Kensei: a pulpy Japanophobic 80’s technothriller

So yesterday I was doing some housecleaning and getting rid of a bunch of old books that had been stashed in my home office bookcases: novels I’ll never read again, kid’s books that my children have outgrown, etc. I ran across the following paperback, I don’t even know where or when I got it:

Let me give you the blurb text on the back:

The samurai code for total victory in the war on America.

At first, suspicion pointed tot he Russians. Because whoever stole the top-secret 256K optical microchip – key component in the Pentagon’s ultimate nuclear strike system – was risking all-out confrontation.

Art Garrett had staked his future and the success of his Silicon Valley firm to develop the 256K. Now he was gambling his very life, and the only women he ever loved, for the survival of America… Against a fanatical Samurai military-industrial conspiracy prepared to conquer the world. Or die.

Wow, that’s quite a mouthful. “Fanatical Samurai Military-Industrial Conspiracy” would be a great name for a rock band. It probably won’t surprise to learn that the publication date on this novel is 1984, right at the height of the ‘Japanese yellow peril’ in the US and the peak of Japan’s economic boom before it progressed into an economic bubble.

It actually precedes by almost 10 years more famous novels that follow a similar theme of Japanophobia, such as Rising Sun by Michael Crichton and Debt of Honor by Tom Clancy, both of which were published in the early 90s. I was also thinking of some similarities with the 1979 novel Shibumi by Trevanian (most well-known for The Eiger Sanction), but that novel is more of Japanophilia than -phobia. It even comes before the 1986 film Gung-Ho, about a Japanese company buying out an American automobile factory in the rust belt.

The author introduction text inside the cover is pretty interesting too:

Steven Schlossstein, who has spent twenty years in the Orient, knows Japan and the Japanese mind. He did graduate studies in Japanese history and language at the University of Hawaii and Tokyo University, and later served six years as vice president of the Morgan Guaranty Trust Co. in Tokyo. Now president of his own financial consulting firm, he divides his time between Tokyo and New York.

Simply using the word ‘Orient’ instead of ‘East Asia’ dates the book considerably. However it’s the phrase ‘knows Japan and the Japanese mind’ that I want to call special attention to.

I’m only 40 pages into this book (total 457 pages), and here are some of gems I’ve come across already. Our first point of view character is Fukuda Keiji, a bucho or division head of Matsuzaka Electric Industries, Ltd., Matsuzaka Denki Kogyo. (Aside: the whole book is written like this, where he uses the Japanese word for something that has a perfectly acceptable translation in italics, and then immediately after gives the translation in English. After that he just uses the Japanese word without italics, so if you don’t remember the specific word’s meaning, then you have to flip back to where it was defined or flip to the glossary at the end of the book. Not an issue for me since I know the Japanese terms, but I think this would get really old for a reader that doesn’t know the language.) Matsuzaka Denki is obviously a thinly-veiled renaming of Matsushita Denki, more commonly known as Panasonic. His company is part of the Matsuzaka Conglomerate, which is conveniently the biggest conglomerate in Japan, even larger than the Mitsui, Sumitomo, and Mitsubishi conglomerates (all of which are real-life conglomerates).

The novel starts with Fukuda up at 4AM, sparring with his kendo instructor at a dojo. Are they wearing kendo armor and using split bamboo swords? No, that wouldn’t be manly enough. They’re using straight-up wooden swords without any protection at all. Fukuda’s internal monologue is endless quotes from Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi: ‘become one with the sword’, ‘the mind is like a teacup: it must be emptied before it can be filled’, etc. Utilizing his now-sharpened Zen superpowers, he defeats his sensei who concedes the match. Congratulations, he’s now a sword master and never needs to return to the dojo again!

The apprentice had absorbed all the master could impart. He was on his own now. He had emerged into a realm where he would have to make his own rules, fight his own opponents, on the strength of his own cunning and character. His face reflected a newly won confidence.

Seriously, has the author never trained in a martial art? The first time you beat your sensei doesn’t mean you are now a master and have nothing left to learn, it means you got lucky, and you’re just now just good enough for your sensei to be able to finally get some meaningful practice in as well. Heck, even I’ve been able to throw my judo instructor a couple of times, and I completely suck.

Anyway, after this he heads to an early meeting with a Colonel in the Japan Self-Defense Force, where we learn that they are both part of a secret cabal organized by the National Institute for Competition (a thinly-veiled Kaidanren) to develop an ICBM in order to assert Japan’s rightful place as the world’s greatest superpower. I’d say this is exactly the same plot as Debt of Honor, but again this book precedes it by almost 10 years.

But the problem is that in order to do the next round of testing and not fall behind schedule, they need the MacGuffin: the 256K Optical Processor. Capable of making 256 thousand calculations per second, it was the technology they needed to be able to control the missile guidance system. So… in the mid-80’s cutting edge microprocessors were able to to do over 10 million calculations per second. So he’s only off by two orders of magnitude, I’ll give him a pass. Maybe it took him 10 years to write the book or something.

So far the real creme of the crop though, is when he then goes into work. Walking past the Central Post Office, the following message is hanging from the side of the building on a large banner:

We will encourage and protect the people at home, and wait patiently for the confusion that will eventually destroy the unity of purpose and action among the Western powers.

And then our bucho goes into his office where the Matsuzaka company motto is displayed:

Being forced to work, and work hard, will breed self-control and discipline, perseverance and loyalty, virtues the idle foreigner can never have.

