Tue, 28 Jan 2020
Today I learned that James Blaine (U.S. Speaker of the House, senator, perennial presidential candidate, and Secretary of State under Presidents Cleveland, Garfield, and Arthur; previously) was the namesake of the notorious “Blaine Amendments”. These are still an ongoing legal issue!
The Blaine Amendment was a proposed U.S. constitutional amendment rooted in anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant sentiment, at a time when the scary immigrant bogeymen were Irish and Italian Catholics.
The amendment would have prevented the U.S. federal government from providing aid to any educational institution with a religious affiliation; the specific intention was to make Catholic parochial schools ineligible for federal education funds. The federal amendment failed, but many states adopted it and still have it in their state constitutions.
Here we are 150 years later and this is still an issue! It was the subject of the 2017 Supreme Court case Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Inc. v. Comer. My quick summary is:
It's interesting to me that now that Blaine is someone I recognize, he keeps turning up. He was really important, a major player in national politics for thirty years. But who remembers him now?
Fri, 17 Jan 2020
As Middle English goes, Pylgremage of the Sowle (unknown author, 1413) is much easier to read than Chaucer:
I initially misread “Enuye” as “ennui”, understanding it as sloth. But when sloth showed up at the end, I realized that it was simpler than I thought, it's just “envy”.
Thu, 16 Jan 2020
In 2007 I described an impractical scheme to turn the U.S. into a dictatorship, or to make any other desired change to the Constitution, by having Congress admit a large number of very small states, which could then ratify any constitutional amendments deemed desirable.
An anonymous writer (probably a third-year law student) has independently discovered my scheme, and has proposed it as a way to “fix” the problems that they perceive with the current political and electoral structure. The proposal has been published in the Harvard Law Review in an article that does not appear to be an April Fools’ prank.
The article points out that admission of new states has sometimes been done as a political hack. It says:
Specifically, the proposal is that the new states should be allocated out of territory currently in the District of Columbia (which will help ensure that they are politically aligned in the way the author prefers), and that a suitable number of new states might be one hundred and twenty-seven.
Tue, 14 Jan 2020
[ Previously ]
A couple of readers wrote to discuss tripoints, which are places where three states or other regions share a common border point.
Doug Orleans told me about the Tri-States Monument near Port Jervis, New York. This marks the approximate location of the Pennsylvania - New Jersey - New York border. (The actual tripoint, as I mentioned, is at the bottom of the river.)
I had independently been thinking about taking a drive around the entire border of Pennsylvania, and this is just one more reason to do that. (Also, I would drive through the Delaware Water Gap, which is lovely.) Looking into this I learned about the small town of North East, so-named because it's in the northeast corner of Erie County. It's also the northernmost point in Pennsylvania.
(I got onto a tangent about whether it was the northeastmost point in Pennsylvania, and I'm really not sure. It is certainly an extreme northeast point in the sense that you can't travel north, east, or northeast from it without leaving the state. But it would be a very strange choice, since Erie County is at the very western end of the state.)
My putative circumnavigation of Pennsylvanias would take me as close as possible to Pennsylvania's only international boundary, with Ontario; there are Pennsylvania - Ontario tripoints with New York and with Ohio. Unfortunately, both of them are in Lake Erie. The only really accessible Pennsylvania tripoints are the one with West Virginia and Maryland (near Morgantown) and Maryland and Delaware (near Newark).
These points do tend to be marked, with surveyors’ markers if nothing else. Loren Spice sent me a picture of themselves standing at the tripoint of Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma, not too far from Joplin, Missouri.
While looking into this, I discovered the Kentucky Bend, which is an exclave of Kentucky, embedded between Tennessee and Missouri:
It appears that what happened here is that the border between Kentucky and Missouri is the river, with Kentucky getting the territory on the left bank, here the south side. And the border between Kentucky and Tennessee is a straight line, following roughly the 36.5 parallel, with Kentucky getting the territory north of the line. The bubble is south of the river but north of the line.
So these three states have not one tripoint, but three, all only a few miles apart!
