The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 11 Jul 2019

The New York City passport office

Earlier this week I reported on a good visit I had had to the Philadelphia offices of the Social Security Administration.

Philadelphia government offices, in my experience, are generally better than those I have visited elsewhere. I've never been to the New York DMV office (do they even have one?) but the Philadelphia ones are way better than the New Jersey ones I used to use. Instead of standing in line for forty-five minutes, you get a number and sit down until your number is called.

The passport office was the biggest surprise. I first went in to deal with some passport thing shortly after I arrived in Philadelphia, maybe 1990 or so. The office was clean and quiet, the line was short, I got my business done quickly. None of those is the case in the New York passport office.

The New York passport office. Wow. Where to begin? I want to say that it defies description. But, I learned later, it has been described by no less a person than Samuel Beckett:

The abode is a flattened cylinder with rubber walls fifty meters in circumference and eighteen meters high. It is constantly illuminated by a dim, yellow light, and the temperature fluctuates between 5°C to 25°C, sometimes in as small an interval as four seconds. This leads to extremely parched skin, and the bodies brush against each other like dry leaves. Kisses make an "indescribable sound" and the rubber makes the footsteps mostly silent. There are 200 inhabitants, or one per square meter. Some are related to each other. Some are even married to each other, but the conditions make recognition difficult.

Here's a story of the New York passport office told to me by a friend many years ago. He stood in the line for forty-five minutes, and when he reached the window, he handed over his forms. The clerk glared at him for a few seconds, then, without a word, pushed them back.

“Is something wrong?” asked my friend.

There was a long pause. The clerk, too disgusted or enraged to reply immediately, finally said “They're not stapled.”

“Oh,” said my friend. “I see you have a stapler on your desk there.”

You're supposed to staple them.”

“May I use your stapler?”

“No, your stapler is on the table at the back of the room.”

At this point my friend realized he was dealing with a monster. “Okay, but I can come right back to the window afterward, right?”

“No, you have to wait, like everyone else.”

At that moment my friend felt a tap on his shoulder. A man a few places behind him in line reached into his suit pocket and handed him a stapler. My friend says that as he stapled his papers and turned them in, the look on the clerk's face was of someone whose whole day had just been ruined.

“Thanks so much,” said my friend to Stapler Man. “Why did you happen to have a stapler in your pocket?”

“Oh,” said Stapler Man. “I do a lot of business at the passport office.”

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Sun, 07 Jul 2019

Calculating π with atan2()

[ I wrote this in 2007 and forgot to publish it. Or maybe I was planning to finish it first. But if so I have no idea what I was originally planning to say, so here we are. ]

In computer programs, it's quite common to need a numerical value for π. Often you see something like:

        #define PI 3.141592654

This has the drawback of not representing π as exactly as possible. But to do that in C probably requires putting in 16 digits after the decimal point, and most people don't have so much memorized. And anyway, you don't really know at compile time what the floating-point precision will be; some platforms support quad-width floats. So you can do better, maybe, by using the math library to calculate π. And people do:

        static double pi = 4*atan2(1,1);

The atan2(yx) function produces the (almost-)unique value θ from the range !![-\pi, \pi]!! such that a ray from the origin, passing through point (x, y), makes angle θ with the x-axis.

Diagram showing
the atan2() function.  A ray from the origin through the point (1,1)
is labeled “atan2(1,1) = π/4”.  A ray through an arbitrary point (x,y)
has the angle θ with the positive x-axis.  And a ray pointing along
the negative x-axis is labeled “atan2(0,-1) = π”.

Note that the arguments have y first and x second. For example, atan2(17, 0) returns !!\frac\pi 2!!, because a line at angle !!\frac\pi 2!! passes through the point (0, 17). Similarly, atan2(-17, 0) returns -!!\frac\pi 2!!.

You can use atan2 to calculate π, by using !!4·{\operatorname{atan}}2(1,1)!!, as I mentioned above. Many people do; Google searching finds hundreds of examples. The manual for the standard Perl module mentions this example.

But this is a bit strange. Why is this so well-known? Why calculate 4*atan2(1,1) when $$\pi = {\operatorname{atan}}2(0,-1)$$ produces the same result and is simpler?