WTF? This is supposed to be 1980’s Japan, not 1940’s wartime propaganda!

Anyway, I’m on twitter at @Dwbassett2, I’ll be tweeting more of these gems as I run into them while I read through this novel.

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Black Hole and Earth

In the spirit of what if at xkcd, I saw the following question posted on a thread in reddit/r/space:

What would happen if a black hole the size of a grain of sand existed on Earth?

The thread was deleted by mods for trivial reasons (it wasn’t posted in the weekly ‘general questions’ thread) so there’s little point in linking to the thread itself. But before it was deleted, all the answers were really bad: either saying it would do absolutely nothing, it would only sink to the center of the earth growing as it went, or it would immediately disappear in a flash of radiation.

All of those answers are a possibility, depending on the size of the black hole, but the biggest problem is that no one did any math or calculations to actually determine what would happen, they were just guessing random crap.

So let’s do the math ourselves. Fortunately for us there is already a website that can do most of the math for us: a Hawking radiation calculator. Basically it lets you input a property of a simple black hole (no spin or charge) and it will calculate the rest of the properties for you. Parameters are the mass of the black hole, radius of the event horizon, surface area of event horizon, gravity at the surface of the event horizon, surface tidal force, entropy, temperature, peak photon energy (due to Hawking radiation), effective density, luminosity (again due to Hawking radiation), time to free-fall from the event horizon to the singularity, and total lifetime of the black hole (due to losing energy via Hawking radiation).

So I put in a radius of 0.1mm for a black hole, and here are some of the results:

Mass\(6.7\times 10^{22}\, \text{kg}\)
Surface gravity\(4.5\times 10^{20}\, \text{m}/\text{s}^2\)
Temperature\(1.8\, \text{K}\)
Lifetime\(2.6\times 10^{52}\, \text{s}\)

The mass of \(6.7\times 10^{22} \text{kg}\) is approximately 1/100th that of the Earth, or about the same as the moon. This shows how dense a black hole really is: something as massive as the moon, when compressed to a singularity, would have an event horizon only 0.2mm across.

So what would happen to this very tiny black hole? You might think it would pass harmlessly through the Earth, since it only has a very small cross-section of a circle with a 0.2mm radius, so whatever it passes through would be absorbed into the black hole, but everything else would be fine, right? Unfortunately, wrong.

A big problem is that even though its mass is no larger than that of the moon, because it’s compressed to a singularity the gravitational acceleration near the event horizon becomes very large. This is because the strength of the gravitational acceleration is proportional to square inverse of the radius. So if we double our distance from the center of mass, the gravitational force is is 1/4th as strong. But conversely if we halve our distance, the gravity is 4 times as strong. So as you can imagine, being able to decrease the distance all the way down to 0.1mm will make the gravity very very strong. In fact the gravitational force at the event horizon of our black hole is about \(1 \times 10^{19}\) times stronger than Earth gravity!

We can calculate the distance from our black hole that its gravitational acceleration will be the same as Earth surface gravity:

\(\displaystyle g_s r_s^2 = g r_2^2\)

Where \(g_s = 4.5\times 10^{20}\, \text{m}/\text{s}^2\) is the gravitational acceleration at the event horizon of our black hole, \(r_s = 0.1\, \text{mm}\) is the radius of the black hole, \(g=9.8\, \text{m}/\text{s}^2\) is the gravitational force at Earth’s surface, and \(r_2\) is the distance we are solving for. This comes out to be about 680km, so everything within that radius is going to be attracted to our black hole more strongly than it is to the rest of the Earth!

So this is looking bad. We could surmise that anything in that radius is going to be pulled into the singularity. How long will it take for something to be pulled into the black hole from this distance? We can estimate this with a bit more math:

Using good old Newton’s law of motion

\(\displaystyle F=ma\)

where \(m\) is the mass of the object and \(a\) is the acceleration, along with Newton’s law of gravity:

\(\displaystyle F=\frac{G m_1 m_2}{r^2}\)

where \(G = 6.7\times 10^{-11} \text{m}^3 / (\text{kg}\, \text{s}^2)\) is the gravitational constant, \(m_1\) and \(m_2\) are the masses of the two bodies, and \(r\) is the distance separating them. We substitute in the gravitational force into Newton’s law of motion, and substitute acceleration using the definition \(a=\frac{dv}{dt} = \frac{d^2 r}{dt^2}\). So now we have a 2nd order ordinary differential equation (specifically an initial value problem):

\(\displaystyle \frac{G m_1 m_2}{r^2} = m_2 \frac{d^2 r}{dt^2}\)

The \(m_2\) term, the mass of the falling body drops out of both sides, so our answer is only in terms of the body we are falling towards. Our initial conditions are \(r = 6.8\times 10^{5} \text{m}\) and \(\frac{dr}{dt}=0\) at \(t=0\).

This can be integrated to solve exactly for the time it takes for something to fall from distance \(r\) into the black hole, but we don’t even have to do calculus to get a rough estimate. If we ignore the derivatives, we can use this to get a rough scaling of how the time is affected by distance and the other parameters.

