Going Postal: Spellgaunts Attack!

[Taking place on April 24th, 2016, this was my first session where we used the WebRTC function of Roll20. As with my prior use of audio recording software with Skype, I had found a new tool to record the audio, video and screen events of Roll20. There was roughly two hours of technical difficulties, late player arrivals and the characters were in a combat situation so we got off to a slow start and didn’t accomplish very much in terms of plot. Ralph, Mike, JB and Demo were in attendance.]

A screenshot from Roll20 show a small portion of Matakan and the party of heroes.To recap and give a context, our heroes, the elite squad of troubleshooters for the RPA, had fought and defeated the undead cryohydra, Jujex Leather, and her band of well-trained ogre thugs in the village of Matakan. In the process of doing so our heroes discovered Jujex was an ally to a vampire lord named Gulthias. Maceo, the squad’s scholar and historian, had heard a little about Gulthias. According to the history he knew, Gulthias was supposed as destroyed long centuries earlier.

A section of the map of Udra, showing where Nightfang is located.This was a troubling for several reasons. First, the history was wrong; Gulthias was not destroyed! Next, the vampire lord now made his base in the long abandoned and haunted tower, called Nightfang, which was in the pass between the Heights of Idiocy and Mount Consquent, on the northern end of the Critic’s Teeth. This was not far from Matakan and also it was very close to Frickalind Hierophant’s shrine, the Seat of Crondussa, at the summit of the Heights of Idiocy. Finally, further clues revealed from one of Gulthias’ captives, showed that Gulthias had created a cult dedicated to rebirth of the Star Dragon, Ashardalon.

Months beforehand, the Troubleshooters had put an end to the multiversal plot of Lord Ihirijika. During that mission, they had found in Ihirijika’s papers, references to Ashardalon. The Troubleshooters, Hinkwe especially, knew Gulthias’ association with Ashardalon couldn’t be coincidence. So, after the restoration of Matakan, the Troubleshooters returned to Waylon to inform and convince Lady Hilda of a new threat to the Queen’s Peace. Unsurprisingly, Lady Hilda gave them the order pacify the area at their full discretion.

This lead to several days of assaults and repeated hacking and slashing through Nightfang, fighting many undead, constructs and monsters hitherto unseen in Udra. After many hard fights, the tower was cleared. The party then made a brief sally into the catacombs only to encounter strange, magic destroying, spiders the size of horses! Some of their equipment was destroyed by these spiders and the party decided to retreat and regroup.

An illustration of a spellgaunt.The squad then took twenty days rest in the Queen’s City, Waylon, to regroup, re-equip, heal wounds and train for the push into the vast crypts below the tower. They also learned the spiders they had encountered were called spellgaunts, which were very rare, but highly intelligent and communal creatures that fed on strong sources of magic. The spiders were going to be a problem!

After consuming a Hero’s Feast upon their return, the squad made a careful search of the tower to check they had not missed any loot or useful clues before making a further push into the catacombs. The search found a few minor bits of treasure but no clues as to Gulthias’ location. The Troubleshooters knew this was far from over.

Bussell, Hinkwe and Maceo cast several augmentative and defensive spells on the squad, including Haste, an Inspiring Song of Courage, Extended Nightvision, Bear’s Endurance, Flight and others. Several magic devices were activated including rings of invisibility. Returning to where they had last encountered the spiders, the party decided to keep pushing in that direction. Frikalind used divination to search for sources of evil and undeath and found nothing within the range of her magic.

A screenshot of the Troubleshooters just prior to the death of Betty.They were confronted with a door in the south of the chamber they were currently in. Maceo, Bussell, Frikalind and Lingerhol drew back about 30 feet to take defensive cover in the alcoves lining the western and eastern walls of the crypt. Betty knelt in front of the door with Hinkwe and Stirge on her flanks. As the one in the squad best trained for such things, Betty Davis carefully examined the door finding it to be trapped and barred on the other side. Both she and Hinkwe heard nothing on the other side.

Hinkwe rolled his eyes with contempt and jostled Betty lightly aside to give the door a small kick.

There was a burst of killing frost, which Stirge and Hinkwe easily evaded. Betty was not so lucky and was badly, but not mortally, wounded. She recovered sufficiently to tap her Chime of Opening and the bar on the other side of the door fell away to reveal a new, much smaller chamber.

Betty searched this with Hinkwe’s help and in the debris and funeral urns found a several sacks with house coins totally in the hundreds, some gems appraised at 20 houses each and two magic potions. These were stashed away in the party kitty. There remained another, very similar door in the south end of the chamber, which Betty found to be barred as well.

