Confirmation Bias and Guitar Strings

What is confirmation bias? Its dictionary definition is “the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories”.

You’ve heard this phrase used against you when you were debating with a sibling who have not convinced you to join her side of the worldview divide. With a smirk on her face, she said “OK, now there you are again, citing the news today about so and so, and you say it confirms your theory about human nature. You have confirmation bias.”

How should you respond? I would respond thus: “OK, yeah, that may be, but don’t even pretend that I am the only one with confirmation bias. Everybody does. Even you. Nobody has a monopoly on confirmation bias. What you just said confirms (to me at least) that you have confirmation bias.”

Let’s Do That Again

At a completely different level, though, confirmation bias is another manifestation of how our brains work. We have what I call “resonant brains” and there are just views and feelings that resonate with us and those that don’t.

A resonant device is something that has a resonant vibration, a natural frequency. For example, a guitar string or a bottle has resonant vibration. Certain physical characteristics of the device determine its natural frequency: for the guitar string, it’s the length of the string, the tightness by which it is strung, and its mass (per unit length). When you pluck the string, it absorbs the energy released by the plucking and emits that energy most efficiently at the resonant frequency.

The details of how resonant vibration happens are well understood. When you pluck the guitar string, the string vibrates and the vibration propagates along the string in both directions. When the vibration reaches a post on one end of the string, two things happen: first, part of the energy is transmitted to and amplified by the wooden body of the guitar and that’s how we hear the vibration; second, the string is restrained by the post and therefore the vibration is reflected off that post, like a beam of light that is reflected off a mirror. The same thing happens at the other end of the string and so the two separate reflections get mixed up. Depending on how long the vibrational “wave” has to travel from one end of the string to the other, only one dominant frequency quickly survives, which is the resonant frequency or tone. Just as quickly, there are standing waves that form along the length of the string: the standing wave for the dominant frequency which goes the whole length of the string, a higher but weaker tone with half the length of the standing wave for the dominant frequency, a still higher but weaker tone with one-third the length of the dominant standing wave, and so on. The mixture of these tones impart a distinct quality to the sound that the string generates, one that we can’t mistake for any other instrument.

It is the bouncing of the wave off of the two posts that is of keen interest here.

Our Highly Resonant Brains

We already know that there are layers of neurons in the brain. There are signals that travel from one layer to the next and there are feedback signals going the opposite way.

(sorry I have run out of time; to be continued)



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A Critique of the Revised Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL)

The new BBL reminds me of an old optical illusion that demonstrates very well how human minds work:

Do you see the old lady or the young woman? A lot of people can only see one or the other. There is no way to see both. I can see one or the other, but I have to switch my perspective: the young woman is looking back, and the old hag is looking to the left of the viewer. It is impossible to see both at the same time because our minds can resonate at only one viewpoint and not both.

The new BBL is very much like this optical illusion. I can understand why neo-liberals would see only the young lady in the new BBL. I don’t think the old hag is even visible to them. What’s worse is that the new BBL has even painted the cheek of the young lady with rosy colors, to make the young lady look even more attractive. In fact, I can see that the old hag has gotten worse.

The politicians are starting to praise the new BBL. They claim it will finally bring peace in Sulu and Mindanao. I doubt it very much. Last time around, we were lucky the Supreme Court rejected the old BBL. The politicians were already about to celebrate the enactment, but the Supreme Court rejected it at the last minute.

What is wrong with the new BBL?

I urge Pinoys not to focus on the rosy cheeks of the young lady. Article IX is where the neo-liberals would focus, and indeed, it sounds much better than the old BBL. “Full respect for human rights” has even been added in Section 6.

What I would like people to focus on is Article X. Just focus on Article X (Bangsamoro Justice System), and you should see the old hag. Sections 2 and 3 are newly inserted:

Section 2. Shari’ah Judicial System

The judicial authority shall be vested in the Bangsamoro Shari’ah judiciary, in accordance with the power of the Supreme Court, particularly on the Bangsamoro Shari’ah High Court, Shari’ah District and Circuit courts, and other subordinate courts which Congress of the Philippines may create upon the recommendation of the Bangsamoro Shari’ah High Court through the Supreme Court. This notwithstanding, Congress, upon the recommendation of the Supreme Court, may likewise create Shari’ah courts outside of the territorial jurisdiction of the Bangsamoro government in areas where a considerable number of Muslims reside. The Supreme Court shall station these courts.

