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Last week, an ex-teacher in Russia stabbed a friend of his after a dispute over "whether prose or poetry is the more important form of language". To not ruin the fun of guessing, I won't say whether the killer was the denouncer or defender of poetry. Unlike the Russian dude who got shot last year after arguing about Kant, last week's victim didn't survive.

Two news reports in five months on violence in Russia over matters philosophical. I wonder, is this a characteristically Russian thing or are we seeing selective reporting. That is—are Russians amazing, or what.

Contending that either poetry or prose is more important makes as much sense to me as saying a saw is more important than a hammer. And because I so like quoting Bertrand Russell:
If someone maintains that two and two are five, or that Iceland is on the equator, you feel pity rather than anger, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction. The most savage controversies are those about matters as to which there no is good evidence either way. Persecution is used in theology, not in arithmetic, because in arithmetic there is knowledge, but in theology there is only opinion.
53 cryptographers and information security researchers signed an open letter today deploring many of the NSA's practices. They are not just angry about mass surveillance but also about the poisonous effects of the NSA's deliberate subversion of information security companies and practices.

Consider RSA: not the algorithm by that name but the firm, one of the oldest and more influential companies in the information security business. RSA sold cryptographic software that looks to have been rendered insecure by an NSA-installed back door. Perhaps not coïncidentally, RSA got $10 million from a secret contract with the NSA.

RSA is not just a vendor of security tools, they also have hosted an important annual conference since 1991. In the wake of news about RSA's secret deal at least nine researchers who were scheduled to speak at this year's conference have cancelled their presentations in protest.

RSA denies having knowingly included backdoored software in their products. They say this NSA-designed product looked good to them at the time. Problem is, the algorithm looked fishy to other people right out of the gate. Researchers smelled a rat but RSA kept selling it anyway.

Cryptographers do well to be cautious and conservative. One avoids algorithms with even a hint of suspicion. RSA's claims of innocence in this case are suspect.

You can't regain trust after an episode like this. RSA's name is now mud.

What's more, the tainted algorithm RSA used was also published as a standard by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. NIST is a public agency that does important work promoting good practice in industry. No matter whether NIST was duped by the NSA in this case or whether they were complicit, they look bad.

Good work, NSA: by foisting your tainted algorithm on us you've hurt the reputations of one of the country's oldest security companies and our national standards institute. And this is just one example. NSA subversion of telecom and Internet companies has made people suspicious of US information technology in general.

If a whole bunch of US companies lose business because no one wants to trust them anymore, I do not blame Edward Snowden for this state of affairs. The blame is on the NSA and on politicians and judges who gave direction and approval. Some companies are at fault as well, although it's hard to know how much because they can't talk about their involvement under penalty of law.

Note that today's open letter from security professionals never mentions Edward Snowden. Contrast that to various news media that talk about him at length. Every minute spent discussing whether Snowden is a good guy or a bad guy is a minute not spent on how NSA ruthlessness has poisoned trust irreparably. dog I realize that dogs are endearing partly because we've bred them to be, but they are remarkably endearing no matter how they got this way. To the question "How are you?"—
The answer Americans give, of course is, "Fine." But when Russians hear this they think one of two things: (1) you’ve been granted a heavenly reprieve from the wearisome grind that all but defines the human condition and as a result are experiencing a rare and sublime moment of fineness or (2) you are lying.
A teller at a bank I used to go to would answer with "adequate".

Happy nineteenth, everyone.
Because mile 420 signs on I-70 were being stolen, Colorado has replaced them with signs like the one shown here. I wonder if this tactic and the concomitant media attention will only make the new signs more subject to being stolen.

I would've made the sign read 419.9 instead.

Fucking, Austria took a different approach. Rather than changing their signs to read something else, they welded them to posts sunk in concrete.
was mile 420
click for full version A cousin just sent me some letterhead from a company our grandfather had run. He converted houses to electric light, pulling wires through gas pipe and so on.

Cool typeface.
I had general anesthesia for a medical procedure today. For me—and I don't think my experience is atypical—it is not like sleep. When I wake up from sleep I usually have a sense of the time that has passed, whereas anesthesia is like a hole cut out of time itself. The same can be said about blacking out from, say, hyperventilating (which I've done only once, in case you're thinking it's a hobby of mine).

