biology, math, science, short, statistics, thought experiment

Short: Immortality Math

There are people out there who are quite seriously trying to make human beings immortal. It sounds like something from a bad 1970s pulp comic, but it’s true. Of course, when serious people say “immortal,” they’re not talking Highlander. They’re talking biological immortality, sometimes called by fancy names like “negligible senescence”: the elimination of death by aging. Whether we can (or should) ever achieve biological immortality is a question I’ll leave to people smarter than me, but either way, biological immortality doesn’t mean full immortality. It just means that you can no longer die from, say, a heart attack or cancer or just generally wearing out. You can still quite easily die from things like falls, car accidents, or having Clancy Brown chop your head off with a sword.

There are a number of organisms out there which are either believed or known to be biologically immortal, or at the very least, nearly so. These include interesting but relatively simple organisms like hydras and jellyfish, but also more complex organisms like the bristlecone pine (many living specimens of which are confirmed to be over 1,000 years old, and one of which is over 5,000 years old), and the lobster. (Technically, though, the lobster isn’t really immortal, since they most molt to heal, and each molt takes more energy than the last, until the molts grow so energy-intensive they exhaust the lobster to death.) For the record, the oldest animal for which the age is well-established was a quahog clam named Ming Hafrun, who died at 507 years old when some Icelandic researchers plucked it out of the water.

If a human was made biologically immortal, how long could they expect to live before getting hit by a bus or falling down the stairs (or getting stabbed in the neck by Christopher Lambert)? That’s actually not too hard to estimate. According to the CDC (see Table 18), there were 62.6 injury-related deaths per 100,000 Americans, in 2014. With a bit of naive math (I’m not adjusting for things like age, which probably inflates that statistic a fair bit, since older people are at a higher risk of falls and similar) that means the probability of death by accident is 0.000626 per year, or roughly 0.06%. Knowing that, it’s almost trivial to compute the probability of surviving X years:

probability of surviving X years = (1 – 0.00626)^X

This formula is based on one of my favorite tricks in probability: to compute the probability of surviving, you do the obvious and convert that to the probability of not-dying. And you can take it one step further. At what age would 90% of a biologically-immortal group still be alive? All you have to do is solve this equation for N:

0.9 = (1- 0.00626)^N

which is no trouble for Wolfram Alpha a math genius like me: a biological immortal would have a 90% chance of surviving 168 years. Here are a few more figures:

  • A 75% probability of living up to 459 years.
  • A 50% probability of living up to 1,107 years.
  • A 25% probability of living up to 2,214 years.
  • A 10% probability of living up to 3,677 years.
  • A 5% probability of living up to 4,784 years.
  • A 1% probability of living up to 7,354 years.
  • A one-in-a-thousand chance of living 11,031 years.
  • A one-in-a-million chance of living 22,062 years.

For reference, the probability of a member of a population surviving (in the US, in 2012, including death by biological causes) doesn’t drop below 75% until around age 70. To put it in slightly annoying media jargon: if we’re biologically immortal, then 459 is the new 70.

biology, Weird Food

Weird Food 9: Mam Ca Loc (Mud Fish)

I’ve got good news! For all you curious buggers out there who want to try surströmming, but either can’t afford to have it shipped to your part of the world or simply can’t get it at all, I’ve found a substitute, which you can buy at many Asian or international markets! It’s called mam ca loc: preserved mud fish!

Mud Fish Jar.png

…I might have been lying about the good news.

This is yet another weird dish I tried mainly because I saw the violent reactions of the people who tried it on YouTube. I’m starting to question my judgment.

But before I describe the foul stuff that was in that jar, I should say that I fucking love Vietnamese food. Actually, Vietnamese food might be my favorite. There’s a chance I like it more than pizza, which is really saying something. My favorite soup at the Vietnamese place down the road is pho dac biet (sorry if I spelled it wrong, and sorry that I can’t figure out how to make WordPress do Vietnamese diacritics), which a lot of people shy away from because it’s got tripe and tendon in it. I love that stuff. I want you to keep everything I’ve said in mind as I describe what it was like to taste this substance:

Mud Fish Open.png

The first thing that struck me was the horrible smell. Much like surströmming, mam ca loc (or at least this version of it) emits a sulfurous stench like the world’s ripest fart. Once the initial stench has dissipated, it leaves behind a much worse smell. Pardon me if I get a little gross here, but the smell is as though a grizzly pooped ten pounds of undigested fish into a Port-a-John and it was left to sit in the sun all day. It was absolutely rank.

