Freezing Ants

Years ago, I lived in a place with a cheap refrigerator which had a seal which broke. This place also had an ant problem. Somehow, one of the ants signalled to the rest of them that there was food in the fridge, and there proceeded to be a long line of ants which marched into the freezer, froze, and never came back out again (gross, I know, but I have a real point here).

I suspect this was caused by an accidental hacking of the ants's signalling mechanisms, caused by freezers not existing in the ants's natural environment. Normally when an ant gets harmed it releases order telling other ants to stay away, but when an ant gets frozen it doesn't get a chance to indicate that it's harmed (actually, it might not be - we didn't try unfreezing the ants to see if they still worked).

My thought is that one could use this effect intentionally. If there was a custom-built freezer with a  line of ant pheremone leading into its entrance, it could immediately attract the local ant colony, then lead them all into a black hole until the colony was depleted of resources and died.

Anybody know if this has been tried before? For that matter, anybody know what the mass of all the ants in the local ant colony is likely to be? I can pretend to know the typical size of an beehive, but not an ant colony.

Improved (?) Stirling engine cycle

The Stirling engine cycle appears, to my eye, to have thermodynamic losses happening all over the place. Compressing a chamber which is being heated, expanding one which is cooling, transferring between chambers in a haphazard manner when both are having their temperature moderated, that sort of thing.

Here is my idea for a much cleaner (or at least much easier to understand) cycle which may be an improvement.

There are four piston chambers A, B, C, and D. Gas flows in the direction A->B->C->D->A, and the corresponding chambers which gas flows between have connections with valves controlling whether gas can flow though each of them. The pistons are opposing, so A and C expand while B and D contract, and vice versa. There's a heat source continuously warming up A, and a sink continuously cooling down C. All pistons are the same length, but A and C have the same diameter while B has a larger one and D has a smaller one.

The cycle is in four phases. They're all done by a single reciprocating piston motion, but I'll explain how one of the two unconnected regions of gas behaves to make things clearer.

First, chamber A is fully expanded and B is contracted. The valves between the pair A and D and the pair B and C are shut, while the one between A and B (and also C and D) are open. Heat from the source causes expansion of the gas, which forces B to expand and A to contract (remember that B has greater diameter than A and that the piston motions of the two are directly connected). When B is completely expanded and A completely shut, the valves are flipped, so that the valve between A and B, as well as C and D are shut, and the valve between B and C (and D and A) are open. The cooling in C will then cause the piston to go the other way, emptying B and filing C as the overall volume goes down. Then the valves are flipped again and the gas flows from C to the larger D due to further cooling, then the valves are flipped one last time and the gas flows from D to A as heating expands the gas, and then the cycle repeats.

In a complete system there will be two cycles going at all times in two mostly unconnected regions of gas, but leaking between the two regions is no big deal. The two going at once has the nice property that the heating chamber is expanding at all times and the cooling chamber is compressing at all times.

This approach has the added complexity of having actuated valves, but that's not such a big deal. Internal combustion engines rely on valves and they work just fine.

This mechanism appears too simple to not have been thought of before. So my question to everyone is: Are stirling engines just more thermodynamically efficient than they appear to my uneducated eye, or are there some losses in my proposed system I'm unaware of, or has this mechanism been thought of before and simply not used because of its greater mechanical complexity? Or is this actually a possibly useful innovation?

Update: My intuitions about thermodynamics were a bit off. This design will work, but heating during expansion and cooling during compression turn out to be no-no's from an efficiency standpoint.

Fusing Deuterium

The basic trick behind current nuclear fusion research is that the binding energy of helium is a significant outlier in terms of being high, so if you fuse together a deuteron and a triton they form a 4He, a high-energy neutron, and a large amount of energy. The main problem with this is the high energy neutron - those things tend to turn everything in the surrounding area into radioactive waste over time. My question is, what's wrong with simply fusing together two deuterons to form a 4He with no extra neutron? Is there no such reaction (my guess is there is, and it emits a neutrino or something), or is the activation energy simply high enough that we can't or don't want to deal with it? If the problem really is activation energy, then if it's within an order of magnitude then rather than getting all excited about current fusion technology and building prototypes working towards commercial reactors as we are now, I'd rather wait until we've got a working all-deuterons system which is completely and totally clean before trying to commercialize it. The engineering behind that would be totally normal energy pressure and heat stuff, with none of that radioactive waste or gradually destroyed and corroded machinery crap.