\(\displaystyle \frac{G m_1 m_2}{r^2} \sim \frac{r}{t^2}\)

We solve this relation for \(t\) and we get the following:

\(\displaystyle t \sim \left( \frac{r^3}{G m_1} \right)^{1/2}\)

This tells us that the time for an object to fall into the black hole is proportional to the distance it falls \(r^{3/2}\) and the mass of the black hole \(m^{-1/2}\). In other words if we increase our distance by 4x then the time to fall in increases by \(4^{3/2}=8\) times, and if the mass of the black hole increases by 4x than the time to fall in decreases by \(4^{-1/2}=1/2\).

For a more exact answer, we need to do the actual calculus. We integrate this twice and use the boundary conditions, then we can solve for the time to fall into the black hole from the distance \(r\):

\(\displaystyle t=\left( \frac{2 r^3}{3 G m_1} \right)^{1/2}\)

For our black hole at the distance of 680km, this comes out to be about 200 seconds, or a little over 3 minutes. You’ll notice that the equation has the exact same form as the estimate earlier, it only differs by a constant (in this case \(\left( \frac{2}{3} \right)^{1/2}\)). This is pretty typical of this kind of analysis. The quick estimate gives you an idea of the relationship of the different parameters to each other, and the full analysis refines it to give you the actual answer you can use in your calculations.

As a bit of an aside, why did we have to use calculus to solve for this in the first place? The reason is that the force due to gravity is continually changing as the object falls closer to the black hole. If the force were constant, then the acceleration would also be constant and we could just look up the formula from an introductory physics textbook or website if we couldn’t remember it. But because the force and hence acceleration is continually changing, the only way to solve it with calculus, which incidentally was developed by Isaac Newton to solve this exact kind of problem, i.e. celestial mechanics.

Back to our black hole. As our black hole is pulling in Earth’s mass into its gaping maw at a radius of about 680km, the black hole itself is going to be falling towards the center of the Earth, absorbing things as it goes. This classic calculation tells us it will take about 42 minutes for it to reach the center of the Earth. Of course when it gets there it won’t stop moving, so it will keep on moving and orbit the center of the earth with a total orbital period of 168 minutes, absorbing matter all along the way. Technically the Earth, black hole, and moon will all orbit the center of mass of the three-body system, but from the point of view of someone on the Earth it will appear as I described it.

Gravity will pull in the remaining Earth’s mass to form a continually smaller sphere as the black hole absorbs its mass, but between the rotation of the earth and the orbital period of the black hole it probably won’t be too long before most of it is absorbed into the black hole. Verdict: earth is sucked into our black hole over the course of a few hours/days.

But wait, there’s more! It isn’t just the extreme gravitational force of the black hole pulling Earth’s mass into it that we need to worry about, we also have tidal forces.

The basic concept of tidal forces is pretty straightforward. From our Newton’s law of gravitation above, we know that something closer is attracted more strongly than something far away. This also means that the portion of an object (i.e. comet, moon, planet, human) that’s closest to the massive object is attracted more strongly than the portion of it that’s farthest away. This force can actually pull the object apart if it’s stronger than the force that’s holding it together. For really big objects (planets, moons, etc.) it’s the objects own gravity that keeps it together, for smaller objects it’s simply its own tensile strength.

To calculate when that actually happens, I found a nice formula here:

\(\displaystyle \sigma < \frac{G m\rho R^2}{\Delta^3}\)

Here \(\sigma\) is the tensile strength of the material, \(\rho\) is the density of the material, \(R\) is the radius of our object that’s being pulled apart (assuming a sphere), and \(\Delta\) is the distance between the two bodies. So if our tensile strength is less than this quantity on the right-hand side, then it will be pulled apart due to the tidal forces.

Let’s look at our black hole and Earth. Assume that Earth is made of granite: tensile strength is \(4.8 \text{MPa}\), and its density is \(2750 \text{kg}/\text{m}^3\). We can use this to calculate what the maximum size a granite boulder can be before it’s ripped apart due to tidal forces from our black hole.

At a distance of just 1m from the black hole, any rock larger than 0.03mm will be ripped apart due to tidal forces. At 100m any rock larger than about 3cm will be ripped apart. At 1km the maximum size is about 1m. If we go all the way to the other side of the earth at about \(1 \times 10^7 \text{m}\), the maximum size of a boulder is \(1 \times 10^6 \text{m}\), or about 1/3 the diameter of the moon. So if you’re on the other side of the Earth when this thing hits you yourself won’t be pulled apart into spaghetti, but Earth itself will rapidly break up into planetoid-sized and smaller chunks. Verdict: the Earth gets rapidly torn apart into planetoid-sized chunks in a matter of minutes, turning the whole mess into a hot ball of molten rock. Which then gets sucked into the black hole over the course of the next several hours/days.

There are a couple of other things that I’m missing. The most obvious is that all this mass can’t instantly fall into the black hole, it will all get in its own way. Also it won’t necessarily fall straight in, it has to conserve its own momentum so it will circle the black hole as it falls in. This will cause it to rapidly heat up, turning everything into super-hot magma, gas, and plasma that will form an accretion disk around the black hole. This will spew out all kinds of high energy x-rays and gamma rays, and we may even get coronal ejections from the poles of the black hole as well.

