spam notice
terms of use
warrant canary


Woolly Days
Futility Closet
Language Log
Bruce Schneier
Dinosaur Comics


Our current definition of the second (in terms of the frequency of radiation associated with a transition in cesium atoms) dates from 1967. Considerably more accurate time standards have since been developed, making the definition somewhat anachronistic.

We can now measure time with an accuracy of about two parts in 1018: more accurately than we can measure length, mass, force, current, voltage, or temperature.

Einstein showed that time passes more slowly with increasing gravitational field strength. The effect of Earth's gravity on time is small, but our best time standards are accurate enough that a clock near the floor of a room runs noticeably slower than one near the ceiling.

The relativistic effect of gravity affects every kind of time standard. It's a different (and much smaller) effect than a pendulum clock's sensitivity to the strength of gravity. I have a mechanical wall clock that lost about two minutes a week after I moved from sea level to Lone Pine, in proportion to the increase in distance from the center of the earth. A climbing buddy's alma mater is in the news for what students are referring to as the sheep incident. From conversation while out climbing yesterday:
I would've guessed it was an ag student. But this was a computer engineering major.
This feeds into the stereotype that geeks don't have the social skills ...
... to get someone of their own species.
Modern-day scruples against considering sexual assault a laughing matter are evidently somewhat relaxed when a sheep is involved. I am amused rather than appalled by this cartoon in the campus newspaper, and by the hashtag #BaaaMeansBaaa started in reference to this affair.

Happy nineteenth, everyone. There's a world chess championship in progress, not that you'd know it from reading The New York Times. Game results get no mention under sports, nor in the chess column that the Times unceremoniously discontinued last month. The October 12 installment was followed by a terse statement: "This is the final chess column to run in The New York Times." Sounds like they mean for ever and ever.

Some chess devotees shrugged at the column's demise because they weren't impressed with it anyway. You can't judge a page by its URL but perhaps the Times' attitude toward chess was reflected in the column's path (see the link above, that files chess under "crosswords"). Sad part is, there's no chance for the column to improve now that it doesn't exist. It's worth remembering that the Times had a serious chess column decades ago when Samuel Reshevsky was writing it.

US news media often don't do a stellar job when it comes to chess. A 60 Minutes piece on Magnus Carlsen described the number of possible chess moves as "infinite" (it's not) and in a supplement the reporter said, "chess is all about deception" (huh?).

The championship in progress is a rematch between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand. I've been watching the match live—well, just the tail ends of games as they are playing in Russia and start at 0400 PST. The match's official site has live video and commentary; other live presentations (not interrupted by Russian commercials) are available on the web as well, e.g. moves and commentary at . composed by W. L. Barclay of Pennsylvania "White mates in two" is my favorite type of chess problem. The example here is one I saved from a magazine in 1972. I was thinking last year about what it would take to write software to create ("compose", in chess parlance) problems, but I didn't get very far.

Just this week I read about a program that composes chess problems better than at random, i.e. taking aesthetics into account. The program's author, Azlan Iqbal, did his Ph.D thesis on computational evaluation of aesthetics in chess. Dr. Iqbal said
Even though there may be philosophical objections as to whether or not aesthetics can be defined in the first place, much less estimated using mathematical formulas, my research suggests that a computer can indeed be programmed to identify combinations and compositions, at least within the specified scope of mate‑in‑3, that the majority of human players with a reasonable knowledge of the game would likely consider beautiful.
So far so good, but now for for the strange part. Dr. Iqbal's software somehow pairs attributes of chess problems to attributes of just about anything people find aesthetically appealing:
The beauty of the approach is that neither the two domains nor their attributes need have anything in common semantically. This should be no more surprising than when an artist says he painted the magnificent landscape after having had two drinks and thinking about a former girlfriend. Why the DSNS approach works at all is still an open question. We have only been able to demonstrate experimentally that it does work.
I had a dream this afternoon in which my brother gave me a cardboard model of a polyhedron and asked me which song it corresponded to. It didn't correspond to any song I know of, not even by means of some inside joke my brother and I had. But dreams don't have to make sense, and evidently neither do heuristics for composing appealing chess problems.

I don't know which is stranger: composing problems by likening them to pictures of people, or computer Go programs that evaluate games played largely at random. But I suspect that if and when we ever start to understand the mechanisms by which our brains gauge aesthetics, they will stike us as bizarre. Some aspects of the nervous system that we already understand have an I‑can't-believe-this-works quality to them. links to I had occasion to use Firefox today and was greeted with the text shown here. "Kind of like you!" reminds me of an encounter with a politician I blogged about nine years ago.

The blue text linked to a page at about how wonderfully independent and non-corporate Firefox is and won't you help spread the word. While the page was loading I saw it was hitting Google analytics, which made me curious enough to read Thunderclap's privacy page (which is effectively part of their Terms of Use). One section says
Use of Personal Information
You agree that we may use your personal information to:
  • provide the services and customer support you request;
  • ...
  • for any other purpose for which the information was collected
A charitable reading of the last bullet point would be to interpret it as identical to the first, in which case why say it at all. I have no choice but to take it at face value, i.e. you agree that we may use your personal information for anything we want to do with it.