And, like surströmming, the flavor actually wasn’t too bad. Tasted mostly like anchovies. The texture wasn’t horrible: the texture was annoying: mud fish is very tough, and the meat felt like it was stuck to some sort of silicone-rubber backing. Not that I spent much time trying to get the meat free, because there was no way in hell I was going to swallow something that smelled like that.

Unfortunately, mam ca loc is not the last fermented seafood I’ll be trying. The next fermented seafood I’ll be trying is made by Lee Kum Kee, who spend 95% of their time making tasty soy and hoisin sauces, and 5% of their time making horrible salty fermented shrimp paste.

The Final Verdict: I wouldn’t eat mam ca loc unless the alternative was starvation or other physical harm. If I had to eat it, I’d rinse it off thoroughly and put it in a soup or something. But I wouldn’t be happy about it. I don’t recommend it, unless you want the surströmming experience, but can’t get surströmming. Even then, I don’t really recommend it.

To my Vietnamese readers: I know I didn’t prepare this properly, because I didn’t prepare it at all. How is it meant to be eaten? I’m genuinely curious. I’m guessing soup, but I don’t honestly know.

Weird Food

Weird Food 8: Jackfruit

For me, the jackfruit has always been the holy grail of weird food at the international market. Big, spiky, and mysterious. Like a dragon. But jackfruits are sold by the pound, and they’re big bastards, so I could never justify the expense of buying one, since I didn’t know if it was going to be any good. But lucky for me, my cousin is a bad influence, and because she and I were having a weird food marathon, we bought one.

Jackfruit Whole.png

The picture doesn’t do justice to its size. It was gigantic. It weighed in at 15 pounds (6.8 kg), and it was one of the smaller ones in the pile. I carried it out of the market like a very fat (and very prickly) baby. Admittedly, though, it’s not nearly as spiky as its foul-smelling cousin, the durian. Durians have, on more than one occasion, drawn blood and left little splinters in my hands.

Trying to get into a fruit this size comes with lots of unexpected logistical problems. How do you put it on the table without the spines digging horrible gouges into the wood? What kind of knife do you use? And what the hell part are you even supposed to eat? Cutting the fruit open didn’t make that last part much clearer:

Jackfruit Wedge.png

Lucky for me, I’d tried dried jackfruit before, so I guessed that the yellow bit was the meat. Extracting it was a bit difficult, made more so by the fact that the white pith has latex or something in, which turns your hands sticky as all hell. But eventually, I got it partly disassembled:

Jackfruit Meat.png

You can tell how sticky that pith is by the fact that a strip of it glued itself to the husk.

The good news: jackfruit is delicious. It’s got a peculiar texture that makes you think it’s going to be rubbery, but then it isn’t. There’s not much juice in it. It smells faintly sweet, like pears or pear blossoms. It tastes like a mixture of pear, apple, pineapple, and lychee, but all very subdued and subtle. The only bad thing about jackfruit is that it’s so damned big, which meant, by the time I finished eating that one slice, I was stuffed to the gills. And, because I planned poorly, there wasn’t room in the fridge to save the rest of it, which is a shame, because I totally would’ve eaten it.

Here’s how tasty jackfruit is: I’m actually going to buy another one, because I wanna make jam out of it. I think it’d make amazing jam.

The Final Judgment: It’s expensive, and it’s bulky, but it’s totally worth trying if you can get it. It’s got a subtle, sweet flavor and it’s nice and filling. A good meal all ’round.

biology, physical experiment, science, short, Weird Food

Real Mad Science 2: Mead

Mad Science Mead.png

I used to be pretty fond of booze. My favorite libations were Johnnie Walker Black Label, cheap supermarket Moscato, this horrible fluorescent-blue fruity cognac stuff called Hpnotiq (yes, really), and White Russians. But, towards the end of my college career, I made a nasty error: I got careless with Jägermeister. Jäger, exactly like plutonium or nitroglycerin, is very unforgiving of carelessness. The next day was among the ugliest in my life, and I’ve hardly touched hard liquor since then.

That’s actually a good thing, since it nudged me towards drinking less stomach-scorching things like proper decent wine and beer (and alcoholic ginger beer). And, since I’ve been in a mad science mood lately, I decided I’d take advantage of Amazon’s “Black Friday is happening some time during this month money money money” sale and pick up a little proper brewing equipment.

Several words of warning. 1) Home brewing comes with risks. You could get nasty unwanted yeasts or bacteria or mold that turn your brew toxic. To that end, I sterilized my equipment with a cheap and easy (and slightly nostril-stinging) potassium metabisulfite-citric acid wash. 2) Booze can get you into trouble if you don’t treat it with respect, and it’ll get you into a lot of trouble if you’re under drinking age. 3) Home brewing is illegal some places.