Having experienced not being present makes it easy to imagine that the same awaits after death. That's not to say the matter is settled, just that I have no problem imagining not being because as far as I was concerned, I didn't be for a while this afternoon.

There are anecdotes of out-of-body experiences during medical procedures and emergencies, some having been retold extensively. Legend has it that a patient named Maria suffered cardiac arrest and lived to tell of her point of view leaving her body and seeing a shoe on one of the hospital's window ledges. For reasons I'll spare you for now, that anecdote doesn't bear close scrutiny. But it's not the only report of out-of-body-experience and the general concept is worth investigating.

For more solid evidence, consider an experiment: install laptop computers near the ceiling of operating rooms, placed so their screens are not visible from below. The laptops generate, display, and record random pieces of text. If, after recovery from cardiac arrest or what-have-you, a patient accurately reported what text was displayed, that would carry more weight than the usual anecdotes. A somewhat similar experiment was started in 2008 and as far as I know there were no positive results (not that an absence of result is conclusive).

But back to my story. Before enjoying today's excellent anesthesia adventure I had to sign a form saying I was aware of the chance of any of a bunch of nasty consequences. The list is notable for being alphabetized with one exception:
Risks and Complications may include but are not limited to: allergic/adverse reaction, aspiration, backache, brain damage, comas, dental injury, headache, inability to reverse the effects of anesthesia, infection, localized swelling and/or redness, muscle aches, nausea, ophthalmic (eye) injury, pain, paralysis, pneumonia, positional nerve injury, recall of sound/noise speech by others, seizures, sore throat, wrong site for injection of anesthesia, and death.
Helvetica—the movie about the typeface—has great interviews with graphic designers, some who love Helvetica, some who loathe it, but all having fun and/or insightful things to say. E.g., Erik Spiekermann:
It's the whole Swiss ideology. The guy who designed it [Helvetica] tried to make all the letters look the same. Hello? You know, that's called an army. That's not people, that's people having the same fucking helmet on.
preliminary sketches for Meta, January 1985 If you watch the Helvetica DVD, don't miss Spiekermann's remarks in the "extras" segment.

He's the designer of FF Meta, the typeface I use for my comment page's CAPTCHA. It was originally commissioned by Deutsche Bundespost, who ended up rejecting it because it would "cause unrest". Philistines. They chose instead to stick with—yup, you guessed it—Helvetica.
Internet Protocol (IP) transport has in common with the Post Office:
  • discrete packets, with a size limit
  • routing by number {IP address , ZIP code}
  • packets might not be delivered in the sequence they were submitted
Each {router , sorting facility} has a set of rules: it passes packets to other facilities based on what range their {IP addresses , postal codes} fall in. This opens the door to infinite loops if the rules are screwed up—a packet could be passed around from router to router indefinitely.

IP precludes the infinite-loop problem by outfitting each packet with a time-to-live value. Time is a bit of a misnomer here; it's not that a packet's days are numbered but rather how many routing operations it may undergo. Time-to-live is initialized with a (somewhat arbitrary) value and decremented each time the packet is processed en route. Should it reach zero, the packet is discarded and an error message is sent to the sender. Time-to-live is key to how traceroute works.

Common initial values for IP time-to-live are 64 and 128, both comfortably generous in practice.

I don't know if the USPS implements an equivalent mechanism. But if it does, a package's initial time-to-live value appears to be at least 51.

A package I mailed on December 11 got barcoded with the wrong ZIP code. I'm not sure, but I think the guy at the post office counter mistyped: a very forgivable human error. Reasonable things to have happened next might include:
  • package delivered to its (handwritten) address, perhaps delayed a bit
  • package returned to sender
But no. Three weeks and 51 tracking events later, the USPS is still passing my package around various facilities in southern California. Perhaps they rely on physical wear and tear to implement a kind of time-to-live. At some point a package will come apart, as do we all. This year's new look is... a new logo font. If it isn't anything special, well—you had your chance. When I asked for suggestions, I got Comic Sans. You can at least be happy I didn't take that recommendation.

The code to generate patterns for the right of the window remains the same, and not because I didn't spend a bunch of time trying to come up with something I liked better. I just didn't like any of the stuff I tried.

For those who look under the hood, there's slightly more concise Javascript code to calculate the day of the week.

Happy 2014, everyone.