In this section:
Tue, 07 Apr 2020
I live near Woodlands Cemetery and by far the largest monument there, a thirty-foot obelisk, belongs to Thomas W. Evans, who is an interesting person. In his life he was a world-famous dentist, whose clients included many crowned heads of Europe. He was born in Philadelphia, and land to the University of Pennsylvania to found a dental school, which to this day is located at the site of Evans’ former family home at 40th and Spruce Street.
A few days ago my family went to visit the cemetery and I insisted on visting the Evans memorial.
The obelisk has this interesting ornament:
The thing around the middle is evidently a wreath of pine branches, but what is the thing in the middle? Some sort of leaf, or frond perhaps? Or is it a feather? If Evans had been a writer I would have assumed it was a quill pen, but he was a dentist. Thanks to the Wonders of the Internet, I was able to find out.
First I took the question to Reddit's /r/whatisthisthing forum. Reddit didn't have the answer, but Reddit user @hangeryyy had something better: they observed that there was a fad for fern decorations, called pteridomania, in the second half of the 19th century. Maybe the thing was a fern.
I was nerdsniped by pteridomania and found out that a book on pteridomania had been written by Dr. Sarah Whittingham, who goes by the encouraging Twitter name of @DrFrond.
Dr. Whittingham's opinion is that this is not a fern frond, but a palm frond. The question has been answered to my full and complete satisfaction.
My thanks to Dr. Whittingham, @hangeryyy, and the /r/whatisthisthing community.
Mon, 06 Apr 2020
And there is a vocabulary problem. Not just because Anglo-Saxon is dead, and one wouldn't expect it to have any words for anything not invented in the last 900 years or so. But also, there are very few extant Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, so we don't have a lot of vocabulary, even for things that had been invented 900 years ago.
Helene Hanff said:
I don't read Anglo-Saxon but if you want to investigate, you might look at the Anglo-Saxon article about the Maybach Exelero (a hēahfremmende sportƿægn), Barack Obama, or taekwondo. I am pre-committing to not getting sucked into this, but sportƿægn is evidently intended to mean “sportscar” (the ƿ is an obsolete letter called wynn and is approximately a W, so that ƿægn is “wagon”) and I think that fremmende is “foreign” and hēah is something like "high" or "very". But I'm really not sure.
Anyway Wikipedia reports that the Anglo-Saxon Wikipedia has 3,197 articles (although most are very short) and around 30 active users. In contrast, the Hawai‘ian Wikipedia has 3,919 articles and only around 14 active users, and that is a language that people actually speak.
[ Warning: this article is kinda all over the place. ]
I was looking at this awesome poster of D. Moor (Д. Моор), one of Russia's most famous political poster artists:
This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, in Russian, “Himmler”, “Göring”, “Hitler”, and “Goebbels” all begin with the same letter, ‘Г’, which is homologous to ‘G’. (Similarly, Harry Potter in Russian is Га́рри, ‘Garri’.)
I also love the pictures, and especially Goebbels. These four men were so ugly, each in his own distinctively loathsome way. The artist has done such a marvelous job of depicting them, highlighting their various hideousness. It's exaggerated, and yet not unfair, these are really good likenesses! It's as if D. Moor had drawn a map of all the ways in which these men were ugly.
My all-time favorite depiction of Goebbels is this one, by Boris Yefimov (Бори́с Ефи́мов):
For comparison, here's the actual Goebbels:
Looking at pictures of Goebbels, I had often thought “That is one ugly guy,” but never been able to put my finger on what specifically was wrong with his face. But since seeing the Efimov picture, I have never been able to look at a picture of Goebbels without thinking of a rat. D. Moor has also drawn Goebbels as a tiny rat, scurrying around the baseboards of his poster.
Anyway, that was not what I had planned to write about. The right-hand side of D. Moor's poster imagines the initial ‘Г’ of the four Nazis’ names as the four bent arms of the swastika. The captions underneath mean “first Г”, “second Г” and so on.
[ Addendum: Darrin Edwards explains the meaning here that had escaped me:
Thank you, M. Edwards! ]
Looking at the fourth one, четвертое /chetvyertoye/, I had a sudden brainwave. “Aha,” I thought, “I bet this is akin to Greek “tetra”, and the /t/ turned into /ch/ in Russian.”
