spam notice
terms of use
warrant canary


Woolly Days
Futility Closet
Language Log
Bruce Schneier
Dinosaur Comics


New mural in town.

Click on the pic for the uncropped version.
this morning
Speaking about a recent interception of a US plane over the Baltic Sea earlier this month:
Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren said the Russian aircraft did a roll in front of the U.S. aircraft and showed its belly to the pilot to indicate it was armed.
Red-tailed hawks do the same thing, also as a display of arms (well, claws).
B-29 yoke center capAirbus logo, 2001-2010
On the left, the center cap from a yoke of a B-29 bomber made in 1945.
On the right, a logo Airbus used from 2001-2010.

And speaking of aircraft companies' graphic designs with rotational symmetry, an oft-repeated story has it that the BMW logo was intended to suggest a propeller against a blue sky. BMW says no, it was originally just a design using Bavarian state colors. Treptopelia decaocto, Cupressus arizonicaA dove recently built a nest in a tree next to the window at my left as I type this. Whereas bird nests I was familiar with from the Eastern US were made of twigs and mud, this one is just twigs. I wondered if that was because there isn't much mud to be had here, but I hear it's just the way doves roll.

The eggs in this nest haven't hatched yet, so for now there isn't much to see other than the parents exhibiting remarkable patience. I've seen a dove get all protective and chase other birds out of the tree. And I've seen the change of the guard, where the mate comes by and takes over incubation duty.

This species, Eurasian collared dove, was introduced to North America only a few decades ago. Wikipedia says "almost all nests are within 1 km (0.62 mi) of inhabited buildings." This nest is within 1.5m. Today, another excerpt from an amicus brief. Cases as contentious and historic and interesting as the Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage don't come along often.

The (Alabama-based) Foundation for Moral Law cites the anthropologist J. D. Unwin, quoting from his 1934 book Sex and Culture:
Dr. Unwin concluded that the most successful societies, those which advanced most rapidly and retained their advanced state, were those which restrained sexual energy by heterosexual monogamous marriage. He wrote that "if the male as well as the female is compelled to confine himself to one sexual partner, the society begins to display some expansive energy. It bursts over the boundaries of its habitat, explores new countries, and conquers less energetic peoples."
You'd think they'd pick a quote that showed the benefits of chastity in the best possible light. There are loftier achievements to aspire to than conquering less energetic peoples; was that the best they could find?

It's no accident they didn't quote what Dr. Unwin says a few pages later:
Furthermore, no man has yet proved that human energy is a desirable thing. All we know is that in the past it has been displayed in uneven quantities, and that the amount displayed by any society has varied from time to time. In the past, too, the greatest energy has been displayed only by those societies which have reduced their sexual opportunity to a minimum by the adoption of absolute monogamy (para. 168). In every case the women and children were reduced to the level of legal nonentities, sometimes also to the level of chattels, always to the level of mere appendages of the male estate.
I'm no scholar of anthropology and I can't say how good Dr. Unwin's work is. But the guy had a more nuanced understanding than the people quoting him here. Later this month, the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in four consolidated gay marriage cases. I won't presume to predict the decision, but should it be in favor of gay marriage it's not going out on a limb to predict the initials (AGS) of who will write the most scathing dissent.

In the meantime, we consider some of the amicus briefs. Robert Oscar Lopez says it's totally unfair to kids to be brought up by same-sex couples. Before describing his experience as a COG (child of gay parents), he assures the court that his brief is
more than mere personal or anecdotal reflections but rather a body of scholarly work by educated and largely professionalized COGs...
"professionalized"— this doesn't bode well.

On page 27, an associate of Mr. Lopez recounts the horror of his childhood:
I had to pay constant homage and attention to the adults' identity. The importance of their identity required some study. I had to read Patience and Sarah,27 and I had to view The Killing of Sister George.28 Other children were reading Little House on The Prairie29 and seeing Oliver!30 At the same time there was a constant dichotomy at play—simplistic and hostile, black and white. Their sex and identity meant everything. To them heterosexuals meant nothing—breeding, low-level amoebas splitting in their conservative bedroom communities. Our house was overrun with newly minted lesbians planning their divorces and alimony strategies. In one case this meant renting U-Hauls to clean out the house when their husbands were at work.
Scholarly! Footnotes and everything.

Another amicus brief notes that
Holy Scripture attests that homosexual behavior and other sexual perversions violate the law of the land, and when the land is "defiled," the people have been cast out of their homes. See Leviticus 18:22, 24-30. Although some would assert that these rules apply only to the theocracy of ancient Israel, the Apostle Peter rejects that view...
That totally clinches it.
27Alma Routsong, writing as Isabel Miller, Patience and Sarah, Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1972 (1969).
28Directed/produced by Robert Aldrich (Palomar Pictures 1968); based on the 1964 play by Frank Marcus.
29Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House on the Prairie (1935).
30Directed by Carol Reed, Oliver! (Romulus Films 1968).
Driverless cars may well get to the point that they crash far less often than than human-driven cars. Even so, it's going to be tough if someone you love is killed in an accident involving an automated car:
Even though Google's car can detect obstacles and brake faster than a human can, it can't defy the laws of physics. Early tests suggest that, at 40 miles per hour, an automated car can stop within 9 feet; the average human (who is paying attention), will stop within 12 feet.