The Chime of Opening was struck again only to trigger another trap,  which Betty missed. This was a blast of fire but, she and Hinkwe were both on their guard and ducked behind cover, unwounded. The open door revealed a new chamber very similar to the one Hinkwe and Betty were currently in. Hinkwe stood at the door as Betty went in to search.

As she was concluding her search of the room, and before anyone could act, Betty was stuck all at once from four invisible opponents, suddenly revealed to be spellgaunts. The spider bites destroyed her magic boots and cloak while claws raked her viciously to abrade and bludgeon her. The blood loss was critical. She’d not survive another attack like that!

After the sneak attack, the Troubleshooters sprang into action but the spiders were just a shade quicker. The spider to Betty’s southeast, struck her three times with claws and bite, killing her.

The spellguant to Betty’s southwest, now deprived of Betty as a target, decided to shoot webbing at Hinkwe, hoping to ensnare him, but the elf easily dodged the blast. The ones blocking the door attempted to bite Hinkwe’s magic bow and failed. They batted at him with their legs wounding him lightly.

Maceo saw his sidekick, Betty, fall bloody and still to the floor. He took a few steps to clear his line of sight, briefly considered casting Cacophonic Burst, realized the Burst would hurt Hinkwe too and elected, instead, to cast Haste on the party.

Lingerhol, about 20 feet north of Hinkwe and the room, took a few steps to his left to get a line of sight through the door and, taking advantage of his haste, shot a large salvo of arrows into one of the spiders wounding the creature lightly.

An illustration of a rather short sorceror standing smugly before his summoned black tentaclesBussell summoned Black Tentacles to ensnare the beasts in the room. Unfortunately the area of the spell ensnared Hinkwe too regardless, the spellguants were trapped and slowly being constricted by the tentacles great strength. Completing the spell, Bussell Hedgerow, always under the power of a flight spell, floated to one side for cover, saying, “My work here is done.”

Hinkwe, flying and having narrowly managed to break free of the tentacles, floated back about five feet to turn and fire an arrow into the door of the northern room. Hinkwe offered no explanation for this odd behavior but muttered under his breath about Bussell’s indiscriminate and poorly timed use of magic.

Both Frickalind and Stirge simply waited for the tentacles to do their work. The half-orc former pirate pulled out and lit his pipe. They both seemed content to let the Black Tentacles do their slow,  brutal work. The spiders struggled, mostly in vain, to break free of the tentacles which only tightened their grip further.

A spellgaunt did break free successfully but quickly realized that its disjoining bite had no effect on the tentacles.  Instead it tried to scramble its way out of the spell area but, its movement was constrained so it could only struggle out slowly.

A screenshot of the Roll20 game space showing the results of Bussell and Hinkwe's actionsLingerhol fired another salvo of arrows onto the same creature he attacked mere seconds ago, this time the wounds were more severe.  Now that Hinkwe was free of the tentacles and was away from the door, Maceo cast a Cacophonic Burst into the room with spiders. This wound most of them.

Hinkwe decided that waiting to see the spellgaunts crushed to death was too slow. He decided to use his arrows to speed them along to their spidery gods and spidery afterlife. Zap! Zap! This brought down two and wounded a third.

Bussell, followed up with Polymorph Object, turning one of the two remaining spellgaunts into a horsefly, made of stone, the size of a horse. Only one of the spiders remained. Seeing this, Stirge and Frickalind continued to abide.

Or at least they did until the final spider broke free of the black tentacles and strode straight toward Stirge! Who then, with two mighty swings of the Axe of Compassion, cut the spellgaunt into four roughly equal chunks!

Bussell dismissed his black tentacles and the party rushed into retrieve the corpse of Betty.

Clutched, viselike, in her hands were the bits of treasure she’d found in the room before the spiders struck her down–three sacks filled with thousands of gold, a few gems and three potion flasks. The Troubleshooters elected to teleport to Waylon, to the Temple of Montintera, Goddess of Lightning and Mirrors. It was there they hoped to restore Betty by True Resurrection.

What Bernie Sanders Means to Me

This started off on Sunday the 17th of March, after my attendance, as a Bernie Sanders delegate, of the 43rd Legislative District Caucus of the Democratic Party.  This meeting was to accomplish many things, the chief of which was the election of delegates who’d then move onto county, congressional district and state party caucuses and conventions and then finally be sent on to the National Party Convention in Philadelphia in late July.

“Caucusing is Weird”

Yeah, tell me about it. A scan of my Democratic Party delegate credential

At the meeting there were the usual complaints by some new to Washington State’s Democratic Party caucus system. Voting by caucus is slow, complicated and–perhaps–inefficient in comparison to the standard primary voting schemes of most states.

