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Apr. 24th, 2016

devil duck

Not dead yet...

Apr. 13th, 2016

devil duck

PSA: Google on Freedom

Some days I'm proud of my employer. This afternoon I attended a talk by the "Jigsaw" team, whose mandate is to use Google technology to promote freedom and protect the vulnerable around the world, and I thought I would mention three services in this category. If you have friends or family living under the control of an oppressive government, make sure they know about this stuff. Most are joint projects between Google and one or more other academic institutions or NGO's.

  • uProxy, a free browser plug-in which enables anyone to create a proxy Internet server that people in high-censorship places like China and Korea can use to get to uncensored Internet content. (A joint venture between the University of Washington, Google, and I don't know who else.)

  • Project Shield, a free service protecting independent journalism servers from DDOS attacks, including attacks by their own governments.

  • Unfiltered.news, a Web site to show you what topics are being reported on by journalists in various countries. Check out the list of "topics underreported in your country" (relative to other countries' coverage of that topic), then follow the links to see (either translated or in the original language) recent headlines about those topics in various other countries. Slide the "date" bar to see how popular this topic was, and what was being said about it, on various recent days. (It's interesting to note which countries had remarkably little coverage of the Mossack Fonseca "Panama Papers" leak last week....)

There were demos of some other neat services like this, but they haven't been announced publicly yet; you'll just have to wait :-)
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Apr. 2nd, 2016

devil duck

Bathroom laws

First, let's make clear that the commonly stated reasons for anti-trans bathroom laws are nonsense. "Lawmakers [in North Carolina] had said that they were trying to prevent men from dressing as women to enter bathrooms and commit assaults." (NY Times) Never mind the lack of evidence that this has ever been a significant problem; does anyone seriously expect that somebody who's willing to cross-dress in order to sneak into an opposite-sex bathroom in order to commit a serious felony will be stopped by a local ordinance or a misdemeanor law against entering that bathroom?

That said, there is a taboo in our society against men (by whatever criterion) in women's bathrooms, and women (ditto) in men's bathrooms; why? It's not an Ancient And Honorable Tradition: I haven't done a lot of research on it, but I suspect there was no such thing as a multi-user, single-sex bathroom until a few hundred years ago, and most of those were single-sex by virtue of being in single-sex religious or educational institutions; the opposite sex weren't supposed to be in the building, so there was no need to exclude them from the bathroom. The notion of multi-user, single-sex bathrooms in public places, I'm guessing, dates back maybe 150 years. The taboo doesn't apply at home, where most people have single-seaters that serve whoever gets there first. Some people are bothered by excreting in the same bathroom where an opposite-sex stranger has been recently or might be soon; others aren't. Some people are bothered by excreting in the presence of someone they know, even a sexual partner; others aren't. What really bothers people is being in the same room with a stranger of the opposite sex at the same time while one or both of you is excreting.

So why does "of the opposite sex" matter? One answer is "I don't want someone who might want to have sex with me to see/hear me more intimately than I have offered." Related but distinct: "I don't want someone I might want to have sex with to see/hear me more intimately than I have (yet) offered." In both cases, the "opposite sex" part follows only under the assumption that everybody is heterosexual. If you accept the fact that a substantial percentage of the population is sexually attracted to people with the same-shaped sex organs as themselves, no sex-organ-based or chromosome-based bathroom law will ever protect you from these concerns; the only safe solution is single-seaters. (Multiple well-insulated stalls sharing a sink is a possibility, and my employer has some of those, but many people seem to object to it on the slippery-slope theory.) So in a way, bathroom laws are just another way of desperately clinging to the fantasy that homosexuality doesn't exist and that "gender" is a nice clean concept in which chromosomes, physical sex organs, other physical and emotional attributes, clothing, social and economic roles, and interest in other people's sex organs all correlate perfectly.

I guess another answer would be "to prevent children seeing a kind of genitalia they haven't already seen on themselves." I'm not sure what end that is supposed to serve, unless you subscribe to the theory that the sight of a female body turns adolescent boys into volitionless rape machines, but realistically, anybody over the age of eight today who hasn't seen at least pictures of opposite-sex genitalia isn't trying.

An argument could be made specifically against men (physically larger and stronger, on average) in women's bathrooms, on grounds that they're low-visibility places where one might commit rape without witnesses. Of course, such a law won't prevent male-on-male rape (less common) or female-on-female rape (even less common), so at best this is only a crime reduction argument; to really prevent public bathrooms being used as safe spaces for rape, you need either single-seaters or high traffic. And, as mentioned before, the laws try to prevent a felony by wrapping it in a misdemeanor, which seems unlikely to have much effect.
devil duck

News flash: The Donald says something indisputably true

"The laws are set now on abortion and that's the way they're going to remain until they're changed."