Section 3. Shari’ah.

Shari’ah (Islamic Law) which is the law forming part of the Islamic tradition derived from religious precepts of Islam, particularly the Qur’an and Hadith, shall be distinctively applied as the underlying basis of the Bangsamoro Shari’ah judicial system exclusively over Muslims or persons who voluntarily submit to the Shari’ah Court.

Section 2 would expand the jurisdiction of Shariah courts OUTSIDE of the current Bangsamoro territory. This is unacceptable.

Section 3 would make Shariah take precedence over the Philippine constitution, at least for Muslims “or persons who voluntarily submit to the Shari’ah Court”, for ALL legal matters, including criminal cases. Why did this pass the scrutiny of our politicians? Perhaps not one of them understand what Shariah jurisprudence is. The old hag is invisible to them.

Let’s take a simple case to illustrate how Article X would invalidate the Philippine Constitution in the Bangsamoro (and eventually for all Muslims, wherever in the Philippines they may live, as per Section 2).

Maria is a good Catholic. She is friends with Myrna, who is Muslim. Maria and Myrna have invested a lot of good deeds to each other: Maria helped Myrna when Myrna was in trouble with her family. She let Myrna into her home at one time when Myrna needed a place to stay for a week. Myrna in turn has lent money to Maria when she needed it badly. The two women are very good friends, and they see each other almost everyday. To make the story short: through Maria, Myrna got exposed to Christianity and was attracted to it. Eventually, Myrna decided to convert to Christianity. She told Maria about it, but nobody else knew at first. Then the bombshell came in: Myrna’s family found out.

First of all, does any politician in Imperial Manila even understand that converting outside of Islam is a crime in Shariah? Can freedom of religion (which is a recognized human right, last time I looked) be really allowed in Shariah? There will be a court case against Maria and Myrna, and of course it can only be heard in a Shariah court. What happens to Maria’s human rights (not to mention Myrna’s)? Can this case be elevated to the Supreme Court, when it is clear under Sections 2 and 3 of Article X of the BBL that only a Shariah court has jurisdiction?

How to Fix Article X

Let’s not rely on the Supreme Court to reject the BBL (again) this time around. I do not believe the Supremes will even have the courage to reject the BBL twice. Let us instead reject Sections 2 and 3 of Article X, and go back to the old BBL at least on this matter. It is very important, not just for the sake of Christians in the Bangsamoro territory, but also for the sake of our Muslim brothers and sisters. If it is politically impossible to reject Shariah in whole, then we should at least settle for something less drastic, by explicitly stating in Article X that the Philippine constitution supersedes Shariah, and that Shariah only applies to non-criminal cases. Conversion should be allowed both ways: Christians can convert to Islam, and Muslims can convert to Christianity.

A Muslim territory without Shariah is not uncommon. In fact, most Muslim countries around the world  do not use Shariah in their courts. Filipino Muslims should be subject to only one constitution, the Philippine constitution. Federalism does not mean the absence of a unifying constitution that at least defends the rights of citizens. Power is devolved to the different regions, but core principles in the constitution should apply to all regions. No region, although very much independent, can establish its own constitution that contradicts the federal constitution. Therefore, Shariah cannot be applied in the Bangsamoro if we are to remain intact as a federal country.

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Asperger’s Syndrome

I have just discovered something about myself. Somebody had suggested it some years ago, but I ignored it. Today, after taking a couple of simple online tests, the results indicate that I may have Asperger’s Syndrome, a mild form of Autism.

Here’s the online test I took, in which I scored 31. I scored 15 on this other test. These tests are not conclusive, of course. I will need to see a psychiatrist to find out for sure.

If this is true, it would be an important discovery about myself, because it answers the question why I find it very difficult to be successful in team settings. (I am not trying to find an excuse for my shortcomings, but rather to recognize this problem, study it, and eventually fix it.) I am simply unable to read people’s non-verbal signals, and since I was a kid I have had difficulties communicating because I have an acute fear of verbal rejection. It had taken a lot of effort to change my habit of being quiet in meetings and social settings. I can turn off the world around me, and isolate myself in my thoughts, and until somebody screams at me I can be unaware of my surroundings. I remember in class, when I was in elementary school, I could be completely somewhere else and I would miss all of what the teacher talked about. I find it much easier to write than to talk.

