only problem is: they go all blurry and useless during this.

Having your vision turn into a blurry mess every time you move your eyes is obviously not a good idea, so our brains hide it from us. Now, imagine you’re an engineer and you have this problem. You’ve got some obvious solutions you could do:

  1. make the vision go black during movement. (Some VR games do this!)
  2. just keep showing the last thing we saw prior to movement

Both are good options with different downsides, but OH NO. This is assuming everything makes sense and is chronological and (regular) logical. Your brain does neither of these options, really.

First, it basically puts your visual system on “pause.” You’re not seeing blackness or even nothing, you’re just not seeing period. Then when you finish your saccade, it shows you what you now see at the new position. And then it pretends it can time travel. It seriously shows you the image at the new point, but time-shifts it backwards so that it seems like you were seeing it the whole time your eyes were moving. And because your brain is not a computer with a consistent clock, this shit works.

You can see this effect happen if you watch an analog clock with a second hand. Look away (with just your eyes, not your head), then look back to the second hand. It’ll seem like it takes longer than a second to move, then resumes moving as normal. That’s because your freaking visual system just lied to you about HOW LONG TIME IS in order to cover up the physical limitations of those chemical camera orbs you have on the front of your face.

We’ve known about this effect for over 100 years, it’s called “Saccadic masking” and more specifically Chronostasis. Your visual system lies to you about WHEN things happen by up to half a second(!) just to avoid saccades blurring everything.

So while I firmly believe we’re basically just overgrown biological computers, we’re apparently computers programmed by batshit insane drunkards in Visual Basic 5.

And you might think “hey wait, wouldn’t my vision ‘pausing’ for half a second have all kinds of weird effects on moving objects? Why don’t they appear to stutter when moving?” And the answer is simple! Your brain has EVEN MORE UGLY HACKS on top of this to avoid you seeing that

If you’ve got a clock where the second hand doesn’t “tick” but instead smoothly rotates, you won’t see this. Because your brain recognizes it’s moving and adjusts what you see to make sure it sees the “right” thing. It’s only really obvious with periodically moving things like a clock hand, because it’s not moving (so not triggering the movement-during-chronostatis hack) but it moves at a set rate, so you can notice that rate appearing to change.

It’s tempting to think of your eyes and visual system as a camera just dumping a video feed into your conscious brain but that’s so very, very not the case. What you think you see and what your eyes can actually see are two exceptionally different things.

The big obvious one being the blind spot. Vertebrate eyes are wired backwards so we’ve got a blind spot in each eye were the nerves enter into the eye. About 6 degrees of your vision in each eye is just not there, as there’s no light sensitive cells there. Do you see a blind spot, right now? No, you probably don’t. Close one eye! there’s now no way for the other eye to fill in the gaps. Still, no blind spot … Your visual system is lying, and making up content it thinks is there. You literally cannot see what you think you see.

Here’s another one: You can see in color, right? (well, some of you can’t. Sorry) You can see in color all throughout your vision, it’s color everywhere? Well, most of your cone cells (which are sensitive to color) are in the fovea, a little spot in the center of your vision.

So, outside of that center-of-vision spot, you have very little color perception. There’s some but it’s very limited compared to your main color vision. But I bet if you shift your attention to your peripheral vision right now, it’s in color. Your vision system is lying. It’s remembering what colors things are and guessing and filling in the gaps. It’s basically doing a Ted Turner colorization process on your non-central vision.

There’s even weird effects like what’s called “Action-specific perception.” If you get a bunch of white balls of various sizes and toss them at people then ask them to estimate the size of the balls thrown at them, they’ll have a certain size estimate, right? Now repeat the experiment but ask them to try to hit the balls back with a bat, and suddenly all the estimates shift larger. They actually see the ball as bigger because they need to hit it. Their vision is exaggerating it to make it easier to see!

Which just goes to show, like I said, your vision is not a camera. perfect accuracy is not one of its goals. It does not give any shits about “objective reality,” that’s not important.

What’s important to the evolution of the visual system is any trick that helps you survive, no matter how “dumb” or “weird” it is. So if you want an accurate visual representation of what things look like? Use a camera. Not your eyes.

In any case, the original point was that while you might know this about your eyes being poor cameras that lie to you, you might still think that at least they’re consistent, time-wise. They don’t screw with your sense of time passing, just to make up for visual defects. NOPE!

If you can’t get it done in time, turn back the clock and pretend you did. That’s a perfectly good solution when you’re the visual system.

