Posts in the Culture Category

Jackals and HYDEsim

Published 11 years, 7 months ago

Long-time readers (and Jeremy) probably remember HYDEsim, the big-boom ‘simulator’ I hacked together using the Google Maps API and some information in my personal reading library.

Well, with North Korea setting off something that might have been a nuclear device, it’s starting to show up in the darndest places.  Everyone’s favorite millenial talk show host, Glenn Beck, not only mentioned it on his radio program this past Monday, but also put a link on the main page of his site for a couple of days.  Then it got Farked.  I suppose it’s only a matter of time now before it gets Slashdotted as well.

With the increased attention, some old criticisms have arisen, as well as some misunderstandings.  For example, on Fark, someone said:

I thought it was funny how people are playing with this and think they were “safe” if they weren’t in the circle.

Here’s a mockup I did of the kind of blast damage you could expect from a single 1980’s era Russian ICBM carrying 10 MIRV warheads, each capable of 750KT yield.

Oh my yes.  That’s something that the HYDEsim code can theoretically support, since every detonation point is an object and there’s no limit on the number of objects you can have, but I never managed to add this capability.  That’s because trying to figure out the UI for placing the MIRV impact points broke my head, and when I considered how to set all that in the URI parameters (for direct linking), a tiny wisp of smoke curled out of my left ear.  Still, one of these days I should probably at least add a “MIRV ring impact” option so the young’n’s can get an idea of what had us all scared back in the old days.

The interesting challenge is that a strategic nuclear strike of that variety is going to involve a whole bunch of optimum-altitude air bursts.  HYDEsim takes the simpler—and also, in this darkened day and age, more realistic—approach of calculating the effects of a ground burst.  The difference is in no sense trivial: a ground burst has a lot of energy, both thermal and radiological, absorbed by the ground (oddly enough!).  On the other hand, its highest overpressure distances are actually greater.

This is because shock energy drops with distance, of course.  An optimum-altitude air burst would be a mile or two above the ground, so the highest pressures would be directly beneath the explosion, and would be smaller than if the same weapon exploded on the ground.  With an air burst there’s less ground and man-made clutter to attenuate the shock waves as they spread out, so the total area taking some degree of damage due to overpressure is actually greater.  (There are also very complex interactions between the shock waves in the air and those reflected off the ground, but those are way beyond my ability to simulate in JavaScript.)

Also, direct thermal radiation is spread over a much greater area with an air burst than with a ground burst—again, there’s less stuff in the way.  The amount of fallout depends on the “cleanliness” of the warhead, but for an air burst it can actually be expected to be less than a groundburst.

People also claim that radiological energy (X-rays, neutron radiation, gamma radiation, etc.) will be the deadliest factor of all.  Actually, it’s just the opposite, unless you’re discussing something like a neutron bomb.  The amount of harmful direct-effect radiation that comes directly from the explosion is far, far smaller than the thermal energy.  And yes, I know thermal radiation is direct-effect, but there’s a large practical difference between heat and other forms of radiation.

Put another way, if you’re close enough to an exploding nuclear warhead that the amount of radiation emitted by the explosion would ordinarily kill you, the odds are overwhelmingly high that the amount of shock wave and thermal energy arriving at your position will ensure that there won’t be time for you to worry about the radiation effects.  Or anything else, really.

Remember: I’m talking there about direct radiation, not the EMP or fallout.  That’s a whole separate problem, and one HYDEsim doesn’t address, to the apparent disgust of another Farker:

The site is useless without fallout and thermal damage.

Well, I don’t know about useless, but it’s admittedly not as representative of the totality of nuclear-weapons damage as it might otherwise be.  Of course, HYDEsim is not specifically about nuclear detonations, as I showed when I mapped the Hertfordshire oil refinery explosion and djsunkid mapped the Halifax explosion of 1917.  But I certainly admit that the vast majority of explosions in the range the tool covers are going to be from nuclear weapons.

