Monthly Archives: August 2010

How I use my 10%

From a chat today with my sister Suzanne:

Me: quick, without referring to anything, name the three stars of 1984’s Irreconcilable Differences
Suzanne: shelley long, drew barrymore, ryan o’neal
Me: right! i knew them too, when the movie title popped into my mind a few minutes ago
Suzanne: we’re awesome
Suzanne: bonus question
Suzanne: what later to become huge actress had a small role?
Me: no idea. i never saw it, i only know the marketing. which makes it all the more baffling that i still know it 26 years later
Suzanne: ah


In a recent e-mail exchange with my friend Kurt, we were discussing the problem of orbital space junk and the difficulty of cleaning it up. It’s a subject we’ve batted around on and off for many years, wondering about a workable and economical solution but never managing to find one. It’s been in the news more lately, as the crisis has grown more acute and inventors have trotted out different proposals, each more outlandish than the last.

In the middle of this exchange, after years of coming up with nothing, I suddenly invented my own solution, an idea I now offer publicly as the second in my occasional save-the-world series. It’s called SIEVE: Scanning, Illuminating, Even Vaporizing Engines.

It involves deploying into low earth orbit thousands of semi-autonomous robots. Each SIEVE unit is small and light and costs no more than a few hundred dollars of off-the-shelf components. Specifically, these components:

  • A solar panel for power;
  • Gyros for orientation;
  • A radio for coordination with other SIEVE units;
  • A camera;
  • A simple computer;
  • A Mylar mirror; and
  • A small rocket engine.

Each unit, when in sunlight, is in one of three modes: Scanning, Illuminating, and Vaporizing.

In Illuminating mode, the unit orients itself so that the mirror reflects sunlight through a given volume of space.

In Scanning mode, the unit trains its camera on a region of space that other nearby units are Illuminating and searches for debris.

In Vaporizing mode, numerous units all aim their mirrors to shine sunlight on a piece of debris, one previously identified by Scanning and Illuminating units and whose orbital trajectory has been plotted. Focusing enough sunlight on the debris for a long enough time should heat it to the point of vaporizing. If the debris can be fully vaporized, great; it should be harmless in that form. If it can’t, it might still expel enough vapor to slow its orbit (a la the laser broom idea) to the point where it falls back into the atmosphere.

The rocket engine is only needed twice: once to insert the unit into a distinct orbit when initially deployed, and once to deorbit the unit at the end of its service life.

Care will have to be taken that the SIEVE robots do not themselves become hazards to space navigation. And that they don’t go into Michael Crichton mode, become sentient, and decide the Earth is a gigantic ball of debris.

Greatest hits: Ground Zero mosque

A relative circulated to my extended family an e-mail chain letter linking to an anti-Ground-Zero-mosque YouTube video, so I wrote this reply:

A mosque at Ground Zero is a great idea, whether you’re an anti-Muslim bigot or not.

If you’re not a bigot, then nothing could be a more powerful affirmation of America’s acceptance of all races and creeds than to turn the other cheek and honor the peaceful adherents of that noble religion, millions of whom were victims of 9/11 in more profound, longer-lasting ways than almost anyone else.

If you are a bigot, what could be better than a great big juicy target, right at the scene of the crime, for all the Judeo-Christian zealots bent on Biblical-style justice?

Personally, I’m offended that they keep letting Catholic churches get built. That was the religion of Timothy McVeigh!

Greatest hits: Shame

The publisher Tim O’Reilly wrote in a Buzz post recently,

I’ve always loved the ancient Greek idea of shame – aidos – as that quality that restrains people from doing wrong

which inspired me to add the following comment:

In a biography I once read of George Washington, the author (whose name, alas, I can’t remember at the moment) pointed out that his virtues, and those of many of his contemporaries, seem almost superhuman by today’s standards. By way of explanation he pointed out that life expectancy was much shorter then, so the pressure to achieve renown that would outlive you was consequently greater (not to mention that in a less populous world, such renown was within easier reach). You were gonna die soon, that was almost certain — but shame could kill your legacy, a more thorough and fearsome kind of death.