BTW reminded me of a neat trick with saccadic masking: go look in a hand mirror. no matter how close you bring it to your eyes, and how much you look around, you will never see your eyes move. You’re blind during those moments. But you still think you are seeing. She additionally pointed out that your phone’s selfie-mode is NOT a mirror, and it has a slight delay, so you can see your eyes moving in it.

And for fun, here’s wikipedia’s example of the blindspot. Stare at L with only your left eye, adjust the distance, and the R will disappear. You don’t see “nothing” or “black”, you see the background, because you expect to.

This is why laser damage to your retina can be so insidious. Your visual system already can hide “holes” in your vision, what’s one more to hide? So you damage a small spot of your retina and your visual system covers it up. But since you didn’t go “WELL THAT WAS TERRIBLE, I BETTER TAKE BETTER CARE OF MY EYES” and stop fucking with lasers, you keep doing it. Eventually you accumulate so much damage that your visual system simply cannot manage hiding it all and your vision rapidly degrades.

The other reason lasers are so dangerous is that they don’t necessarily trigger the same responses as regular incoherent light. your pupil reflex is only triggered by some special cells in the center of your eye, so an off-center laser might not cause your iris to contract. And infrared laser light is just as dangerous as visible laser light, but can’t trigger your blink reflex. Your eyes automatically close when exposed to bright light, but they can’t detect infrared light. Despite not seeing it, it still causes damage.

Anyway, back on how amazing and crazy your vision is: There was an experiment back in 1890 where someone wore glasses made with mirrors in them to flip their vision. After about 8 days, they could see just fine with them on. Their vision system had started “flipping” the image. (I say flipping in quotes because it’s not as simple as it started showing the pixels at the top row on the bottom row, cause our vision doesn’t work like that) It only took them a few hours to get back to normal after taking these glasses off, though. The last really fun part about this flipping experiment: your eyes already do it. Based on how our vision is wired, we should be seeing everything upside down. We don’t, but only because our visual system has had our whole life to adapt to this.

BTW, since a few people have brought it up: There’s a great sci-fi novel by Peter Watts called Blindsight. In it humans encounter an alien race they call Scramblers, who can move very fast and precisely, and they exploit saccades. Because if they only move during saccades, we never see them moving. And since so much of our vision is based on just filling in what we think is there, if they stay out of the direct center of our vision, we’ll just visually fill them in, like they were never there. Check it out if you’re into hard SF stories of first contact. It’s got some really neat ideas about human vision, very unique aliens, the nature of conciousness, the future of humanity in the face of perfect VR, and vampires. (Really, it has “vampires,” while still being hard-SF)

BTW, remember how I said “vertebrate eyes” up there? Guess who has eyes which are wired forwards instead of backwards (have no blindspot), have an internal lens, and can even see polarization of light? Our good friends the Cephalopods!

Roads vs Magic

Filed under: Twitter Threads — foone @ 10:39 pm

Original Twitter thread May 20, 2018

I saw roadkill in the parking lot of a Starbucks this morning and my first thought was “Man, it’s a good thing magic isn’t real.”

You ever think about the fact that we criss·crossed the world with a network of ley lines made of black earth connecting to every important location? We ground up the earth, marinated it in its black blood, tore down the trees and the mountains and spewed it back down in lines?

And we kill million upon millions of animals all over these lines in ways nature never envisioned, grinding them into our wheels which we then run over every inch of it, seasoning this blasphemy with their blood?

And we kill THOUSANDS of our own people there, and we know it, and we accept it. Sure, we say we don’t like that and we do work to reduce the number of deaths … but at the end of the day we accept that we care for their lives less than the benefits of this network.

And what do we even DO with this network? What is that great benefit? We built machines with a heart of fire that spew black smoke. We power them with the remains of long-dead screaming war lizards.

We slam these unnatural devices into cats, dogs, birds, and when the bigger animals like deer try to stop us by ramming into the side of them, we consider it a nuisance, like we’re not the ones who tore down a swath of trees in their forests and filled it with death.

And we built so many of these machines that their breath is now starting to kill the earth itself. We’re killing the very planet we live on because of this. We created decades of war to get their power sources. We spilled the blood of humans to get the blood of long dead monsters to make our fire-beasts go fast over our network of destroyed nature.

All in all, I’m just saying it’s a good thing magic isn’t real.

At the very least, you’d think we’d avoid building these networks into the shapes of ancient symbols of luck, in a mockery of nature’s magical power.


