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2017-10-18 08:35 am

Book review(s): Steinbeck

I just finished a Steinbeck binge, working my way through Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden. I think I had read Of Mice and Men before, sometime in high school? I certainly knew the story, anyway. Still good. The dog shooting part was hard, since I experienced exactly that as a kid, waiting to hear the shot. The dog ran under the truck one day, so my dad had to deal with it. I had been in the truck when it happened, and I didn't handle it well.

East of Eden I enjoyed, but it didn't really feel finished. The biblical parallels might be more interesting to other people, but it wasn't enough for me. I liked the people and the stories of their lives, I just wanted a meatier backbone to the whole thing.

The Grapes of Wrath blew me away. I was utterly hooked from the very beginning. The socialism/anarchism/questioning of capitalism that is a steady background for the story was a pleasant surprise. Many of the points it brings up are every bit as relevant today as they were then.

I found myself so engrossed in the story that I experienced a certain amount of culture shock. After one day of listening to several hours as I drove down to Tacoma and back, I walked into a grocery store and felt disoriented by the amount of food available. The contrast was just too great.

It helps that I have some personal ties. My dad's family were Okies, oil field workers who moved to California just a few years later than the book. I never knew them, but from all the family stories, they sounded much like the Joads. I even managed to inherit a minor linguistic quirk from them: I pronounce and hear "pen" and "pin" as the same word. /I/ and /e/, before a nasal consonant, are non-contrastive for me. If I focus, I can certainly hear the difference, but it's like hearing the difference between a short and long vowel in Japanese. Turns out that is an Oklahoma thing, and my dad does the same thing.

I grabbed a copy of the movie, because I was curious how it could have been adapted, and I was pleasantly surprised. It was very faithful, in a respectful kind of way, and I really liked Henry Fonda as Tom. It kept a lot more of the socialism than I expected, and stuck the ending pretty well, given that there was no way they could have kept the original ending.

He definitely gets added to my list of authors I'll read more of in the future, as I happen to find their works on sale.
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2017-10-10 02:10 pm

Sculpture in Motion

FYI, I have a piece in a local gallery for their Sculpture in Motion show. I'm still putting together a proper video of the device, but I did manage to put up a quick little demo.

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2017-09-29 09:53 am

Book review: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Whelp. I did it. 120 hours. (68 subjective, as I was listening at 1.75x speed.) Took just over a month. I've now read 54% of the (1952) Great Books completely, plus another 21% in part.

So, beyond very long, how was it? Very listenable, as the high playback speed indicates. Made pretty good listening all around. Well written and engaging. It covers a lot of material, obviously. The western empire had fallen before the 2/3 mark, but of course Constantinople kept it going for another thousand years after that. Gibbons does a nice job of providing wider context for everything that happens. There was a good ten hours of material on the rise of Islam, for instance. And while he is limited by his sources, he does try to look at more than just kings and big battles. It was definitely more interesting than Plutarch, for that reason.

Would I recommend it, as something other than a masochistic completionist stunt? Absolutely. But a touch of masochism would still help.
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2017-09-12 09:33 am


From September 4, 2016 to September 4, 2017 I...
...bought a mill
...made a railbike
...started making deep dives into philosophy (consciousness and math/science)
...did a kinetic sculpture installation, landed a large public art contract, started to get responses to RFQ submissions
...found out I might not need cardiac surgery within the next decade after all
...saw a total solar eclipse
...started the adjustment to living in a post-democratic world

I dunno. It's been a year. Not a good one for getting a lot done, or for feeling hopeful about the future. Not a good one for dealing with an anxiety disorder, either. I feel like I'm coasting. I'm more scared than excited to see what my 40s are going to be like, and not from standard fear of mortality reasons. Though those are certainly there too.

Writing these annual review posts is usually a lot more fun.
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2017-08-24 10:27 am


I wasn't quite 2 years old that last time there was a total solar eclipse anywhere near this part of the world. Sometime around when I was 6 my parents told me about it, and we looked up when the next one would be. 2017! I'd be almost 40! I still remember the disappointment I felt. That was just impossibly far away. I would never see a total solar eclipse.

On Monday, I saw one. I saw that one, after waiting pretty much literally my entire life for it.

So, I'd seen lots of partial eclipses before. On one memorable occasion, I snuck onto the roof of the Physics/Astronomy Building at UW to view one. They're neat, and I'll take a look if someone has a viewing system set up, but, you know, eh. I feel okay being a bit jaded about them. That will never happen with total eclipses, I'm sure of that now.

