Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Error rates

I'm often asked for my email address. I try to partition my internet interactions, and in consequence use 5 gmail accounts. I know that PayPal will never email me at address X, or amazon at address Y--it helps with the signal to noise ratio.

One address was a complete dummy, used to test the integrity of a Saudi-backed group (they proved trustworthy, btw). The dummy account was idle for several years, until a 1-byte message appeared, which showed whoever was probing that the address was real. The amount of spam has been rising fairly steadily since then. And the rate of real messages. That dummy account got email from a woman wanting to talk about vacation pictures (I set her straight), and then nothing but spam until a few months ago, when somebody accidentally set it as the account reset location for his membership in some Belgian porn site. (I gather he got things straightened out, since the reset messages only showed up for a week.)

On another account, for the past year, I've been getting messages inviting some woman I've never heard of (and whose name bears no resemblance whatever to the account name!) to visit one or the other college. There's typically no place to ask to be removed from such lists. On another account, which I use for Craigslist, I just got Verizon's billing information for somebody in New England with a new cell phone. I spent a quarter hour on the phone being a good citizen about that one.

There were two other similar errors that I can't recall the details of. In sum, over the past 3 years, on 5 accounts, I've found 6 errors. Last year Google said there were over a billion accounts. Shall I extrapolate that and say there are of order 400 million errors per year? (plus or minus 160 million :-) ).(*) Not google's errors, of course--typos or misunderstandings or made-up addresses. At Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, they used to have a demonstration of phone number reverse lookup--type in a number and it would give the address. Pick a random number, and the chances were it was a real phone number...

(*) I know, the look-elsewhere effect--I wouldn't be posting if there hadn't been something recent--the real error rate is lower, of course.

Monday, September 18, 2017


We had to miss Mark's funeral because of my wife's surgery today.(*) The bio doesn't mention that he was also active in church. He was very alert and creative and a joy to be around.

The large photo of him, in among the flowers at the visitation, showed him looking dignified and happy in his lab coat--with a little chick on his shoulder.

He arranged for a few of our kids to do job shadows with him: one was startled to find that part of the day's duties involved blenderizing chicks.

(*)It looks like the surgery went OK, but of course the first day or two feels worse than before.

Friday, September 15, 2017


I remember a TV game show called "Name That Tune." Contestants were given a clue, and then a bidding war ensued starting at 7 notes: "I can name that tune in 4 notes." When one conceded, the piano player played the winning number of notes (sometimes only 1!), and the other tried to guess the name of the tune.

I don't know why I remembered that show yesterday, but I wondered: how well can you identify a tune from the last notes?

Friday, September 08, 2017


Crowley seems to have won the field. "Do what you will" seems to be the dominant touchstone for ethics. He meant, or at least professed to mean, that your true self would make appropriate decisions, but the simpler way (and I hope I may be forgiven for thinking it Crowley's true meaning) is to follow your impulses. We measure how strong we are by how strong our feelings and impulses are.

And in the society that resulted, the most valuable things are experiences. To see the Shire in New Zealand, or ride a hot-air balloon, or free climb El Capitan--OK, most of us aren't eager to take on the years of discipline to manage El Capitan, but watching the GoPro video is almost as good. Right?

A cruise in the Bahamas, see the pyramids of Egypt, a trip to Machu Picchu--what is on the usual bucket list? For that matter, what's on the unofficial bucket list--the things you want to experience but would be embarrassed to tell your friends?

The most valuable experiences are those that demand training and skill. The pinnacles of experience would be free-climbing K2, surfing a tsunami, sky-diving from orbit. Most settle for less. But after you've sky-dived, you will have to try to sky-dive while balancing on a skate-board, or while playing the accordion, or while trying to have sex.

Lots of people covet celebrity, which can be very decoupled from any accomplishment.

"Getting stuff" doesn't seem quite so fashionable, but I suspect that's because we're rich, we have most of the stuff we want anyhow, and we noticed that it wasn't making us happy enough. But next year's iPhone--that'll be the ultimate!

What doesn't seem to be so popular is writing a symphony or the next Moby Dick, or building cabinets that the Smithsonian displays. (Or becoming a saint, but that's never been popular) Accomplishment is harder than simple experience--is it also less popular? Accomplishment may be "what you will" but it involves a lot of grunt work or doing what other people want. And following rules--which conflicts with the "what you will" theme.