Now that I’ve made it painfully obvious that I’m trying not to get sued, it’s time to make mead! Mead is a fermented honey beverage favorited by Norsemen, English Majors, Beowulf, and pretty much everybody in Skyrim. Here’s how I made it:

I added two cups of honey (about 475 mL) to a saucepan. Because it was a really cold day, I added some water to make the honey less viscous. (Filtered well water, mind you.) To make sure the yeast had vitamins and minerals that pure honey might not provide, I added a generous handful (roughly 1 cup, or 100 – 150 grams) of cranberries, along with a modest handful of raisins. They were just what I had lying around. For flavor, I added about a teaspoon of cinnamon. I brought the whole mixture to a boil. I checked the temperature with an instant-read meat thermometer (never use the proper tool for the job, I always say). Once it reached 212° Fahrenheit (100° Celsiusigrade), I started a ten-minute timer. There are probably nasty unwanted things like weird bacteria, wild yeasts, mold, and microscopic politicians in the fruit and maybe the water and honey, so I figured ten minutes at a boil would heat everything enough to kill them.

Before I started boiling the mixture, I had prepared my brewing gear according to reasonable sanitary standards. Into a 1 gallon (3,750 mL) glass carboy (moonshine jug, as I’m sure many people call them), I added half a gallon (roughly 2,000 mL) of clean filtered well water. To that, I added two teaspoons of powdered potassium metabisulfite and one tablespoon of granulated food-grade citric acid. The reaction produces sulfur dioxide, which kills germs. (Don’t smell the jug while the chemicals are sitting in there: sulfur dioxide really burns the nose…) Just before it was time to pour the fruit-honey-water mixture into the carboy, I gave the carboy and the airlock (which keeps dust and other potential germ-carrying stuff from falling into the carboy during fermenting) a rinse with clean water. I let the boiled mixture cool and then added it slowly to the carboy, which I’d warmed in the oven. I didn’t want to risk temperature differentials shattering the glass. Luckily, there were no problems. I bloomed 2 grams of distiller’s active dry yeast in a cup of warm water with two tablespoons of sugar dissolved in it, then added the bloomed yeast to the carboy. I topped it up almost to the top with clean water, then added the airlock, filled the airlock with water, and gave the jug a gentle shake to get things going.

That was yesterday. Today, when I took the picture, the mead was bubbling merrily away. It’s eating sugar and making things like carbon dioxide and ethanol. The airlock produces a bubble once every five or ten seconds, which tells me the fermentation’s going well. I’m not sure how long you’re supposed to leave mead, but I guess I’ll wait until the bubbling stops, which will tell me I’ve got a bunch of dead yeast drowned in ethanol. I suppose I’ll make the tasting of the mead part of my weird food series…

electronics, physical experiment, real mad science, science, silly

Real Mad Science #1

I like the idea of those little USB power banks. If your phone dies, you can plug it into one, and boom! It’s like you’ve got a whole other battery to run your device off of. Because that is, literally, what you’ve got.

I didn’t have a power bank. I usually don’t need one, since I rarely travel too far from home, on account of the world scares me. But I decided I did want to have a powerbank for emergencies. And since I’ve been doing a bit of soldering lately anyway, I decided why not make my own.

A sensible person would have, say, bought the cheapest possible cordless drill battery and used the cells from that. I am not a sensible person. Here’s my improvised power bank (which I must add, actually works, although I forgot to turn the phone’s screen on for proof):

Ghetto Power Bank.png

That’s what normal DIY techie people do, right? They wire two lantern batteries in parallel, solder the leads to a car cigarette lighter USB charger and plug their phone into that. Right?

These are ridiculously cheap lantern batteries. Probably zinc chloride “heavy duty” cells, which means they’ll probably leak horrible corrosive stuff as they age. But, wonder of wonders, the bastards work. A few dollars, some solder, and some throwing away of common sense, and I have a perfectly functional powerbank. It’s not rechargeable, of course, but I don’t need it to be. This is for, for instance, those times when the power goes out and I can’t charge my phone, but I really wanna keep watching Big Clive videos on YouTube, and I need a charge.

There you have it: the first (and definitely not the last) act of Sublime Curiosity Real Mad Science. I should probably punch up the name.

EDIT: Here’s the powerbank after I neatened it up with a little extra solder, too much hot glue, and a switch, so that the car adapter wouldn’t run all the time and slowly drain the batteries.