What about the rest of the solar system? The moon probably won’t change that much, it will still orbit the center or gravity of the system. The day side will get bathed in a whole lot of high energy radiation, but the night side won’t significantly change. It should still be tidally locked so that the same side will continue to face the Earth (or the black hole and accretion disk) with the night side facing away. Incidentally, the night side of the moon would probably be the safest place for humanity to survive. Anywhere else in the solar system is going to get massive x-rays and gamma rays from our accretion disk whenever its visible in the sky, but anyone on the dark side of the moon will always have the mass of the moon between themselves and the black hole. Another option would be deep underground habitats on other celestial bodies in the solar system: Mars, Ceres and other large asteroids, various gas giant moons, etc. It’s hard to say how much shielding you would need, since I don’t know how to estimate how much energy would be put out by the accretion disk that used to be the Earth.

Overall verdict: Earth is totally destroyed in a matter of hours, all that’s left is a super-hot super-radiation-spewing accretion disk falling into the black hole. Anyone not on the dark side of the moon or in a deep underground habitat somewhere else in the solar system is fried to a crisp in the radiation.

Edit: of course the real question is, where did a black hole with the mass of the moon come from? That much mass just doesn’t appear by itself. Possibly Ceres or a trans-Neptunian dwarf planet became a singularity due to a super-science experiment gone wrong, then collided with the Earth or something.

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Sci-Fi RPGs and Rendering Planets

My bi-weekly RPG group has, like most now, had to move online to keep playing. Though to many playing pen-and-paper RPGs online has become the norm, we’re a bit older and more traditional so it was a first for all of us. But we’ve been using and got it mostly figured out.

Our group has been playing D&D5E, and the campaign is an older but well-known 2nd edition campaign called Night Below, which is a long campaign that takes place entirely in the Underdark. Right now we’re in the middle of the final adventure and it looks to wrap up in the next 1-2 sessions. With that we’ve been talking about what to play next.

I’ve volunteered to take a turn DMing, and we’re going to try a sci-fi campaign using Stars Without Number. As such I felt that I needed to get an adventure ready and start polishing my adventure/campaign production skills. I really like making and using maps in my RPGs, and I noticed that ProFantasy has put their excellent Campaign Cartographer software on sale for half price during the Covid-19 pandemic. I went ahead and bought it, and then splurged for the (not on sale) Cosmographer 3 add-on that adds capability for making spaceship deck plans, star charts, sector charts, solar systems, world maps, and more. Trying it out a little bit, it’s built kind of like a photoshop or GIMP type of raster image software, but with less graphics manipulation tools and a whole lot more templates and built in images. It has a pretty steep learning curve, but there are some tutorial videos on YouTube to help you learn the basics.

So I was going through the tutorials and making a basic solar system map using this tutorial, but I was disappointed in the lack of variety and number of planet icon images. I thought to myself, “I could make some myself with a bit of work!” and immediately got side-tracked for the past several days.

It turns out there are two basic ways you can do this: 2D or 3D based. The 2D method is something like this:

  1. Download or create a rectangular 2D map of your planet’s surface. You can download map images for the planets in our solar system here and here. For example here is mars:
  1. Import the image into a 2D raster image manipulation program like Photoshop or GIMP. I use GIMP because it’s more than powerful enough for my level of skill, and because it’s free.
  2. Use a tool (fortunately included in GIMP) to wrap the rectangular image onto a sphere shape. Basically it’s a reverse of the cylindrical projection method shown here.
  1. Choose your options for the rotation/angle of the sphere, lighting, and you’re done!

Some sample results:

Mars viewed from South Pole

What’s great about this is that you aren’t even limited to real planets, you can do this with fictional ones as well. You just need to generate or find the surface map before you transform it.

Fictional water planet
Terraformed Mars
Fictional rocky planet

This method could also be sped up with a bit of work, since GIMP has a full Python API. It would be possible to write a script that could upload a directory or a zip file with a bunch of map images, then convert them all to planet images and save the results.

However in making these I noticed there was a pretty severe limitation: there was no way to make a planet with rings like Saturn. That then brings us to the 3D method:

  • Choose a 3D modeling software. I use Blender because, like GIMP, it’s more than powerful enough for my needs, and it’s totally free.
  • The learning curve on 3D modeling is insanely steep. Without instruction you are unlikely to ever be able to make anything cool or useful.
  • So the next step is: find a tutorial showing how to make the thing your interested in (or the closest you can find). Fortunately there are several tutorials showing specifically how to make Saturn or a similar ringed planet.
  • There are two basic approaches taken:
    1. Use actual images of Saturn and its rings, and map them onto a 3D surface.
    2. Use texturing and coloring methods and algorithms to make an object that looks like a ringed planet, but doesn’t specifically try to copy Saturn.
  • After looking at both, I went with the second approach. I was after all trying to make planet images for fictional planets, so I don’t care if it looks exactly like the real Saturn or not.

Making the basic planet and ring shape is pretty straightforward: you can use simple shapes of a sphere and a circle (extruding out the circle to make a ring). Everything else is done using textures, which gets insanely complicated. Following this tutorial, here is my ringed planet in Blender:

And here is the texture map for the planet surface:

There is no way I could ever figure this out without following a tutorial step by step. Basically what does is this:

  • Apply random noise to be the color on the sphere surface.
  • Filter that noise so that it’s limited to a few colors and transitions smoothly between them. That’s the ColorRamp block in the middle that goes from black to orange to yellow.
  • Filter it in space so that it varies a lot in the z-direction, but only a little in the x- and y-directions. This makes it look like rippling clouds over the planet.

