Monday, May 14, 2007

Shape of the Earth

One of the very stupid things you learn in school is about the shape of the Earth. You are told that the Earth is not exactly spherical - it has a "geoid" shape (which basically means it has a shape like the Earth... very intelligent). Like in the Microsoft joke, this is technically true, but rather pointless. The Earth's radius is 6500km; the deepest trench in the ocean is 11km and the highest mountain is almost 9km. Which makes it a pretty damn good sphere, with a precision of about 1:600.

Think about it this way: the same precision on a billiard ball with a radius of 3cm would mean a maximum error of 0.05mm, or 50 microns. I'd call that a perfect sphere...

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Ricardo's Law

While reading Snakes on a Plane (I'm a big fan of Buffy, and of Buffy crossovers) I got to this part:

Did they even have stores selling clothes and groceries and stuff back then, or did everybody make their own clothes and grow their own food? That seemed like a lot of wasted effort to Buffy. If you were good at making clothes or something, shouldn't that be, like, your job? And then you could sell the clothes you made or trade them to somebody who was good at growing things.

This is something that most people seem to understand intuitively. If you're better at making bread, and I'm better at making clothes, we should specialize and trade with each other, instead of each of us trying to make both. We'll have products of a better quality (or a greater quantity, depending on the meaning of "better" in the previous statement). This is why, for example, it makes sense to grow corn in Kansas and bananas in Kenya and trade, instead of each trying to do both.

What some people don't realize, because it is counter-intuitive, is that you don't even need an absolute advantage for trade to be beneficial. Consider the case of a good lawyer (ok, efficient lawyer [grin]) with a bad assistant:

  • the lawyer can get $200 an hour for legal advice

  • he can also type and file well enough to generate an income of $50 an hour

  • his assistant would only be able to get $10 an hour for legal advice

  • not being as good an assistant, he would also only do work worth $20 an hour

Even in this case, with the lawyer having a devastating advantage in both legal and secretarial work, it still pays off for him to only handle the legal advice and to hire the assistant for the rest. That's because of an important, but overlooked thing: during the time he's doing a good job typing or filing or whatever, he's not doing a great job getting paid for legal advice. In other words, for every hour spent doing the work of an assistant, he loses $150. Given that fact, it is better if he hires the assistant for $20 - he saves $130 for each hour he would have otherwise spent doing a less financially rewarding job.

More information can be found in the Wikipedia article... while I'm not a big fan of Wikipedia (way too many socialists in the world), this is actually a well-written article.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Predictions of creationism

What would be true if creationism were true, but false if not? I don't mean "well, God would exist"; I mean what would we expect to happen differently?

Well, there's the whole "the universe is comprehensible" thing, which has been discussed in other places (and I do believe it's a great argument). But I just had an idea: the universe is huge. It has either been created by impersonal natural laws, or by God. In the second case, we expect it to have been created for our use, just like the Earth, and therefore at some point we will develop / discover a practical way of faster-than-light travel - just as we developed a way of crossing the oceans. Such an expectation is not warranted in the first case, since it's irrational to expect impersonal laws to care for our wishes.

So there. FTL technology. I can barely wait. grin

Monday, May 07, 2007

Ideas are worthless

I have a friend who is normally a very intelligent man, and an extraordinary computer programmer. However, he has an IDEA, and he's unwilling to publish it in detail on his site - he wants to discuss it with a big company, to get the cash he believes he deserves for his idea.

I was unable to persuade him that ideas are worthless.

Here's an idea that would be worth a lot of money... if ideas were worth anything. Let's get rid of 99% of the existing government bureaucracy. (I'm an anarchist, I want to get rid of all government, but that's harder to sell. Most people would agree that 99% of the government is useless, though. grin)

Just think of the advantages:
* you save on salaries and bribes
* you force the leeches to actually work for a living and make something even marginally useful (like hamburgers)
* a lot less spending on "feel-good" projects like houses for the poor which cost a million bucks a piece and look pretty much like a shack
* ... and I'm sure a lot more, you get the point

What about getting rid only of the armies? I mean, most people are scared of guns. And if guns are bad, and people shouldn't have them, then the place we should start removing them is definitely the army - after all, we know that armies kill people, that's their job description :D

Now, are these ideas worth anything? Not even the time I spent writing them down. The implementation, on the other hand, would be worth billions. Get that perfected, sell it to the Americans, and become the richest man in the world. Eat your heart out, Bill Gates! grin

See? It's worthless to think "hey, I don't really like the links Yahoo returns, what about making a better search engine?". You have to actually work your butt off and do it to become Google. If you're the kind of person that has great ideas, you probably have a dozen a day. They're worthless to you, and they're worthless to everyone else - make a couple of them real, and everything changes.

Just a rant, of course.