Finally, I must mention the Lakes of Wada, which are not real lakes, but rather are three connected subsets of the unit disc which have the property that every point on their boundaries is a tripoint.
Thu, 09 Jan 2020
I'm a fan of geographic oddities, and a few years back when I took a road trip to circumnavigate Chesapeake Bay, I planned its official start in New Castle, DE, which is noted for being the center of the only circular state boundary in the U.S.:
The red blob is New Castle. Supposedly an early treaty allotted to Delaware all points west of the river that were within twelve miles of the State House in New Castle.
I drove to New Castle, made a short visit to the State House, and then began my road trip in earnest. This is a little bit silly, because the border is completely invisible, whether you are up close or twelve miles away, and the State House is just another building, and would be exactly the same even if the border were actually a semicubic parabola with its focus at the second-tallest building in Wilmington.
Whatever, I like going places, so I went to New Castle to check it out. Perhaps it was silly, but I enjoyed going out of my way to visit a point of purely geometric significance. The continuing popularity of Four Corners as a tourist destination shows that I'm not the only one. I don't have any plans to visit Four Corners, because it's far away, kinda in the middle of nowhere, and seems like rather a tourist trap. (Not that I begrudge the Navajo Nation whatever they can get from it.)
Four Corners is famously the only point in the U.S. where four state borders coincide. But a couple of weeks ago as I was falling asleep, I had the thought that there are many triple-border points, and it might be fun to visit some. In particular, I live in southeastern Pennsylvania, so the Pennsylvania-New Jersey-Delaware triple point must be somewhere nearby. I sat up and got my phone so I could look at the map, and felt foolish:
As you can see, the triple point is in the middle of the Delaware River, as of course it must be; the entire border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey, all the hundreds of miles from its northernmost point (near Port Jervis) to its southernmost (shown above), runs right down the middle of the Delaware.
I briefly considered making a trip to get as close as possible, and photographing the point from land. That would not be too inconvenient. Nearby Marcus Hook is served by commuter rail. But Marcus Hook is not very attractive as a destination. Having been to Marcus Hook, it is hard for me to work up much enthusiasm for a return visit.
But I may look into this further. I usually like going places and being places, and I like being surprised when I get there, so visting arbitrarily-chosen places has often worked out well for me. I see that the Pennsylvania-Delaware-Maryland triple border is near White Clay Creek State Park, outside of Newark, DE. That sounds nice, so perhaps I will stop by and take a look, and see if there really is white clay in the creek.
Who knows, I may even go back to Marcus Hook one day.
[ Addendum 20190114: More about nearby tripoints and related matters. ]
Wed, 08 Jan 2020
In a recent article about Unix utilities, I wrote:
This is wrong, as was kindly pointed out to me by Luke Shumaker. The
But for division,
Unfortunately, if you don't set it — this is the stupid part —
Long, long ago I was in the habit of manually entering
Many thanks to Luke Shumaker for pointing this out. M. Shumaker adds:
Tue, 07 Jan 2020
Looking up the letter E in the Big Dictionary, I learned that British sociologists were dividing social classes into lettered strata long before Aldous Huxley did it in Brave New World (1932). The OED quoted F. G. D’Aeth, “Present Tendencies of Class Differentiation”, The Sociological Review, vol 3 no 4, October, 1910:
The OED doesn't quote further, but D’Aeth goes on to explain:
Notice that in D’Aeth's classification, the later letters are higher classes. According to the OED this was typical; they also quote a similar classification from 1887 in which A was the lowest class. But the OED labels this sort of classification, with A at the bottom, as “obsolete”.
In Brave New World, you will recall, it is the in the other direction, with the Alphas (administrators and specialists), at the top, and the Epsilons (menial workers with artificially-induced fetal alcohol syndrome) at the bottom.
The OED's later quotations, from 1950–2014, all follow Huxley in putting class A at the top and E at the bottom. They also follow Huxley in having only five classes instead of seven or eight. (One has six classes, but two of them are C1 and C2.)
I wonder how much influence Brave New World had on this sort of classification. Was anyone before Huxley dividing British society into five lettered classes with A at the top?