Hintline Bling: Sierra

Filed under: Twitter Threads — foone @ 10:26 pm

Original Twitter thread from December, 30, 2018

It is 2018 and I am still mad about a 1989 game I have never played: Sierra‘s The Colonel’s Bequest.

So around 1993 I bought what was probably my first commercial computer game: Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood. This 1991 game is one of the best Sierra adventures and is utterly beautiful and well designed. It’s also very, very hard.

And all my previous sierra games I’d played had been “borrowed.” Pirated, really. Sorta. See, back in the early 90s, Sierra handled the format problems of the fragmented PC market in the most brute force way possible: they shipped both floppy formats.

So you’d buy a game and it’d come with 14 disks: 4 for 3.5″ floppy disk computers, 10 for 5.25″ computers. Hey, it worked. And it was the most customer-friendly way to do it. God knows how much they spent on media, though.

And my best friend at the time had his dad’s hand-me-down Tandy 1000 EX. A very cheap PC-jr clone, but a capable machine. The main limitation? 5.25″ disk drive only, non-upgradable.

Whereas, I had a Packard Bell 486 with both 5.25″ and 3.5″ drives. So he basically just gave me all his 3.5″ disks, since they were no use to him on his 5.25″-only drive.

So I ended up playing a lot of sierra games that I didn’t buy, like Gold Rush and Space Quest 3. And the nice thing about having gotten them from a friend? I had my own free hintbook! Not a real hint book: HIM.

So I’d call him up on some random Thursday (well, call his parents. this was the 90s: no one had cellphones except doctors and drug dealers) or wait until I saw him at church, and go “HEY HOW DO I FIX THE HYPERDRIVE IN SPACE QUEST 3? THE RAT KEEPS STEALING MY WIRES.”

It was a great way to play Sierra games. It was hard enough to get hints that I didn’t just ask him for all the answers, and I didn’t have a book so I wasn’t tempted to read ahead. So I’d actually try, and try very hard … but I had hints in case I was really stuck.

But then I bought my own sierra adventure, one he didn’t have: Robin Hood. Great game. Hard game. NO STRATEGY GUIDE AND NO FRIEND TO CALL UP. I could just look up answers on the internet, of course… OH WAIT NO I COULDN’T, IT WAS NINETEEN NINTY-FUCKING-THREE.

So did I buy a hint guide? No. That would have made too much sense, and I didn’t know where to buy one to start with. But there was another solution: 1-900-370-KLUE!

See, Sierra shut down their old customer service line, and set up a special hint line, so that their customer support techs weren’t busy answering questions about how to defeat Manannan in King’s Quest IV. And the replacement they set up was entirely automated. It was a telephone tree, like “PRESS ONE FOR HINTS ON CASTLE OF DR. BRAIN, PRESS TWO FOR HINTS ON CODENAME ICEMAN“, etc. It was also a 1-900 number. For people not in the US that means it’s a premium number. It was $0.75 for the first minute and $0.50 for each additional minute. I ended up getting grounded from the computer for most of one summer because of how much I called them and how much it cost.

And the thing is, it didn’t start charging as soon as you got to the game you wanted. No, that would be too nice and make too much sense. It started charging as soon as you called, and the first few minutes was always spent going through the LONG LIST OF SIERRA GAMES.

And the game right before the one I was always calling about (Conquests of the Longbow: The Legend of Robin Hood)? That’d be The Colonel’s Bequest: A Laura Bow Adventure, AKA Laura Bow 1.

Which is a long-ass title. a long, slow title, with subtitles, and an “also known as” every time I called I had to sit through “IF YOU ARE CALLING FOR THE COLONELS BEQUEST, A LAURA BOW ADVENTURE, ALSO KNOWN AS LAURA BOW ONE, PRESS 6”



“It wasn’t my fault, mom & dad! it was LAURA BOW! she slowed me down with her colonel’s bequest. if it wasn’t for that game, I’d have only spent, like, $45!”

(I don’t really remember how much it was , I’m not sure I ever was actually told. I am pretty sure it was more than I paid for the game, which was probably only like $30 since it wasn’t super-new when I bought it)

Also I would LOVE to have access to that line again. Recordings, the script it used, anything. It was a very neat system: they had to unroll a strategy guide into a series of questions you could select from a phone tree. Neat idea, and a great way to make a little extra cash.

BTW, I’d joked before about setting up a sort of remake of this hintline, but for modern indie games:

And since then, I now have a roommate who is into phone systems about as much as I’m into floppies. So this might actually happen.