Better Ghetto Powerbank.png

EDIT 2: I did a little poking around on the Internet, and found that, in all likelihood, each of these lantern batteries holds 11,000 millamp-hours. Since they’re in series, I’ve just gone and made myself a 11 amp-hour powerbank! From watching too much Big Clive, I know that an iPhone like mine will take 500 millamps if it can, but with these batteries, that’s something like 22 hours of continuous charging. Not bad, for $8 worth of batteries!

silly, thought experiment

Short: Zeno from Coast to Coast

There’s an old joke. A mathematician and an engineer die in a car crash and go up to Heaven. They meet Saint Peter up there, and he leads them to a mile-long hallway with a big pearly door with a gold handle at the other end. Saint Peter says “Both of you have done good things and evil things in your lives. To test if you’re inherently good-natured and worthy of getting into Heaven, I’m going to put you through a challenge. Whenever I sound my trumpet, you’re allowed to walk half the remaining distance to the door. If you get to the door, you can open it and go to Heaven. But if you move more than I tell you to, or try to cheat, you’ll go to Hell.”

The two guys confer for a second. The mathematician says “It’s a trick. We’re going to Hell anyway: no matter how many times you divide the distance in half, it’ll never be zero. We’ll never actually reach the door.”

They don’t get a chance to say anything else: Saint Peter sounds his trumpet. Both guys walk half a mile, to the middle of the hallway. The mathematician is getting antsy. Saint Peter sounds his trumpet again, and they walk a quarter-mile. He sounds it again: they walk an eighth of a mile. Again: 330 feet. Again: 165 feet. By now, the mathematician’s shaking and sweating and turning beet-red. The engineer starts to say something to him, but the mathematician screams and starts running back the way he came. He doesn’t get ten paces before a hole opens beneath him and he falls into a pit of fire and brimstone.

After Saint Peter’s sounded his trumpet ten times, the engineer’s only a foot or so from the door. He turns back and looks at Peter and says “Is it all right if I reach out and turn the handle?” Saint Peter says “Of course.” The engineer opens the door. On the other side is Heaven, full of angels on clouds and such. Saint Peter says “Well, you opened the door. Go ahead and walk through.” The engineer walks through Saint Peter goes with him and says “One warning, though: all our rulers are warped, our T-squares are crooked, and our compasses are made out of rubber.” The engineer thinks for a second and says “I see. Look, is it still possible for me to go to Hell? Have they got an opening?”

That joke is one of the many warped forms of Zeno’s Paradox. It should be impossible to reach any destination, since first you have to cover half the distance, and then you have to cover a quarter of the distance, and then an eighth, and so on, and you never actually arrive. Well, I’m going to take that literally. I’m going to imagine traveling from the west coast of the United States (specifically, from The Riptide bar and honky-tonk on Taraval and 47th, in San Francisco, California) to the east coast (specifically, to the parking lot of the Holiday Inn in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina). That’s a distance of 4,014 kilometers. I’m going to imagine covering that distance in the same fashion as in that joke: covering half the remaining distance each time. I’m going to move once every ten seconds.


I travel 2,007 kilometers in 10 seconds. I’m traveling at about 201 kilometers per second, meaning I carve a ram-heated plasma trail through the air, setting a swath of the United States on fire as I travel. If I were human (which I’m clearly not, if I’m doing this kinda shit), I’d be pulped by the acceleration required to follow the curvature of the Earth at these speeds. I stop not too far from Dodge City, Kansas. Good thing I already have to move again, because I’m pretty sure there’s an angry mob gathering.

1/2 + 1/4 = 3/4

I travel 1,003.5 kilometers in 10 seconds. I’m still setting fire to every object I pass, blinding bystanders, and knocking down trees and buildings with my shockwave. I’ve broken every window in Wichita, Kansas and Springfield, Missouri. I pause, momentarily, in the westernmost tip of Kentucky. If I were human, I’d still have been pulped by the acceleration.

1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 = 7/8

I travel just under 502 kilometers in 10 seconds. I’m moving as fast as some of the fastest shooting stars, but at ground level. I’m wrecking everything I pass in a way the Chelyabinsk meteorite could only aspire to. My shockwave and fireball cause burns, injuries, and structural damage in Knoxville and Nashville. I scream over the Blue Ridge Mountains and stop just short of Asheville, North Carolina, which I’ve been to, and which is a nice town.

1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 = 5/16

I travel 251 kilometers this jump. The centripetal acceleration required to follow the curve of the Earth is an almost-survivable 10 gees. I’m still meteoric, though, blasting through Asheville, narrowly missing Gastonia, and ruining the lives of everyone in south Charlotte. I stop not far past Charlotte. I didn’t plan it this way, but I’ve visited my hometown on my accidental rampage.