Going on my own memory, from the mid 1980s until at least 2004, several have tried in presidential election years to move Washington State to a Party affiliated primary system. Continuing to go on my memory of the last 30 years of news, this was most angrily rejected and fought against by the state’s Democratic Party.

The state Republicans the idea to change to a primary system. This mostly dates back to 1988, when Christian conservative voters used the Washington caucusing system to stage a takeover of the state GOP. This scared and embarrassed the GOP leadership so they’ve been holding to a primary system ever since.

These different reactions have a lot to do with the history and ideology of both parties in the state. To really explain all would divert us but, to summarize without much evidence, Democrats like the system because:

  • It serves as a grass roots fund raising method
  • It serves as outreach and recruitment for unaffiliated voters
  • It’s a networking system that sends roots into communities
  • It gets Party members involved with party workings including changing ideological planks.
  • It forces voters to choose and at least temporarily join a party.

Republicans don’t like it, at least as an election method, because

  • There is the risk that rank and file members can use the system go against party leadership
  • It’s more party neutral (Which I’d say is code for “independents” who frequently vote GOP anyway.)
  • It’s slow, expensive and overloaded with tasks. Primaries are more optimized to doing one thing: electing people.

But to sum up what happened last Sunday, our caucus meeting was well organized despite the huge turnout. Our chair, James Apa, worked hard to explain things, resolve confusion, make party procedure transparent to the questions of new members and still keep things rolling along in an efficient matter.

Are there problems with caucus systems? Yes. Are there benefits to caucus systems? Yes.

Argh! Where to Start?

A political cartoon by Thomas Nast lampooning the money, power and corruption of Boss Tweed.But while we’re on the subject of election system reform, I’d say there are many things that are more weird, broken and just plain corrupt about how elections work in the US. The Electoral College has got to go. We need to move to a Single Transferable Vote system. Gerrymandering still runs rampant. Corporate lobbyists warp state legislatures, the door continues to revolve and money needs to be kicked out of politics.

With each and every one of those problems, the entrenched powers that be will fight reform until the bitter end. As always, reform will be hobbled with intentionally broken compromises and the irrelevancies of the public’s short attention span. Representative politics have been contending with corruption and reform since Solon’s day. But I think we’ve reached another turning point in United States history, this is how I interpret the meaning of Bernie Sanders’ rise to national prominence.

It’s About Sending a Message

A photo of Phil Ochs, a folkie who remained true to the vision until his death.
The first time I heard “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” back in the 1980s, Phil Ochs stuck as a very insightful critics of the American Left.

There is no doubt in my mind that Hillary Clinton is one of the most able, trained and experienced presidential candidates my party has put forward in 30 years. She’s tough under fire. Perhaps she’s not especially charismatic but she’s smart and visionary. National health care reform was pretty much her brainchild. And as someone who has long considered himself a feminist, it’s about damn time we had a woman as president! After New York, it’s clear now she’ll be the Party’s nominee for president. And she’ll have my vote and full support with no hard feelings. She’s earned it.

So why did I support Sanders? And why do I ask all Sanders delegates to remain steadfast all the way to the national convention in Philadelphia? It’s about ideology.

In his long career in Congress, Sanders has been an independent. My theory is he did this simply because the Democratic Party in the United States was not left-wing enough for him. This was especially true during the last 40 years as the apathy, fear and cynicism of the 1970s signaled a shift to the right-wing, peaking with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

But 40 years is a long time. I feel the coalition built between neoliberal economics and religious conservatives back in the 1970s has disintegrated and has become irrelevant in the face of the global financial meltdown and the open xenophobia of Donald Trump.

Things have come full circle again. Deregulation has broken both the banking system and the stock markets. And international trade, while beneficial in many ways, also exploits the lack of international law, the slave wages and lack of environmental regulations in poor countries and saps jobs away from postindustrial ones  The Soviet Union is gone and terrorism just isn’t scary enough to cow  people into voting for you. Meanwhile our infrastructure continues to crumble and income disparity is at an all time high. The world is a very different place than it was 1976.

A photo of Bernie Sanders being confronted by a sparrow in Portland, Oregon.It’s into this world that Bernie Sanders set foot when he declared as a Democratic presidential candidate. As an independent, this was a very clever move on his part as the election system on the local, state and federal level is strongly stacked against independent and third party candidates.

He’s made an astoundingly good run so far in defying the talking heads. He’s inspired a lot of people who wouldn’t have gotten involved in this election if he wasn’t there to represent their views, so long scoffed at and ignored in this country.