It was one of the most singularly eerie things I've ever experienced. In a good way, to be sure, but still deeply eerie. The world just gets weirder and weirder, getting oddly cold, with the wind picking up, the light not looking quite right, shadows misshapen. If you didn't have eclipse glasses, though, you'd never be able to tell what was happening until the very end. Your brain just does too much post-processing to be able to directly tell the difference between 100% sun and 10% sun. Everything looks normal, it just feels... off. Ominous. And then it's the end of the world.

I really don't know how else to describe it. The sun going out is legitimately apocalyptic, no matter how sure you are it will return in 2 minutes. What I never understood before is that the sun doesn't just disappear. In its place emerges an alien god, blind and unknowable, staring unblinking from the sky. Welcome to Night Vale. It was awesome and terrible, in the oldest senses of those words. We had fallen into the Upside Down, and despite having read Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler AND Newton, I don't mind saying a part of me was deeply relieved when it was done.

It's dark, but it's not actually night. The horizon is still lit, but without any of the red tones expected from sunset. 360 degrees of deep-blue all around, and dark above. I managed to see Venus and Sirius (Venus was visible for several minutes before and after totality, actually), but not Mercury. Which is a bummer, because I've never seen Mercury.

And then it was done. I don't know if I'm going to become a chaser, but I'll definitely go out of my way for one again. One of the ones with 7+ minutes of totality would be pretty amazing. Maybe somewhere the sun will be low on the horizon, so the psychological effects will make the alien god look even bigger. In a desert, maybe. Some things should really only be seen in a desert, or on a mountain top, or maybe next to a tor up in the tundra.
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2017-08-17 08:59 am

Goosestepper McGee

[I wrote this for a Facebook post, and was pleased enough with it as a piece of writing to duplicate here.]

Regarding the video of fascist Christopher Cantwell melting down:

1) This is pretty great viewing, particularly after seeing the Vice video which featured this gutless bully.

2) His expressions of surprise are very striking. He's actually shocked that people are mad at him! He really thought he could play weekend nazi and not be the bad guy. Behold the danger of living in an echo chamber!

3) He also can't believe how persistent his enemies are. He believed his own propaganda that the left is a bunch of pushovers. Surprise, fuckface! I find it particularly telling that he seems 100% terrified of Chelsea Manning. He forgot that she had the courage to go to prison and be branded a traitor for life to do what she thought was right -- and then to come out as a trans woman. Goosestepper McGee here will never even come close to matching that kind of moral fortitude and physical bravery, and I think maybe he's starting to realize that.

4) This is a terrible cancer that will destroy society, but there is still a window in which it can be stopped. Fascist jerkoffs like him will fold if they face real opposition. We just need to provide it.
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2017-08-14 10:53 am

Book review: The Gulag Archipelago

This was a brutal, fascinating, horrific nightmare of a masterpiece. I felt darkly honored to be able to read it, for the barest echo of understanding of the extremes of human experience. Highly recommended, for both content and style, with the significant caveat that it is a very long, very emotionally bruising ride. If you're not up for that, at least read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Having just finished it (not to mention the Hannah Arendt books I read earlier in the year) sure did put this weekend's events in sharp contrast. I'm not sure there is any greater civic obligation than standing up to these fascist fucks in any way possible.

One semi-tangential thought: The Soviet Union did literally everything possible to ruin their economy, to make any creative or productive act not only impossible, but actively punished. Yet while they did manage to starve several million people to death in the process, shit still got done. They fought off the Nazis and were in space just 20 years later. That's an extreme contrast that deserves explanation! It makes me wonder if the modern obsession with productivity and incentives might be completely unfounded.
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2017-07-14 03:15 pm

Book review: Life of Johnson

The first quarter of this was pretty good, being a standard biography of Samuel Johnson. (The dictionary guy, that one.) Unfortunately it then hits the point at which the author (Boswell) became friends with Johnson. From that point on, it's a never-ending series of anecdotes, mostly with the goal of demonstrating just how cool it was that Boswell was such close friends with such a great figure. The density of the material increases non-linearly as we approach the end of Johnson's life, ending with pretty much every letter he wrote in the last year of his life.

I stalled out a bit under 50% last December, but I recently dove back in to finish it off. It definitely was improved by >1 playback speeds, and I was able to go as high as 2x without any noticeable loss of absorption. Helps that it was pretty breezy material for the most part, and I'm now wondering if the narrator was unusually slow to begin with.