[ By the way, I have been informed that this paper, which I have linked above, is “Copyright © 2020 by The Sociological Review Publication Limited. All rights are reserved.” This is a bald lie. Sociological Review Publication Limited should be ashamed of themselves. ]
Fri, 03 Jan 2020
Sometimes I look through the HTTP referrer logs to see if anyone is
talking about my blog. I use the
This has obvious defects, but it works well enough. But every time I
used it, I wondered: is it faster to do the
After years of idly wondering this, I have finally looked into it. The point of this article is that the investigation produced the following pipeline, which I think is a great example of the Unix “tools” philosophy:
for i in $(seq 20); do TIME="%U+%S" time \ sh -c f 11 access.2020-01-0* | grep -v plover | count > /dev/null' \ 2>&1 | bc -l ; done | addup
I typed this on the command line, with no backslashes or newlines, so it actually looked like this:
for i in $(seq 20); do TIME="%U+%S" time sh -c 'f 11 access.2020-01-0* | grep -v plover |count > /dev/null' 2>&1 | bc -l ; done | addup
Okay, what's going on here? The pipeline I actually want to analyze,
for i in $(seq 20); do TIME="%U+%S" time \ sh -c '¿SOMETHING? > /dev/null' 2>&1 | bc -l ; done | addup
Continuing to work from inside to out, we're going to use
The default format for the report printed by
[ Addendum 20200108: We don't actually need
Collapsing the details I just discussed, we have:
for i in $(seq 20); do (run once and emit the total CPU time) done | addup
1 2 3 … 19 20
Here we don't actually care about the output (we never actually use
All together, the command runs and prints a single number like
(To do this right we also need to test a null command, say
because we might learn that 95% of the reported time is spent in running the shell, so the actual difference between the two pipelines is twenty times as large as we thought. I did this; it turns out that the time spent to run the shell is insignificant.)
What to learn from all this? On the one hand, Unix wins: it's
supposed to be quick and easy to assemble small tools to do whatever it is
you're trying to do. When
On the other hand, gosh, what a weird mishmash of stuff I had to
remember or look up. The
Was it a win overall? What if Unix had less compositionality but I could use it with less memorized trivia? Would that be an improvement?
I don't know. I rather suspect that there's no way to actually reach that hypothetical universe. The bizarre mishmash of weirdness exists because so many different people invented so many tools over such a long period. And they wouldn't have done any of that inventing if the compositionality hadn't been there. I think we don't actually get to make a choice between an incoherent mess of composable paraphernalia and a coherent, well-designed but noncompositional system. Rather, we get a choice between a incoherent but useful mess and an incomplete, limited noncompositional system.
(Notes to self: (1) In connection with
[ Addendum: Add this to the list of “weird mishmash of trivia”: There are two
[ Addenda 20200104: (1) Perl's module ecosystem is another example of a
successful incoherent mess of composable paraphernalia. (2) Of the
seven trivia I included in my “weird mishmash”, five were related to
[ Addendum 20200104: And, of course, this is exactly what Richard Gabriel was thinking about in Worse is Better. Like Gabriel, I'm not sure. ]
Thu, 02 Jan 2020
Back in early 1995, I worked on an incredibly early e-commerce site.
One of their clients was Eddie Bauer. They wanted to put up a product catalog with a page for each product, say a sweatshirt, and the page should show color swatches for each possible sweatshirt color.
“Sure, I can do that,” I said. “But you have to understand that the user may not see the color swatches exactly as you expect them to.” Nobody would need to have this explained now, but in early 1995 I wasn't sure the catalog folks would understand. When you have a physical catalog you can leaf through a few samples to make sure that the printer didn't mess up the colors.
But what if two months down the line the Eddie Bauer people were shocked by how many complaints customers had about things being not quite the right color, “Hey I ordered mulberry but this is more like maroonish.” Having absolutely no way to solve the problem, I didn't want to to land in my lap, I wanted to be able to say I had warned them ahead of time. So I asked “Will it be okay that there will be variations in how each customer sees the color swatches?”