Maybe you can keep experiences longer than stuff, though dementia can steal those too, but at the end of the day you don't get to keep anything, unless you've invested with Someone in the resurrection business.

Can you tell I read Ecclesiastes recently?


The 'Internet of Things' Is Sending Us Back to the Middle Ages

What Joshua means by that is that more and more in our lives is not owned but rented/licensed, and therefore controlled by someone else. The most dramatic example he gives is John Deere farm equipment--the embedded software is owned by them, and therefore the whole system must be repaired by them alone.

Yet the expansion of the internet of things seems to be bringing us back to something like that old feudal model, where people didn’t own the items they used every day. In this 21st-century version, companies are using intellectual property law – intended to protect ideas – to control physical objects consumers think they own.

My phone is a Samsung Galaxy. Google controls the operating system and the Google Apps that make an Android smartphone work well. Google licenses them to Samsung, which makes its own modification to the Android interface, and sublicenses the right to use my own phone to me – or at least that is the argument that Google and Samsung make. Samsung cuts deals with lots of software providers which want to take my data for their own use.

Have you noticed an uptick in businesses cutting customers off for their political persuasions? I get a whiff of Hell's Pavement (wikipedia) too. "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that. You bought a Thermolux heater, and you know you're only supposed to buy P&D."

And everybody wants a revenue stream, not just a sale. Office 365 comes to mind here: You don't own it, you rent it. We use an older (licensed) version of Office on one machine, and LibreOffice on the rest.

Sunday, September 03, 2017


AVI is musing about measures of worth past and present. And future.

I was sure there was a chair behind me when I sat down. I trusted that bench to carry my weight. I trust that the gas station will take my cash in payment. I trust that if I push this button, the elevator will go up.

I trust that stores will be open when they say they will, and that the food inspectors keep the suppliers honest. I trust that the bus will go where the timetable says it will. I trust I don’t have to watch my back because my immediate neighbors will not try to kill me. (*)

These are important things for me.

For myself, I like "flexibility." There've been plenty of days when it would have been tempting to call in sick. And I have more interesting projects to work on than those I get paid to do.

We care a lot about faithfulness—in other people. Glen Campbell’s signature song Gentle on My Mind celebrated his lady’s faithfulness and his own "flexibility."

Not very fair, is it?

Some select people have succeeded in getting acclaim for their "flexibility," though usually under the name of "being true to him/her/itself." It seems that most of us just lose people's trust, though.

(*)About 2 blocks away I’m not so sure. If neighborhood and police reports are anything to go by.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

The ENArchs

Class stratification in France: the ENA-rchs and French unions:
For all what the history books show, the French never actually had a Revolution. It is possible to go to Russia, and live there for years, and never see a trace of the old aristocracy in the state institutions or companies. There is a definite hierarchy in place, but it is not one based on class. In France, by contrast, it doesn’t take one long to figure out that the entire government and major corporations are dominated by an elite consisting of the old French aristocratic families (take a look at the names, and see how many have de in them) and the cream of the crop of the French grandes ├ęcoles:


And as with the government and the electorate, stuffing the upper echelons full of well-connected elites results in a huge disconnect between the management and the workers. For it is largely true that, no matter how hard one works and how brilliant one is, you will never surpass the chosen few from the grandes ├ęcoles in terms of promotion and prestige. For sure, many try, and considerable efforts are made by the company management to convince the ordinary folk that if they show sufficient compliance, obedience, and work themselves to death they will be admitted to the hallowed ranks of the chosen few. But in reality, they are being sold an absolute lie.

Anybody with experience in France care to comment?

Found via White Sun of the Desert

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Actions and words

"But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, 'Son, go work today in the vineyard.' "And he answered, 'I will not'; but afterward he regretted it and went. "The man came to the second and said the same thing; and he answered, 'I will, sir'; but he did not go. "Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first."

If you haven't read Shannon Burns' essay on language and violence, do. Near the end is the story of Ricky at the recycling center.

Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you that the tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the kingdom of God before you."

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Ancient wars

A review of Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede wound up on my radar. The author (Aisha Harris) introduces it by comparing it to Medieval Times. I've been to the latter once: romanticized medieval culture, combat, and dining--not very closely related to anything SCA would put on. The real era often treated classes of luckless people very badly, and sometimes the conflicts involved things just as horrible as anything the 19'th century saw. But that was all 7-900 years ago, and the quarrels quit mattering long ago. Nobody but historians cares who was Duke of York in 1232, and we're apt to laugh at the differences between the warring sides--when we understand them at all. Not our oxen getting gored here...