I was a bit surprised just how turgid this book was. It's quite famous for inventing the modern biography. I guess I'm just glad it was the more grounded and human, less hagiographic aspects that caught on with other authors, not the obsessive day-by-day chronicling.

As often in pre-modern contexts, I can't help but wondering if their friendship had a sexual component. I think I have some very close friends, but I really can't imagine expressing my deep affection for them in the overtly romantic ways that Boswell and Johnson regularly did for each other. But is that just a modern tendency to view everything through a sexual lens? Certainly the open acknowledgement of homosexuality has been a mass-extinction-level event for the expression of male-male affection in my culture over the last several decades. I don't know how to begin to detangle my own cultural programming in this instance.

With this finally finished, I'm getting to the end of the Great Book series. (At least all the ones I'm ever likely to read. I doubt I'll ever be up for Plotinus or Aquinas, for instance.) I have a bit more John Locke on my Kindle right now that I'd like to get through, and I suspect I'll eventually get around to all 120 hours of Gibbon's Decline and Fall, but that's it. Oh well! It's been convenient, having a big list like this to work from, but it's not like there is any shortage of other things to be read.
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2017-06-30 09:01 am

Resistance thoughts

I think the resistance (whatever that means) is overlooking a potentially devastating weapon: Trump's insecurities. His pathological need for approval obviously overrides any moral, political or intellectual core he might have. Why aren't we trying to take advantage of this?

(Because he's loathsome, that's why. But that just means only equally loathsome people are left to stoke his ego, resulting in loathsome policies.)

I 100% believe that if Trump thought the majority of the country wanted him to do something (say, push for single payer), he would do it. He wouldn't consider the cost to his party, or the practical considerations. Particularly if he saw it as one-upping Obama. He just needs to hear "people will love you if you can do this thing Obama couldn't manage".

So: How do we get a message like that to him?
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2017-06-30 07:57 am

(no subject)

How does one best handle an increasing risk of civil unrest, when the other side is extolling preemptive violence, and could take signs of even defensive preparation as an excuse to kick things off?

Asking for a friend.
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2017-06-21 11:10 am

(no subject)

I'm reading Wittgenstein's On Certainty, and he mentioned that no one feels surprise when mathematics proves itself consistent. Except I do.

Basically every time I do some mental arithmetic, I do the problem multiple times, coming at it from different directions. For example, maybe I need to find half of 47. I'd immediately take half of 46 and add 0.5, getting 23.5. But then I'd also take half of 50 and subtract 1.5, also getting 23.5.

(Sidenote: I know not everyone does this, as demonstrated by how outraged people are over Common Core. It just makes plain good sense to me. Mathematics shouldn't be the blind application of fixed algorithms -- you need to choose the approach that works best for you. And to do that, you need to see the different options and really understand how they're all the same thing, fundamentally. But most people don't really understand that. They can only solve problems in a single way they memorized 30 years ago. Then they feel dumb when their kid asks for help with their homework, and lash out.)

In part I do this to provide to a checksum on the original answer, but also because I always feel a small thrill of surprise and delight. Math is internally consistent, and every problem has an infinite number of ways you can solve it. It's just so neat -- and also staggeringly impressive. Imagine writing an operating system with no bugs. Imagine being able to design a legal system without any need for judges, because there was a single, obvious, undeniable verdict for any case. Imagine a taxonomy with no edge cases, no "miscellaneous" categories.

Math is quite literally inhuman in its perfection.

Take that, Wittgenstein.
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2017-06-19 09:31 am

Book review: Darwin

Some scattered thoughts on Origin of Species and Descent of Man, which I listened and read over the last month.

I knew the basic story that Darwin, upon hearing that Wallace was about to publish something very similar, rushed Origin of Species into publications after sitting on it for years. Given that, I was surprised how openly this was acknowledged in the book itself, and how often and generously he credited Wallace's observations. It was still a bit hinky, using his famous naturalist connections to beat Wallace to publication, but it made me feel a lot more kindly towards him.

One thing that surprised me was the explicit uses of Lamarckian mechanisms. The common story puts Darwin as rejecting all that, but in fact he very frequently included it in lists of inherited traits upon which natural selection would work.

Darwin's understanding of inheritance is, of course, quite terrible. It makes me even more surprised that his ideas caught on at all at the time. There is no hint of thinking of genetics in a quantized manner (except, of course, for sex), which would fatally wound Darwinism from the very beginning. Analog traits just couldn't spread in the way needed. But I suppose the general lack of real genetic understanding prevented that flaw from being properly understood as well?