All the Sanders supporters–especially all the new ones we may gather after New York–have a mission: Even if Sanders won’t win, they need to push the Democratic Party back to the left. A sufficient portion of the public is ready for it. That’s been my reason for support Sanders from the start. I wasn’t too sure on his success but I did want to sent a message to the moderates in the Party establishment–the country is ready for a return to the left. You know,  the real left.

Udra: My RPG Campaign History in Several Parts

See parts one, two, three. and four.

2011 to The Present: The Virtual Living Room

A screenshot of the map of the country of Udra in Roll20. There was a roughly two year period between Summer of 2009 and early 2011 where I wasn’t running my game. This was because two key players once again moved away. But this time around there were solutions.

So this time around, it was easy for me to turn the entire planet into my living room.

But I was hesitant at first. I claim to be built for the future but, in the end, I’m just as reactionary as the worst of them! The real driver behind yanking me into the 21st century was my old, dear friend. It was him that “got the band back together” and made it all happen (Really!). But there were significant changes in the player lineup (with folks joining in from NYC, Bahrain, Thailand as well as members of the old Seattle Crew.) and that required that I create a new thread in Udra.

I called it “Going Postal” (And in later months, I plan to back-post the many, many recorded sessions from it so, keep checking the prior hyperlink!) and it was the first time Udra started getting well documented and the world building began to get formalized. “Going Postal” built off a plot excuse I used in “Circus of the Mighty:” The Royal Postal Authority. In the campaign calendar, it started in 6252 RCE.

Significant Udran Events

  • Ellen I, Udra’s superhumanly intelligent prodigy queen, celebrates 15 years in power. By this point, at 25, despite the tumultuous changes she’s made to the political, economic and social fabric of Udra, her rule seems stable and unassailable.
  • Baroness Hilda of Jars, former Field Captain in the RPA (Agent #122), is granted all the land of the Isle of Jars, given the title of Baroness, is promoted to command the RPA, and is invited to the Queen’s Small Council.
  • Sir Stirge Barnaclesucker, is knighted, the first of orcish blood to be so, and assigned to a raising squad of military intelligence agents, described later.
  • Sir Dwalor, nearly five years lost and presumed undead in Nyambe, is found, destroyed and his ashes are returned to rest at the Temple of Molna on the Isle of Jars.
  • A painting of Grendel's Mother attempting to stab Beowulf, by J.R. Skelton Chebo the Drowned, captured by the Circus of the Mighty more than 5 years previously, is found to be a lich, at large in Nyambe, and plotting to attack Udra with haggish and vampire allies and a huge fleet of orc pirates.
  • The Aquatic Cold War between Udra’s Sea Elves and Sea Hags is finally broken as Chebo’s plot is defeated and the lich is finally and truly destroyed. The Sea Elves a notoriously secretive people open the first diplomatic mission in Waylon.
  • The master weaponsmith of the Dwarven City of Glesnok is “soul-napped.” The RPA’s best squad, uncovering this crime, volunteers to  investigate. A plot of multiversal scale is uncovered hatched by  Half-Dragon Ihirijika in his Iron Fortress on the Plane of War, Acheron.