In the American Civil War the North won, and by and large most folks in the North that I know don't give it a second thought anymore. Badger football is in Camp Randall stadium, and I doubt many fans realize the park memorializes a Union encampment/training ground. And when they do, they don't care. It's an ancient war. There are some customary attitudes one is supposed to have about it ("If this show were being performed in New York, he said, he’d think it was weird."), but little more. I can't speak for the South--I gather the hostility diminished over the years, and that in some circles there are customary attitudes one is supposed to have about it ("War was really about state's rights"--likely a big part of it for the rank and file, but definitely not true for the leaders). I've no idea how much emotion is invested in the war anymore.

But if the Dixie Stampede is any indication, where one of the pigs in the pig race is named for the iconic Lee, I suspect that there's a fair bit of "it's an ancient war" in the South too. What makes a glamorized Medieval Times-type amusement possible is that nobody deeply cares about the contest.

Aisha came to it as one for whom the themes of the Civil War were not ancient history. She found parts very awkward, sometimes tasteless or tone-deaf, and generally felt out of place. And she's right, of course(*). But I hope her children will be able to say "it's an ancient war." That might be a lot to hope for--maybe I should say her grandchildren.

The alternative to "it's an ancient war" is that new wars refer to the old in their laundry list of grievances. (Not that the old grievances matter as much as the new, but you want to show continuity in the villainy of your enemies.) That's not the road I want us going down.

(*) Although sometimes ... She complained that the "southerners" door label was light tan and the "northerners" was dark blue; this was tone-deaf. Um. If it had been reversed, would that have been better? I'd have thought the colors were a reference to the uniforms, not demography.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Babylonian "trig"

"Plimpton 322 predates Hipparchus by more than 1000 years," says Dr Wildberger. "It opens up new possibilities not just for modern mathematics research, but also for mathematics education. With Plimpton 322 we see a simpler, more accurate trigonometry that has clear advantages over our own."

When I read "However unlike today’s trigonometry, Babylonian mathematics used a base 60, or sexagesimal system, rather than the 10 which is used today. Because 60 is far easier to divide by three, experts studying the tablet, found that the calculations are far more accurate." I surmised that Sarah Knapton (Science Editor for the Telegraph) probably wouldn't know a sine if it hung blinking above the highway.

And it turns out the good Dr. Wildberger has a book to hawk. Said book is supposedly going to revolutionize the teaching of trig, apparently by using rational numbers and limits. (Don't reporters do any background checking anymore?)

Want a different view of the Plimpton tablet? It looks like a table of Pythagorean triples. Pythagorean triples are a fun topic that mathematicians have been working on for several thousand years now. I've played with them myself. The simplest one is the (3, 4, 5) triangle. The next is (5, 12, 13). There are an infinite number of them, and if it amused you (and apparently it amuses Dr Wildberger) you can get arbitrarily close to the shape of any right triangle with a Pythagorean triple triangle.

The traditional approach to trig links neatly with complex numbers and turns up smoothly in various branches of math. His scheme avoids some ambiguities with orientation, just as he claims, but also misses out on the connections. Poor choice.

In India, 1400 years ago, sine and cosine were approximated with parabolas, and I vaguely remember the idea being considerably older than that; so I'm not saying the Babylonians didn't do any trig. But this is not it.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017


"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

But what if the cause is not entirely worthy, or what if the man in the arena has some vices?

We, the pinnacle of moral development and the epitome of all virtues, weigh those vices and decide whether to acknowledge the other's achievements. We must not celebrate the poetry of this man because he was a thief and murderer, or the scientific achievements of that man because he wore the shirt his girlfriend gave him, or the courage and skill of a defeated enemy because you must have truth but never reconciliation. You can't celebrate a man who helped design a great experiment in liberty because he wasn't consistent.(*)

You've heard the complaints in the other direction too, haven't you? "You can't honor that Communist terrorist Nelson Mandela."

I don't fly a Confederate flag, nor want a statue of Lee in our neighborhood park. I get it that some people don't feel as though they were involved in any historical reconciliation. What gets up my nose is the envious insistence on our superiority and right to demand obedience to every single detail of today's rules.

Who died and made us God?

(*) You may have to fight the enemy because of his vices, but acknowledge his virtues--they probably make him a more dangerous enemy. You might even learn something from him.

Sunday, August 20, 2017