Writing about it is part of the cure. I have to recognize it, and be able to define it. I don’t have to publish this, but that is also part of the cure. I want recruiters to know about it, and I can simply give them a link to this.

It has always been a challenge to me to perform well during interviews. To land a good assignment, I’ve had to go through several rejections, just because I don’t perform well during interviews. I may seem confident, but the way I phrase the explanation of ideas can sound out of whack. I often inject an uncommon viewpoint into common software ideas like programming to an interface, and some of those uncommon viewpoints can be taken to mean that I don’t understand what I am talking about. I become aware of this only after an interview and the damage has been done. It is very difficult for me to become aware of it DURING the interview.

Why has it taken me this long to recognize this about myself? I have always been brutally honest with myself, but I have always doubted the science of psychology, until, several years ago, I read a book about common psychological manifestations of inherited (genetic) traits. (I have been searching for that book, unfortunately even its title now has escaped me. The only thing I remember is that I picked it up from an airport bookstand, and read it during a long flight.)

Asperger’s Syndrome is not uncommon among software design engineers, according to a most wonderful recruiter I just talked to, who is with Robert Half Professional Staffing Solutions. He also said that there is a whole spectrum of Autism affliction, Asperger’s Syndrome being only a range in that spectrum.

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How Free Speech Prevents a Mindless War of Bullets and Bombs

At parties, I often end up talking politics with my friends. (Ideologically my politics is nearest to Libertarians, but I have consistently voted Republican.) On the one hand, I am glad that, even without Trump (and at times, especially if we ignore Trump), the contrast between Democrats and Republicans cannot be as clear now as it has ever been in the past. On the other hand, even though there is indeed an ideological war in America, that war is being fought in op-eds and blog posts like this one, and also in dinner conversations all over the land. This war of words can sometimes escalate into fist fights, but never with bullets and bombs.

I am happy to fight in this war. Words are cheap, and honest minds can be convinced. The US Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, and whether it is in this blog or in conversations at parties, I am confident that bullets won’t be flying because of anything I’ve said or written. We fight this war on the intellectual plane, not by the count and power of arms. I could lose a battle by lacking facts to bolster my position in some intellectual issue, but I expect to be alive the following day.

In contrast, let’s imagine how this kind of situation could play in a Sharia system. First, let’s admit it: there is no freedom of speech in Sharia.

I have a friend who has traveled to the Middle East and made friends with Muslims there. (I don’t remember which particular country, and I don’t think it’s important in this story.) He met and made friends with a family whose members consist of two beautiful sisters and several brothers. On the surface, the two sisters were devout Muslims, but did not wear headscarves whenever they were allowed not to. It was only after befriending one of the sisters that my friend came to know that she was not really a Muslim anymore, and that she studied the Bible on her own. She kept that Bible in a place where only she knew; and to be able to read it, she had to change its cover to look like it’s a sacred copy of the Koran.

My friend discovered much later that the other sister was also a convert. He was told by both not to tell anybody, so it took him still another while to finally decide to let each sister know. It was a big relief for both of them, and now that they knew, each had become a tremendous source of invaluable support to the other. However, the tears of joy they had shed could still become tears of sorrow if and when either one of them were exposed. They vowed never to expose one another, if either one of them were caught.

Islamic Ideology does not recognize the value of free speech; it follows that the only way it can spread itself is by violent coercion. Once you see this, then you are on the side of Republicans in the issue of how to fight radical Muslims.

I suppose Islam as an ideology worked and dominated the known world thousands of years ago, because information was easier to suppress then. Now, with the Internet and smart phones, it is not so easy. Any Muslim with a modicum of intelligence can discover data that contradicted Islam. I am not saying that it is easy to defeat Islamic ideology. I understand that it would take several generations to know which side would have won.

The story about the two sisters illustrate how difficult it is to defeat Islamist radicals. By being secret converts, the two sisters risk not only their positions as family members, they are also risking their lives. They cannot possibly communicate with other people of the same mind, without further risking their lives. The best that one can hope for is that Muslims with above average intelligence can continue to be curious and questioning.

I am also not saying that radical Muslims are all stupid. To be sure, there are brilliant strategists among their leaders. They can still win, but only if we (on the this side of the ideological divide) allow it. This is where the raging intellectual war between Democrats and Republicans is crucial. The result of this non-violent war will be revealed in ballot boxes this November; and that result could determine whether we allow the Muslim radicals to win or not.