And here is the texture map for the rings:

This one is even more complicated! It more or less works like this:

  • Generate some random noise on the ring surface
  • Filter it so it only changes in the radial direction, centered on the planet center
  • Make that noise into changing the brightness and contrast across the surface of the ring.
  • Make the ring itself to have a mixture of diffuse light scattering, transparency, and translucence.
  • Use that same noise to make the local transparency vary with the noise level
  • Adjust the noise so that the frequency and amplitude matches what we are looking for.

Setting all of that up is a huge amount of work, especially if you’re not super-experienced with the software. However the results are absolutely phenomenal:

It seriously looks good enough to be on a NASA publication or something, I was really impressed by how it turned out.

OK, I think that’s long enough down this rabbit hole. I need to get back to preparing the Stars Without Number adventure!

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Imaginary Dice in Your Head – Taking it to the Extreme

Today I saw this post on boingboing with a method to generate a random number from 1 to 6 without the need of a die. The basic method is this:

  1. Pick a random word, using any method you like.
  2. Sum up the number values of all the letters in the word, with a=1, b=2, etc.
  3. Calculate sum%9 or mod(sum,9) , equivalent to calculating the remainder after dividing the sum by 9.
  4. If the number is 0 or greater than 6, throw it out and go to the next word.
  5. Otherwise, you have your pseudo-random number from 1 to 6.

I thought it was pretty interesting, but the first thing I thought of was: why divide by 9? You’ll have to throw out about 1/3 of your numbers because the remainder will be 0, 7, or 8. Why not divide by 6 instead? Then you can just use a mapping of 0→1, 1→2, and so on to 5→6 and keep all the numbers without having to throw out anything. But the real challenge is to then take it to the next level and write some code to do it for you.

In the comments very soon somebody posted some results using the words from their Words file (located at /usr/share/dict/words, it’s a file with a bunch of words used by spell-checkers in the linux OS) with numbers that looked very good for for the mod(9) and mod(6) versions.

I decided that I could do better than that. Why not pull a bunch of words from the internet and use those? There’s no better source of lots of words than free books, and the easiest way to get free books is from Project Gutenberg.

I decided to try writing some code in python, and a quick google search got me some simple code to pull text from any Project Gutenberg book and divide it into a list of individual strings for each word. After that, it’s a fairly straightforward process to iterate through each word, use the
ord() function to get the ASCII value and convert it to an a=1, b=2, etc. number encoding, sum the numbers up to get a total, and then use the mod() function to get the remainder by dividing it by 6 or 9. For comparison, I also used the random number generator in python to generate an equal number of random numbers between 1 to 6 as well.

I did that for all the words in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky and got the following results:

method               1      2      3      4      5      6
---------------  -----  -----  -----  -----  -----  -----
mod(N,6) method  24500  43816  23020  29030  23315  15064
mod(N,9) method  15804  20820  14081  14960  19924  12867
rand function    26610  26573  26465  26457  26359  26281

Showing as a plot we get the following:

Word to Die Number Distribution

That’s actually a really bad distribution, there’s a whole lot more 2’s and less 6’s, both for the mod(6) an mod(9) calculations, but it’s especially bad for the mod(6), whereas mod(9) has too many 2’s and 5’s.

Why would that be? Someone in the comments had a good suggestion: if I’m just using every word (of three letters or longer, I dropped any one- or two-letter words), then there are probably still a whole lot of the‘s and and‘s in the list that would throw off my distribution.

Let’s do a quick calculation and see. For the we have t=20, h=8, and e=5. That gives a total of 20+8+5=33. Dividing 33/9 gives a remainder of 6, and dividing 33/6 gives a remainder of 3. For the mod9 method that number will be dropped, since I just kept results of 0 to 5 (mapping to numbers 1 to 6) and dropped the rest. For mod9 that number will become 4, using the mapping 3→4.

Similarly for and we have a=1, n=14, and d=4. That gives a total of 19, and dividing 19/9 gives a remainder of 1, and dividing 19/6 gives the same remainder of 1, since 18 is a common multiple forth 6 and 9. In both cases this will become a 2 on a die, since we’re using the mapping 1→2. And looking at the plot, in both cases 2 has the highest number and 4 after that. This is the most likely reason.

So I then fixed the script so that it ignored any word repetitions, so each word is represented only once in the entire word list. Re-running it gave me the following results for Crime and Punishment:

method              1     2     3     4     5     6
 ---------------  ----  ----  ----  ----  ----  ----
 mod(N,6) method  1584  1600  1551  1610  1493  1526
 mod(N,9) method  1052  1057  1069  1084  1049  1035
 rand function    1522  1556  1561  1643  1568  1514

And as a plot:

Word to Die Number Distribution, Improved Algorithm

That looks a whole lot better. There are less overall using the mod9 function because it drops about 1/3 of the numbers because the remainder > 5. Overall though, it certainly passes the ‘looks OK’ test (which is important in science and engineering, don’t underestimate it), but can we more rigorously determine how random it is?

There is a statistical test we can perform called the Pearson’s chi-squared test. Basically how it works is this: if the process is perfectly random, then we can expect to have the exact same number of dice rolls for each number: namely the number of times 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 should all be the same. That is our expected value. We take the actual number of times each number is rolled, subtract it from the expected value, square that quantity, and then divide by the expected value. Then we do the same for all six numbers and sum the result. This is our chi-squared statistic or \(\chi^2\) , which should be closer to zero as the randomness of our method increases. Results from Crime And Punishment:

Method \(\mathbf{\chi^2}\)

The \(\chi^2\) value from the rand() function varies since it uses different random numbers each time, usually it varies from 2 to 7. This puts the results from the mod(6)and the mod(9) functions on par with
the rand() function.