It's interesting to note that Mendel was publishing in the 1860s, but it was basically ignored by the scientific world, and Darwin never even became aware of it. It's not hard to imagine that evolutionary biology and genetics would have been fully accepted decades earlier if that synthesis had been made. And there was absolutely no good reason it didn't happen, just poor communication. Remember that whenever someone starts talking about "steam engine time" or similarly naive theories of history!

I thought it was fairly charming how Darwin often phrased sexual selection in terms of the appreciation of beauty. As in, at what level of development are animals advanced enough to appreciate beauty, and thus self-select for ornamentation?

Overall, I thought the first held up quite well. If you ignore everything it says about inheritance, it seemed decent as an intro to the concept of evolution. Descent of Man was a bit rockier, involving a lot of very uncomfortable "maybe humans are actually multiple species?" speculation. For his time, though, he still came across as a decent, humane guy. Someone I'd like to hang out with. And that's not an impression I often take away when reading the works of important scientists!
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2017-06-07 12:21 pm

Rail bike

At some point in the late 90s I got interested in railbikes. Picked up a book on the subject, thought a lot about how I would design one, put the idea in my personal warehouse 23 of never-started projects, and forgot about it.

Until last year, when I noticed an abandoned rail line along my bus route was looking particularly evocative. The county had recently bought it, and was converting to trail usage a bit at a time. So if I was going to do something with it, I had a deadline.

Yeah, this gets long )
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2017-05-30 10:51 am

Book review: Ptolemy's Almagest

After reading Kepler (and having already read some Copernicus, Galileo and Newton), I decided to go all the way back and read Ptolemy's Almagest. Well, some of it. The edition I read was "The Almagest: Introduction to the Mathematics of the Heavens" (2014), which adds some supplemental materials and only follows some of the main arguments of the book. Still, I figured this was good enough to mark Great Books #16 off as completed.

Beyond the challenge and pleasure of following a genuinely brilliant (if, you know, totally wrong) line of mathematical reasoning, what really stood out to me about the Almagest was the metrology. Ptolemy lived in a very different world than us, where angular measurements were the only ones with any accuracy, and even those were only good to about half a degree. He thought primarily in terms of geometry, which is much better at giving proportions between lines (AB:BC as DE:EF, etc) than it is at giving absolute answers like our algebraic thinking. The first section of the book, in fact, is him building up a table of chords. Given an arc angle, you could look up the length of the chord, with the answer based on a circle with a diameter of 120. Like a lot of older technical books, it's a fascinating what intellectual infrastructure that we take for granted had to be spelled out step by step. (I'm particularly thinking of the first bit of "De Re Metallica", where Agricola has to define the points of the compass, advocating for that as a better system than the names winds commonly used for directions at the time.)

One fascinating aspect to the numbers is that they're all sexagesimal. Even the lengths are given in fractions of 1/60 and 1/3600. He even goes beyond that, at one point saying "we will have the daily mean motion of the sun 0°59'8''17'''13''''12'''''31'''''' degrees." (The accuracy being imputed here is completely unfounded, as it is based on a measured length of the year of 365 days, plus 1/4, minus 1/300, "most nearly". That's adding roughly, in modern terms, 6 decimal places of precision!)

This raises the interesting question of what to call the units beyond 'minutes' and 'seconds'. We get 'minute' from the Latin minuta parta, "small part", and 'second' from secunda minuta parta, "second small part". So if you wanted to extend that, you could start with tertiam, quarta, quintus, sextus, etc. Working from there, applying a bit of linguistic sandpaper, we could reasonably deduce a series of terms like 'terts', 'quarts', 'quints' and 'sexts', had they ever been commonly used.

Which raises another interesting question -- why didn't they ever get used? I think it's a matter of scale. The places where we use sexagesimal are are very human-scale things, time and angles. The advantages of decimal for other measurements was more immediately useful, I suspect, when it was obvious that you might want to divide things into smaller and smaller sections. Money, for instance -- someone will always care about another decimal place down. But time and angles are already divided to a very fine degree with minutes and seconds. A 60th of a second (16 milliseconds) is right on the edge of human perception, and we didn't even develop the technology to accurately measure it until just a few hundred years ago. And an arc second is already a very tiny measurement, only just barely measurable with handheld instruments by experienced navigators using comparatively advanced sextants. So we stuck with the old sexagesimal for those, lacking a strong motive to switch.