Arab self-doubt: the thinking Arab, observing the world around him, is starting to see the writing on the wall.

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Why I am for Duterte

I am for Duterte because he’s the only candidate who has indicated agreement (one time or another) with each one of  the three goals of the CoRRECT Philippines movement in reforming the constitution:

  1. Establishment of a Free Market in the Philippines;
  2. Start the evolution towards a Federalized government (devolution of power away from Imperial Manila); and
  3. Quick transition to a Parliamentary form of government.

In that order of priority.

I only have two worries about Duterte, but these worries may be unfounded:

  1. If he does execute criminals in an extra-judicial way, then we will lose our rights to defend ourselves in court.
  2. He seems to be too forgiving of the Muslim separatists and Muslim supremacists.

I think the root problem of criminality can be solved by first protecting judges, being creative in diminishing the number of cases in backlog, and strictly disallowing bribery in the judicial branch of government. I believe Duterte can do all these. He can finally allow the police to do their work in investigating and prosecuting those who have killed judges and journalists, and also providing protection to those who serve to keep justice in the islands. He can fund a commission on how to diminish the backlogs, and enforce its findings, and by his example reduce, if not eliminate altogether corruption in the judiciary. Corruption exists not just among the lowest ranking officials of government: it is endemic from the top all the way to the bottom. It can only be defeated if the top finally refuses to engage in it.

Davao has been a victim of numerous bombings in the past, one of the most heinous ones perpetrated by no other than the foremost proponent of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL). I hope Duterte sees the radical Muslims for what they really are: ideologues who are after world domination. I hope he sides with, and helps the moderate voices among Muslims, who have to be wary of both the radicals and Christians who think that Islam cannot be reformed, that all Muslims are the same. One way to sabotage the moderates is by being too accommodating to the radicals. The radicals must be defeated, and the moderates’ free speech vigorously protected.

A federal system of governance should finally provide an outlet for peace-loving Muslims to establish their own regional government. This should then remove the main excuse for radicals to attack soft targets.

I wish my homeland luck in this upcoming Presidential election.

Please Note: I speak only for myself. The CoRRECT Movement does not endorse any candidate. Our main objective is to reform the defective 1987 constitution.

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The Power of Passwords

Encryption technology has just become a political battleground. It should have been obvious that, like powerful weapons, it can be used to do bad as well as good.

Here is the stark reality of this technology. One of the two radical Islamic terrorists in the Garland, Texas incident, who attempted to massacre participants at a “Draw Mohammed Contest” (and who were not known terrorists then) communicated with another, known terrorist using encrypted messages. As part of its criminal investigation after the fact, the FBI wanted to read those messages. A federal judge allowed the FBI to retrieve these messages, but because of encryption, such order by the judge was meaningless. The FBI could not read the encrypted messages. Even the NSA, with all their computing capability, could not read the messages. Neither could the company that built the phone used by the terrorists. In fact, not even the programmer or chip designer himself, who built the encryption program or chip, can read the messages. NO ONE could read the messages except the two terrorists who exchanged the encrypted messages.

Why? Because modern encryption is designed to be so: unintelligible except to individuals who have the decoding key. That key, that password, if kept secret and known only to you, grants you enough power that not even the most powerful country in the world can take from you. May be in the future we can invent a computer powerful enough to crack your password, but for now it’s practically impossible.

The downside is that this thing, this encryption technology that grants you such power, is also available to terrorists.

The only chance that the FBI can read encrypted messages exchanged among terrorists is to somehow obtain the password or key used to encrypt such messages. People often make the mistake of writing passwords somewhere, may be in a note app, because difficult passwords (by definition) are difficult to remember. Terrorists can make this mistake also. If I were an FBI agent given the task of deciphering the messages, the first thing I am going to do is look for any password in the notes files stored in the smart phones used to encrypt and transmit the messages. May be such password was not used directly to encrypt the messages; it could be a shorter password used to the encrypt or hide a longer key or password, but the point is that any password found in the notes files or other kinds of files written by any terrorist should be useful.