NY Times

Mar. 20th, 2016

devil duck

An afternoon of music geekery

A few days ago I heard about a workshop on barbershop-quartet arranging, led by a guy named David Wright (who I gather is a macher in the barbershop world, and was influential in broadening the scope of allowable barbershop music beyond pieces written in the 1920's and 1930's). It was too late to sign up for the advanced morning master class (and I didn't have a barbershop arrangement to bring in anyway), but I attended the less-advanced afternoon class, which was a lot of fun. Three hours of music-theory geekery, including discussion of just intonation, Pythagorean commas, the distinguishing characteristics of barbershop harmony, the palette of typical chords used in barbershop, which traditional rules of voice-leading barbershop obeys and which it cheerfully ignores, etc. Wright's day job is as a math professor, so his explanations were exactly in the right language to speak to me (and I think made sense to the rest of the twenty-odd people in the workshop too). And to make it all concrete, he brought up "Happy Birthday" in Finale on his laptop and we collaboratively worked out a four-part barbershop arrangement, arguing measure by measure and note by note over different possible choices.

Now, I'm not really a member of the barbershop world: I've sung about four barbershop pieces in my life, and have never actually arranged for barbershop. But I've arranged in late-medieval-early-Renaissance style, which has certain similarities, most notably that the "melody" is usually in the middle of the texture rather than on top (called "lead" in barbershop and "tenor" in medieval), and that the other middle part (called "baritone" in barbershop and "contratenor" in medieval) tends to get the weird notes left over, and therefore makes no sense on its own. And hey, vocal harmony is vocal harmony. If it sounds good, it is good.

Feb. 17th, 2016


public works

In recent days the Times has had several articles that sorta fit together in my mind:
Fixing Our Broken Water Systems
What Happened to the Great Urban Design Projects?
How New York Made Pre-K a Success
Can Health Care Providers Afford to Prepare for Disaster?
How Sea Walls Around Hoboken Might have Stopped Hurricane Sandy's Floods
Finding Beauty in the Darkness

All of these articles are about projects which
(a) [would] improve a large number of people's lives a little bit each;
(b) [would] cost a lot of money, although not a lot per capita; and
(c) would be difficult or impossible to charge for individually: either they inherently benefit everyone in a geographic area, or many of their beneficiaries are liquidity-constrained and unlikely to make the individual decision to invest in them.

In short, classic examples of what economists call "positive externalities": they benefit largely people who didn't voluntarily pay for them, which means either
(a) a lot of people pay a little for them involuntarily (e.g. through taxes or surcharges on something else they need), or
(b) a few wealthy and public-spirited people voluntarily pay more for them than they personally benefit, or
(c) they don't happen, even though their total benefit may far exceed their total cost.  (To be more precise, they happen at a level below the most efficient level.)

A few decades ago, these sorts of projects might have been the subject of a bipartisan debate over whether the project in question really is cost-effective, whether there's appropriate accountability in procurement, whether to pay for it cash-on-the-nail or float a bond, boring stuff like that.  Today if you propose any such project, regardless of the specifics, Republicans will oppose it because gummint! taxes! socialism! tyranny! Today's Republican party is fundamentally, irrevocably committed to the principle that anything done by a government won't work.  If you somehow start building such a project (like Obamacare), Republicans will do everything in their power to sabotage it, make it work as badly as possible, because if (God forbid!) it actually worked, it would call this principle into question.  Indeed, if you try to study a problem that might have a positive-externality solution, Republicans will oppose even gathering the data for fear it might lead to somebody proposing government action.

This Republican axiom implies that the only effective way to fund a large project is for a large corporation to do it in the expectation of making a good ROI.  Or, if it's really not marketable, it can still be funded by a wealthy philanthropist who happens to have a hobbyist's fascination for this particular useless project.  I'm all in favor of wealthy philanthropists, but there aren't enough of them, with a broad enough range of hobbyist fascinations, to be a reliable source of funding for all the things that have good cost/benefit ratios but aren't individually sellable.  Relying on them inherently skews funding in favor of things that interest rich people, not necessarily the things with the best global cost/benefit ratios.

