Metal Winner

How much of our universe is guided by fundamental, unchanging principles of nature, and how much is susceptible to human tinkering? This is a big question is science, and our best guess for an answer is constantly changing. For example,  Alchemists were (in)famous for their quest to turn “base metal” into precious substances, like gold. Eventually, it was discovered that the number of protons on a atom determined what element is would be – meaning that no physical or even chemical reaction can change one element into another. So bad news for would be get rich quick schemes. Even later, however, we found that it IS possible to “transmute” elements in nuclear reactions, although making gold this way is way more expensive than just buying it on QVC or something. 

We now have developed a model of the world in which the properties of elements are determined by the configuration of the electrons in each atom. The implication being, that the attributes of materials were basically set by nature, and there was not much we can do to change it. There is some wiggle room, in the sense that the same element can be made into different atomic configurations (allotropes). An example is graphite and diamond, which are both made of carbon, but only graphite is a good electrical conductor. Also, conductive polymers are organic molecules that surprisingly, can switch between electrical conductors or insulators depending on their chemical state.

Having just read “Stuff Matters” and “The Disappearing Spoon” over the summer, I was kind of in material science mood. There  is a big swath of transition metals on the periodic table. These have similar properties because of the way new electrons add to the orbital shells. In general, the word “metal” means something different to a chemist or physicist than to someone using in the vernacular. Metals are electrical conductors and generally shiny. Both properties result from the configuration of electrons, and available empty states for electrons to move into. 

Modern electronics is based on transistors that are made by doping pure silicon (an insulator) with just a sprinkling of arsenic or geranium atoms, creating a semiconductor. By controlling the amount of dopant atoms, just the right properties can be obtained.

Sometimes, a brute force method also works to force a big change in the properties of a material. Recently. scientists have been able to take quartz, which is about as strong an electrical insulator you will ever find, and make it a conductor – albeit for a very short period of time – by blasting it with a laser.

Here is a quote:

“The laser pulse is an extremely strong electric field, which has the power to dramatically change the electronic states in the quartz,” Georg Wachter, theoretical physicist at the Vienna University of Technology said. “The pulse can not only transfer energy to the electrons, it completely distorts the whole structure of possible electron states in the material.”




Scientists at the Vienna University of Technology have been able to change the properties of quartz glass into metal for very brief moments using laser pulses. Image by Vienna University of Technology

So even the property of being a metal is not set in stone.




Old Dominion

As a former Magic: The Gathering enthusiast, I was very excited to learn, around a year ago, about the game called Dominion. It promised all the fun of a deck-building strategy game, without the cost required to assemble a fearsome collection of powerful cards, since all of the “buying” is done withing the context of the game. Having played a handful of times against human opponents, and a few hundred or so times against androids, I have had the chance to try out a couple of non-obvious, but very effective, strategies.

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The first is called trashing. Novice players may not realize, but the ability to rid oneself of the weak starting cards is as good, if not more so, than acquiring powerful cards. Streamlining one’s deck – using chapel, for example – and eliminating the estates and coppers clogging it up allows the golds to come up more often.

Another strategy employed by some seasoned players is called “megaturn“. Instead of trying to slowly accumulate victory points over the course of the game, a player acquires certain action cards that would (hopefully) allow him to buy a bunch of victory cards all at once. Each turn starts with an endowment of five cards in hand, 1 action, and 1 buy. This would appear to limit the amount of points one could possibly get each turn, and normally, this is true. However, by playing cards that provide extra cards, actions, or buys can extend this somewhat. The idea of a megaturn is to use iterative combinations of cards to massively increase these resources.

For example, if your deck has cards like city, bridge, smithy. You can keep drawing cards and accumulating actions and buys. 




But the real engine of a good megaturn are King’s Court and Throne Room.

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Throne Room.jpg

Playing either only costs one action – but provides a bounty of resources if played on one of the previously mentioned cards. Now imagine playing a King’s Court on another King’s Court, and you can start to see the power of iteration. The player can use these cards and actions to get even more cards and actions (and buys). In fact, a good megaturn is only limited by the total number of cards in the player’s deck. In one (computer) game I managed to end up with 36 actions, 32 buys and 134 coins. By was of comparison, the majority of turns have only one action and buy, and virtually never are more than 20 coins spent at once. So trying to plot a megaturn on a graph would quite literally put it off the charts.