Ptolemy had a few other quirks that I found intriguing. He very often would specify what size degree a solution was, usually formulated like "X degrees where four right angles form a circle, and 2X degrees where two rights angles form a circle". He did this so often that I have to think there was a specific reason for it. Maybe a constructive geometry trick where it is useful to start with twice the angular measurement? (That could be a real time saver, particularly when you remember that the values were originally given as sexagesimal Greek numerals. While these are a bit better than Roman numerals when it comes to arithmetic, even a seemingly simple operation such as multiplying by two could pose a problem.) However, I've yet to find an authoritative answer to this.

He also liked to specify right triangles as a series of chord lengths, as if it was circumscribed, assuming the hypotenuse/diameter had a length of 120. Again, I wonder if there is a constructive geometry trick using a divider and straight edge where this is particularly useful information.

All in all, a very interesting read. It's a beautiful system that he develops, bringing together hundreds of years of incredibly spotty astronomical records, each described using its own archaic calendaring system, and managing to pull a very elegant solution out of it. I didn't realize that he actually discuses the possibility of a heliocentric universe early on, before dismissing it as silly. It really drove home the intellectual seduction of the "perfect circular motion", given how complicated the full Ptolemaic system is. The epicycles are only the first level of complexity! The planets don't move regularly around the epicycle, they move so that their motion looks regular as seen from another place that isn't even the center of the Zodiac circle. (That is, the Earth.) And the circle the epicycles are moving on (their deferent) isn't centered on the Earth anyway. (This is all much more complicated for Mercury, btw.) And that's just for the longitudinal anomaly! To also account for the latitudinal anomaly, you have to add more circles that work kind of like gears, tilting the epicycle and its deferent separately up and down as they spin. All in all, you need something like 90 spinning circles to fully describe just the 7 planets (including the sun and the moon) they could see at the time. Whew -- and it still took hundreds of years for people to drop that idea, once it was rigorously challenged! Never underestimate the poisonous appeal of the wrong kind of beauty when it comes to science.

One of the better visualizations of a full Ptolemaic system that I found:

A good explanation of how you get from Ptolemy to Copernicus:

Warning: Following video links from this videos will quickly get you to serious, modern attempts at disproving the heliocentric model. It's a scary world out there. :(
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2017-05-26 09:25 am

Extending Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum

I was reading Kepler's Epitome of Copernican Astronomy and The Harmonies of the World recently, and found myself quite fascinated with his Platonic solid model of the solar system. On a lark, I set about extending it to include Uranus and Neptune. It proved to be an interesting challenge, and one that really helped me connect with the mindset of the age better.

Of course, with all that done, I had to write up my results as a full academic paper: Extending Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum

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2017-05-19 01:59 pm

Book review: The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling

For the last 18 months or so I've been inhaling the western canon. It was originally a ridiculous idea I had for hiking the PCT, to use that time to listen to the Great Books series on audiobook. Those books have been staring at me from one shelf or another all my life, and it felt weird that I'd never really made an attempt to read them. I hate being a phony like that.

I still haven't hiked the PCT, but I do spend a lot of time driving/busing/doing repetitive stuff in the shop, so I've managed to make some significant progress. (40% of the volumes fully read, another 30% partially read. Based on the 1952 set, though I'm working on the extended 1990 edition as well.) My absorption certainly isn't as high as if I was reading them, but I feel it's good enough to still be worthwhile. It's not ALL I listen to, of course. I sometimes get sidetracked for months following tangents. But it's proved a pretty great framework to fall back on when nothing else catches my fancy, introducing me to some pretty great texts. They're usually considered classics for a reason, after all! And now that I've worked up to listening at a 1.5x+ playback speed, they usually go pretty quickly. So I figured I could start writing some reviews to help keep track.

The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling
By Henry Fielding, 1749

Summary: Tom Jones, an orphan raised by a nobleman, is in an impossible love affair with Sophia, the daughter of a neighboring squire. He gets banished from the estate after being set up by his dastardly, jealous cousin. Tom is handsome, charming, recklessly good-hearted, and a bit too prone to falling into bed with just about every woman he meets. After bouncing around the countryside having adventures, he ends up caught in an increasingly complicated set of intersecting plotlines, trying to reconcile with Sophia and her overly-excitable father. Romance! Adventure! Intrigue! Heroes, rogues and villains!