Well, now that I'm writing it down it doesn't seem that exciting. I now remember that all the other Russian number words are clearly derived from PIE just as Greek, Latin, and German are:
In Latin that /t/ turned into a /k/ and we get /quadra/ instead of /tetra/. The Russian Ч /ch/ is more like a /t/ than it is like a /k/.
The change from /t/ to /f/ in English and /v/ in German is a bit weird. (The Big Dictionary says it “presents anomalies of which the explanation is still disputed”.) The change from the /p/ of ‘pente’ to the /f/ of ‘five’ is much more typical. (Consider Latin ‘pater’, ‘piscum’, ‘ped’ and the corresponding English ‘father’, ‘fish’, ‘foot’.) This is called Grimm's Law, yeah, after that Grimm.
The change from /q/ in quinque to /p/ in pente is also not unusual. (The ancestral form in PIE is believed to have been more like the /q/.) There's a classification of Celtic lanugages into P-Celtic and Q-Celtic that's similar, exemplified by the change from the Irish patronymic prefix Mac- into the Welsh patronymic map or ap.
I could probably write a whole article comparing the numbers from one to ten in these languages. (And Sanskrit. Wouldn't want to leave out Sanskrit.) The line for ‘two’ would be a great place to begin because all those words are basically the same, with only minor and typical variations in the spelling and pronunciation. Maybe someday.
Sun, 05 Apr 2020
Back when the Web was much newer, and people hadn't really figured it out yet, there was an attempt to bring a dictionary to the web. Like a paper dictionary, its text was set in a barely-readable tiny font, and there were page breaks in arbitrary places. That is a skeuomorph: it's an incidental feature of an object that persists even in a new medium where the incidental feature no longer makes sense.
Anyway, I was scheduled to give a talk to the local Linux user group last week, and because of current conditions we tried doing it as a videoconference. I thought this went well!
We used Jitsi Meet, which I thought worked quite well, and which I recommend.
The usual procedure is for the speaker to have some sort of presentation materials, anachronistically called “slides”, which they display one at a time to the audience. In the Victorian age these were glass plates, and the image was projected on a screen with a slide projector. Later developments replaced the glass with celluloid or other transparent plastic, and then with digital projectors. In videoconferences, the slides are presented by displaying them on the speaker's screen, and then sharing the screen image to the audience.
This last development is skeuomorphic. When the audience is together in a big room, it might make sense to project the slide images on a shared screen. But when everyone is looking at the talk on their own separate screen anyway, why make them all use the exact same copy?
Instead, I published the slides on my website ahead of time, and sent the link to the attendees. They had the option to follow along on the web site, or to download a copy and follow along in their own local copy.
This has several advantages:
Some co-workers suggested the drawback that it might be annoying to try to stay synchronized with the speaker. It didn't take me long to get in the habit of saying “Next slide, #18” or whatever as I moved through the talk. If you try this, be sure to put numbers on the slides! (This is a good practice anyway, I have found.) I don't know if my audience found it annoying.
The whole idea only works if you can be sure that everyone will have suitable display software for your presentation materials. If you require WalSoft AwesomePresent version 18.3, it will be a problem. But for the past 25 years I have made my presentation materials in HTML, so this wasn't an issue.
If you're giving a talk over videoconference, consider trying this technique.
[ Addendum: I should write an article about all the many ways in which the HTML has been a good choice. ]
Fri, 27 Mar 2020
Last week Pierre-Françoys Brousseau and I invented a nice chess variant that I've never seen before. The main idea is: two pieces can be on the same square. Sometimes when you try to make a drasatic change to the rules, what you get fails completely. This one seemed to work okay. We played a game and it was fun.
Specfically, our rules say:
Pierre-Françoys says he wishes that more than two pieces could share a square. I think it could be confusing. (Also, with the chess set we had, more than two did not really fit within the physical confines of the squares.)
Similarly, I proposed the castling rule because I thought it would be less confusing. And I did not like the idea that you could castle on the first move of the game.
The role of pawns is very different than in standard chess. In this variant, you cannot stop a pawn from advancing by blocking it with another pawn.