This is reminiscent of  Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s idea of a Black Swan. This is defined as a rare, unexpected event whose effects overshadow all of the everyday happenings combined. For example, a stock trader can slowly and consistently rack up millions of dollars in capital gains over the course of decades – and lose it all (and more) on a single day on a sudden crash. One way Taleb explains a black swan is the behavior of a farmer to a turkey. For months, the farmer feeds the turkey every day, right up until Thanksgiving, when something completely unexpected – based on the framework of events heretofore – happens. The explosive power of the megaturn is an emergent property that may be very surprising to opponents who have never seen in before. When a successful megaturn happens (if at all), it is a surprise even for the player who spent the whole game setting it up, because it requires drawing the right hand to get it started. So it may take a while for the conditions to be favorable. Once it gets going, however, the megaturn is unstoppable. Recall a previous post about crystal nucleation, another process that depends on a rare event that radically and expectantly changes the entire landscape of  a system.


In 1992, Time magazine famously predicted that with a advent of improvements to cable TV bandwidth, consumers would have access to 500 channels and nothing to watch. Now that we have streaming media services, like Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime Instant Video, and HBO GO, the options have vastly increased once again. Like living in a virtual media nirvana that our VHS-tape collecting predecessors could only dream of, thousands upon thousand of titles are available to us instantly. Instead of being limited to whatever was currently playing, customers can now select from voluminous libraries of media to watch on demand, up to and including a entire TV series in one sitting, if so inclined. Such “binge-watching” has already changed the way TV is made.

While the common consensus is that the vast wasteland just gets vaster and more wasteful with more bandwidth, It has been argued by Steven Johnson, that culture, especially TV and and movies, is actually getting more complex and appealing to smarter audiences. Now that hardcore fans can scour previous episodes looking for foreshadowing clues or callback jokes – and collate their findings on the internet – producers of some shows are constructing elaborate webs of inside jokes and self-references. It is no wonder that Arrested Development has found new life on Netflix after being banished from network TV: the amount of information far exceeds the capacity of a single casual viewing.

A show made for the pre-binge era is Numb3rs. The formulaic nature of the show may have been comforting to weekly viewers, but attempts to stage a personal Numb3rs marathon now on Amazon instant video is like trying to stuff an month’s worth of dessert in your face at one meal. Not recommended.

In the past, in addition to being formulaic, serial programs would often decide that everything would be “back to normal” at the end of each 30 minutes. This made episodes interchangeable, and basically order-less. When important plot details did come up, later episodes would be prefaced with a ten-second “previously, on…” segment, since many people tuning in did not catch it the first time. This, understandably, put a large damper on the telling of wide story arcs.

But now, shows that exist only online, like the Awesomes can, and do, openly mock the notion of trying to catch up viewers. The show refuses to summarize for you the happenings and revelations of  the first season (let’s face, it, a lot happened), while insisting on picking up right where the action left off. If you are confused, you are just going to have to catch up on the episodes that you missed.

On “regular” TV, one amazing example of the power of dropping treats for the devoted is Gravity Falls. Creator Alex Hirsch insists on referencing previous (and future!) episodes, as in a pre-teen mystery solver saying “sorry I falsely accused you of murder last week.” Having a universe in which ideas and references persist makes the show somehow seem more permanent and real. This is a tall order for a show that features teen-hating ghosts and a 8 1/2 President of the United States. Miss something? You can just head to the fan wiki and see all of the forward and backward looking allusions.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but I was amazed by the planning that went into the time traveling episode. Just’s just say it will give you a good reason to re-watch the first few episodes of the series. Remember, this is a show on the Disney channel, nominally for children, that is pondering the bootstrap paradox, although is cannot show Groucho Marx with his trademark cigar due to rule regarding tobacco depictions in kid shows.

So we can rue the amount of bandwidth mindlessly filled with reality shows or 24-hour news, or we can enjoy some of the latest Easter Eggs on some really smart shows.