This book was A+ fun. Not a deep book, maybe, but well written, absolutely stuffed full of characters you'll love to love, love to hate or just love to laugh at. It reminded me of Tristram Shandy, in that I was quite captivated without ever quite being able to say why. It still feels fresh, despite pop culture drowning in copies of copies of copies of copies. Like eating at a real continental breakfast, you realize why, exactly, this was something everyone wanted to copy in the first place. I think I'll be thinking about it for a long time to come, and few books can manage that. All that, and I didn't even see the final twist coming! Highly recommended, if you ever feel yourself in the need of 350K words of 18th-century picaresque satire.
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2017-05-16 10:16 am

Harmony of the World

I've been reading Kepler, which has lead me to explore his wacky-but-beautiful geometric and resonance models of the solar system. Not being particularly musical myself, I started looking for samples of other people's interpretations of his "Harmony of the World", which is given in explicit musical terms in the book.

So... interesting, as a form of infovis, if you ignore all the wild handwaving Kepler had to do to make it work in the first place. (It's only valid as seen from the sun, for instance, and specifically just related to the speed of each planet at its apses. And even then, the numbers didn't actually work out very well.) But as I kept listening, I realized it sounded familiar.

It's the into to Depeche Mode's album Sounds of the Universe! (Link likely to fail in the future.) Kind of, anyway. I might be imagining it. The title of the album sure does imply a possible link, though. And the song it leads into, In Chains, could possibly be read as talking about universal gravitation.

The way you move
Has got me yearning
The way you move
Has left me burning
I know you know what you're doing to me
I know my hands will never be free
I know what it's like to be
In chains

The way you move
Is meant to haunt me
The way you move
To tempt and taunt me
I know you knew on the day you were born
I know somehow I should've been warned
I know I walk every midnight to dawn
In Chains

But I can't find any references anywhere to this being an acknowledged link. So I think I've fallen into a very weird little conspiracy theory. Oh well!
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2017-05-02 11:59 am


I've been thinking about numbers a lot recently. As in, what are they, exactly?

It's one of those simple sounding questions that doesn't actually have a very good answer. You have the Platonists, who want numbers to be abstract, metaphysical objects. Pure and perfect, beyond time and space. But if that's the case, how do we interact with them? Where did we even get the idea of them in the first place? Numbers can't be so pure and perfect if they can get caught in simian brains.

On the other side you have the nominalists, who say that numbers are just an abstraction of groups of actual, real-world things. Which maybe sounds a bit more level-headed, but it really falls apart when you start talking about math more complicated than basic arithmetic. It certainly doesn't explain why math has been so phenomenally useful in describing the universe. If it's just a system of symbols we invented, why should something like imaginary numbers end up being useful in electrical engineering? Why aren't music or poetry or card games useful in the same way? It's really hard to say that the universe and mathematics aren't linked in a very fundamental sense.

The whole argument reminds me of something interesting I noticed in Plato's dialogs last year. In Meno, we find Socrates making a point about innate knowledge. He shows how a slave boy is able to understand geometric proofs, despite having no training. He uses this as proof that the soul is immortal, and that we can retain things learned in previous lives. When I was first reading this, I amused myself by flippantly translating it into modern terms: "We do make use of knowledge developed over previous lives. The pattern recognition capabilities of our brains are the product of millions of years of evolution." Now I'm wondering if that doesn't hold the key to understanding what math really is.

Postulate a "deep logic" upon which the universe is founded. This is the set of very basic principles that all of physics is derived from. By evolving in this universe, our brains have been ruthlessly trained to recognize some of these principles. I mean incredibly basic stuff like "x=x" and "x+1 > x". A squirrel needs to know that adding a nut to its cache makes the cache bigger, after all.

Fast forward a couple million years, and homo sapiens sapiens comes on the scene with the ability to create symbolic systems. They get by fine using the intuitive logic they inherited for a long time, but eventually they start to build on it. They like having things, and they really like having more things than anyone else, so they get the counting numbers. They start buying and selling, so they get integers and basic arithmetic. At some point someone asks what half of five is, and they decide that some numbers are the ratio of integers. They want to mark out territory, so they invent geometry. This leads to wondering what the square root of two is, and the proof that not all numbers can be a ratio of integers. It get incredibly abstract very quickly, no longer even slightly connected to physical objects.

And now here we are, using the math that grew from those roots to describe what happens at 0.9c passing by the event horizon of a black hole! Because it's still all based on the same "deep logic" as the universe, it has remained useful. Whenever a mathematician rejects an idea for being "inelegant" or a proof as not making sense, that's the ghost of our evolutionary apprenticeship at work.