The problem with mapping fallout is that it’s kind of weather dependent, just for starters; just a few miles-per-hour difference in wind speed can drastically alter the fallout pattern, and the position of the jet stream plays a role too.  Also, the amount of fallout is dependent on the kind of detonation—anyone who was paying attention during the Cold War will remember the difference between “dirty” and “clean” nuclear warheads.  (For those of you who came late: to get a “dirty” warhead, you configure a device to reduce the explosive power but generate a lot more fallout.)

Thermal effects are something I should add, but it’s trickier than you might expect.  There’s actually an area around the explosion where there are no fires, because the shock effects snuff them out.  Beyond that, there’s a ring of fire (cue Johnny Cash).  So it’s not nearly as simple as charting overpressure, which is itself not totally simple.

And then there’s there whole “how to combine thermal-effect and overpressure rings in a way that doesn’t become totally confusing” problem.  Get ambitious, and then you have the “plus the show fallout plume without making everything a total muddle” follow-on problem.  Ah well, life’s empty without a challenge, right?

Okay, so I went through all that and didn’t actually get to my point, which is this:  I’ve been rather fascinated to see how the tool gets used.  When it was first published, there was a very high percentage of the audience who just went, “Cooool!”.  That’s still the case.  It’s the same thing that draws eyes to a traffic accident; it’s horrible, but we still want to see.

However, I also got some pushback from conservative types:  how dare I publish such a thing, when it could only be useful to terrorists?!?!?  Rather than play to the audience and inform them that I simply hate freedom, I mentioned that it was desirable to have people like you and me better understand the threats we face.  It’s not like the terrorists can’t figure this stuff out anyway.

Now I’ve seen a bunch of people from the same ideological camp use HYDEsim to mock the North Koreans’ test, which apparently misfired and only achieved a yield of about 0.5KT.  Others have taken that figure and plotted it in American cities, giving some scale to the dimension of this particular threat.  Still others have done that, but with the yield the North Koreans had attempted to reach (thought to be 4KT), or even with yields up to 50KT.  In most cases, these last are shown in conjunction with commentary to the effect of “now do you understand why this is a problem?”.

This is why I do what I do, whether it’s write books or publish articles or speak at conferences or build tools or just post entries here:  to help people learn more about their world, and to help them share what they know and think and believe with others.  Sometimes that’s worth saying again, if only to remind myself.

The Silence of the Lamb’s Blood

Published 12 years, 1 month ago

With Passover recently concluded and yet another viewing of The Ten Commandments under my belt, a question has occurred to me.

The whole point of Passover is to commemorate the events that freed the Jews from slavery in Egypt, and the English name of the holiday comes from the fact that the Angel of Death passed over the Jews as it slew the first-born of Egypt as the final plague.  So why is it that the very act that caused the Angel to pass by a household and spare any first-born within, the smearing of lamb’s blood on the doorway, is not part of the Passover seder?  You’d think that would be a central act, a way of asking that the Angel of Death pass by the house for another year, in much the same way Jews ask God to inscribe their name in the Book of Life for another year during Yom Kippur.  If I were designing the seder, I’d make the smearing of the blood the opening act of the entire ceremony.

Never mind that lamb’s blood can be hard to come by and disquieting for some to handle; it could be symbolically represented with paint or red wine or some other substance.  Most of the seder consists of symbolic representations anyway.  Why not the Pesach blood as well?

Japanese Color Blending

Published 12 years, 4 months ago

What is it about the Japanese that they loooove to blend colors?

Lest you think I’m indulging in some sort of bizarre racial stereotyping, I submit for your consideration the Technorati search results for blogs and other sites pointing to my Color Blender.  The Blender been moderately popular ever since its release, but so far as I can tell, the Asian market is just eating it up.  If I see a new Japanese site appear in my egorati feed, the odds are 49 out of 50 that it’ll be linking to the Blender.

So what’s the deal there?  Anyone have insights, specuation, or even translations that might shed some light on this little enigma?

(Note: it turns out that these are Chinese blogs using Japanese fonts, and not Japanese sites as I originally thought.  I’m leaving the original entry intact rather than update it.  Still, this means that the essence of the original question remains, even if the geography was off by a bit.)