(Obligatory IEEE 754 complaining: atan2 should return an always-unique value from !!(-\pi, \pi]!!, but I have to say “almost-unique” because as usual IEEE 754 fucks everything up, this time with its stupid distinction between 0 and -0.)

[ Addendum: Leah Neukirchen suggests that the atan2(1,1) is a translation from earlier systems that provide a single-argument atan function but no atan2. In those systems, there is no workable analogue of atan2(0, -1) because the transformation !!{\operatorname{atan}}2(y, x)\Rightarrow {\operatorname{atan}}\left(\frac yx\right)!! gives !!{\operatorname{atan}}(0)!!, which doesn't work for this application as it yields !!0!! instead of the desired !!\pi!!. And similarly in languages with atan but not atan2 there is no analogue of !!\pi = 2·{\operatorname{atan}}2(1, 0)!!. So the simplest thing you can do is pi = 4 * atan(1), and after the transformation above one gets !!\pi = 4·{\operatorname{atan}}2(1,1)!!. ]

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Tue, 02 Jul 2019

Philadelphia Slaughterhouse Hotel

More information about the mysterious slaughterhouse hotel has come to light, thanks to Chas. Owens, Pete Krawczyk, and this useful blog post by D.S. Rosenstein.

Most important, the perplexing “hotel” is not intended for humans. “Hotel” is apparently stockyard jargon for a place where livestock are quartered temporarily just prior to slaughter. I am so glad to have this cleared up.

Also, M. Rosenstein has a photograph of the fancy abattoir with the spires:

An isometric drawing of
the  abbatoir, which  is a handsome and
ornate building, featuring four blue spires at each corner. A grayscale photograph of
the abattoir depicted at left.  The Schuylkill river is in the
foreground.  The spires are clearly visible.  To left and right are
low storage buildings.  The abattoir has one very high lower story of
dark brick, surmounted by a lighter-colored cupola with tall windows
and an arched roof with a skylight.

They don't make industrial buildings like they used to. Check out the ornamental pattern in the bricks on the lower floor and the baluster along the riverside façade.

More details here.

[ Addendum: Josh Bevan of Hidden City Philadelphia on When Cattle Men Reigned In The West (of Philadelphia). ]

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Philadelphia Slaughterhouse Hotel

Yesterday on my other blog I posted about the most hilariously mislocated hotel I've ever heard of. It's the hotel that in 1910 was located in the Philadelphia stockyards, just the other side of the railroad tracks from the hog pens, between the slaughter house and the abbatoir:

A portion of a map, with buildings
marked in yellow and pink.  Several large yellow buildings, surrounded
and cut through with rail lines, are labeled CATTLE PENS.  Pink
buildings on the left and right are SLAUGHTER HOUSE and ABBATOIR.  In
between is a smaller pink building labeled HOTEL.  Just north of the
hotel are the HOG PENS.

I thought that would be the end of it, but Chas. Owens did a little digging around and found a picture of the hotel, provided by the Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network. It's from R. Hexamer's insurance survey of 1877. At that time, the building was partly a hotel and partly the offices of the Philadelphia Stock Yard Company.

An isometric drawing of the site of
the office and hotel building, with “Stable and Hay Loft” to its
right, “Abbatoir” in the foreground, and “Pump House” in the
background.  These buildings, being brick, are colored pink; others
made of wood are colored yellow.  The abbatoir is a handsome and
ornate building, featuring four blue spires at each corner.

The survey includes a map of the site and a description of the facilities. Here's the detailed plan of the hotel:

Plan of the buildings,
including descriptions (Offices, 2 story, 43 feet by 78; hotel, 3
story, 43 feet by 100; both brick
with tin roof) and other details.

The full image is 105 MB:

An isometric drawing of the site of
the office and hotel building, with “Stable and Hay Loft” to its
right, “Abbatoir” in the foreground, and “Pump House” in the
background.  These buildings, being brick, are colored pink; others
made of wood are colored yellow.  The abbatoir is a handsome and
ornate building, featuring four blue spires at each corner.

None of these buildings is still standing. (As I mentioned yesterday, the site is now occupied by the Cira Centre.) But the neighborhood's history as the center of Philadelphia's meatpacking district is not completely lost. According to this marvelous article from Hidden City Philadelphia, in 1906 the D.B. Martin company built a new combination office building and slaughterhouse only two blocks away at 3000 Market Street. Here's my favorite detail from the article:

Five hundred head of cattle at a time would be held on the rooftop cow pens, right above the heads of the company’s executives,

That building still stands, although I believe it's no longer used as a slaughterhouse.