We are all scared because what happened in San Bernardino is just too close to home. Politicians are fooling us by implying that the government can “work with” technology companies to prevent terrorists from encrypting their messages. The are implying that this technology, which you and I use whenever we sign-in to our bank accounts using the internet, can be kept away from terrorists. Here is the bad news: the Apples and Microsofts and Facebooks of the world cannot do it. How can they determine who, among their billions of users, are terrorists? Even the government cannot determine beforehand who the bad guys are, how can we expect high tech companies to be able to do it? There is nothing in a terrorist’s account that would indicate that he is a terrorist, unless it’s a Facebook account and he announces his intentions or allegiance to ISIS.

When modern encryption technology was just being standardized, there were certain camps who wanted to add a second decoding key to any encrypted message, kind of a “god key”. So called because whoever has this key can decipher any message. In practice, of course, each encrypted message can have a unique god key. Before internal use, such key can be produced by the encrypting machine itself (in addition to the user key), according to some algorithm, and the idea was to give the capability only to the authorities to know this algorithm. The idea eventually did not win out because it introduced more problems than it solved. Chief among these problems was the question: what if the algorithm was leaked? Then the whole encryption scheme would be “open” and useless.

The public needs to understand that modern encryption standards are designed to be almost impossible to decipher by anybody except the individual who  encrypts and sends a message, or by the intended recipient who can read such message (using their respective passwords). Encryption is a powerful weapon; and, just like any other weapon, it is available to both ordinary citizens and terrorists alike. Powerful weapons in the hands of bad guys make it very difficult to fight them, and there’s no magic bullet that can keep these away from the hands of terrorists. We just have to fight more intelligently because these days, what appears to be asymmetric warfare may not be so.

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Communism, Islam, and Political Correctness

What is Religion?

Let’s first clarify what is religion. Religion should be personal. It is a set of personal beliefs about why we are here in this world, where we are going, and how we should behave with respect to this philosophical foundation. It is a worldview that guides our everyday decisions and actions on a personal level. Religion can also mean the congregation of a group of people (“organized religion”).

In the past, even within Western Civilization, religions have been used to justify rule by hereditary succession. Most governments have progressed beyond this kind of rule. The world has mostly become democratic. Even in Sharia (Muslim Law) countries, democracies have sprouted and grown. Nowadays, the only remaining religious monarchy is Saudi Arabia. However, in many countries even today, government rule is still justified and founded on religious grounds. I include communist countries in this list.

Communism as Religion

Is communism a religion? As defined above, religion is a set of beliefs. One characteristic of a belief is that by definition it is faith-based: you continue to believe in it even though it has been amply proven otherwise. Communism is violently anti-religion, but it has religious characteristics itself. Case in point: China.

China has clearly gone capitalist, but its communist leaders still deny this. The Chinese communist leaders have proven, by their own actions, that communism just won’t work, but they can’t admit it. They cannot admit the failure of communism most especially to their own people. This kind of behavior is no different from that of religious leaders when faced with scientifically-proven facts about the fallacies in their beliefs. Faced with the problem of a popular but blasphemous book, religious leaders ban the book or at least prohibit the faithful from reading it. Likewise, faced with the popularity of playing in the stock market, communist party leaders in China have admonished the faithful (communist party members) from engaging in stock trading.

Why even be a communist party member when you know that your core beliefs have been blown to smithereens? Because there are practical and immediate benefits to being a communist party member. Party members are first-class citizens, everyone else is second-class, a phenomenon in China which parallels a similar observation in countries like Saudi Arabia. In the Kingdom of Saud, there are clear advantages to being Muslim, especially about getting the best jobs and best positions within a job category. This explains why it is not uncommon for Filipinos who have worked in Saudi Arabia for several years to convert to Islam.

Islam as Ideology

If you agree that communism is just another religion, it shouldn’t be difficult for you to understand that Islam is an ideology, at least partly. What makes Islam an ideology is that, just like communism, it includes a belief in an inevitable historical destiny for the world. Communists believe that the natural state of the world is communist, just as Muslims believe that our final destiny is Islamic. Islam (just as communism), therefore includes a “master plan” for how humanity can reach the final state. Never mind that the historical path to the final state of utopia is forced on people violently: for both communism and Islam, the end justifies the means. The objective is not justice in the here and now, but rather the objective is that one final state of society.