Mining Radon

Here's my idea for a cheap, reasonably safe, and reliable way of generating nuclear reagents:

Dig a wide hole in the ground in a place where radon is common. Cover the bottom with something which radon can get through but water can't, then build a shallow container full of water over it with an inverted funnel at the top, and daily pump out the radon (and other noble gases) which collect at the apex and use them for one of the many uses of nuclear reagents.

Does anyone have any knowledgeable opinion on whether this sort of design has ever been experimented with, whether it would mechanically work, whether it would have a reasonable yield, and whether radon gas itself is useful?

Economics of Prop. 2

Here in California we recently passed proposition 2, which basically required that farm animals be given enough room to stretch their limbs. The hype against it was a hilarious self-parody of playing off of urbanites's misconceptions of where food comes from: You don't want to let chickens outside, they could catch bird flu! Or run into dirt! Which is rotting! And contains worms! They might even eat a worm! You wouldn't want to each a chicken which had eaten a worm, would you? Okay, so I exaggerate, but it was pretty ridiculous. But that isn't what I really want to make a point about right now.

The other argument against prop. 2 was that it would cause California eggs to be more expensive than mexican eggs, and hence result in california chicken farmers being unable to compete with mexican ones. This on its face makes sense, but I believe the truth is exactly the opposite.

You see, food production in the united states looks very efficient, because prices are very low, but in fact it's extremely inefficient, because consumers would much rather pay slightly more for food which is grown or raised better, and farmers would happily take the higher margins for such food. This is blocked by the total lack of information in the system. Just about the only thing a store-brought chicken says about where it came from is that it's chicken. They can say 'organic' now, which sort of means something, but less than you'd think. By increasing the simple and understandable meaning of the labelling term 'california', consumers are now given extra information about how the chicken which their eggs came from were raised, and are likely to prefer that, especially with a likely price difference of only a few cents.

States in general should probably consider what regulations would cause the most improvement in their produced food for the least increased cost, and institute those regulations and make them widely known, to improve the value of their states's brand. I believe that prop. 2 is simply the most low hanging fruit (no pun intended) for such regulations, and lots more should be added.

Steam in the mortgage market

In horse race betting there's a concept called 'steam'. A once-popular way of scamming a local off track betting place was to go to an actual horserace, bet big on a guaranteed loser horse, then go to an off track betting place and place a yet even bigger bet on the horse which was likely to win. Because off track betting placed didn't used to routinely use the same pool as at the track, they'd simply mimic the odds add the track, and by using steam you could induce them to place an extremely unfavorable bet.

What does this have to do with the mortgage market? Well, as it happens the credit default swap market is many times the size of the actual mortgage market. How'd that happen? Well, overzealous investors ran out of actual mortgages to invest in, so they simply started placing side bets on how the mortgage market would do, totally many times how big the actual market underneath is. AIG is in a position of being the biggest insurer of the garbage. These two facts put together make for an interesting possible scenario. Since the amount of money on the line is greater than the actual size of the underlying market, AIG could potentially agree to cover every mortgage company's loss in any short sale (a short sale is where the mortgage company agrees to forgive part of a loan to make a sale happen, as a way of avoiding forecloser). That would immediately result in the number of foreclosures being near zero, and AIG would magically have made it so it didn't have to pay out on any of its side bets.

Chances are that the numbers don't work out for this to be a winning proposition. Maybe the CDO insurance industry as a whole, rather than just the largest player, could manage to get away with it. In any case, it sure would be funny.


This puzzle is based on an original mechanical concept I've never seen or heard of anywhere else, three gears all of which mesh at the same point and cycle through which gear goes through the center rather than alternating between two gears as regular gears do. It was designed by me and Oskar van Deventer, and is now available for purchase in a 3d printed form from puzzle palace.