[ Addendum 20190702: The “hotel” is explained: it is a temporary residence for livestock, not for humans. ]

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Tue, 25 Jun 2019

Projection morphisms are (not) epic

I don't have a good catalog in my head of basic theorems of category theory. Every time I try to think about category theory, I get stuck on really basic lemmas like “can I assume that a product !!1×A!! is canonically isomorphic to !!A!!?” Or “Suppose !!f:A→B!! is both monic and epic. Must it be an isomorphism?” Then I get sidetracked trying to prove those lemmas, or else I assume they are true, go ahead, and even if I'm right I start to lose my nerve.

So for years I've wanted to make up a book of every possible basic theorem of category theory, in order from utterly simple to most difficult, and then prove every theorem. Then I'd know all the answers, or if I didn't, I could just look in the book. There would be a chapter on products with a long list of plausible-seeming statements:

  1. If !!P_1!! and !!P_2!! are both products of some !!A!! and !!B!!, then !!P_1\cong P_2!!
  2. !!A×B \cong B×A!!
  3. !!(A×B)×C \cong A×(B×C)!!
  4. !!1×A\cong A!!
  5. !!0×A\cong 0!!
  6. !!A×A\cong A!! if and only if !!A!! is initial
  7. If !!f!! and !!g!! are both monic, then so is !!f×g!!
  8. If !!f×g!! is monic, so are !!f!! and !!g!!
  9. (etc…)

and each one would either be annotated, Snopes-style, with “True”, or with a brief description of a counterexample.

On Sunday I thought I'd give it a shot, and I started with:

Suppose !!A×B!! is a product with projection morphism !!π_1:A×B→A!!. Then !!π_1!! is epic.

This seems very plausible, because how could the product possibly work if its left-hand component couldn't contain any possible element of !!A!!?

I struggled with this for rather a long time but I just got more and more stuck. To prove that !!π_1!! is an epimorphism I need to have !!g,h:A→C!! and then show that !!g ∘ π_1 = h ∘ π_1!! only when !!g=h!!. But !!π_1!! being a projection arrow doesn't help with this, because products are all about arrows into !!A!! and !!B!! and here I need to show something about arrows out of !!A!!.

And there's no hope that I could get any leverage by introducing some arrows into !!A!! and !!B!!, because there might not be any arrows into !!B!!. (Other than !!\text{id}_B!!, of course, but then you need an arrow !!B→A!! and that might not exist either.) Or what if I consider how the arrows from !!A×B!! factor through !!C×B!! — ah ah ah, not so fast! !!C×B!! might not exist!

I eventually gave up and looked it up online, and discovered that, in fact, the claim is not true in general. It's not even true in Set. The left projection !!π_1: X×\emptyset → X!! is not epic. (Which answers my rhetorical question above that asks “how could the product possibly work if…”)

So, uh, victory, I guess? I set out to prove something that is false, so failing to produce a proof is the best possible outcome.

And I can make lemonade out of the lemons. I couldn't prove the theorem, and my ideas about why not were basically right. Now I ought to be able to look carefully at what additional tools I might be able to use to make the proof go through anyway, and those then become part of the statement of the theorem, which then would become something like “If all binary products exist in a category with an initial object, then projection morphisms are epic.”

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Mon, 24 Jun 2019

Cakes and Ale

I just finished Cakes and Ale, by W. Somerset Maugham. I have enjoyed Maugham all my life, and this is considered one of his best books (it was his personal favorite) but I hadn't read it before.

I enjoyed it a lot. It has a story, but at the center instead of a big problem there is a character, Rose Gann. (To other characters she appears to be a big problem, but she sails placidly through the book doing what she wants.) She's really sweet, and I'm glad I had a chance to meet her.

The other side of the book is that it is a very pointed satire of the social-climbing literary circles in which Maugham traveled. Another such satire is his short story The Creative Impulse. That one was exaggerated for comic effect. This one isn't, and because of that it's much more biting. Rose, who is not literary, is contrasted with the literary characters, who are hypocritical, self-serving, manipulative, and pretentious. Rose is none of those things.