Notable Udran Characters

Hinkwe Dolsalkhdie
As acting squad leader, he is a friend to all animals and a deacon to the God of Falcons. With supernal senses, his skill in archery is peerless! Born to the elf nation of Talithanth, Hinkwe joined the RPA’s Troubleshooters initially because it seemed like a fun gig. But his frivolity hides a devastatingly shrewd tactical sense.
Maceo Eh Xous
The brains behind the muscle, a scholar, bard, landlord and innkeeper. Born as one of the extremely rare Udran gnomes. He has been in the Queen’s Troubleshooters from the beginning, his arcane music has saved the squad many times. Modest in spite his profession, Maceo has almost singlehandedly changed the music styles of Udra.
Frickalind
Unshakable, unflappable, serene but always highly observant and never foolhardy, Frickalind is unnervingly calm in all situations. As hierophant and priestess of Crondussa, she has been with the Troubleshooters since the beginning. As the conduit of all manner of defensive and divinatory magic, as the claw of the Goddess of Eagles, Frickalind has saved the squad many times.
Bussell Hedgerow
Stubbornly whimsical, defiantly mercurial, Bussell has defied the dour stereotype of Udra’s halflings. A fire and mind sorcerer, gifted with unnatural sight and a richly appointed mansion in a pocket universe, Bussell has long considered himself the Troubleshooter’s psychological war officer or, if needs be, the architect of firebombing campaigns.
Lingerhol Keekway
A darkwood stalker well trained in the culture, languages and tactics of orcs, Lingerhol is never one to draw his weapon first. The half-elf is without doubt one of the best equestrians in Udra. It is rumored his steed, Tantalus, is in fact an infernal familiar with godlike powers. A man of extensive letters, he has yet to publish any of them.
Sir Stirge Barnaclesucker
Illustration of Stirge Barnaclesucker. Drawn by Milo BarasordaAs RPA badge number #138, Stirge was the main close combat muscle in the days of the Circus. A long reformed half-orc pirate, herpetologist and businessman, he was rewarded for his long service to the Queen with knighthood and a seat on the governing council of the Isle of Jars. He reports only and personally to Baroness Hilda, his liege. He was been called back to service to join the Troubleshooters on their mission to find and destroy Chebo the Drowned. He has remained with them since.
Golath the Red
Cousin to Hendar the Heroic, fan of the exploits of Agent 101, Sir Arthur Trumblebone, Golath was RPA academy trained and scored the highest marks in the Civil Service Examination since its institution 13 years ago. He was immediately assigned to the Troubleshooting Squad but was soon replaced by Sir Stirge.
Hit Phar
A seven foot tall, giant walking slab of muscle, following in the footsteps of Sir Stirge, Hit was another half-orc to take a chance to better himself in the RPA. With the Troubleshooters from the earliest days, he was mostly known for his truly omnivorous eating habits, his huge appetite and his tendency to be cougar-bait. For reasons yet to be explained he was suddenly transferred to the RPA’sA screenshot of the map where all the action happened back offices.

 

Historical Revisionism

“Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”
George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

A still from the Virgin Films movie, 1984, showing the cubicles of the Ministry of TruthSo what I discovered, in painstakingly cleaning and correcting nearly five hundred fifty pages of link spam and weird line breaks, is a lot of link rot, a lot of spelling errors and typos. I also found a lot of broken site-internal links. These happened because, when 16 years of content goes through three content management systems and three servers, URLs break. I also found a lot broken images because WordPress stores and handles images differently than MovableType and Greymatter.

So to fix this, I’m starting two or three new tasks:

  1. Fix all the internal hyperlinks so they work again.
  2. Restore lost images
  3. Or, and this is where the revisionism begins, add images to really old entries that never had such.

I have some pretty long old pages, and although they never many images to start with, I’m going to add them, just to break them up a bit and add a bit more content.  This is ahistoric and violates the context in which some of the pages were first crafted but:

  1. Even before Greymatter I was able to add images to pages created on my site.
  2. I’ll keep the images historically accurate if I talk about something that existed in 2003 but no longer exists in current times, I use images of that thing in 2003.

I figure, the linkrot should be historically accurate enough and if I don’t change what I wrote, we should be cool. Anyway, the spam has been cleaned out and we’re back in business again. “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia.”

Recovering from a Spambot Attack

So, sometime towards the middle or end of March, my site got hit with a spamdexing attack. Nearly all my pages got littered with links to illegal boner pill sites. A closeup of a mock spam deletion key in a keyboard.

I suspect, and I really can’t prove this, the attack started after I removed a dodgy site theme template I had installed in WordPress. This theme was inserting spam links at the bottom of each of my pages and hiding them from plain sight with CSS rules. I only noticed this when I turned CSS off one day in February. I replaced the theme template with another more legitimate one and bumped the links out. Problem solved. So I thought.

What also happened–I think–is the theme template installed two new users with administrative privileges on my site. I assume the spambot then just swept by my site, looking for one or the other account and then used it to inject shit in my data.

At least I hope that’s the way it happened. I deleted those two extra users. But the worse case could be that the bad guys used those accounts to recover the MySQL admin password that sits behind WordPress’ magic. If this latter case is true. I’ll have to export all my content to XML, drop the database entirely, start with a fresh database and a new user and password and then reinstall my content again. What a drag.

I hope not, but just to be on the safe side, I’ll rename the MySQL admin account and change the password for it, then tweak things in WordPress so they can still talk to one another.

As it is, I have blasted most of the crap away, but much remains. I’m systematically going through each page to do this and I’m not finished yet. This is good though because I had a bunch really old posts that have gone through two other blog tools, Greymatter and Movable Type, and got very strangely formatted in the transferal to WordPress. Me going through to edit out spam, will clean all that up too.

Bragging Rights?

