Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Interesting facts

It's like this blog in miniature... only, you know, funny and interesting:
I presume that you, like me, also yearn a great deal. Thus, as a means of sharing some of my wisdom and making you a better person, I have prepared a pleasing bulleted list of empirical facts. Commit them to memory at your earliest possible convenience.
  • The average human being spends at least one year of life exploring virtual caves and sewers.
  • It is better to have owned a boat and lost it to pirates than to have never owned a boat at all.
  • ...
  • All notaries are also licensed coroners. However, not all coroners are licensed notaries. Keep that in mind when trying to kill two birds with one stone.
- Something Awful

I am now a bit worried about my notary license; although it is current, I am not a licensed coroner. Does this void my notarial act?

Monday, September 21, 2009


The Hebrew word most often translated as "holy" originally meant, and still has a secondary meaning of, "set apart." Sacredness is simply separation from the common.  "[C]ontact and contamination are at the heart of impurity"

(Also, Hebrew has a really interesting structure!)

Edit: (10/19/09) turns out lots of words meaning or related to "holy" have really interesting etymologies: the OED (not that one) has a relevant list.   The pre-Christian meaning of Old English "holy"
was probably "that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be transgressed or violated," and connected with O.E. hal (see health) and O.H.G. heil "health, happiness, good luck."
"That which must be preserved whole" is a fairly different root meaning than "that which is set apart."  They are almost opposite, in fact - wholeness against that which is divided.  And then again the Latin "sacred" (maybe) comes
from O.L. saceres, which Tucker connects to base *saq- "bind, restrict, enclose, protect," explaining that "words for both 'oath' & 'curse' are regularly words of 'binding.'

Which again is different.

That which is set apart, that which is whole, that which is bound.  I guess the meaning to complete the set would be something like, that which is freed.  And though I can't put a single word to it, I know that Buddhism's goal is nirvana, being set free of the wheel of existence.  "Nirvana" is actually a negative word in the Sanscrit,  I understand, meaning something like, "no wind blows." So that's clearly not quite it.  But something like it?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Mushrooms in tunnels

I knew, of course, that mushrooms can be grown indoors, or otherwise under human cultivation. But I never considered the possibilities of disused transit tunnels.

Apparently different types of mushrooms prefer different temperatures, which makes sense. This one tunnel houses soil-based white button mushrooms, Cremini, Shimeji, Wood-ear, Shiitake, and Oyster mushrooms. But King Brown and Chestnut mushrooms require higher temperatures, so they are raised separately.

BLDBLOG has some interesting ideas about the subway tunnels under London, but the only subways I've used are in other countries, so I can't offer too much insight there.  It seems like some kinds of abandoned buildings might be able to be used in similar fashion, though.  Perhaps something could be done with some of those buildings in Detroit

Incidentally, shiitake mushrooms originate in China, despite the fact that we use the Japanese name. I had no idea "black forest mushroom" was just a synonym for "shiitake" either.

Ramping up to calculus

So a while back I was trying to decide whether to take a stupid liberal-arts course called "Survey of Calculus" since they didn't offer Trig as an evening class. I decided not to, but instead I've set up some appointments with a(n adorable) math tutor to run through the Trig so I can take the placement test at the local university. Hopefully I'll be able to start off with Calculus in the spring, then.

In the meantime, yesterday I (re-)learned:

1) The acronym SOH CAH TOA for sin, cosin, and tangent. Each of these three functions give a ratio of two of the sides of the triangle, for a given angle in degrees. sin(X)=(opposite/hypotenuse), cos(X)=(adjacent/hypotenuse), and tan(X)=(opposite/adjacent). (Interactive "triangle-solver" using these ratios.)

2) If you have the ratio but not the angle, you can reverse-engineer the angle by using the inverse functions sin^(-1) etc. These are applied in the same way that division is the inverse operation to multiplication. So tan^(-1)(3/4)=37 [I'm not looking up the stupid math symbols in html right now] degrees.  (An interactive diagram of a 3:4:5 triangle)

3) Radians are just another unit for measuring angles. Instead of dividing a circle into 360 of the arbitrary units degrees, we divide the circle into 2(pi) of the arbitrary units radians. You convert between them just like you convert between inches and centimeters or any other two units. (This was something I never did properly understand in high school.) (Degree-radian converter, diagram of commonly used angles)

And lastly, I really need to remember that there are 360 degrees in a circle, not 365. Dammit. There was more as well, I'm sure, but that's what I recall without looking at my notes, so I'm gonna go ahead and say that's what I really learned.  We'll see what it looks like after I do some review on my lunch break.

Edit:  The Euler line really is new to me.  I had heard of the Centroid before, but not the Circumcenter or Orthocenter.  Hidden patters are so cool!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


There's a really neat service that hooks you up with random people to chat with anonymously:

Unfortunately, 7 out of 9 people just want to cyber.   Some of the others are cool though!  A lot of people seem to be ESL, who have a really amusing and interesting collection of chatspeak and terrible English grammar.

Friday, September 11, 2009


At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation's ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The good old O.E.D.

I've been reading The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester (no relation).  The Oxford English Dictionary took 70 years to complete!  And it was spearheaded by some of the most eccentric scholars I've ever heard tell of.

Dr. W.C. Minor was a surgeon who went insane following his service in the US Civil War, murdered a man in London, and was confined for the rest of his life in an English asylum.  He was also perhaps the single greatest volunteer contributor to the Dictionary.