The book is quasi-autobiographical, the way Of Human Bondage or the Ashenden stories are. The narrator is named Willie Ashenden and the pattern of his life is the same as Maugham's, growing up in Whitstable with his vicar uncle (in the book it's called “Blackstable”) and then going to medical school in London, etc. Rose Gann was inspired by a woman that Maugham had been in love with. There was a scandal when the book was published; one of the characters was widely understood to be a rather vicious parody of Maugham's literary acquaintance Hugh Walpole. (Maugham denied it, but I've also read that later, when the danger of a libel suit was past, he confessed it was true.)

Parts of Cakes and Ale reminded me strongly of Robertson Davies' The Manticore. In both books, a famous and important man has died and everyone is rushing around to grab a piece of his legacy. In both cases there's also an embarrassing first wife that everyone wants to write out of the story. I imagine Davies had probably read Cakes and Ale and I wondered if he had been thinking of it.

Davies wrote an essay about Maugham, which I suppose I've read, but I don't remember what he said.

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Thu, 20 Jun 2019

Sufficiently advanced software

A couple of days ago my sleepy brain mashed up Clarke's Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

and Hanlon's Razor:

Never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity.

to produce these words of wisdom:

Any sufficiently advanced software is indistinguishable from malice.

(Why yes, I had spent the evening dealing with Git. Why do you ask?)

This sounded like something Bryan Horstmann-Allen would have said, so with his permission, I am naming it after him.

BDHA's Law? BDHA's Razor? No!

Dated '80s graphic featuring neon-lit brushed-metal letters that

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Mon, 17 Jun 2019

Don't let the man page write checks that the programmer can't cash

My big work project is called “Greenlight”. It's a Git branch merging service. After you've pushed a remote branch, say mjd.fix-bugs, you use a very thin client program to ask the Greenlight server to land your branch on master and publish it for you:

    greenlight submit mjd.fix-bugs

Greenlight analyzes the branch to see if it touches any sensitive code that requires signoffs. If so it contacts the correct people on Slack, and asks them to review it. Once they have approved it, Greenlight rebases the branch onto the current master and pushes the result back to master. If the push fails, it retries silently. Throughout, it communicates via Slack what is going on.

A user, Locksher, complained last week that it didn't do what he had expected. He had a Git pre-push hook he had written. Whenever he ran git push, his pre-push hook would look to see if he was pushing to master. If so, it would look at the messages of the commits he was trying to push. If any of them contained WIP or !fixup or !squash, it would abort the push.

With Greenlight, this check wasn't done, because Locksher never pushed to master himself. Instead he pushed to some topic branch, and then asked Greenlight to publish it to master, which it did, including his WIP commits. Oops!

Locksher asked if it was possible to have Greenlight “respect local hooks”. Once I understood what he wanted, my first suggestion was that he wrap the greenlight client in a shell script that did the check he wanted. My second suggestion, less work for him but also less immediate, was that the Greenlight client could look in .git/hooks for a greenlight-pre-submit hook, and run that before communicating with the server, aborting the request if the hook failed. I think this would adequately solve the problem, especially if the calling convention for the new hook was identical to that of pre-push. Then you would just:

        ln -s pre-push .git/hooks/greenlight-pre-submit

and get exactly the desired behavior. I said that if Locksher wanted to implement this, I would include it in the standard client, or alternatively I would open a ticket to implement it myself, eventually.

Locksher suggested instead that the greenlight client configuration should support this:

    respect-git-hooks = true

I didn't have time then to answer in detail, so I just said:

I consider that very unlikely.

Here's what I said to him once I did have time to answer in detail:

  1. There are currently 23 documented Git hooks, and it's not immediately clear what it would mean to “respect” many of them. I'd have to go over the man page and decide, for each one, what the behavior should be, then possibly implement it, and then document it. Just to pick one example, should Greenlight “respect” your prepare-commit-message hook? If so, how?

  2. Even for the hooks where the correct behavior seemed clear to me, it might seem clearly something else to someone else. So the feature is severely under-specified and seems likely to cause confusion. I foresee a future of inquiries like “I set respect-git-hooks but Greenlight didn't run my pre-auto-gc hook.”