Circularity of motivation in spending

There's a strange circularity in the motivations behind what americans spend their money on. People get, high-paying jobs so that they can afford the house which they need to pay for so they can be near the high-paying job. They work as two-income families so they can afford all the day care, clothes, and take-out food they need to buy because they're a two-income family. They put off having children and save up lots of money when they're young so they can afford all the fertility treatments and child care they'll need when they have children when they're older.

Most people don't seem to think these things through. It's simply how they were told one should do things when they were younger, so they dutifully follow instructions. I for one was never given any sketch of a life path other than getting a high-paying job at an established institution after finishing grad school. Somewhere along the line, the common sense advice that one should view job satisfaction as the primary criterion for what job to take (influenced by pay, but many other things as well), and that one should make a realistic evaluation of how much one is partaking of the benefits one supposedly gets from city living and how difficult it would be to engage in those activities while living elsewhere stopped being handed out. Likewise having a single income household simply became unthinkable, and the observation that the younger you have your children the more your parents can help out, the more energy you have for them, and the more you get to enjoy being a parent and grandparent became nearly taboo to say.

I'm not sure how this all happened. Perhaps the problem is that most life planning advice is given out by school administrators and academics who followed a career arc suspiciously similar to the one they espouse as the one for everyone. Maybe some people overshot the women's rights movement and instead of claiming that women have the right to pursue a career in lieu of children, which they do, started claiming that they have an obligation, which they don't. Maybe in such an uber-capitalist country as the United States all life advice will inevitably involve the career arc which earns as much nominal money as possible (although the bizarre view that anyone who doesn't wind up being a tenured professor at some point failed is advice which doesn't even vaguely optimize for pay).

Whatever the reasons, it's all very sad and causes lots of misery, and I urge everyone to start thinking about these things when they're young, because a lot of people realize far too late that they did everything all wrong.

Ignore the Dow

The state of 'the market' is a trailing indicator, not a leading one. When stocks go up or down it makes a bunch of value change hands in a casino sort of way but doesn't directly (or sometimes even indirectly) affect how the economy is doing.

If you want a better indicator for how things are doing look at the TED spread. When that line goes below 1% and stays there the bleeding has stopped and the healing can begin.

And if you must look at stock prices day to day, look at the russell 3000. It's like the dow jones industrial average, but more widespread so it's less noisy. A note to future index makers: please make your index start at the same value as some other index at the time it begins, so it can be viewed as mostly interchangeable but better, without having to worry about an exchange rate.

BusinessWeek profile

There's a profile of me in BusinessWeek. It's a fairly reasonable portrayal, although it focuses a bit much on the asperger's angle. I don't really view my life through the whole overcoming disability narrative (same as most people with disabilities), and tell people that in so many words, but it's such a nice story that journalists tend to focus on it a bit. I mention my asperger's to journalists primarily because, well duh, if you're doing a profile on someone and they have an obvious disability that's clearly something worth mentioning.

There are of course some comments from the usual haters. Some of this seems to be based on an assumption that I'm of the anarcho-libertarian stripe, that movement which is really just neo-social darwinism. For the record, I'm not even vaguely a libertarian. I'm in favor of a higher minimum wage (why that thing never gets inflation indexed is beyond me), national health care, a big fat carbon tax, and open immigrations, as are the bulk of all economists. Only one out of those four is even vaguely consistent with libertarianism. I also find Ayn Rand completely unreadable due to a total lack of literary merit, although I will say that using logic to 'prove' the virtue of laissez-faire capitalism when laissez-faire capitalism is one of one's clearly stated axioms is hardly an insight at all.

Other random notes. I don't remember saying the 'only stupid people care about details' comment, although I have a feeling I was making a somewhat qualified point. There are people who perform necessary jobs where all they do is handle lots of little details, and they are not as a rule stupid. I don't know why editors like picking out really bad pictures of me (the one they used for this article was a test shot, with me squinting into the light). I'd gained some weight at the time the video was shot, although I've lost most of it by now. Fiddling with a rubik's cube during a meeting is sort of like talking to someone while they're driving - you stop doing when something important is going on, and it's otherwise not a big deal, although I've learned not to bring fiddle toys to meetings by now.