However if we do the same analysis on the results when I kept all the repeated words, we get very different \(\chi^2\) values:

Method \(\mathbf{\chi^2}\)

Obviously this is much much worse than when we improved the code by removing all repeating words, but quantitatively speaking, how much worse is it.  Or in other words, what do those values of 17510 and 5184
actually mean compared to 6.66 and 1.36?

To answer that we have to look at the chi-squared distribution itself.  There is more than you could ever want to learn about it on the wikipedia articles for the chi-squared distribution and the Pearson’s chi-squared test, but basically by using that distribution it allows us to determine values that we can compare our \(\chi^2\) values to in order to see how random our numbers are.

First we define the null hypothesis, which is that our pseudo-random numbers generated using the word-to-number-to-divide-by-number-and keep-the-remainder method are random.  We calculate a confidence interval (i.e. 90%, 95%, 99%, 99.99%, etc.) using the chi-squared distribution function for a given number of degrees of freedom (5 in this case, 6 possibilities – 1) and compare our \(\chi^2\) values to it.  If our \(\chi^2\) is greater than the confidence interval, then we reject the null hypothesis and so we can say that our numbers are not random to the degree of our confidence.

Let’s do an example.  For 5 degrees of freedom, the value for a confidence interval of 99% is 15.0863.  We saw above the the \(\chi^2\) values for using all the repeating words were 17510 and 5184 for the mod6 and mod9 methods respectively.  Since both of these values are greater than 15.0863, then we reject the null hypothesis, and so we can say with a 99% confidence that those numbers are not random.

However if the numbers are less than our critical value, as is the case when we don’t repeat numbers, does the converse hold? Can we then say with a 99% confidence that our numbers are random?  Actually, we can’t.  A hypothesis can never be proven, it can only be disproven.  So in this case we don’t reject the hypothesis.  We haven’t proven the numbers are random, we simply say that we can’t prove they aren’t random.

This becomes clearer when we start comparing different confidence values.  For the same 5 degrees of freedom, we have the following confidence intervals:

Confidence levelCritical \(\mathbf{\chi^2}\) value

To disprove the null hypothesis with a higher confidence level, that is to have a higher degree of confidence that our numbers are not random, requires a higher \(\chi^2\) value. So for example if our \(\chi^2=21\), we are 99.9% confident that the numbers are not random, but we can’t be 99.99% confident. There is still a 0.1% chance that the numbers are in fact random, just that by random chance we happened to get a bunch of the same numbers giving us a high \(\chi^2\) value. That’s where the uncertainty is.

If the converse were true, then if our numbers had a \(\chi^2=21\), then we could say with a 99.99% confidence that our numbers were random, since 21<25.7448. But because 21>20.515 for the 99.9% confidence interval, we know with at 99.9% confidence that the numbers are in fact not random, so also trying to say that we have a 99.99% confidence that they are random contradicts this. Hence we can never truly prove they are random, we can only prove or fail to prove that they are not random to a given degree of confidence.

However going back to our results, the \(\chi^2\) values of 17510 and 3184 are much higher than even a 99.9999999999999999% confidence limit. So we can be pretty much absolutely certain that they are not random. In fact the highest confidence limit I could even calculate was a confidence level of 99.999….(300 9’s)%, which has a value of about 1400. We’re even greater than that!

Anyway, I’ve added the code I wrote to github here. Feel free to play with it if you like.

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Science Fiction and Fantasy Recommendations: Brandon Sanderson

Where to start with Brandon Sanderson? He is by far my favorite fantasy author today. If I had to sum up his style in one sentence, it would be “Fascinating and intricate magic systems, amazing action sequences, and flawed characters that still try their best.”

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Science Fiction and Fantasy Recommendations, pt. 3: Hannu Rajaniemi

Hannu Rajaniemi

He’s a fairly new author, and he’s the only Finnish author that I can think of in science fiction right now. He’s best known for his trilogy that begins with Quantum Thief. It’s a little hard to explain the setting, but I’ll try my best. The setting is several centuries in the future, but there is no ‘impossible’ science here: no faster-than-light travel or communication, no teleportation, etc. Mankind is wholly confined to the solar system. There has been no travel to other stars, and no discovery or communication with intelligent life elsewhere. Humanity and our solar system is all we’ve got. What we do have though, is post-singularity, post-death, and even post-human. Hard AI, digital uploading (and downloading) are all present. The story begins with our protagonist Jean le Flambeur (a futuristic Arsene Lupin-styled gentlemen-thief character) in prison: he has been captured and uploaded into a virtual prison where billions of copies of himself are forced too play a deadly version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and every time he’s killed the controlling AI just re-loads him and makes him do it again. He escapes (is rescued) and is hired for a job, a high-stakes robbery which could effect the existence of all sophonts in the solar system: digital and otherwise.

In the trilogy Rajaniemi dives deeply into these kind of futuristic post-singularity concepts and issues, and doesn’t do a lot of hand-holding for the reader, similar to Neil Stephenson. But at it’s core the novel is still an exciting caper story and I really enjoyed it.