  3. It is an open-ended promise. The way the option is phrased, it guarantees to “respect” every hook. So it commits me to keep track of what new hooks are introduced in every future version of Git, and to decide what to do about each of them.

  4. Since greenlight runs on your local machine, the local version of Git may vary. What if the behavior of Git's pre-cake-slicing hook changes between Git 1.24 and Git 1.26? Now Greenlight will have to implement two behaviors, and look at your local Git version to decide what to do.

Oh, and 5, it is a YAGNI.

In contrast, the functionality provided by greenlight-pre-submit is something someone has actually asked for. It is small, sharply bounded in scope and its definition is completely under my control.

I will elaborate a little on the main items 1–2, that different people might have different ideas about what it means to “respect” a local hook. Consider Locksher's specific request, for greenlight to “respect” his pre-push hook. Another user, say Zubi, could object, quite reasonably, that greenlight submit is not the same as git push, and that the correct way for it to “respect” her pre-push hook is to ignore it. “I want my pre-push hook run when I push a branch,” she might say, “not when I do greenlight submit.” Who could argue with that? (Other than Locksher, of course.)

So then I would have to add an escape hatch for Zubi, so that everyone who didn't want Locksher's feature would have to affirmatively opt out of it.


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Sat, 08 Jun 2019

The inside-outness of category theory

I have pondered category theory periodically for the past 35 years, but not often enough to really stay comfortable with it. Today I was pondering again. I wanted to prove that !!1×A \cong A!! and I was having trouble. I eventually realized my difficulty: my brain had slipped out of category theory mode so that the theorem I was trying to prove did not even make sense.

In most of mathematics, !!1\times A!! would denote some specific entity and we would then show that that entity had a certain property. For example, in set theory we might define !!1\times A!! to be some set, say the set of all Kuratowski pairs !!\langle \varnothing, a\rangle!! where !!a\in A!!:

$$ 1×A =_{\text{def}} \{ z : \exists a\in A : z = \{\{\varnothing\}, \{\varnothing, a\}\} \} $$

and then we would explicitly construct a bijection !!f:A\leftrightarrow 1×A!!:

$$ f(a) = \{\{\varnothing\}, \{\varnothing, a\}\}$$

In category theory, this is not what we do. Everything is less concrete. !!\times!! looks like an operator, one that takes two objects and yields a third. It is not. !!1\times A!! does not denote any particular entity with any particular construction. (Nor does !!1!!, for that matter.) Instead, it denotes an unspecified entity, which happens to have a certain universal property, perhaps just one of many such entities with that property, and there is no canonical representative of the class. It's a mistake to think of it as a single thing, and it's also a mistake to ask the question the way I did ask it. You can't show that !!1×A!! has any specific property, because it's not a specific thing. All you can do is show that anything with the one required universal property must also have the other property. We should rephrase the question like this:

Let !!1×A!! be a product of !!1!! and !!A!!. Then !!1×A\cong A!!.

Maybe a better phrasing is:

Let !!1×A!! be some object that is a product of !!1!! and !!A!!. Then !!1×A\cong A!!.

The notation is still misleading, because it looks like !!1×A!! denotes the result of some operation, and it isn't. We can do a little better:

Let !!B!! be a product of !!1!! and !!A!!. Then !!B\cong A!!.

That it, that's the real theorem. It seems at first to be more difficult — where do we start? But it's actually easier! Because now it's enough to simply prove that !!A!! itself is a product of !!1!! and !!A!!, which is easily done: its projection morphisms are evidently !!! !! and !!{\text{id}}_A!!. And by a previous theorem that all products are isomorphic, any other product, such as !!B!!, must be isomorphic to this one, which is !!A!! itself.

(We can similarly imagine that any theorem that mentions !!1!! is preceded by the phrase “Let !!1!! be some terminal object.”)

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Fri, 07 Jun 2019

Disco ball technology

A little while ago I wrote:

I think a disco ball would not be out of place at Versailles.

I just remembered that good mirror technology is perhaps too recent for disco balls to have been at Versailles. Hmmm. Early mirrors were made of polished metal or even stone, clearly unsuitable. Back-silvering of glass wasn't invented until the mid-19th century.

Still, a disco ball is a very forgiving application of mirrors. For a looking-glass you want a large, smooth, flat mirror with no color distortion. For a disco ball you don't need any of those things. Large sheets of flat glass were unavailable before the invention of float glass at the end of the 19th century, but for a disco ball you don't need plate glass, just little shards, leftovers even.