A bad quality photo of a Blackberry Pearl 8230 smartphone.I do have a smartphone, a clamshell, Blackberry 8230. It was my first mobile phone and I bought it somewhere towards the end of Obama’s first term, around 2010. I got it because it was cheap and I was afraid I’d break it or lose it. Mostly I’ve used it as a 3G tether for my laptops while on the bus to and from work. I was never an early adopter. Before and during that time, it seemed like the entire world slid into the touch screen.

One of the objections I have to smartphones, even Android using hardware, is that they aren’t modular like desktop computers. Yes, I’ve read about Project Ara but, since 2011, it seems like almost no one has adopted that form factor yet and, there are various legal and business entanglements that are slowing progress. Because of this, in the last 4 years, I’ve been reading about DIY projects with open, commodity hardware to build smart phones: Tyler's do-it-yourself smartphone.

Raspberry Pis get more and more feature packed with each iteration and have now diversified into different models for different applications. Given that, Spadgenske’s DIY smartphone looks to me like the street is going to find its own solutions to this tinkerer’s urge before Project Ara will.

I’m sorely tempted to try my own hand at this, just for bragging rights.

The Path to Tetra Vaal

So around 1997, over my company’s broadband connection, I downloaded some video files–which is what we did in those days before YouTube–from the Honda robotics site about a bipedal robot called P1. I can’t seem to find the video I watched back then but here is another promotional video that captures the flavor. The robot is tethered but it’s hoofing around and opening doors as neat as you please:

At the time this was astonishing because bipedal motion was a very hard problem in terms of AI, sensing, navigation and motor control. It had never been done before.

But the Japanese government, by way of universities, MITI and industry R&D departments threw many millions of dollars and thousands computer scientists and engineers at the problem until they cracked it with brilliant creativity in 1993. By 1997, P1 was climbing stairs and just walking around at a pretty good clip. P1 and its descendants eventually eventually walked, tether free, into history as Honda’s ASIMO robot line.

Since that time simply everyone has got into the bipedal robot business and the US military has taken a very active interest, which takes us to the DARPA Robotics Challenge of 2015 and its oft cited failures:

What’s not often shown are the longer videos of all the robot recoveries and successes in the challenge though:

Bipedal robots are getting better and better at the tasks we set them disturbingly fast. Which brings us to Boston Dynamics (Now owned by Google or Alphabet or whatever it’s calling itself now.) promotional video for its bipedal Atlas robot which was generating a lot of buzz in the news yesterday:

What’s going on here in the video is both very impressive to me:

  • Walking on snowy ice covered forest floor without falling down is not at all easy even for humans!
  • The latest Atlas only masses at 81 kilos. P1 massed at 175 kilograms and was always tethered for both power (The batteries weren’t small enough.) and stability.
  • I don’t know what the battery life on this version of the robot is but I’m guessing that it’s about 20 to 30 minutes on the rough terrain.
  • Being fully electromechanical Atlas is far, far more quiet than Boston Dynamic’s famous Big Dog.

I wonder how the next DARPA challenge is going to go! And I’m reminded of the Blomkamp short that made him famous from way back in 2003. I suppose we could stress over all the military implications here but, honestly, I’m more worried about the implications of bipedal robots on employment:

Universal Basic Income

The Coming Problem

whipplesSo Humans Need Not Apply came out a little after my 51st birthday and I learned about it several days after that via io9. And yes, I find it’s logic sound: robots are going to eliminate most but not all jobs eventually. I have been informally considering these ideas of extreme automation for many decades now, at least since watching the “The Brain Center at Whipple’s” as a kid in the 1970s.

It’s not that robots will kill us all, although the military has plenty now that can do that, nor will they rule over us, although our environmental, economic and geopolitical simulation software continues to get better which puts computers in a very powerful advisory role, it’s that machines will take most of the jobs away. There are many who still think this won’t happen but I disagree with them, I think CGP Grey’s position holds up.

So what do we do about that? What do we do when most of our best educated, best trained students can’t find employment simply because the machines are doing the work more efficiently, more skillfully or more cheaply than they ever could? Robot taxis and tractor trucks are coming and they are just the start of a decades long process where most of the jobs will be eroded away–with very few replacing them.

A Solution?

At the moment, the only long term solution I can see to this is a universal basic income. This is a very old idea and finds support from people as politically diametric as Noam Chomsky and Milton Friedman. Maybe in the centuries past, when automation only pushed people to newly created jobs, the idea was premature. Various objections to the idea have been raised but, if Grey’s points stand the test of time and change, I don’t see how we can avoid this. We certainly can pay for it.

Anyway, I plan to keep coming back to this issue as time goes on here because I think it’s very real and dangerous one if not dealt with. We need to find the political will act on this problem now to avoid a lot of needless suffering as the robots cast more and more of us out of work and retraining won’t get us into a diminishing pool of jobs.