Usually when you have the chance to capture an enemy piece that is alone on its square you will want to do that, rather than move your own piece into its square to share space. But it is not hard to imagine that in rare circumstances you might want to pick a nonviolent approach, perhaps to avoid a stalemate.
The name “Pauli Chess”, is inspired by the Pauli exclusion principle, which says that no more than two electrons can occupy the same atomic orbital.
Tue, 24 Mar 2020
Today I was looking for recent commits by co worker Fred Flooney,
but nothing came up. I couldn't remember if
and still nothing came up. “Okay,” I said, “probably I have Fred's address wrong.” Then I did
I changed this to
which also prints out the full hash of the matching commits. The first one was 542ab72c92c2692d223bfca4470cf2c0f2339441.
Then I had a perplexity. When I did
it told me the author email address was
the address displayed was
The answer is, the repository might have a file in its root named
Also, I learned that
Also, I learned that
Thanks to Cees Hek, Gerald Burns, and Val Kalesnik for helping me get to the bottom of this.
[ Addendum: I could also have used
Sun, 16 Feb 2020
Over on the other blog I said “Midichlorians predated The Phantom Menace.” No, the bacterium was named years after the movie was released.
Thanks to Eyal Joseph Minsky-Fenick and Shreevatsa R. for (almost simultaneously) pointing out this mistake.
Thu, 13 Feb 2020
Here is Gerhard Gentzen's original statement of the rules of Natural Deduction (“ein Kalkül für ‘natürliche’, intuitionistische Herleitungen”):
Natural deduction looks pretty much exactly the same as it does today, although the symbols are a little different. But only a little! Gentzen has not yet invented !!\land!! for logical and, and is still using !!\&!!. But he has invented !!\forall!!. The style of the !!\lnot!! symbol is a little different from what we use now, and he has that tent thingy !!⋏!! where we would now use !!\bot!!. I suppose !!⋏!! didn't catch on because it looks too much like !!\land!!. (He similarly used !!⋎!! to mean !!\top!!, but as usual, that doesn't appear in the deduction rules.)
We still use Gentzen's system for naming the rules. The notations “UE” and “OB” for example, stand for “und-Einführung” and “oder-Beseitigung”, which mean “and-introduction” and “or-elimination”.
Gentzen says (footnote 4, page 178) that he got the !!\lor, \supset, \exists!! signs from Russell, but he didn't want to use Russell's signs !!\cdot, \equiv, \sim, ()!! because they already had other meanings in mathematics. He took the !!\&!! from Hilbert, but Gentzen disliked his other symbols. Gentzen objected especially to the “uncomfortable” overbar that Hilbert used to indicate negation (“[Es] stellt eine Abweichung von der linearen Anordnung der Zeichen dar”). He attributes his symbols for logical equivalence (!!\supset\subset!!) and negation to Heyting, and explains that his new !!\forall!! symbol is analogous to !!\exists!!. I find it remarkable how quickly this caught on. Gentzen also later replaced !!\&!! with !!\land!!. Of the rest, the only one that didn't stick was !!\supset\subset!! in place of !!\equiv!!. But !!\equiv!! is much less important than the others, being merely an abbreviation.
Gentzen died at age 35, a casualty of the World War.
Source: Gerhard Gentzen, “Untersuchungen über das logische Schließen I”, pp. 176–210 Mathematische Zeitschrift v. 39, Springer, 1935. The display above appears on page 186.
[ Addendum 20200214: Thanks to Andreas Fuchs for correcting my German grammar. ]
Thu, 06 Feb 2020
[ Previously: “Cases in which some statement S was considered to be proved, and later turned out to be false”. ]
In 1905, Henri Lebesgue claimed to have proved that if !!B!! is a subset of !!\Bbb R^2!! with the Borel property, then its projection onto a line (the !!x!!-axis, say) is a Borel subset of the line. This is false. The mistake was apparently noticed some years later by Andrei Souslin. In 1912 Souslin and Luzin defined an analytic set as the projection of a Borel set. All Borel sets are analytic, but, contrary to Lebesgue's claim, the converse is false. These sets are counterexamples to the plausible-seeming conjecture that all measurable sets are Borel.
I would like to track down more details about this. This Math Overflow post summarizes Lebesgue's error:
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.