I think this has something to do too with the decline of shame (in addition to other obvious causes such as the rise of privacy, isolation, and anonymity). By and large we now live long enough to get over anything shameful that may happen. We see it happen again and again on the evening news, as disgraced public figures make unlikely comebacks. VH-1’s “Behind the Music” has turned the familiar arc of shame and redemption into a cottage industry. Shame is no longer something to be avoided at all costs. More’s the pity.

“His own quotes are his greatest pleasure.”

I’m going to take this as a compliment: John Perich has written a critique of the Internet Movie Database’s “memorable quotes” section, noting how quality control seems to have declined and wondering when and how it happened.

I can tell him exactly when and how: October 2001. That’s when my association with the IMDb, and my six-year stewardship of its Quotes section, came to an abrupt end, and not an amicable one. The less said about that, the better.

While Quotes Editor, I enforced a style that Perich recalls fondly, one in which quotes were by and large pithy, could stand on their own with minimal context (e.g. stage directions), and stated something truly memorable: something about the human condition, for instance, or something that could whisk the reader right back into the emotional heart of a scene.

During my tenure we had no quotes from movie trailers, no quotes that could not be understood out of context, and few overlong scenes. The ones of those that I did include came from prolific and reliable quote submitters whom I did not wish to alienate by disregarding the work they’d put into transcribing them; and even then, I usually managed to carve them up into separate bite-sized quote morsels.

Problem was (as Perich rightly points out) that ensuring the accuracy and suitability of quotes that IMDb users submitted — in ever-increasing numbers, with an ever-decreasing signal-to-noise ratio — was nearly a full-time job all by itself; and when I agreed to take on the Trivia and Goofs sections too as a favor to one of my colleagues, and then software development on top of that, I was often at the point of despair. I was disappointed but not entirely unhappy when it came time to separate from the IMDb.

I don’t know who has held the Quotes Editor post since my departure, and whoever has, I do not wish to cast aspersions on the job they’ve done. It’s not an easy one, especially if their efforts are split between Quotes and any other part of the site. But as I’ve noted myself over the past few years (with the occasional sigh and sorry head-shake), it’s clear that they’ve abandoned the aesthetic that John Perich and I prefer.

Hung up

Men, if your penis is of average size or slightly above, and you’ve taken solace (while watching some well-hung stud in a porn film) in the thought that most other men are your size or smaller, mathematics and I are here to ruin your whole day.

After all, it’s not some hypothetical matchup against all other men that you’re interested in, is it? If you’re honest with yourself, what you really care about is whether yours is the biggest dick your partner’s ever had. And that’s where the bad news begins.

Suppose your size is exactly average; that you’re in the 50th percentile for penis length. That means that 50% of men are smaller than you, and 50% are bigger. Does this mean you have a fifty-fifty chance of blowing your lover’s mind? Only if your partner had one man before you. If your partner had two men before you, the odds of their both being smaller are 0.5×0.5, or 25%. If three, the odds they were all smaller are 0.5×0.5×0.5, or 12.5%. In other words, there’s an 87.5% chance — 7 chances in 8 — they’ve seen bigger.

Let’s say you’re one of the lucky ones in the 75th percentile. Your dick is bigger than that of three out of every four men you see. There’s still a 58% chance that your partner (who’s had three men before you) has seen bigger!

In order to have an even chance of having the biggest dick that a partner with three previous lovers has ever seen, you have to be in the 80th percentile for penis size (about 6.25 inches according to the condom manufacturer LifeStyles). But that’s just an even chance. To have a good chance — say, 90% — you have to be in the 97th percentile (about 7.5 inches). And that’s if your partner has had only 3 men before you. It’s not too unusual to be the fifth or tenth or twentieth man, especially of a partner who’s very desirable.

None of these numbers mean anything if you can’t get it up when the time comes, so now that I’ve given you the bad news — don’t think about it.