Communists believe that the inherent contradictions in capitalism eventually lead to the emergence of communism. Muslims believe that religions other than Islam eventually lead to the one true religion. For Muslims, we are all Muslims inside us; it’s just that we either don’t recognize it or we refuse to see the essential truth. We have been led astray by minor religions. We just need a little push to lead us to the one true religion that lies dormant within us. That “little push” could be violent, but what difference does it make to kill a few hundred or even a few thousand non-combatant people against the good of all humanity?

For us infidels, it remains difficult to accept that Islam is the one true religion, and rightly so. In return for our intransigence, we non-believers are at best second-class citizens in Sharia countries. At worst, killing innocent, civilian Christians and peoples of other faiths can be justified on the same basis. I realize this is a strong statement that I am sure liberals would deem “biased”. It is most definitely politically incorrect. Is it even plausible? It most definitely is, considering the influence of Wahhabism in most of today’s Muslims. There are two observations that support this assertion:

  1. From Pakistan to Saudi Arabia to Indonesia, it is very rare to find Muslims who condemn the killings; and
  2. In fact, most Muslim communities honor as martyrs those who die killing people of other faiths.

Political Correctness

If Muslims themselves are not going to protest against the radicals, we non-Muslims should at least not acquiesce to Islamic ideology. The problem is the perversity of neo-liberal attitude and irrational views on religious diversity and racial discrimination.

Liberals either don’t understand or their fear is clouding their understanding. If we don’t at least denounce what is clearly very bad behavior and point to its cause, we would be encouraging Islamic radicals and those who quietly believe in them.

Religious freedom does not mean tolerating very bad behavior. It does not matter what religion you have, if your religion teaches you to kill innocent people, then there is something wrong with your religion. If you put that “religious” teaching into practice, justice requires that you and the Imam who taught you be put down or banished from civil society.

Neo-liberals have been blaming all religions whenever an outburst of violence against civilians occurs, even in the face of statistical preponderance of Muslims committing those crimes. This indefensible liberal view is exemplified by Obama’s statement that “Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ …” Never mind that the Crusades were a response to Muslim aggression and Christianity and its teachings are now way past the despicable phase that was the Inquisition. Never mind that Muslim ideology and nothing else (not “injustice” against Muslims, not the “lack of opportunity” for Muslims) is to blame for all jihad attacks.

Real leaders point out an unmistakable lie when they see it. Political correctness, especially when practiced by no other than Obama himself, makes a mockery of the truth. Political correctness allows and even encourages the abdication of leadership.

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What is Missing from the HyperLoop

Travelling in a semi-vacuum tube offers two very significant advantages:

  1. speed that is several multiples of jet-plane speed, and
  2. low energy required per kilometer travelled, per kilogram of transported mass.

However, the HyperLoop as currently envisioned does not take advantage of another source of potential savings in energy: namely, by travelling non-stop. All else being equal, as much as 90% of energy can be saved per trip by not stopping, and this benefit is free, thanks to the law of conservation of kinetic energy. How can passengers get aboard and get off the HyperLoop modules that do not stop? Here is a scheme.

Allow terminals along the reduced-air or vacuum tube track. The tube track itself is a closed loop in which a number of trains travel non-stop. Each terminal  along this closed loop is designed to allow a car to be added and removed from the train, while the train is running at high-speed. In between terminals, passengers are free to move from one car to another, just as in normal (“ancient”) trains. This allows every passenger to start her trip from any terminal and end her trip at any terminal (including the one she started from). To end your trip, simply walk to the car that is to be ejected at the next terminal.

High-speed travel

High-speed travel

The above diagram shows how a car can possibly latch-on and -off the train. Each terminal is a car insertion and ejection point. The bottom of the diagram details how a terminal allows the insertion car to be accelerated up to train speed, and how the ejection car can be decelerated to zero speed (stop). Because the train is travelling at high speed, the insertion/ejection segment should be long enough to give time for a car to insert and another car to get off the train. (The diagram is not drawn to scale, so the length of the insertion/ejection segment is not obvious.)

Each terminal forms a much smaller loop in itself. This smaller loop is divided into segments, color coded in the diagram. The white segment at the bottom is where the insertion car starts and the ejection car stops. The yellow segment to the left is where the insertion car enters through an airtight door. As soon as this airtight door closes, air is pumped out from this chamber while inside the car normal barometric air pressure is maintained. When enough air has been pumped out and air pressure is low enough in the depressurization segment to match that in the main tube track, another airtight door is opened. (This door separates the yellow segment from the green acceleration segment.) In the green segment, the insertion car accelerates until its speed equals the constant train speed. The whole sequence of passenger boarding, depressurization, and acceleration is timed such that, at the same time that the car enters the insertion/ejection segment, the train arrives and is running parallel to it.