"If a child steps out at 10 feet, the human kills the child, the automated car doesn't," Michael Toscano, head of the Association for Unmanned Vehicles International said Tuesday. "At 8 feet, either one will kill the child. We accept humans to be faulty, but we don't accept machines killing human beings."
On the other hand—
It might sound cynical to say that, had a technical glitch been responsible for the [Germanwings 9525] crash, the tragedy would be easier to digest in the long term. But it's true. The search for concrete causes such as material defects and hairline fractures; the careful analysis of wreckage; the detailed review of maintenance schedules; the legal and journalistic hunt for those ultimately responsible: All of that would at least have provided a rational anchor to the deep mourning. Such an investigation would have provided a framework for the family members of those who lost their lives, and for a grieving society at large, to slowly move beyond the catastrophe. But this?
(Emphasis mine, in both quotes.) The Atlantic has a good article on NDEs (near-death experiences). The author's report of an NDE conference is consistent with my experience participating in online NDE discussions over the years. People who've had NDEs and believe in an afterlife often take a stance of I've seen for myself and that settles it.

The article is pretty long but it's good reading. Among other things, it touches on a key issue in any dualistic model of personhood: if the mind has a non‑physical component, where and how does it interact with the brain? The question occurred to Descartes, who conjectured that the pineal gland was the interface. The Atlantic article describes someone's more recent proposal, not that it's much better than Descartes' stab at it.

There are many open questions about consciousness, but the questions about NDEs are particularly sharp ones.

Happy equinox (at 22:45 UTC, 15:45 PDT), everyone. Nothing lasts, especially not in Wikipedia. If you edit a page, you'll probably live to see your work be removed or superseded. Last June, I added this example to the Dangling modifier page:
Like most dogs, Mitt Romney says his dog Seamus liked fresh air.
with credit to Jeanne Moos who said it on CNN. I'm not surprised that it was removed (yesterday, along with a bunch of other examples) but rather that it lasted as long as it did.
De Morgan was explaining to an actuary what was the chance that a certain proportion of some group of people would at the end of a given time be alive; and quoted the actuarial formula, involving π, which, in answer to a question, he explained stood for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. His acquaintance, who had so far listened to the explanation with interest, interrupted him and exclaimed, "My dear friend, that must be a delusion, what can a circle have to do with the number of people alive at a given time?"
- W. W. Rouse Ball,
Mathematical Recreations and Essays
Around 30 years ago, when a friend and I were figuring out what value capacitor to use in a crossover network, he asked what π was doing in the formula. (Note that—as usual—it's 2π .) For most of the 1970s, the largest number known to be prime had only about six thousand decimal digits, fitting nicely on a page of line printer paper. In 1979, I printed 221701‑1 in an edition of 19 to give to friends. When I told my math professor I'd been printing out big prime numbers, he said, "aren't those for envelopes?"

I got a newly-released CD in the mail yesterday and they threw in a poster from a numbered edition of 100. I got number 99, which reminded me of the choice of whether to number things starting at 0 or 1. Programmers know that zero-based numbering rocks and that the advantages of starting at 1 are mostly variations on "because it's always been done that way."

For non-programmers: consider the celebration of round-numbered anniversaries. My car recently hit 100,000 miles, heralded by a bunch of digits in the odometer turning over at once. Contrast that to how a one‑based calendar works. It's natural to group years by their shared digits (e.g., "the seventies") but killjoys rear their pedantic heads every ten years to insist that the new {decade, century, millenium} starts at ...1 .

The next time I make a limited edition of something, specimens will be numbered starting at 0—even if that means inscribing them with n∊[0,18] . The US Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002 in the wake of several egregious corporate accounting scandals. It added (among other sections) 18 U.S. Code § 1519:
Whoever knowingly alters, destroys, mutilates, conceals, covers up, falsifies, or makes a false entry in any record, document, or tangible object with the intent to impede, obstruct, or influence the investigation or proper administration of any matter within the jurisdiction of any department or agency of the United States or any case filed under title 11, or in relation to or contemplation of any such matter or case, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than 20 years, or both.
How broadly should that sentence be interpreted? Is it only about records, or does any obstruction of justice by concealing a tangible object count?

A recent case, Yates v. United States, hinged on whether throwing illegally-caught fish back into the sea constituted concealing tangible objects under 18 USC § 1519. Last week the Supreme Court said no, in a 5-4 decision that didn't split along the usual partisan lines.

Given the level of intelligence not exhibited by the US legislature, parsing the laws they write is not my idea of a good time—although I can see how others are drawn to that line of work.

From the oral argument, it looks like the court wanted to limit the statute because it potentially imposed penalties out of proportion to crimes like the one at hand:
Chief Justice:
The fish were—how many inches short of permitted were the fish?
US Attorney:
The fish were—it varied fish by fish, Your Honor.
The most entertaining reading in Yates is in the dissent by Justice Kagan, who thinks fish are tangible objects:
A fish is, of course, a discrete thing that possesses physical form. See generally Dr. Seuss, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish (1960).
Today is Dr. Seuss's 111th birthday.