What was wrong with the paint color?

“Do you realize what we’ll be accused of?” boomed the principal’s voice in the empty gym. She was shaking her fist at the patch of wet paint in the corner. In front of the principal stood two people: a PhysEd teacher and yours truly, then a high school student. We’d just started painting our gym during the summer break, and the paint color was not to the principal’s liking. Now my mind was racing “Oh my god, this color is… is …”. I’m glad that I was frozen with fear because it prevented me from blurting out a stupid theory. Fortunately, the other adult in the gym calmed things down and invited the principal to come back later. Then we just sat down and waited. As the paint dried, the color lightened, and on the next visit, the principal was placated. The storm had passed.

But I remembered that minor episode for the feeling of fear, powerlessness and guilt. Later, I resented myself for the baseless guilt. After all, how could a student be responsible for the bad color of the paint that he didn’t choose? But that was the old USSR. The communist party controlled and supervised every small thing, which means everything could be political. And of course committing a political error meant serious trouble.

The principal played a nasty trick. By claiming that there was something we could be accused of, she asserted that a political transgression had obviously taken place and the only thing left to discuss was what exactly we did wrong. Her trick was from the same playbook as “We know everything, come clean now”, or “Do you know why I pulled you over?”, with the same assertion of authority by a powerful person. If you can’t dispute that something wrong had happened, you’re reduced to frantically seeking the smallest offense to plead guilty to. Yet the principal’s assertion was wrong and there was no political sin committed. She bullied us over nothing and threatened to turn a non-issue into a political attack.

Unfortunately, bullies of this kind have not all disappeared as the Soviet Union did, so you might face one of them. While it would be foolhardy to challenge principals, commissars or other authorities, most of your challengers likely will be not powerful people, but garden variety bullies and  self-appointed moral authorities. If attacked by them, don’t concede their flawed premises – calmly challenge them back and make them explain themselves. Remember, there was nothing wrong with that paint color.


Please NO: Apple patents camera-blocking technology.

Apple patented technology that would allow blocking the use of cameras in iPhones wherever it is deployed. Who is it made for? Certainly not consumers! How many iPhone buyers ever said: “I wish they disabled my camera here”?

In a disingenuous propaganda move, Apple described  this technology as being able to “…stop smartphone cameras being used at concerts”. Right. It’s about concerts. It can’t possibly be meant to be used by corporate or government security. And I’m sure no police department would think of wiring this device to a squad car flashers, to prevent bystanders from filming police work. It’s strictly about concerts. Nothing to see and record here, move along.

Humans in advanced technological societies will be increasingly religious

Religiosity is heritable and thus must be underpinned by genes. What is religiosity and why would it be a valuable trait that is passed from parents to their children? Religiosity is, to a large degree, a wiliness to accept things on faith and to obey rules and commands. This trait becomes valuable in a complex society that surrounds people with incomprehensible dangers. A toddler can’t comprehend electricity, but accepting and obeying the rule of not messing with electric outlet improves her life expectancy. A little later, learning not to run into traffic becomes valuable. There are numerous dangers that humans must learn to recognize and avoid, acting purely on faith, without personally examining them. Arguably, the more complex a society’s technology, the more dangers are lurking everywhere – dangers that need to be avoided simply on someone’s say-so. Those who do that will have better chances of survival. Call them religious people – and we will see how a highly technological society could also be highly religious.

Teleportation will change, not destroy transportation industry

Suppose all humans could exercise what we today consider supernatural abilities, such as teleportation (moving objects by the force of thought) or self-healing (correcting medical conditions by the force of one’s own will). What would be an economic impact of such universal super abilities?

Sci-Fi grandmaster Robert Heinlein explores this problem at least twice: first, briefly, in Lost Legacy novel, a part of Assignment in Eternity book, then at length in Stranger in a Strange Land. Heinlein’s teleportation is without apparent limits – anyone could do it, with any object and at any distance. Heinlein believes the impact would be a total transformation of society. Granted, in both books these 2 abilities are only some of the superpowers he describes as part of larger framework of human empowerment. Yet the implication is there – super abilities would do more than disrupt certain industries or even the economy as a whole. They would profoundly change the way people live and organize their society.

Alfred Bester in The Stars My Destination limits his query to teleportation (jaunteing), which would be teachable to everyone. A person can only jaunte himself and there are minor limits on this ability – the necessary to know geographic location, elevation and situation of the origin and destination. Yet even this more limited ability is so disruptive to economy and society that it results in a war.

I suggest that the impact will be more limited. In his book The Witling Vernor Vinge describes a humanoid species who developed ability to sense densities remotely (seng), attack other beings by force of thought (keng) and teleport objects (reng). Importantly, degree of people’s ability varies widely, from extraordinary to nearly non-existent. Doesn’t this variation sound more reasonable? Vinge also posits very real physical limits to teleportation – quite understandable, given that he was in Computer Science before he was a professional writer. Vinge’s teleportation is subject to the law of linear momentum conservation remains in force, which has profound implications. Planet’s rotation means that “stationary” objects in different points on the surface of the globe actually move with a different speed (highest on the equator, zero on the poles). Movement direction (velocity vector) also differs: objects on the opposite sides of the globe would move in opposite directions. Because of that object teleported a significant distance across the surface of the globe would arrive at their destination traveling at a high speed. Rocks can withstand being thrown at high speed, but anything valuable would be destroyed. Because of this, teleportation is practical only at a short range. Take difference in abilities and limited range together and you arrive at very reasonable conclusion, explained by Vinge this way: “and really, most people depended on professional rengers for long-distance jumps, anyway”.