And Lost in All the Kerfuffle on Gravitational Waves–

A diagram of the Japanese machine that might have found the tetraneutron.
Image credit: Keiichi Kisamori.

We have news that physics might have found a four neutron atomic nucleus. This is surprising because accepted wisdom in the Standard Model says that small nuclear groupings of neutrons shouldn’t form at all. Regardless, without protons to stablize them, these pure neutron nuclei decay very quickly. Physicists are now searching for other ways to test and confirm this early result.

Gravitational Waves

After nearly a century of searching, gravitational waves have been discovered. Finally an important prediction made by general relativity in 1916 has been confirmed. This matters in at least five possible ways.A schematic of how gravitational waves would propagate from two orbiting stars.

  1. It confirms the accuracy of general relativity which, although it has been confirmed in so many other ways, is always good to sanity check.
  2. It gives us a new way to measure the strength of the gravitational force, especially over astronomical distances. Because gravity is so notoriously weak in comparison to electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces, it’s hard for us to measure it accurately except for large and huge masses.
  3. It may give us clues as to how to reconcile and unify quantum mechanics and general relativity giving us a theory of quantum gravity.
  4. And, after finding a theory of quantum gravity, it may fill another hole in the Standard Model, just as finding the Higgs Boson did.
  5. This is more speculative but eventually, gravitational wave astronomy, may give us a new way to find out what dark matter and dark energy are composed of.

So let’s look at each of these in turn.

Why Checking Old Theories Matters

Science loves to check, double-check and triple-check long established models because, that’s a very good way to discover new things we didn’t expect. Science is often about serendipity. Over the last 125 years there have been many learned people making predictions about the end of science, most recently with John Horgan and perhaps much more infamously with Lord Kelvin’s pronouncement, months before Max Plank’s solution to the black body radiation problem, five years before special relativity, eleven years before general relativity and twenty years before the formalization of quantum mechanics:  “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”

Science is also about consistency. Everything we theorize must be as consistent and air tight as possible. The logic must be rock solid and with as few gaps as possible. This is why when it turns out that a theory was wrong in its basic assumptions so many other, seemingly unrelated things in science collapse and need to be re-examined again. The scientific knowledge we build up has to as tightly woven and interconnected as possible so that we don’t miss something. This logical consistency is checked all the time with new experiments to see if we can find any new gaps in our understanding and assumptions.

General relativity made many predictions back in 1916 and, since then, many of these have been checked and confirmed with brain melting levels of precision. The ones that were confirmed were enough to reassure physicists that Einstein had get the picture right: relativity is real. And now gravitational waves are another fact to throw on the huge pile of evidence for relativity’s accuracy.

The point is not only to confirm relativity in a new way, it’s also a search for gaps in our understanding. If we find data that doesn’t match relativity’s numbers in the Nth decimal place, we may have discovered something new. More and more precise measurement discovers new things all the time. Kelvin, a physicist who should have known better, was too quick to dismiss this.

Gravity Is Wimpy

Gravitational waves have been so notoriously hard to find because gravity is so weak. The LIGO apparatus, the instrument designed to detect these waves, is so sensitive that it can sense distortions in the fabric of spacetime as small as one tenth of an attometer, 10,000 times smaller than a proton. It has to be this sensitive because even a collision of two black holes, each roughly 30 to 35 times the mass of the sun, deep in the core of a distant galaxy 1.9 billion light years away has the wave amplitude weaken by distance and the inverse square law.A diagram of how gas and radiation pressure keeps a star from collapsing

But gravity itself is also weak comparatively speaking. General relativity predicts that the amount of power the Earth loses to gravitational waves from its orbit about the Sun is about a milliwatt each year. This is an absurdly tiny loss and so Earth’s orbit is essentially stable over billions of years and we can mostly neglect it even over enormous time scales. Obviously the electromagnetic forces holding your body together are strong enough to keep the gravity of the Earth from crushing to you a pulp. The molecular bonds in the beams of steel and wood are strong enough to keep the building you’re in from falling to rubble. The electromagnetic and nuclear forces are what keep most stars from collapsing into black holes. If gravity were strongest, the universe would be a very different place.

Gravity is weak and that’s why it takes LIGO’s dumbfounding levels of sensitivity and huge masses the size of stars colliding to generate waves big enough to detect.