Also regarding that hintline, (who would be the one who’d know!) says it’s likely gone:


“The” “Goodyear” “Blimp”

Filed under: Twitter Threads — foone @ 7:41 pm

Original Twitter thread January 7, 2019

Fun stupid fact: The Goodyear Blimp isn’t. I mean, it isn’t a Blimp. (It’s also not “The” Goodyear Blimp anymore. There’s three of them)

A Blimp is a lighter-than-air craft that keeps its structure entirely by internal pressure. It’s a big balloon, in other words. No structure or keel. For an example, look at the Goodyear Blimp! wait…

And at the other end of the spectrum, there’s rigid airships. They have internal structure that holds their shape, even when not pressurized.

These are often called Zeppelins, because the most famous maker of them was Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, started by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin (pictured below). But there are plenty of rigid airships not by Zeppelin, which aren’t truly “zeppelins.” Still, they’re often called that.

And in between these two endpoints (because of course there’s a Blimp-Zeppelin spectrum) is the semi-rigid airship. This has a keel or truss that’s rigid, but the rest of it is held together by the internal pressure.

These are a kind of best-of-both-worlds compromise: no rigid structure means they’re a lot lighter, but they won’t collapse under heavy loading like a non-rigid blimp. They were big in the late 19th century, but then rigid took over in the 1930s.

Then, you know, the Hindenberg happened. Suddenly Zeppelins, Blimps, and everything else on the lighter-than-air spectrum fell out of favor. Just planes for days.

With one notable exception being the Goodyear blimp! Since 1925 Goodyear has been operating these promotional vehicles, primarily serving as a filming platform and advertising for large sporting events. They’ve had many different airships over the years, of course.

With the first one being the Goodyear Pilgrim in 1925 (below).

But OK, so Goodyear has been doing the Goodyear Blimp for many many years (94 [at the time of this post] if you want to get out your calculator), but why aren’t they Blimps anymore? Well, it’s simple: They’re not non-rigid.

The modern Goodyear Blimp is a Zeppelin NT. It’s a semi-rigid airship.

The inside looks like this (see below). There’s an internal plastic truss in the shape of a triangle, cross-braced with aluminum girders. It may look like a blimp from the outside, but internally it’s rigid, making it a semi-rigid hybrid airship.

And remember how I said it was a Zeppelin NT? That’s a model name. The model name is literally the Zeppelin NT, which tells you right off the bat that it’s a Zeppelin. And who made it, for Goodyear? Guess.

That’d be Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH, and one of the major shareholders of them is Luftschiffbau Zeppelin GmbH, which are the same company founded by the Count with the sweet mustache up there, von Zeppelin himself. The same people who built the Hindenberg.

So it’s definitely not a Blimp anymore. But it’s not “The” Goodyear Blimp anymore, either. Cause they now have three of them!

There’s the Wingfoot One, based in Florida (launched in 2014).

Then in 2017 they added the Wingfoot Two, in California.

Then in June of 2018 they added the Wingfoot Three, based in Ohio. So there’s now three Goodyear “Blimps”, which are not blimps.

So in “The Goodyear Blimp”, 2 out of 3 words are wrong! At least the “Goodyear” part is correct. … right?


So natural rubber latex can be extracted by tapping rubber trees, but this natural rubber has some problems for use: it’s very sticky, and it tends to decompose. It’ll crumble after a while, and it’ll easily crack in cold weather.

Throughout the 1830s, Charles Goodyear (pictured below) worked on perfecting a method of vulcanization, which uses heat and sulfur to convert natural rubber into the harder more resistant form that’s used in bicycle tires to this day. He patented the method, but made little money from it.

He ran into court cases in Europe over competing claims about who invented it first, and wasn’t able to prove his claim. And he was in poor health from exposure to chemicals he was experimenting with in his quest to make rubber useful. In 1860 he traveled to see his daughter, who was very ill. He arrived to be told she’d already died, and he collapsed and died himself.

And then almost 40 years later, Frank Seiberling starts up a company with his brother to make bicycle tires. They name it “The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company”, in honor of Goodyear.

So all in all, The Goodyear Blimp is:

1. Not “The”

2. Not “Goodyear”

3. Not a “Blimp”

And to close this thread, two obligatory things:

2019-03-01 16_37_39-foone on Twitter_ _Fun stupid fact_ The Goodyear Blimp isn't. I mean, it isn't a.png

and Ice Cube’s Good Day (when the Goodyear Blimp said Ice Cube’s A Pimp) was January 20th, 1992:

2019-03-01 16_39_47-foone on Twitter_ _and Ice Cube's Good Day (when the Goodyear Blimp said Ice Cub.png

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