The catalog people were concerned. Why wouldn't the colors be the same? And I struggled to explain: the customer will see the swatches on their monitor, and we have no idea how old or crappy it might be, we have no idea how the monitor settings are adjusted, the colors could be completely off, it might be a monochrome monitor, or maybe the green part of their RGB video cable is badly seated and the monitor is displaying everything in red, blue, and purple, blah blah blah… I completely failed to get the point across in a way that the catalog people could understand.
They looked more and more puzzled, but then one of them brightened up suddenly and said “Oh, just like on TV!”
“Yes!” I cried in relief. “Just like that!”
“Oh sure, that's no problem.” Clearly, that was what I should have said in the first place, but I hadn't thought of it.
I no longer have any idea who it was that suddenly figured out what Geek Boy's actual point was, but I'm really grateful that they did.
Tue, 17 Dec 2019
In 2006 I wrote an essay about Neal Stephenson's not-really-a-trilogy “Baroque Cycle” and then in 2017 another about his novel Seveneves. I was telling some folks about this, and regretting that I had never written about Anathem, which is my favorite of his books, when I remembered that long ago I wrote about his first novel The Big U.
I have mentioned The Big U before, in connection with Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind theory, saying
I still wonder this. I should write up a summary of the Jaynes someday.
I liked The Big U better than Stephenson did. Wikipedia says:
Here's my discussion of it, originally posted to
It was the only one of Stephenson's books that I liked. (I have not yet read Cryptonomicon or Zodiac.)
In Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, I felt that Stephenson let the plot run away from him. He introduced characters and macguffins that were cool, but ultimately irrelevant. About halfway through Snow Crash, I said "Geez, if he doesn't stop bringing in new stuff, he's never going to finish dealing with the stuff he has." Three quarters of the way through, I said "Geez, he's never going to be able to tie up all these loose ends." And by the end of the book, that's what had happened. There's a famous saying about how you mustn't roll a cannon onto the stage in Act I unless you're planning to fire it in Act III. Snow Crash left more unfired cannons lying around the stage than any book I can remember reading. There was a lot to like in both books, but at the end I was left scratching my head, wondering what story had been told.
The Big U, in contrast, is a lot tighter. It is the story of one year at the U, from September to May, at the end of which SPOILER. Stephenson brought a whole bunch of stuff on stage and used every bit of it. The railgun was foreshadowed for the entire novel, and I said to myself "If he doesn't use the damn railgun, I'm never reading another one of his books." But he did get satisfactory use out of the railgun. There were no extraneous characters who were abandoned in the middle of the book with no explanation. The book had a beginning, a middle and an end. If Snow Crash had an end, I couldn't find it.
Well, if someone didn't find the book painfully bad, then they might not feel that it suffered by comparison with his 'great' later works. (Which in my opinion are overrated; that's another post for another day.) So this is a non sequitur.
There was no reason to have thought that, because almost all the criticisms you have of The Big U are quite personal.
Let's look at them:
Just because you didn't think it was funny doesn't mean that other people will agree. Sometimes you can conclude that almost nobody could possibly find it funny (for example, because it was derivative or offensive) but I don't think any of those reasons apply it here. It appears that you made a personal judgment ("I don't think it's funny") and then extrapolated that to cover the entire universe. ("Therefore, it isn't funny, and nobody could possibly think it is funny.")
I thought it was funny. I almost never laugh when I read a book. I laughed when I read The Big U.
Same thing here. You didn't like the characters, but that doesn't mean that nobody will like them, and I don't know why you thought that nobody would like them. What didn't you like about them? Did they seem improbable? Did they behave irrationally? Could you give an example? I thought the jerky college students mostly behaved like jerky college students. When I was in college, several of the boys on my hall decided to take up chewing tobacco; they then spat their chaws into the hall water fountain and the floors of the showers, so that everyone else could enjoy it as much as they did. They would have fit right in at the Big U.
I liked the characters I was supposed to like and disliked the characters I was supposed to dislike.
This doesn't even reach the level of criticism.
Finally a substantive criticism!