Premium Channels Just Aren’t

Published 12 years, 7 months ago

With the finishing of the basement and the installation of the new TV, it was time to dump the cable company.  As a result of the feedback I got from people, I ended up choosing Dish network.  (Thanks to everyone who commented!)  Oh, did it feel good to jettison at least one localized monopoly.  I never liked Adelphia, not from the day they arrived in town.  The criminal indictment of their founder and some of his family members didn’t do much to improve my perception, either.

Of course, when you sign up for any new media service these days, you get swamped with a zillion deals and promotional packages.  I ended up with three free months of movie channels—HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, and a variety of offshoot niche channels.  There’s something like twenty-five of them.  At the end of the three months, I have to cancel or else they start charging me for the movie package.

I’ll be cancelling.  It’s kind of handy having all those movies available, and I’ve caught a few I wanted to see in theaters but didn’t.  However, there is something about these “premium” movie channels, every last one of them, that kills the deal for me.

They all broadcast pan-and-scan formatted movies.  Not a letterboxed, widescreen showing to be found anywhere.

Last night, I found myself gritting my teeth over the ruination of several shots in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, a movie I was only half watching as it was.  Characters just vanished from shots that were, of a sudden, horribly balanced.  I can only imagine what outrages would be perpetrated on some of the classics of cinema.  I mean, come on.  The frickin’ SciFi channel shows letterboxed movies on a regular basis.  If the geeks over there can figure it out, you’ve got no excuse.

In short, there’s no way I’ll be paying to have mangled movies delivered to my home.  Fix that problem, and I might be tempted to sign up.  Otherwise, I’ll spend my movie-related money elsewhere, thank you very much.

The Pooh Progression

Published 12 years, 11 months ago

On Friday, the voice of Tigger died.  Then on Saturday, the voice of Piglet died.

What I want to know is whether Disney security protecting the people who provide the voices of Winnie-The-Pooh, Eeyore, Owl, Gopher, Kanga, Roo, and the rest—or is Disney security, or possibly rogue elements within it, actually behind it all?

Dark times in the Hundred Acre Wood… dark times indeed.

Scientificologically Speaking

Published 12 years, 11 months ago
And I know that– psychiatry is– is a pseudo science.
— Tom Cruise

Considering that deeply informed opinion was delivered by an adherent to a pseudo religion, I think that we as a species need to take it very seriously indeed.

But I still want to see his new star vehicle.

At The End

Published 13 years, 1 month ago

Terri Schiavo, as you’re no doubt aware, died this morning as the result of twelve days of starvation and dehydration.

I am not qualified to judge the actions of anyone involved in the situation, nor do I have a clear sense of what the “right thing” to do was in that particular case, but I know this much for myself.  If it is acceptable to end a life, then it should be mandatory that the ending be as quick and painless as possible.  Withholding sustenance strikes me as a horrible form of euthanasia.  An overdose of painkillers, or a painless poison, would be far more merciful.

Years ago, long before she was diagnosed with cancer, my mother made me promise that, given certain circumstances, I would help her by ending her life.  Those circumstances didn’t come about; instead, an aggressive, pervasive malignancy destroyed her body and took her life.  But had those circumstances come about, no matter how much keeping that promise might have meant to me and to her, I do not think I could have starved her to death.

Again, this is in no way a comment on whether or not Mrs. Schiavo should have been allowed to die.  It is simply a wish that we might make termination procedures more merciful, or else stop them altogether.

Once With Heads Held High

Published 13 years, 5 months ago

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I got some feedback on “Behind The Beauty, Cracks Appear“, published four weeks ago today.  What did surprise me was that the feedback was for the most part supportive.  In all honesty, I expected a good deal more negative feedback.  After all, roughly two-thirds of my fellow state residents, and clear majorities in ten other states, voted a position opposite mine.  So thanks to those of you who wrote or pinged in support.

As I say, though, there were some rebuttals to my post.  As many of these rebuttals involved counterarguments of one kind or another, I thought I’d share my reactions to the arguments made in opposition to homosexual marriage.  I’ll probably let this be my last word on the subject for a while.

Majority rule

“It’s what the people want.”