At the same time that the insertion car latches itself onto the train, another car forward it is removed from the train. This car slows down as it enters the orange deceleration segment. The yellow segment to the right is already depressurized by the time the ejection car enters it. An airtight door closes behind the car as it enters the yellow pressurization segment. As the car continues to decelerate, the yellow segment is filled with air. By the time it reaches the other airtight door ahead of it, pressure in the yellow segment will have equaled one atmosphere. Passengers can then get off in the passenger unloading segment.

Would you believe I drew the above diagram in April, 2009? I have been thinking about air-friction-free transportation before Elon Musk first published the idea.

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Girl, You’re Special

(A rap song for my little girl, Kristin.)

Hey, girl, you tell me you’re not special?
I’ve got your number girl, and I’m talking to you right now.
Imagine that, girl.
I’ve got your number.
Your number out of billions of other numbers.
I could be talking to a billion other girls right now, girl.
I’ve got your number and I am talking to you!

Look at your number girl.
It’s got a country code.
That country code is 1, number one.
After that country code girl, your number has an area code.
And in that area code, out of millions of other numbers, I’ve got yours.
No other number but yours.
Imagine that.
Girl, I could have called a billion other numbers around the world.
I’m talking to you now, girl!
When I call your number,
I first key in your country code, out of hundreds of other countries, I touch your country.
I then touch that one area code in your country, out of hundreds of other areas,
I touch that one place where you live, girl.
And within that area, I touch your number, and now we’re talking.
Out of millions of other numbers in your area, I touch one number, your number girl.
And you say you’re not special?

Hey girl, look, there are billions of conversations going on around the world right now.
Billions of conversations, billions of connections, right this minute.
Out of all those billions of connections, girl, there’s one and only one that connects me to you!
So now you see, girl, how special you really are.
And you say you’re not special?

Posted in Amateur Philosophy | Leave a comment

Incantation Programming


The magic of myth and legend has come true in our time. One types the correct incantation on a keyboard, and a display screen comes to life, showing things that never were nor could be…. The computer resembles the magic of legend in this respect, too. If one character, one pause, of the incantation is not strictly in proper form, the magic doesn’t work. Human beings are not accustomed to being perfect, and few areas of human activity demand it. Adjusting to the requirement for perfection is, I think, the most difficult part of learning to program. ~Frederick Brooks

Are systems becoming easier to use?

I remember when I assembled my first PC a long time ago. There was no operating system, just a brick with switches in front, and inside was a very simple 8-bit processor. To program, I had to enter one eight-bit code using the switches, one byte at a time. Nobody else at home could use it except me, and its usefulness for anything other than assembly programming fun was dubious at best. I was so proud of the day when I programmed it to play the bumble-bee tune.

Fast forward to today, and I am typing on a respectable Surface tablet, whose usefulness cannot be doubted. The difference between that old 8-bit system and the Surface is mind-boggling: 8 bits versus 64, 1 kilobyte of main memory versus 2 gigabytes, front-panel switches versus a full keyboard that also doubles as a cover, 10 kilograms versus less than a kilogram in total weight, LED lights versus a high-resolution screen, and on and on.

In terms of software, the contrast is even more mind-boggling: no operating system versus one that is more complicated than that run on mainframe systems a couple of decades ago. A programming system that makes it easy to churn apps for any task imaginable.

Clearly we have progressed so far. Or have we? Sometimes I have my doubts, like when I was explaining to my sister (who is almost as old as I am) over the phone how to drag-drop a file from a folder to She got it done, but I felt that the only proper way to teach her was for me to take control of her PC remotely. Why can’t she just do it using voice commands? “Move file X from PC folder to”

Voice commands now work too, but there is a catch. You have to be very precise in your “incantation”. Wrong incantation, and you get the wrong results. This makes our computer manuals no different from sorcery books. May be there’s a better way to communicate with computers, but for now precision of language is most important.

Of course precision of language is also important in the practice of law. I believe this is why lawyers love their laptops and tablets too.

Posted in Computers and Internet | 2 Comments