So maybe Platonism and nominalism aren't as diametrically opposed as they're commonly thought to be.

Open question: Is there any corner of the universe based on a different deep logic? What would that look like to us, and could we begin to understand it?
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2017-03-21 10:21 am

Zipper Merge -- A Literature Review

It's getting common to see transportation departments1, 2, 3, 4 and news stories5, 6, 7 advocating zipper merge (AKA late merge), claiming that it is safer and allows higher throughput. As someone who naturally doubts the pronouncements of transportation departments, I thought I'd look into the research behind it.

First of all, what is zipper merge? It's the idea that when lanes merge, the traffic should cluster up at the merge point, where cars will take turns merging. Some variants include active signage to signal which car should go next, but mostly not. This is compared to "early merge", where people start to get over as possible as soon as possible.

Outside of some specific situations (2 lanes going down to 1 where neither lane is obviously the one going away) this has never made much sense to me. Humans overbrake, amplifying any slowdown. Encouraging gradual merging over a long distance, where cars can slow down enough to let others in just by coasting, seems obviously better. And calmer, and more polite. Also, to be fair, the kind of people who are really vocal about zipper merge tend to put me off. But I know better than to trust my gut reaction on such things -- that's what we have science for! So what does the science say?

Under various names, late merge has shown up in papers as early as 199015. The idea really started to take off after some work in the Netherlands in the late 90s.13 Of the later work, two things really stand out to me. First, they almost all are only talking about 2 lanes merging down to 18, 9, 10, 16. Also, many of the papers8, 15, 16, 17, 18 are primarily reporting on simulated results or are lit reviews12, 14 like this post.

The number of lanes in question seems key to me. In the situation of just 2 lanes going down to 1, zipper merge certainly makes a lot more sense. The problem here is that these results are over-generalized to apply to any merging scenario. The entrance to the express lanes on N I-5 in downtown Seattle is a prime example of this. There, a lane becomes exit-only that many people want to take. Many of them apply late merge techniques, zooming up to the front of the line and then trying to merge. In doing so, they block an entire lane that would otherwise be open, and this sometimes carries over to slowing down even the next lane, as people dodge out around the blockage. This is the core of my objection to zipper merge -- it encourages people to be jerks.

The simulation issue is also critical. The simulations are all calibrated using real world data, but that mostly extends just to things like measuring the average time it takes to change lanes. The distinction between real world measurements and simulated results are often lost in later citations, such as in the heavily cited McCoy 200114 paper. It states that "Early Merge has been found to increase travel times", while only referencing two simulation studies15, 16 -- and the second citation only provides parameters for simulating a late merge system that hadn't been implemented yet at the time of publication!

Overall, the results seem pretty muddy to me. Of the others, one9 lacked a control and another10 had neutral results. There are several papers that do find pro-zipper11, 17, 18 results, but those are qualified as being tied to specific traffic volumes and/or the presence of active signage. This is a hard problem to investigate, since it involves changing habits of a large number of people. It shouldn't be surprising if the results are inconclusive.

Does any of this matter? I think so. Look at the news articles promoting zipper merge -- "science says to stop being polite" is a common theme. We should always be extra dubious when evidence seems to justify us doing what we wanted to do in the first place.

1: Minnesota DOT

2: Kansas City DOT

3: Nebraska DOT

4: Missouri DOT

5: Why Last-Second Lane Mergers Are Good for Traffic, New York Times, October 12, 2016

6: All hail the zipper merge: How Canadian politeness is killing the efficiency of our highways, National Post, January 23, 2017

7: Have you ever heard of the zipper merge technique?, Houston Chronicle, July 25, 2016

8: Wakita, Y., et al. "Comparison of zipper and non-zipper merging patterns near merging point of roads." Nature-Inspired Computing Design, Development, and Applications. IGI Global, 2012. 221-231. OPEN ACCESS

9: Grillo, Lia, Tapan Datta, and Catherine Hartner. "Dynamic late lane merge system at freeway construction work zones." Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board 2055 (2008): 3-10. PAYWALL

10: Idewu, Wakeel, and Brian Wolshon. "Joint merge and its impact on merging speeds in lane reduction areas of construction zone." Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board 2169 (2010): 31-39. PAYWALL

11: Kurker, Michael, et al. Minimizing User Delay and Crash Potential through Highway Work Zone Planning. No. FHWA/TX-13/0-6704-1. 2014. OPEN ACCESS