I travel 125 kilometers. Still fast enough to cause a hell of a shockwave and probably a bit of a plasma trail, but now I’m only going as fast as a high-velocity railgun projectile. To stick to the Earth, I have to accelerate downwards at 2.5 gees, which is very much survivable, especially for only ten seconds. I stop not far north of Lumberton, North Carolina, which I’ve never visited, but I’ve heard is another nice little town. We’ve got a lot of those in North Carolina, actually. It’s kinda cool.


I travel roughly 63 kilometers in 10 seconds. I’m moving at the speed of a very ambitious bullet. My centripetal acceleration is just over half a gee. I stop in a track of farmland with not much around me.


This jump covers 31 kilometers at the speed of a sniper-rifle bullet. My acceleration is 0.15 gees, which is the kind of acceleration people experience in cars on a regular basis. I’m not far outside the city limits of Wilmington, NC, in the woods between a church and a water treatment plant (according to Google Earth.)


I’m still moving like a bullet, covering 15.7 kilometers in 10 seconds. I stop over a river in Wilmington’s northern outskirts, near a drawbridge and what looks like an oil-tank complex.


I travel 7,839 meters in 10 seconds, which brings me down to the muzzle velocity of an ordinary handgun. I come to a stop on the roof of a Home Depot in Wilmington.


This jump is 3,920 meters at around Mach 1. I’m still probably bursting eardrums wherever I pass, but those newly-deaf people should count themselves lucky: there’s a lot of people burned to ash on the West Coast.


1,960 meters at the speed of an ordinary airplane. I stop in a marsh on the bank of the estuary that separates Wrightsville Beach from Wilmington. People are no longer being injured by my passage, but they’re probably pretty horrified to see a human being moving this fast. Plus, it’s been over a minute and 45 seconds since my accidental rampage began. That’s probably fast enough for people to post pictures of my path of destruction on Twitter.


I only travel 979.911 meters this time at an almost-sensible 219 mph (352 km/h). I manage to cross the estuary, although I’m still in the damn marsh, not yet to Wrightsville Beach. I stop near what, on Google Maps (on November 27th, 2016, anyway) looks like a horrifying half-mile long translucent river-worm:

Weird Thing in Wrightsville.png

Some may say it’s just a boat wake. I say they’re just blinding themselves to the truth that Big Google Data Brother Government Conspiracy (LLC) is trying to hide from the people. That’s what you’re supposed to say when you find weird shit in Google Earth, right?


I’m still going way over the posted speed limit as I cover the next 489.956 meters. Still stuck in this damned marsh, too.


A 244.978-meter jump at a sensible 54 mph (88 km/h). I’m starting to feel a little like the mathematician in the joke: all of a sudden, things are moving painfully slow.At least I’m out of the stupid marsh, and passing through a fairly pleasant-looking seaside housing development.


122.489 meters covered at a very pleasant 27 mph (44 kph). I’m almost within the ordinary residential speed limit! I’m only a block from the Holiday Inn, so tantalizingly close. I must persevere! I wanna be the engineer in the joke, not the mathematician! Hell sounds terrible!


A nice neat number. 2^16. 10000000000000000, in binary. I travel 61.244 meters. Less than the length of any sort of football field. I’m moving at 6.1 meters per second. A decent sprinter could manage that. Usain Bolt could most certainly manage that.


30.522 meters this time. I’m jogging across the parking lot, almost a literal stone’s throw from the Atlantic.


15.311 meters covered this jump, and 15.311 left to go. I can look into the windows of the Holiday Inn, and see all the employees on their phones reading about the carnage in California.


7.656 meters. A man passing me in the Holiday Inn parking lot wonders why I’m walking so damn slow.


3.828 meters. I’m walking at less than 1 mile per hour, which feels really weird when I do it in real life. I’m starting to regret many decisions. Plus, people are starting to get suspicious of me.


1.914 meters left to go. If I fell flat on my face (which is starting to seem like a good idea…), my head would push the front door open.

1 – 2^(-22)

Less than a meter to go. As I stand almost within arm’s reach of the hotel’s front door, people are giving me looks usually reserved for those who start talking about lizard people at bus stops.

1 – 2^(-23)

Half a meter. Finally–finally–I can reach out and push the door open. And thus, my bizarre trip comes to an end. I’ve covered 4,013,716.5 meters in about 3 minutes and 45 seconds. I’ve killed many, many people and injured countless others. There will be an investigation. Even though this isn’t exactly the sort of thing the FBI is used to, they’ll probably do their damndest to figure out just who or what set the west coast on fire, smashed millions of windows, and made a sonic boom over North Carolina. There’s probably enough security camera evidence to find me. Until then, I’ll just catch some sun on Wrightsville Beach.