If you want to read something by him that’s shorter to get a better feel for his style, I recommend the short story Unchained: A story of love, loss, and blockchain which is published online here. This story is not over the other side of the post-singularity clip, but instead feels all too plausible in the near future. But it still has his signature style of looking at the intersection of human emotions, lives, and technology.

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Science Fiction and Fantasy Recommendations, pt 2: John Scalzi

John Scalzi

He’s also a big name in science fiction. Though he’s been publishing short fiction since the 90s, it was the release of Old Man’s War in 2005 that really put him on the map. Old Man’s War is pretty solidly military space opera, and it’s often compared and contrasted with the seminal novel Starship Troopers by Heinlein. The basic premise is that mankind has entered the stars, but the galactic neighborhood is both crowded with many other sentient species and violent with conflict. Lacking most of the egalitarian and positivist attitude of Star Trek, instead the Universe is harsh and deadly and mankind must do whatever it can to survive. Even with this not particularly unique setting (not too dissimilar from the Uplift universe), the way that Scalzi handles it is interesting. All humanity outside of Earth is controlled by a military hegemony, where all resources are dedicated to finding and eliminating threats from antagonistic alien races, and expanding human colonies to new systems and planets so that the loss of any one system doesn’t threaten the entire species. However most of Earth lives their lives not too differently than people do today, people’s eyes aren’t really opened to the rest of the universe until they choose to enlist and join the military, with some very interesting and unique terms of enlistment that also tie into the novels title. Following the protagonist we find out that humanity is sitting on extremely advanced medical and bio-technology used to make super-soldiers that can fight the hostile alien menace. And our protagonist must come to terms with the vastly different society created by a space-bound and technologically advanced military and society that has eliminated things like disease and old age, but has definitely *not* eliminated death by violence.

However the first book of his I would recommend is Lock In. It’s a more down-to-earth near-future science fiction story where a decade before an incurable disease left millions of its victims completely paralyzed but otherwise alive, also known as lock-in syndrome. A Manhattan Project-style huge research initiative wasn’t able to find a cure, but was able to create direct human brain to computer interface that allowed victims of lock-in syndrome to communicate with the outside world, and later control prosthetic artificial proxy bodies known as ‘threeps’. As the technology has been refined lock-in patients now live out their whole lives through their threeps: going to school, holding jobs, falling in love, etc. The story is about a lock-in patient who becomes the first locked-in police detective, and gets involved in a high-profile murder case involving lock-in patients and threeps. In addition to being a good whodunit, it raises interesting questions about the nature of self, handicap, and how we treat those different than ourselves.

And if you’re into humor/parody in your science fiction, Scalzi also has a great standalone novel called Redshirts. In an extremely thinly-veiled pastiche of the Star Trek: The Original Series, we follow the life of some of the crew members with short life expectancy: the red-shirted Ensigns that always invariably die on away missions. In much the same way that Galaxy Quest is the best Star Trek movie even though it’s not actually a Star Trek movie, Redshirts is by far the best Star Trek novel that’s ever been published.

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Science Fiction and Fantasy Recommendations, pt. 1: Louis McMaster Bujold

A friend asked me for my recommendations for the best science fiction and fantasy that I’ve enjoyed over the past decade or so. It’s not an easy question to answer, so I thought it would make a good series of blog posts.

My friend has to highly prioritize his reading due to his busy schedule, esp. since he has to read a lot of nonfiction literature for his job (professor of history). So I can’t just say “Read Wheel of Time and the Cosmere works by Brandon Sanderson” since there’s no way he’s going to be able to read the 4 million+ words in Wheel of Time or the 4 million+ words in Brandon Sanderson’s works. I love long series recommendations because I have lots of time to listen to audiobooks on my daily commute. So instead I’ll make my list of a series of rabbit holes: a short story or novella that is a good introduction to a author’s works, and then the expanded list down the rabbit hole if you enjoy that initial foray.

Today I’ll start with one of my very favorite authors, Louis McMaster Bujold.

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Fun with 3D printer

Wow, I really don’t update this blog very often.

Anyway, for my birthday last year I finally decided to take the plunge and get a 3D printer, something that I had been wanting to do for several years. I did a lot of research including asking some questions at /r/3Dprinting on reddit, and I narrowed it down to two choices:

  1. The Maker Select Plus by Monoprice (the one I was looking at was actually an older version, not the one they show here), which was essentially a re-branded Wanhao Duplicator.
  2. A Prusa i3 Mk2.

On the forums I asked, pretty much everyone agreed that the Monoprice printer was pretty much the best 3D printer you could get for under $300 (the older model was a bit cheaper than the one they have now), and that the Prusa i3 Mk2 was by far the best printer you could get for under $1000, and that the Prusa is far superior to the Monoprice. If you look around online you can find assemble yourself printer kits for around $200 or so, but everyone assured me the quality was a lot worse than what I would get even with the Maker Select by Monoprice.

In the end I decided to take the full plunge and get the Prusa. It’s made and ships from Czech Republic, so with shipping the total cost came to almost $800, not to mention there was about a 5 week wait for my order to arrive. Looking at their site now though, the i3 Mk2 has a 7 week wait time for orders, so they seem to be doing quite well for themselves.