Mind you, there are certainly problems with funding things through government means.  Anybody who has a larger-than-usual stake in the project (e.g. somebody hoping to get the contract to build it) has an incentive to spend a lot on lobbying (aka rent-seeking) to direct the project in his/her preferred direction.  Examples are legion of government projects and regulations being "captured", managed more for the benefit of a few powerful politicians or donors than for the public benefit.  But there are also plenty of examples of government projects and regulations actually improving the broad public welfare by an amount greater than their cost. The possibility of such a project or regulation being mismanaged should inspire us not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but to improve government management and accountability so more of them are well-managed and cost-effective.  But that might increase public trust in government, so today's Republicans can't allow it to happen.  A party that used to be concerned with stamping out government incompetence and inefficiency now wants government to be as incompetent and inefficient as possible.

Jan. 24th, 2016

devil duck

Snow day projects

We have a long list, far longer than the expected storm, but one is candying some citron.

The recipe said it should take about 45 minutes of simmering to get the syrup to "thread" stage.  After five hours, we decided it had actually reached that stage.  The kitchen has smelled heavenly all day (although some of that time it was lamb chili).  Citron pieces have become transparent and are now draining.  shalmestere tasted the syrup and said "it's almost like perfume."

After draining the syrup off, I spread the pieces of citron out to dry.  I may give up on open-air drying and resort to the desiccator, but let's try this first.

Jan. 23rd, 2016

devil duck

Snow day projects

We have a long list, far longer than the expected storm, but one is candying some citron.

The recipe said it should take about 45 minutes of simmering to get the syrup to "thread" stage.  After five hours, we decided it had actually reached that stage.  The kitchen has smelled heavenly all day (although some of that time it was lamb chili).  Citron pieces have become transparent and are now draining.  shalmestere tasted the syrup and said "it's almost like perfume."

devil duck

snowpocalypse 2016

We had an inch of snow last week, but this is the first snowfall of the winter that anyone would bother shoveling.  The blizzard warning says "accumulations of 15-20 inches" before the storm tapers off around midnight, but I think that may be an underestimate: as of 10:00 AM, I measured 10" on the front steps and 15" in the middle of the lawn.  It's still falling at a good clip.  I shoveled the steps and halfway to the sidewalk, just so there's a bit less shoveling to do later on and so the dogs can get out and relieve themselves.  It's lovely, fluffy snow, neither slush nor powder.

Being snowed in would be a lot more fun if the oven worked.  As nearly as I can tell, the bottom igniter gave up the ghost two or three days ago: the stove and broiler still work, but not the thermostat-controlled "oven" part.  The recommended procedure to confirm that the igniter needs replacing involves an electric multimeter, which I had for many years but which has disappeared in the past few months (I have a vague memory of throwing it away because I couldn't find all the parts).  An igniter costs about $65 and can apparently be installed by an ordinary person, but I don't know if anybody within (say) five miles would have igniters for this particular model of oven in stock, and I'm certainly not driving anywhere to get one today.  I guess we can mail-order an igniter and just not bake anything for the next few days.  We still have, as mentioned above, various other cooking devices: stove, broiler, microwave, crockpot, waffle iron, sandwich press, etc.  And if we REALLY need to bake something, we can use the broiler in combination with an oven thermometer.

If the storm takes out our electric power, of course, all we've got is the stove.

Edit, 7 PM: I did another round of shoveling after brunch, and another just now.  There are 27" in the middle of the front lawn.

Edit, 9 AM Sunday: The snow plows have come through, both in front and in back of the house.  Which means there's a sizable wall of snow between the curb and the roadway, in addition to the stuff between the garage and the curb.

Jan. 11th, 2016

devil duck


Some time in December, we picked up a beef tenderloin on sale and cut it into filets mignons for Xmas and New Year's eves. There were about a pound of scraps that didn't form a nice filet shape, so I put them in a Zip-loc bag in the freezer. So yesterday, as we were wondering what to do for dinner, I saw the bag and thought "Scraps of meat suggest stew, but tenderloin suggests a quick, high-heat cooking method. Stir-fry!" I've stir-fried beef with broccoli and carrots (and garlic and scallions and oyster sauce and...) any number of times in my life, but never before with tenderloin. It worked quite nicely, and the meat was tenderer than I've ever had in a stir-fry (although there was a piece or two that still had fibrous white connective tissue attached -- better trimming indicated).

And from the sublime to the ridiculous, shalmestere had seen something on her FB feeds about "bacon cinnamon rolls" and wanted to try them. So I bought a roll of Pillsbury pre-rolled cinnamon rolls (supposed to make five large rolls), unrolled them on a cookie sheet, zapped five strips of bacon in the microwave for about four minutes (to the point that it was still flexible, but some people would have been willing to eat it), laid a strip lengthwise in each roll, rolled them back up, and baked them for half an hour. It works. Not OMG-I-havent-lived-until-now, but it works. shalmestere thinks it needs more bacon: 1.5-2 strips per roll rather than 1.

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