Agreed.  Thus my angst.  But anyone with any sense of history knows how weak the “majority rule” argument really is.  There are plenty of unacceptable things that the people wanted at one time or another: slavery, racial separation, and a restriction of voting rights to men, to name but three.  (There are dozens more.)

You’ll note that I have not, at any point, advocated the overturning of the recent votes.  However misguided I believe them to be, the results of these democratic votes are not something I would simply cast aside in an attempt to make the world conform to my personal views, any more than I would advocate overturning, by either legislative action or executive fiat, a Supreme Court decision on the grounds I didn’t like the ruling.

Nevertheless, I can (and some would say should) oppose this turn of events by speaking out and seeking to change minds.

A slippery slope to Hell

“Once we allow gays to marry, it will open the door to bestiality, pedophilia, necrophilia, and worse.”

This is so wrong, I can’t even believe I have to explain why.

A marriage of two homosexuals would be a union between consenting adults.  Got that?  Everything clear?  Bestiality does not involve consenting adults: it involves a human and an animal, the latter of which cannot give consent.  Pedophilia does not involve consenting adults: it involves an adult and a child, the latter of which cannot be said to give informed consent, no matter what the child actually says.  Necrophilia involves an adult and a corpse, the latter of which can only give consent in horror movies.

You do see the difference, right?

One person who trackbacked the original posting said, among several other equally logical things:

I’ve watched a few demolition derbies at the county fair. That looks like it would be fun to do and would make me happy. Does that mean I should be allowed to drive around on the streets and smash into cars?

Actually, it means you should be free to enter a demolition derby… which you are, assuming you have the entry fee, a car you’re willing to smash up, you agree to the rules of the event, and so on.  Nobody’s outright prohibiting you or anyone else from participating.  That is, after all, one of the underlying features of demolition derbies: everyone participating is a consenting adult who has entered into the activity of their own free will and with an understanding of what the activity entails.

If, on the other hand, there are demolition derbies where you are barred from participating on the basis of, say, your eye color—something which in no way adversely affects your ability to participate in the derby—then I’d say you were being unfairly discriminated against.  You’d probably agree.  So why disagree with me when I say it’s discriminatory to prohibit people of certain sexual orientations to marry?  I don’t see a difference.

As for the “on the streets” idea (which was a fairly obvious misdirection, but I’m willing to work with it anyway) if you can get the consent of all involved parties—including all other drivers, pedestrians, property owners, and civic officials in the area you intend to do this—then yes, you should be allowed to do that.  If not, then no.

I’m still sort of stunned that I have to explain that.

A slippery slope to Hell, part 2

“What about polygamy?  What will prevent that door from opening?”

In a word: money.  Our institutions aren’t fiscally configured to deal with multi-partner marriages.  Health insurance, for example, has single and family coverage, but that family coverage is structured around the idea of one spouse and some number of children (and usually the premium goes up a bit with each new child).  Similarly, a university might allow a spouse to take free classes, but only one spouse.  There’s no provision extending free tuition to six spouses, nor should there be: that would be an undue financial burden.  Also, the IRS isn’t very likely to approve of “married filing jointly with five other returns”.  And if the tax man don’t like it, well, it ain’t too likely to fly.

Besides, didn’t most of the Old Testament patriarchs have multiple wives?  When you think about that just a little, it’s clear Biblical proof that marriage has not always been a bond between a single man and a single woman, and thus it seems to me that the God of the Bible didn’t intend marriage to be only the union of one man and one woman—unless the Bible is inaccurate or not to be obeyed in its entirety, of course.  In which case I’d expect the really traditional churches would be pushing for polygamy, not against it.

Cheapening of marriage

“If gays can get married, that will weaken traditional marriages.”

The case for allowing gays to marry begins with equality, pure and simple. Why should one set of loving, consenting adults be denied a right that other such adults have and which, if exercised, will do no damage to anyone else?

— “The case for gay marriage“, The Economist, 26 February 2004

I’d read the above-quoted article a while ago but forgotten it; Warren Stevens was kind enough to remind me about it via e-mail.  It’s short, well-reasoned, and probably a better case than I could make.  So is their first article on the subject, “Let them wed“, from 4 January 1996.  Still, I’ll continue to add a few cents to the pot.