The 17th century could produce mirrors by gluing metal foil to the back of a piece of glass, so I wonder why they didn't. They wouldn't have been able to spotlight it, but they certainly could have hung it under an orbiculum. Was there a technological limitation, or did nobody happen to think of it?

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Tue, 21 May 2019

Super-obscure bug in my code

Say $dt is a Perl DateTime object.

You are allowed to say

  $dt->add( days => 2 )
  $dt->subtract( days => 2 )

Today Jeff Boes pointed out that I had written a program that used

  $dt->add({ days => 2 })

which as far as I can tell is not documented to work. But it did work. (I wrote it in 2016 and would surely have noticed by now if it hadn't.) Jeff told me he noticed when he copied my code and got a warning. When I tried it, no warning.

It turns out that

  $dt->add({ days => 2 })
  $dt->subtract({ days => 2 })

both work, except that:

  1. The subtract call produces a warning (add doesn't! and Jeff had changed my add to subtract)

  2. If you included an end_of_month => $mode parameter in the arguments to subtract, it would get lost.

Also, the working-ness of what I wrote is a lucky fluke. It is undocumented (I think) and works only because of a quirk of the implementation. ->add passes its arguments to DateTime::Duration->new, which passes them to Params::Validate::validate. The latter is documented to accept either form. But its use by DateTime::Duration is an undocumented implementation detail.

->subtract works the same way, except that it does a little bit of preprocessing on the arguments before calling DateTime::Duration->new. That's where the warning comes from, and why end_of_month won't work with the hashref form.

(All this is as of version 1.27. The current version is 1.51. Matthew Horsfall points out that 1.51 does not raise a warning, because of a different change to the same interface.)

This computer stuff is amazingly complicated. I don't know how anyone gets anything done.

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Mon, 20 May 2019

Alphabetical order in Korean

Alphabetical order in Korean has an interesting twist I haven't seen in any other language.

(Perhaps I should mention up front that Korean does not denote words with individual symbols the way Chinese does. It has a 24-letter alphabet, invented in the 15th century.)

Consider the Korean word “문어”, which means “octopus”. This is made up of five letters ㅁㅜㄴㅇㅓ. The ㅁㅜㄴ are respectively equivalent to English ‘m’, ‘oo‘ (as in ‘moon‘), and ‘n’. The ㅇis silent, just like ‘k’ in “knit”. The ㅓis a vowel we don't have in English, partway between “saw” and “bud”. Confusingly, it is usually rendered in Latin script as ‘eo’. (It is the first vowel in “Seoul”, for example.) So “문어” is transliterated to Latin script as “muneo”, or “munǒ”, and approximately pronounced “moon-aw”.

But as you see, it's not written as “ㅁㅜㄴㅇㅓ” but as “문어”. The letters are grouped into syllables of two or three letters each. (Or, more rarely, four or even five.)

Now consider the word “무해” (“harmless”) This word is made of the four letters ㅁㅜㅎㅐ. The first two, as before, are ‘m’, ‘oo’. The ㅎ is ‘h’ and the ‘ㅐ’ is a vowel that is something like the vowel in “air”, usually rendered in Latin script as ‘ae’. So it is written “muhae” and pronounced something like “moo-heh”.

ㅎis the last letter of the alphabet. Because ㅎfollows ㄴ, you might think that 무해 would follow 문어. But it does not. In Korean, alphabetization is also done at the syllable level. The syllable 무 comes before 문, because it is a proper prefix, so 무해 comes before 문어. If the syllable break in 문어 were different, causing it to be spelled 무너, it would indeed come before 무해. But it isn't, so it doesn't. (“무너” does not seem to be an actual word, but it appears as a consitutent in words like 무너지다 (“collapse”) and 무너뜨리다 (“demolish”) which do come before 무해 in the dictionary.)

As far as I know, there is nothing in Korean analogous to the English alphabet song.

Or to alphabet soup! Koreans love soup! And they love the alphabet, so why no hangeul-tang? There is a hundred dollar bill lying on the sidewalk here, waiting to be picked up.

[ Previously, but just barely related: Medieval Chinese typesetting technique. ]

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