I find that insulting. In linking to a Thunderclap campaign, the Mozillians evidently don't consider its terms as repulsive as I do (or perhaps they didn't bother to read them). 53713 appears in both labels also my notations in red I sometimes inspect details in films and TV shows. I paused a DVD when I saw the lower of the two images (a mailing label on a magazine). The label looked contrived, which made me curious. I took a pic and decoded the barcode to get ZIP code 91352-5194. The final 1 is a check digit, followed by some spurious bars (I don't know why). A web search showed that the ZIP code refers to a printing business in the San Fernando Valley.

From further poking around on the web I learned that the printer in question, Earl Hays Press, supplies newspaper and magazine props to Hollywood. Detail‑obsessed sharp-eyed viewers have noticed the same newspaper prop of theirs in a bunch of films. It's evidently simpler to use a phony paper on screen than bother with getting clearance from the publisher of a real one.

The other screenshot (from a different DVD) is blurry but the fragment of the barcode that's visible matches the one in the lower image. I imagine Earl Hays Press slips in the postal barcode for their own premises as a way of signing their work: a kind of Easter egg.

Feel free to tell me I have too much time on my hands. From a Russian company's website:
Raketa Watch Factory is looking for the partners in United Kingdom to sale Raketa watches in local shops.
Since Jan. 1st, residents of United Kingdom have already purchased 11 Raketa watches online. Thank you for supporting our Factory!
Viva Russia! Viva Raketa! Viva United Kingdom!
Meanwhile, elsewhere on, filed under the label zagnivayushchiy zapad (decadent West):
The Petrodvorets Watch Factory "Raketa" has taken the resolution to answer to American and European sanctions against Russia.

Workers of the factory are shocked by these rude and unfair sanctions. This is why the factory has decided to answer to the decadent Western countries. From today the factory has taken the decision not to sell anymore the leading Raketa models to the west. All the models based on "Raketa Avtomat": «Petrodvorets Calssic», «Amphibia», etc. will no longer be sold to western countries.
Question is, did Raketa consider the West (which presumably includes the UK) decadent all along?

Quarrels can be instructive. You find out what irksome qualities you have that your friends have been quietly tolerating. The Go match I mentioned a couple weeks ago is over: Franz-Josef Dickhut beat the program Crazy Stone by three games to one.

In a Q&A session after a recent talk, Tesla CEO Elon Musk said
I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess like what our biggest existential threat is, it's probably that. So we need to be very careful with the artificial intelligence. Increasingly scientists think there should be some regulatory oversight maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don't do something very foolish. With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon. In all those stories where there's the guy with the pentagram and the holy water, it's like yeah he's sure he can control the demon. Didn't work out.
"Should be some regulatory oversight maybe at the national and international level"—as if we have already figured out how to make that work.
As a Californian, I am ashamed of the fact that we seem to attract so many crackpots to our state.

‑ Senator Richard M. Nixon,
in a letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, January 17, 1952

If it makes you feel better, go ahead and do it. But be careful. It might be a little odd if it ever came out.

‑ President Ronald Reagan to his wife Nancy,
about relying on an astrologer's advice in scheduling his appointments

Joan Quigley, astrologer to the Reagans, died this week at 87. During Reagan's presidency, Nancy had Joan on retainer (paid discreetly via a third party). Quigley and both Reagans all lived in California but were born elsewhere. I've had allergies all my life. Overall I have less trouble with allergy here in the desert than I had elsewhere, but it's not Shangri‑la. There's desert and there's desert. The next valley over has even less rainfall and nothing much to induce allergies, but it has no paved roads and no services.

Services. I went to the drugstore today, whose owner I can count as a friend. He asked me how I've been doing, I said I've had allergies (fall is the worst season here, largely courtesy of Ericameria nauseosa), and he recommended a mast cell stabilizer medicine that had recently become available without a prescription. This was unsolicited advice but it was welcome.

The two things I've gotten the most unsolicited suggestions to try are God and Apple products. To state the obvious, I was already familiar with both (as opposed to the allergy medicine my pharmacist recommended; that was news to me).

I liked yesterday's Dinosaur Comics about Apple.
There is an old epigram which assigns the empire of the sea to the English, of the land to the French, and of the clouds to the Germans. Surely it was from the clouds that the Germans fetched + and −; the ideas which these symbols have generated are much too important for the welfare of humanity to have come from the sea or from the land.

‑ Alfred North Whitehead, An Introduction to Mathematics p.66

It is a safe rule to apply that, when a mathematical or philosophical author writes with a misty profundity, he is talking nonsense.

‑ Alfred North Whitehead, An Introduction to Mathematics p.187