A heterosexual Satanist couple (but not a homosexual Christian couple) can get married anywhere in this country, and odds are that some have.  Some people get married solely for financial reasons, and are essentially roommates while they date (and have sex with) other partners.  Do these marriages weaken your marriage, or the marriages of those around you?  Do you imagine that your marriage somehow affects theirs, making it weaker or stronger?

For that matter, if we’re going to talk about things that weaken marriage, I think we should look at the ease with which people get married and divorced in this country.  That’s a far bigger threat to the sanctity of marriage than any number of gay marriages could ever be.  Britney Spears got married for 55 hours.  Apparently that’s more acceptable than a homosexual marriage because she was married to a man, even if for just over two days.  Why would it be less acceptable if she were to marry a woman, and stay faithfully committed to that partner for the rest of her life?

If gays are able to marry, it will not bring all heterosexual marriages to a screeching halt.  It won’t even make them less acceptable, or less worthy of respect.  If anything, it will make them more so, because there will be a reduced demand for sham marriages.

If nothing else, I’m tired of hearing about the sanctity of marriage from nationally recognized conservatives, most of whom have already been divorced two or more times.  Their hypocrisy depresses me, but their inability to defend their own marriages has, so far as I know, failed to weaken my marriage, or that of anyone I know.

Marriage isn’t as important as love

“A gay couple can stay committed and faithful to one another, just as if they were married, so there’s no need to grant legal recognition.”

The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.

—from the opinion of the U.S Supreme Court in 388 U.S. 1, Loving v. Virginia, 1967

I entirely agree with the Court.  And no, I don’t see an ethical difference between prohibitions of marriage based on gender and those based on race, which is what 388 U.S. 1 addressed.

Furthermore, I propose that anyone who believes that marriage isn’t necessary for any truly loving homosexual couple should voluntarily abstain from marriage, and get divorced if they are already married but stay with the same partner.  Show that you mean what you say.  If you truly love someone, then it shouldn’t be a problem to live with them for the rest of your lives without getting officially married, just as you advocate for gays.

If that isn’t acceptable to you, and you think hard about why, then maybe you’ll begin to understand why it isn’t acceptable to gays either.

(Thanks to Rich Manalang for the pointer to 388 U.S. 1.)

Inability to reproduce

“Gays don’t need to get married because they can’t have children.”

If the ability to reproduce is a core tenet of an acceptable marriage, then my marriage to Kat is unacceptable: we are unable to reproduce, and believe me, we did try.  Does anyone believe that we should be forcibly divorced, or have our marriage annulled, because of this?  Come on, speak up.  Alternatively, should all couples who intend to get married be required to undergo fertility testing, with those who fail the testing prohibited from being married?  Do you really want the government to start medically testing its citizens in order to tell them what they can or can’t do?

Because of the medical barriers to our reproducing, Kat and I chose to adopt.  I know Alan Keyes condemns people like us because, in his world, adoption makes incest inevitable.  (No, I’m not kidding.)  Lunatics aside, though, the last time I checked adoption was seen as an acceptable course of action by most people.  Regardless of how anyone feels, it is quite likely the only way Kat and I could have a family.  It is also one way that a homosexual couple could have a family.  I do not see a difference between the two.

Of course, gay couples are already adopting.  There was one such couple in our orientation group at the adoption agency with whom we worked.  Thus, homosexual marriage would change this very little, if at all.  It might in some cases make it easier for a gay couple to adopt, since they could legally show combined income, joint tax returns, health insurance, and the like.  I understand that would be objectionable to some, who fear that children raised by a gay couple might grow up to think of a homosexual lifestyle as acceptable.  As I pointed out, too late: it’s already happening.  It’s also the case that liberals are allowed to adopt—Kat and I did, after all—and many of those children grow up thinking liberalism is acceptable.  Shocking, I know; and yet I assure you that it happens.

Anyone in favor of restricting adoption only to those people who meet specific ideological standards?

Children’s welfare

“Children should be raised by a man and a woman, not by two men or two women.”