I don't have a very clear recollection of the book (I read it only once, several years ago) but I seem to remember that some of the groups involved in the final showdown were
There are a lot of criticisms you could make of this book, but I don't think "stereotyped groups engage in firefight" is one of them. Firefight, yes. Stereotyped groups? How many novels have you read that involve a pack of bicameral college students whose god is an electric fan? Maybe the giant mutant sewer rats are old-hat. I saw them as more of an homage.
I don't think that the book was just an excuse for the firefight. The book builds towards the firefight in the same way that any book builds towards its climactic scene. But the firefight isn't the only reason for the book to exist. It has a theme, which is that the architecture of the Big U influences the behavior of its inhabitants, and because architecture is horrible, it makes the inhabitants horrible. The theme is developed, with many examples: The U is insular and inward-looking, so the inhabitants become selfish and arrogant. The U itself is made of identical parts in precisely artificial geometric arrangements, so the inhabitants lose their individuality and become mobs. The U is impersonal and inhuman, so the inhabitants become cruel and inhumane.
There's a lot of commentary on the relationship between the U and its inhabitants with the people who live in the surrounding neighborhood. Having grown up near Columbia University, I found this to be incisive.
There are many details of people being incidentally and unthinkingly screwed over by bureaucracy, very much in the style of the movie Brazil, or Douglas Adams' game Bureaucracy. (The Big U predates both.) I thought that the scene at the very beginning that introduced Sarah Johnson was an excellent satire of the casually destructive nature of bureaucratic screwups. I was strongly reminded of the conclusion I came to when I was trying to register for summer classes at Columbia: Absolutely everything is implicitly forbidden, and the only way to get anything is to make an appointment to get special permission from the Dean.
Another part of the book that stands out in my mind is the section dealing with the pettiness and stupidity of student (and all) government. I felt like I'd been waiting a long time to read that.
I don't know what to say about 'adolescent day dream', since I haven't read it recently enough to remember the tone. But I don't think that many adolescent daydreams are as bizarre and surprising as this one was.
In the future, I think your reviews might be more useful if you would avoid statements like "It was absolutely dreadful", which don't really tell anyone anything except that you thought it was dreadful.
Fri, 13 Dec 2019
[ Content warning: dead bodies, sex crime, just plain nasty ]
A co-worker brought this sordid item to my attention: LAPD officer charged after allegedly fondling a dead woman's breast.
Chas. Owens then asked a very good question:
I tried to resist this nerdsnipe, but I was unsuccessful. I learned that California does have a law on the books that makes it a felony to have unauthorized sex with human remains:
I think this addresses Chas.’s question. Certainly there are other statutes that authorize certain persons to disinter or mutilate corpses for various reasons. (Inquests, for example.) A defendant wishing to take advantage of this exception would have to affirmatively claim that he was authorized to grope the corpse’s breast, and by whom. I suppose he could argue that the state had the burden of proof to show that he had not been authorized to fondle the corpse, but I doubt that many jurors would find this persuasive.
Previously on this blog: Legal status of corpses in 1911 England.
Thu, 12 Dec 2019
Many ‘bene-’ words do have ‘male-’ opposites. For example, the opposite of a benefactor is a malefactor, the opposite of a benediction is a malediction, and the opposite of benevolence is malevolence. But strangely there is no ‘malefit’ that is opposite to ‘benefit’.
Or so I wrote, and then I thought I had better look it up.
The Big Dictionary has six examples, one as recent as 1989 and one as early as 1755:
(Charlotte Charke, A narrative of the life of Mrs. Charlotte Charke (youngest daughter of Colley Cibber, Esq.), 1755.)
(I think the “benefit” here is short for “benefit performance”, an abbreviation we still use today.)
Mrs. Charke seems to be engaging in intentional wordplay. All but one of the other citations similarly suggest intentional wordplay; for example:
(P. Howard, Word in Your Ear, 1983.)
The one exception is from no less a person than J.R.R. Tolkien:
(Around 1973, Quoted in C. Tolkien, History of Middle-earth: Sauron Defeated, 1992.)
Incidentally, J.R.R. is quoted 362 times in the Big Dictionary.