The Very Big and the Very Small

On the medium scale of people, cars, hours, days and presidential politics, we can often ignore relativity and quantum mechanics because masses aren’t very large, speeds aren’t very fast and scales aren’t astronomically huge or subatomically small. Here classical, Newtonian physics reigns.One idea for quantum gravity using a list of Hamilton-Jacobi equations

General relativity is ideal for understanding the behavior of very large objects like galaxies, dark matter and energy or the universe itself because for such cosmically huge collections of atoms and particles, quantum effects can be mostly ignored.

In the subatomic realm, quantum mechanics is ideal for understanding how things work because masses are very, very tiny and spacetime distortion from gravity can be mostly ignored.

But this leaves a gap. What about things that are astronomically massive and yet subatomically small, black holes for example or the Big Bang itself? This is currently where our understanding of physics breaks and stops working well. And to fix that, we need a new model: quantum gravity. Quantum gravity will be the tool that finally unifies the mathematics and physics of general relativity and quantum mechanics.

Physicists, even Einstein himself, have been trying to unify and reconcile what general relativity says and what quantum mechanics says for about 70 or so years now. This is one of the reasons why they are so interested in black holes and the Big Bang because in those two examples, we things that combine the physics of both.

And gravitational waves, and finally being able to measure their strengths and properties, is going to figure into this work. Remember that I said that LIGO can measure spatial distortion on a scale 10,000 times smaller than a proton? That is exactly region where we need to start exploring and measuring things as precisely as we can. It’s both subatomic and gravitational.

The data gravitational wave measurements gives us will have impacts on our understanding of the Big Bang, black holes, dark matter and energy and may finally give us the facts we need to build a theory of quantum gravity that works.

Final Theories?

In the 1960s, after we figured out how quarks work, physicists assembled something called the Standard Model, which is the set of rules that unifies our understanding of the forces of electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force–three of the four forces of nature. Gravity is left out because we don’t have a theory of quantum gravity.A photo of one of the tunnels of the Superconducting Super-collider, long abandoned by the US Congress

So when it comes to understanding conditions the tiniest moments after the Big Bang, before the Inflation Era or how things work inside the event horizons black holes the Standard Model breaks and we are forced to mostly speculate with no good predictions to guide us. This has been a problem plaguing physics since the 1920s.

But after the 1970s, there was a lot of hype about making a final theory of everything, a final model to apply to all of physics.

Before we got there, however, some predictions of the Standard Model had to be checked to see if we weren’t fooling ourselves. We needed to find and measure the Higgs boson. This question drove the failed attempt to create the superconducting super collider in the United States and did create the successful Large Hadron Collider in Europe. About two or so years ago we found the Higgs at the LEC and the Standard Model has been vindicated.

But of course this wasn’t the end of it. There are still an infinite number of questions that remain. And chief among those is understanding gravity in a quantum mechanical way.

I’m not an expert, but I think it’s premature to go rushing off into string theory, supersymmetry or any final theory at all before we finally take care of this nearly hundred year old, lingering sore in physics. And LIGO’s confirmation of gravitational waves might finally give us the data we need to solve this problem.

Or maybe not. But at least LIGO and its successors will discover something we didn’t know about before. And that’s where science is the most fun.

We Don’t Know What 96 Percent of the Universe Is Made Of

Speaking of new things discovered over the last 45 or so years, long before the ink was drying on proposals for the SSC and the LHC, astronomers made observations that many galaxies were rotating too fast and that the expansion of the universe was speeding up, not slowing down, like we thought.A pie chart showing the ratios of ordinary matter and energy to dark matter and energy.

Galaxies were spinning too fast for the gravitation of their visible matter to hold them together. But something was holding them together so, the idea of dark matter was proposed. Dark matter has gravitation but is otherwise nonvisible and doesn’t interact with matter and energy. It’s composition is still mysterious to us although many ideas have been proposed.

Secondly, by using a specific type of supernova as a standard candle, which is far brighter than the Cepheid variables of Henrietta S. Leavitt’s day, we could measure distances and red shifts far more accurately. It was these that we learned of the cosmic acceleration. The universe is not only expanding it’s speeding up. To explain this, astronomers proposed dark energy that accelerates the expansion of spacetime. Despite this effect, it otherwise doesn’t interact with ordinary matter and energy in the usual ways and it’s composition remains mysterious to us.

However gravitational wave astronomy, now that gravitational waves have been confirmed to exist might–perhaps!–give us a way to explore these two new forms of matter and energy, which comprise 96 percent of the whole universe.

Summary

I didn’t talk about gravitational waves very much here. Mostly I was concerned with what their reality might mean to the rest of physics and astronomy. And in the five areas I outlined, I think the reader can see the impact is enormous, perhaps even Nobel worthy. That’s why physicists are having kittens over this.