Here’s what you get in the assemble-yourself box:
image 1

Assembly took a little while, but I figured it was worth it because 1) it’s $200 cheaper than ordering the pre-assembled printer, and 2) by putting it together yourself you learn a lot about how it works and how to fix any problems that inevitably arise.

And here is the fully-assembled working printer:
image 1

Once I got it working, I immediately started printing out all sorts of things that I could download from the internet, mostly on Thingiverse:

You get the idea. I really liked the joystick box, in fact I made two with a raspberry pi and an installation of RetroPie to give my brother and his family for Christmas (just finished it in time!) In fact I liked it so much that I decided to modify it and make my own version, which I then uploaded to share with the community.

I also used it to fix something that broke in the home. My wife has a paper towel holder that mounts to the refrigerator with magnets, but it broke:

I modeled a replacement for the part using FreeCAD, and then printed it out:

And here is the repaired holder:

The biggest limitation it has right now is that I’m mostly limited to printing with PLA plastic, but I’d like to be able to print ABS as well. It’s a bit stronger and more durable, but printing it is a bit trickier: the ABS has a much higher melting point, and so it’s harder to get the printer up to a steady and consistent temperature of 100C compared to just 55C for PLA. When the temperature isn’t consistent throughout the entire bottom printing bed on the bottom, the plastic won’t stick well and you have all sorts of problems. The overall consensus on the internet is that you have to build some kind of enclosure for the printer so that it can more easily maintain a constant high temperature and isn’t subject to drafts in the room, etc. Fortunately it appears that the simple and cheap IKEA LACK table is just the perfect size to contain the printer in and there are plenty of people that have made nice enclosures using them. I’m working on one myself currently. The only real modification I’ll need to do to the printer is that the filament roll will have to come off the top and be mounted separately. Also I’ll probably take the front screen controls off so that I can control the printer while it’s inside the box.

Overall it’s really been a lot of fun, and I highly recommend the Prusa i3 MK2 if you’re looking to take the plunge. Just be prepared to wait a couple of months for your order to come in!

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Watching the Star Wars Trilogy With My Daughters

I have two daughters, aged 8 and 10, and they love Star Wars. They both have Star Wars lightsabers, in the past they’ve had both Star Wars t-shirts and pajamas. They love the new Star Wars: Rebels TV show as it’s made for an audience of their age, and it was great to see how excited and invested they were when Kanan faced the Inquisitor in the season finale. We haven’t had a chance to see a lot of the Clone Wars TV show, but we’ve enjoyed watching some of those together as well.

Even with that, they had never seen any of the actual movies. I had been avoiding the movies for a long time, because I have mixed feelings about the films. I loved the original trilogy when it was in its original form, but like many fans I don’t think very highly of all the changes George Lucas made to the original trilogy (Han not shooting first, Jabba at the cantina, Hayden Christensen replacing Sebastian Shaw as Anakin, no more ‘yub yub’ song at the end or Return of the Jedi, etc.) In fact I hadn’t seen the original trilogy myself for over a decade.

And as for the prequels, the kindest word I can have for them is ‘sub-par’. Darth Maul was pretty cool, and… and that’s about it. I didn’t even see episodes 2 or 3 in the theater, instead seeing them later when they came out on VHS or DVD.

But recently I learned about the Despecialized Editions: basically fans going through the painstaking effort of reproducing the original trilogy, shot for shot, as it was in the original theatrical release. Getting hold of them is more than a little laborious, to say the least, but after doing so we watched all three of them during spring break a couple of weeks ago.

It was great.

My 8-year-old daughter had some trouble following some of the plot and dialogue, so I had to pause it periodically to answer her questions, but they both really enjoyed watching them. Some specific comments I recall are:

    “C-3PO doesn’t do anything but whine. He’s kind of like comic relief for the movie.”
    “Why is that old guy [Grand Moff Tarkin] ordering Darth Vader around? Isn’t Vader the main bad guy?”
    “It’s really dangerous to be an officer under Darth Vader. You get promoted quickly, but if you mess up you’re dead.”
    “Han Solo’s a really cool guy.” (this was my 10-year-old daughter, who’s just starting to notice boys a little bit)
    “Why did Jabba make Leia wear that outfit? It doesn’t make any sense.”

I was a little disappointed at the climax of Empire Strikes Back, because they already knew that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. That’s pretty much common knowledge now, so I wasn’t surprised at all that they knew.

However, the two of them were really vested in the love triangle between Han, Leia, and Luke in the first two films, *and they had no idea about the big reveal in Return of the Jedi*. After we finished the first two movies, that was all they could talk about:

    “Leia has kissed both Luke and Han, I wonder which one will she choose?”
    “I think she likes Han Solo more because she told him ‘I love you’, but now he’s frozen and Luke is with her.”

I sagely replied “we’ll just have to watch the next movie and see”.

So I will never forget the look of disbelief and shock on their faces when Luke is talking with the force spirit of Obi Wan in Return of the Jedi and it’s revealed that Leia is his sister. It was great, a true golden moment:


“That’s impossible!”

“But… they kissed!”

After they recovered from that, they had great fun in seeing Han’s consternation in dealing with Leia. Especially at the end they loved the look on his face when Leia tells him that Luke is her brother. Priceless.

So, now my daughters want to watch the rest of the Clone Wars TV show, and watch the prequels to be ready for Episode VII in December. I have the Clone Wars TV show, but not the prequel movies, so I’ll need to get hold of those next.

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