That’s a common belief, and one that has evidence both supporting and contradicting it.  I’m not at all convinced that a child needs to have one parent of each gender in order to be well raised.  Any time a child has a parent or parents who love, nurture, and discipline it as needed, I think the child is likely to turn out just fine.  Conversely, any time a child has a parent or parents who are cruel, abusive, or distant, they’re probably going to grow up maladjusted.

Society is better served by maximizing the number of children who grow up in loving, stable homes.  If a homosexual couple can provide that, then I don’t see why it should be problem.  If they can’t, then I think it’s as much of a problem as a heterosexual couple who can’t.


“Gays choose to be with same-sex partners.  If they chose to be with opposite-sex partners, they could get married.”

First, I’m going to leave aside the whole question of homosexuality as a choice versus a matter of nature.  There’s evidence on both sides, and against both sides.  I know what I believe, but I’m not going there, mostly because as far as I’m concerned, it’s not relevant.

Of those who are married or in a committed relationship of some kind, how many of you dispassionately chose the person with whom you fell in love?  When you truly love someone, it’s because that’s the right person for you, and vice versa.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s the end of the story.  Why would anyone choose to step away from the one they love because that person wasn’t the accepted gender, or race, or religion, or body type, or whatever else?  More importantly, why would anyone else demand that they do so?

Suppose I said that all married couples had to be interracial, or interfaith.  How is that ethically different from demanding that married couples be intergender?  I don’t see that it is.  Note I said “ethically”.  I understand that many see a moral difference.  Speaking of which…

Moral qualms

“It’s just wrong, and oughtn’t be allowed.”

There are religions that say the consumption of porcine meats or shellfish is wrong; others forbid the consumption of beef.  In fact, taken as a global aggregate, adherents of those religions outnumber Christians.  All those who do not follow these food-limiting faiths that are planning to alter their eating habits (that is, their lifestyle) based solely on the demands of said faiths, please raise your hands.


I was, in my original post, a bit sarcastic when I said “oh noble defenders of morality”.  The sarcastic part was the word “noble”: I never perceive intolerance as noble.  Other than that, the “morality” part was kind of my point: it’s your morality, not everyone’s.  This street goes both ways, of course; many feel that allowing gays to marry would be an imposition of external morality on them.  Conversely, the prohibitions of gay marriage are an imposition of external morality on gays.  Where’s the balance?

Something I’ve seen making the rounds is the idea that the government should stop issuing marriage licenses altogether, and instead grant legal recognition to civil unions (both hetero- and homosexual).  Of course, if a couple chooses to marry in a church or other setting, they would be entirely free to do so.  The point here would be that the civil unions would have the current status marriages hold—the rights, privileges, and burdens that come with being recognized as a married couple would be conferred upon these unions.  Marriage would be made a more personal and spiritual act, one that every church could perform for whomever they choose.  Some could restrict it only to opposite-gender couples, while others might only marry same-sex couples.  Or, and here’s a radical concept, a church might choose to marry any two people who love each other enough to undertake so serious a commitment.

It seems to me that this, or something very much like it, would be a workable approach.  I’ll grant you that it would force some churches and other socially conservative organizations to co-exist with (if not necessarily accept) something they don’t like, but that’s fairly inescapable.  In a large, complex society, every one of us will have to tolerate things we don’t like.  I, for one, don’t much like the recent votes to prohibit gay marriage, but clearly I have to live with them, at least for the time being.  I also don’t like people who can’t be bothered to signal lane changes, civilian-owned Hummers, Web design tools that generate malformed markup, and Rush Limbaugh.  Tell you what: support my legislation to ban the things I don’t like, and I’ll support yours.  Fair enough?

I could go on, but I think that’s quite enough.  There will, of course, be those who read this and despair that I’ve bought into the “homosexual agenda”.  Well, let’s see.  Near as I can tell, the agenda in question is one of asking that our society treat homosexuals like human beings, that it grant them the same rights and privileges accorded to other adults, and that it treat them as the equals the United States Constitution says they (along with everyone else) truly are.

Quite frankly, we should all buy into that agenda.