12: Walters, Carol H., et al. Understanding road rage: Summary of first-year project activities. No. TX-01/4945-1,. 2000. OPEN ACCESS

13: Dijker, Thomas, and Piet HL Bovy. "Influencing lane changing at lane drops." Transportation Research Board 1999 Annual Meeting CD-ROM. 1999. NOT AVAILABLE ONLINE

14: McCoy, Patrick, and Geza Pesti. "Dynamic late merge-control concept for work zones on rural interstate highways." Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board 1745 (2001): 20-26. OPEN ACCESS

15: Mousa, Ragab M., Nagui M. Rouphail, and Farhard Azadivar. "Integrating microscopic simulation and optimization: Application to freeway work zone traffic control." Transportation Research Record 1254 (1990). PAYWALL

16: Tarko, Andrzej P., Sreenivasulu R. Kanipakapatnam, and Jason S. Wasson. "Modeling and Optimization of the Indiana Lane Merge Control System on Approaches to Freeway Work Zones, Part I." Joint Transportation Research Program (1998): 345. OPEN ACCESS

17: Ramadan, Ossama E., and Virginia P. Sisiopiku. "Evaluation of merge control strategies at interstate work zones under peak and off-peak traffic conditions." Journal of transportation technologies 6.03 (2016): 118. OPEN ACCESS

18: Kang, Kyeong-Pyo, Gang-Len Chang, and Jawad Paracha. "Dynamic late merge control at highway work zones: evaluations, observations, and suggestions." Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board 1948 (2006): 86-95. OPEN ACCESS
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2017-03-13 12:52 pm

A creature of perfect morality

(This exploration was inspired by de Beauvoir's Ethics of Ambiguity, coincidentally reinforced by parts of Palmer's Seven Surrenders, plus some of the style of Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. So if it's a little pretentious, well, you now know why.)

How do we value human life?

I'm walking down the street. Two cars crash and burst into flames. I help the driver in the first car, as it is slightly closer to me. While I get the first driver to safety, two people in the other car burn to death.

When on the bus, I sometimes look at the other passengers and simply try to appreciate the human mind. They're a commonplace miracle, yes, but a miracle none the less. Each is a unique collection of experiences and thoughts, never repeated before or since. Each a completely distinct portal into this world. In a very real sense, each is its own universe. Trying to put a value on them is like putting a value on an entire library of lost works.

Human lives are the only thing that we know for certain adds meaning to the universe. How do you assign a value to that which creates value? It's literally priceless, yet we've never found a moral/political/economic system that doesn't demand constant appraisals. How much of the budget should be dedicated to eradicating a specific cancer? How slow are you willing to drive to keep all pedestrians safe?

I'm walking by some train tracks. An out-of-control trolley is rolling towards a switch in the track. On one side of the switch there is a person tied to the tracks. On the other side, there are 10 people. Without looking to see what position the switch is in, I pull out my phone and call 911, trying to save a few seconds of response time. In the background, screams.

It's tricky, working with infinity. The promise of a future paradise has lead to some of the worst atrocities in all of human history. It doesn't matter if it is of the heavenly or earthly kind, religious or secular, the danger of paradise is assigning an infinite value to begin with. No number of deaths, no horror or depravity conceivable can't be justified in the here and now if you believe it can lead to an infinite reward.

Even mathematically, it took us a long time to learn how to safely use the concept of infinity. Xeno's Paradox was a legitimate problem until infinite sums were conquered, a process which took 2000 years. We're pretty good at it now, calculating with the infinitely large and small, an achievement which has led to wonders. The modern world simply cannot happen without calculus.

On my left, a cruise ship is sinking. On my right, a rowboat. I flip a coin to decide which I should help.

It could be human lives are of infinite value, but we haven't developed the appropriate analytical tools yet. There could be a rigorous calculus of ethics out there, waiting to be invented.

Can we imagine what that would be like, living with a consistent moral system that really sees all lives as having unbounded value? I don't think it would be recognizably human. The creature you would have to become, who cannot see the difference between a single death and a million -- is it a saint, or a monster?

From my limited, mortal perspective, I think it's best to just keep pushing up the value of human life. Regular, monotonic, finite increments. Let it reach infinity when t itself does. That might be soon enough.

I'm performing CPR on an octogenarian. On the other side of the room, an ICBM launch starts counting down. I wonder if anyone else will arrive in time to deal with it.