Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The power of the human soul

"Oh yes, the complex is entirely self-sufficient. Food, water treatment, electricity, we handle it all ourselves. Right here in this very building, as a matter of fact"

"Is that so? How exactly do you manage that?"

"Well, we harness the power of the human soul.This structure is the result of years of hard work, of research, of trial and error. I've lost track of how many designs I tried until I settled on this one, but it's paid off, let me tell you. It's the largest, most efficient soul distillery in the world!"

"Soul... distillery?"

"Of course, the process has little to do with distillation in the technical sense, but the name has stuck. That large tower in the middle houses an aether vortex of billions of souls, which are progressively run through a series of subsystems which ultimately provide all we need to subsist."

"What?! How?"

"The main product of the process is a sort of nutritious sludge, obtained from the deepest essence of the souls. The necessary steps are mostly a series of filters inscribed in runes of ancient power and a centrifuge and some, um, other steps, but anyway, in the end we get our main food source. It has some wonderful properties, it's healthy, and filling, and has some curious side-effects at the, uh, higher concentrations some of us take"

"I'm sorry, you're telling me you eat souls-"

"Not just eat, no, like I said earlier, the sludge's just one of the products of the system. The vortex functions as a turbine, too, that's how we power the complex, and there are other byproducts of the refining of the soul we take advantage of for various purposes. Fertilizers for what little farming we do, building materials, disinfectants, some other things..."

"But, I... you mentioned billions of souls, right? How does that even work, where do the souls come from?"

"Oh, that was my biggest problem in the early stages. My first soul processing system was designed for harvesting them one at a time, can you believe that? Sure, it worked as a proof-of-concept and for the early research, but if I wanted any significant volume? The logistics issues alone gave me nightmares. Fortunately I didn't give up, I had many other ideas. The aether vortex, for example! In the initial designs, it was supposed to suck in all the recently deceased souls floating around, which would in turn power up the vortex even more, so it would cover a wider area, and so on and so forth."

"In the initial designs."

"Right. Eventually it became apparent that there simply wasn't anywhere on the planet with enough population density to power the system like that, and the problems with even getting it running where just too many. Frankly, the sheer numbers involved would have doomed any scheme I or anyone else tried. A single soul produces at best a few millilitres of anything useful, and I simply didn't have a large enough source available. That is, until I thought of wanking"

"...come again?"

"Wanking. Turns out sperm have souls, too! Well, half-souls, really, the other half is in the ovum. Not terribly well developed, either, only a fraction as juicy as that of a developed human being, but at a couple hundred million per ejaculation, it doesn't really matter. I could power the entire thing myself if necessary!"


"I don't, if that's what you're wondering. No, most of the male elders do their part. We engage in certain practices that, uh, ensure we have the highest quality spiritual children, so to speak"

"So... the basis of the entire community... is the semen of the elders..."

"The condensed essence of the proto-souls contained in the semen of the elders, yes."

"You know, when I write about this, I'm gonna tell them 'the power of the human soul' is a metaphor for solidarity and working as a group"

"Seems like it would be wise."


Sometimes I just need to write things.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A word of warning

What I'm going to do today is leave a note so that if at any point anyone finds themselves in the situation I did one month ago, they might find this post and save themselves some panicked guesswork.

One of the CDs I shot lasers at
Let's rewind one month, then. I am shooting lasers at CDs. And I don't mean in the usual "use the laser to read the information encoded in the CD" sense. Nor the slightly less usual "use the laser to burn the information onto the CD" sense. I mean I grabbed a CD, stripped away part of the label and reflective layer, and aimed an He-Ne laser through the resulting transparent opening into a wall.

Spots of light caused by diffraction

Why would we do such a thing? The short answer is that CDs (and optic discs in general) work as diffraction gratings. The rough idea is that diffraction gratings allow you to divide a beam of light into a lot of beams of light, and since all those beams of light have the same source , they can interfere with each other in a way that is simple to calculate and visualise*. In particular, what you see when you shoot lasers through a CD is a number of bright spots on the wall behind. One of them is located exactly where it would be, if the CD was just an ordinary piece of transparent plastic. Just trace a straight line from the laser to the wall, and there you go. The other spots are located on either side, at places that can be found with something called the grating equation.

The grating equation relates the angle of the position where the bright spots are, the wavelength of the laser, and something called the "period" of the grating. In a CD, that amounts to the distance between two consecutive grooves, AKA the track pitch.

I already know the wavelength of the laser I'm shooting at the CD, and I can figure out the angle of the bright spots by measuring a couple of distances and using trigonometry. Which means that I can use all this data to measure the track pitch of a C. A distance, incidentally, that a bit of prior research on people who had done similar experiments had shown to be 1.6 micrometers  (a micrometre or micron is a unit of length equal to the millionth part of a metre. It has the symbol μm)

So, as I was saying, I am shooting lasers at the CD. I mark the location of the spots, measure all the relevant distances, do all the relevant math, and find a result: 1.49 μm. Well damn. That's not good.

But wait!, you're thinking. Aren't we talking about a difference of 0.1 microns? A tenth of a millionth of a metre? That's a minuscule difference!

It sure might seem that way, but the measurement I was doing was supposed to be much, much more precise. Specifically, with an error margin of 0.02 μm. A result of 1.49 ± 0.02 means that the biggest possible value for the track pitch, given all those measurements, is 1.51. 

So I recheck all my math, measure the distances again, etc, but nothing changes. and I start to get worried. All the other further things I was supposed to do with that CD would be completely pointless, with such a large error. I needed to know what was wrong! 

And so I turned to the internet, and explored the issue, and what do I come across? Well, that the ubiquitous figure of 1.6 μm that everyone keeps quoting is not, in fact, quite so. Certainly, there are CDs with that track pitch. Those are what we call 74 minute CDs. The much more common in modern times 80 minute/700 MB CD, why, that has a 1.5 μm track pitch.

The industry standards for CDs say that track pitch has to be 1.6 ± 0.1 μm, so of course, many assume that 1.6 is the most common. Certainly that was the case with every single previous experiment on the subject I'd checked previously. What happens is that nowadays, CD players are more reliable than they were when the CD was first created, so you can have a CD with grooves closer to each other and you won't have any trouble playing it. A tighter track pitch means more information can be stored in the same space, so naturally you want to take advantage of that and go to the lower end of the allowable range. Thus, 1.5 μm track pitch CDs.

You hear me, people of the future who might consider doing experiments with CD diffraction? The groove spacing or track pitch for a 700 MB / 80 minute CD is 1.5 μm! Don't let everyone else mislead you!

* In theory, there is no requirement that light be from the same source to interfere. In practice, however, what happens is that any observable effects of interference between different sources lasts for too short a time to be seen.