Monday, February 28, 2005

Education in America -- what should be done

This is based on a post on Fark. I'm copying it here to flesh out a bit a little later:

Education has (or should have) two goals which sometimes conflict: strive to maximize individual achievement and try to instill shared values (what E. D. Hirsch called "Cultural Literacy").

Unfortunately, it seems like public schools instead try to minimize differences instead of maximizing achievement (to be fair, home schoolers sometimes ignore socialization and replace cultural literacy with religious indoctrination).

I'm not sure if there is any solution to the problem -- at least not one that will be acceptable to everyone. If I could wave a magic wand, I would pick a system that allocate resources like investments -- if investing $7 in student A and $3 in student B yields a better result for society than $5 apiece, I'd go with the unequal distribution. I'd also be a lot more fluid in school promotion, with a bit finer control than simply skipping or holding back a grade.

Finally, I would definitely switch to year-round schooling (45/15 or switch to 4 days per week and increase the number of weeks until it balances out), and experiment with things like vouchers and a la carte schooling (students partially home-schooled but who pay for certain subjects taught at a public or private school).

Thursday, February 24, 2005

I posted my "Snarfoblog discovers the Universe"

...comment on Slashdot as an Anonymous Coward, and actually got a +5 Interesting rating
Starting Score: 0 points
60% Interesting
20% Informative
10% Funny
Extra 'Interesting' Modifier
0 (Edit)
Total Score:

The discussion is available here:

I just thought I'd post the link, since I'm not sure if copyright law allows me to paste other people's comments into my blog. I'm not sure how other people will view it, but I thought it was interesting.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Fark headlines that didn't make the front page

Fark is one of the main websites I visit several times a day (the other two are Slashdot and AnimeNation). It has the option to submit news stories with clever headlines.

Unfortunately, none of my headlines have ever made it to the front page of Fark. On the plus side, Fark saves a copy of these rejects, so people won't have the pleasure of reading the current news story, they can at least see what I submitted before it disappears into digital heaven.

Here, for your amusement, are the articles I've submitted:

2004-11-12: Girl discovered sealed in piñata, luckily found before being beaten to death for delicious candy
2004-11-09: Showing she's the power behind the throne, the Fist Lady reopens avenue outside White House to pedestrians
(Note, original article had "Fist Lady" typo)
2004-11-07: Tony Blair wary of receiving "controversial" Medal of Honor. Apparently "controversial" means being offered a different medal. (Second paragraph)
2004-11-02: Dutch filmmaker who depicted Islam as violent killed in protest
2004-10-21: Swatch, Microsoft to join forces. "When do you want to go today" to be new slogan
2004-07-28: The "fabric of our lives" causing trade talks to unravel in Africa
2004-07-24: Scientists discover chick flicks more romantic than the Godfather. Cancer apparently unaffected by offers it can't refuse
2004-07-20: Want that healthy, natural glow? Drink refreshing radon water
2004-07-20: Old and busted: betting money. New hotness: betting babes (third story down)
2004-07-19: Photoshop the difference Founding Mothers would have had on the U.S
2004-07-15: In addition to being more fun to look at, women have better color vision
2004-07-15: Hong Kong, Singapore beat the U.S. in economic freedom. In an unrelated story, the Axis of Evil gains two new members
2004-07-08: Theft of chicken mascot rocks Oregon town. Sadly, the Smoking Gun is not there
2004-07-07: Divorced wife wins right to future earnings, manhood of former husband
2004-06-27: Man withdraws consent for embryo implantation against partner's wishes. Infertility ensues
2004-06-22: Betty Botter bought a bit of butter, but bugs sense bitter better
2004-06-17: Beans, Artichokes best source of antioxidants, claim stinky scientists
2004-06-07: 95% of all statistics made up. Scientific papers weigh in at a painfully-honest 38%
2004-05-05: University of Iowa refuses to play Braves. Wimps, Cowards still acceptable mascots
2004-05-03: In a bid to confuse future archeologists, New Zealand astronomy enthusiasts recreate Stonehenge

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

SnarfoBlog discovers the universe

Since everyone seems to be doing a blog, I thought I might as well do so as well. This is easier than putting up another page on my domain (, and should allow me to get ideas out there more quickly.

First off, I've figured out dark matter, and it doesn't require exotic quarks, leptons, or baryons to work.

Okay, that's an enormous (and highly unlikely) exaggeration, but I *have* thought of an interesting possibility. A Dyson Sphere surrounding several stars (or in a Type 3 civilization, an entire galaxy) would block visible light – the problem is it would glow in the infrared, so it wouldn't really be dark. Black holes are dark, but they tend to fling stuff around, and matter sucked into them gives off bursts of energy before they disappear.

The solution: a dark bubble. At the center of our galaxy there is a supermassive black hole, which is (according to some estimates) roughly three million solar masses. A civilization putting a bubble around it would have 1 (earth) gravity a little beyond the orbit of Pluto, perhaps 40-45 A.U. or so. The problem is that you still would need to stick some stars around it to supply energy, and a Klemperer rosette would be pretty noticeable.

Well, light falling onto a blackhole blue shifts, increasing its energy. Increase the bubble enough (remember, we're talking a civilization that can harness the energy of a galaxy), and the mass of the bubble itself starts to warp space around it. There comes a point where the size of the bubble and the mass that makes it up can be just under the Schwarzschild limit – a bit more massive and it would be a black hole – even without a central singularity. For humans, we'd want a bubble that has a surface gravity equal to earth's, and a blue-shifted energy equal to the average output from our sun.

As a back-of-the envelope calculation, using v^2=2*g*R, where v is the escape velocity, g is the gravitational attraction at the earth's surface, and R is the radius from the center of mass, and setting v=c (the speed of light) for the maximum size, you get a bubble with a diameter just a bit under a light-year across (354 light days, if I figured correctly). The surface area would be about 3 square light-years, 2.6 x 10^26 square kilometers, or 5.2 x 10^17 times the surface area of the earth. The mass would be equivalent to 1.5 trillion suns – roughly twice the mass of our galaxy. Assuming you use buckytubes as the material of choice, you'd have a shell 7000 kilometers thick of solid buckminsterfullerene.

Of course, this is the absolute maximum size and mass just before it becomes a black hole, so the actual construct would be a bit smaller and less massive, balancing surface gravity and blue-shifted energy hitting the surface. You'd also want to carve out mountain ranges and oceans for a bit of variety – a galactic Kansas would be kind of boring. For safety reasons, you would have to stick these bubbles in the empty space between galaxies, or just use all of the mass in one large galaxy (you'd have to be careful, though, to keep relativistic rocks from flying at the completed project). You'd have a sky that would look kind of like a slow-moving aurora, perhaps -- infrared would be shifted into visible light, visible stars would have their peak shifted to ultraviolet -- especially since the gravitational warping would slow down time considerably compared to the rest of the galaxy.

To detect them, you'd have to aim telescopes at the "empty" parts of the sky and see if there was any gravitational lensing. If something was there that was far too massive to be a neutron star but didn't have the characteristics of a supermassive black hole, that could be a sign of it. The largest ones would have the gravitational mass of a large galaxy, so if a supercluster appears to be missing a galaxy's worth of stars that stellar motions demand, it might not be exotic matter but instead bubbles of normal matter from some vast engineering project.

Of course, it might be too early in the evolution of the universe for a type 3 civilization to appear, or you might not be able to make a buckytube bubble big enough that would also support its own weight, so exotic forms of matter might still be necessary. One thing's for certain, though – a bubble like this would make Ringworld look as spacious as a phone booth.