So there you go: even if teleportation was available for everyone, transportation industry will still exist, because it wouldn’t be easy for everyone to teleport everything one needs accurately. No one wants to find himself in Joe’s garage to explain: “Oh hi Joe, I didn’t mean to visit you – I actually wanted to drop in on Bob to check if I by mistake sent my new chair to his house instead of mine”. All people are different, and some people will leverage their superior abilities into profession. Compare it to driving – even though most people in the US own cars, there is still a lot of commercial drivers, especially filling niche needs: taxi, school buses, transit buses, truck and so on. There will still be a need for professionals and transportation industry.

Professional medical help would be even in higher demand. Suppose one could amputate an appendix or fix a broken bone all by force of thought. Clearly these would be highly complex actions, requiring a thorough understanding of one’s own body. If you make a mistake, you could break additional bones or jumble your intestines beyond repair! We suppose all humans would be able to achieve it, yet I suspect most would stop their progression way short of that. Regular person would be able to deal with simple situations, maybe not much different from what we can do today with the home medical cabinet. Doctors would still exist, even if their methods changed quite radically.

Even with these wildest imaginable human super powers , transportation and healthcare industries will still exist.

Stand with Tesla against outdated car dealership business

Tesla is fighting to introduce a new way to sell cars in US – not through a dealer network, but directly by manufacturer. Yet existing state laws across US require that cars are sold by dealers. One recent example (May 2014) is their battle in Missouri. Another one, more than a year old, is in North Carolina.

Why should state governments impose a particular business model for new car sales and stand in the way of innovation? Ask yourself: who are these laws protecting: consumers or the dealers? Is there a danger that direct sales by manufacturers will be so harmful to the buying public that they must be not just regulated, but outright banned?
Of course not. Tesla is forced to fight these laws one state at a time because car dealers are a politically powerful group with serious lobbying power. Are they a force for good? Do they deserve protection from new and disruptive competitors?
My recent experience suggests that dealers don’t need a protection, they need a stiff challenge. Due to some unfortunate circumstances (curse you, Sandy), I bought 3 cars within a short period. My experience was, simply put, dreadful. Obtaining price quotes for new cars was an impossible challenge. Some dealers simply refuse to provide quotes by email or even by phone. Others quote abstract “generic” vehicles. Once I get into the dealership, it turns out that the quoted car is not available. What is available is equipped with a different set of options, so their quote doesn’t apply. One car that matched my request was offered with $995 “appearance package” comprised of door edge guards and pinstripes. Even after price is negotiated and agreed upon, they are still not done playing tricks. I was offered an extended warranty package for $2000. When I refused, finance manager removed it but immediately added $2200 “just because” fee to the total. I saw that and challenged him, so he promptly removed it, but this just goes to show how deceptive dealers’ practices are. It’s not an accident that car salesmen are notoriously unpopular.
All in all, dealers prey on the less informed and mercilessly overcharge those people even on the new car sales, which are supposed to be more transparent. Used car sales and service are even worse. Dealers use their ill-gotten profits to buy influence with lawmakers, who in turn protect them. A change to this model can’t come soon enough and would be most welcome. Public interest in this fight is on the side of Tesla, not the dealers.

Voluntary disclosure: I don’t own Tesla shares.

Spam Comments Storm

My blog has been inundated with increasing flow of spam comments. Given that I haven’t posted in many months, I haven’t received real comments in months either. But spam comments arrive daily at a significant count. Akismet, WordPress’ anti-spam engine, is not doing a good job filtering spam lately. It seems spammers found a key to Akismet, which was unable to adjust to newer tactics. Modern day spam is plain text, typically complimentary or containing a technical question. There is no links in the text, but commenter’s signature does contain a spam link. The spam text is in no way related to specific content of the post. The comments are obviously generated automatically and then carpet-bombed to all blogs the spammer could find.
Judging by results, I have to conclude that captcha system is being increasingly defeated, probably by clever social engineering. If captcha protection breaks down, we’re in for quite a rude awakening.
Unfortunately, the spam situation makes me less inclined to continue blogging, as policing comments becomes quite a chore. If you make a legitimate comment, please realize that it will not post immediately, because all comments are pre-moderated to avoid spam.

US Chess Federation allows electronic devices at games, is surprised by cheating

Wow, I expected chess people to think a move ahead. USCF allowed PDAs on playing tables for the purpose of recording moves and were surprised when cheating ensued. Moreover, they are now doubling down and refusing to reconsider their policy.
Personally, I think it was a bad decision. There is precious little benefit to electronic recording of moves. All you achieve compared to pencil-and-paper is saving a little time on transferring record from paper to computer after the game. But the cost is enormous as potential for cheating is huge and difficult to police. This obcession with electronic gadgets is unhealthy.