Professor James Murray was an autodidact (hah!) who spoke dozens of languages and spearheaded the renewal of the OED project after its first stutters.

Earlier English dictionaries were in general the work of a single man and varied in length, vocabulary selection, organization, and general helpfulness.  There were popular pamphlets (!) explaining the use of various "difficult" words, intended to make your diction suitable for discourse with academia, nobility, and the clergy.  The best available general dictionary before the OED was compiled by Samuel Johnson and published in 1755.  It was serviceable (allegedly "charming" also) but not particularly complete or objective. (Not its stated aims anyway, so whatever, right?)

Professor Murray took on the OED in 1878, and the first edition was published in 1921; it ran 12 (!) volumes and had over 400,000 entries.  Part of the mission of the creators of the OED was in express opposition to organizations such as L'Académie française, which sought to "fix" the form of the French language by strictly setting out what was and was not French (as it still does, in fact).  In contrast, the OED was to be a neutral POV recording of English "as she was," a mere historical record of the actual usage of the words.

Also, The Professor and the Madman is surprisingly entertaining for a book about a dictionary.  I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Public Service Announcement: Of IP and DHCP

To find your IP address and DHCP server on a PC, you bring up the Command Prompt and type "ipconfig".

To find your IP address and DHCP server on a Mac, you bring up the Terminal and type "ipconfig getpacket en0" (number 0).  There is not, so far as I can tell, any other way to make the Mac tell you the DHCP server address; although there are three different places to go for network-related information, none of them have this information.  Also, if you have manually entered an IP address for the computer to use, this command will not give you any information at all.

If you are accessing the internet across a LAN, your IP address is assigned locally, behind (?) the subnet mask, which almost always has an address of for whatever reason.  The whole network shares one IP address it gives out to the rest of the internet, which address is (obviously, probably) not the same as the one your computer spits out when you type the above commands.

Local IP addresses are assigned by your local DHCP server, which is a network application that runs on a local computer.  Which computer runs it appears to be arbitrary, and I admit I have no idea how to change that if I wanted to.  (There is a box on Macs in the Network Preferences where you can manually type in your DNS server but so far as I can tell not one for your DHCP server.  A shame since I think being able to change this might fix the network problems we're having.)

For the record, knowing this stuff probably isn't going to let you fix the problem, but it may give you an idea what the problem is so you know what to ask the real IT guys without looking dumb.  It's not going to help you explain the problem to you co-workers or boss, though, so you may still look dumb to them.

Brought to you by your local front-line tech support guru, discovered while flailing around at random because our IT contractors are out of town.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Marx & religious states

I picked up a book of Karl Marx's Selected Writings on a whim for some light lunch reading today. The very first essay pretty much blew my mind. It's "On the Jewish Question", a scathing critique of the Christian Kingdom of Germany's attitude towards Jews in the 1840s. But the thing that brought me up short is that the whole article is an argument about a problem I never even realized existed:

The Jewish question acquires a different form depending on the state in which the Jew lives. In Germany, where there is no political state, no state as such, the Jewish question is a purely theological one. The Jew finds himself in religious opposition to the state, which recognizes Christianity as its basis. This state is a theologian ex professo. Criticism here is criticism of theology, a double-edged criticism – criticism of Christian theology and of Jewish theology. Hence, we continue to operate in the sphere of theology, however much we may operate critically within it.

In France, a constitutional state, the Jewish question is a question of constitutionalism, the question of the incompleteness of political emancipation. Since the semblance of a state religion is retained here, although in a meaningless and self-contradictory formula, that of a religion of the majority, the relation of the Jew to the state retains the semblance of a religious, theological opposition.

Only in the North American states – at least, in some of them – does the Jewish question lose its theological significance and become a really secular question. Only where the political state exists in its completely developed form can the relation of the Jew, and of the religious man in general, to the political state, and therefore the relation of religion to the state, show itself in its specific character, in its purity. The criticism of this relation ceases to be theological criticism as soon as the state ceases to adopt a theological attitude toward religion, as soon as it behaves towards religion as a state – i.e., politically. Criticism, then, becomes criticism of the political state. At this point, where the question ceases to be theological, Bauer’s criticism ceases to be critical.

I knew that Jews were persecuted throughout Europe for not being Christian. But it literally had never occurred to me that in a country with a national religion, members of another religion are not simply disadvantaged or persecuted. They are not even part of the country/state/political life (I'm not 100% clear on the technical definitions of these terms as Marx is using them). They have no rights and only those privileges expressly granted to them.

As a concrete example, I never thought about a state religion requiring church attendance on the Sabbath as a civic duty. So naturally, exempting Jews from this requirement draws resentment, and every privilege so granted marks them out even more conspicuously. The same with other minority religions, I suppose, though Jews have been the largest minority religion in Europe for like a thousand years (maybe? as far as I know, and not counting the Moors in Spain who weren't the minority while they ruled there). Marx quotes liberally from Bruno Bauer, whose argument he was refuting. One of Bauer's points was that

Just as M. Martin du Nord saw the proposal to omit mention of Sunday in the law as a motion to declare that Christianity has ceased to exist, with equal reason (and this reason is very well founded) the declaration that the law of the Sabbath is no longer binding on the Jew would be a proclamation abolishing Judaism.

Wow. That is so far from my experience of religion... it's tough to see it from here. Which I suppose proves that Marx was right in this case. So right that the very question is foreign to a citizen of a modern nation. I am so firmly moored in the secular world and the secular mode of civic life, it seems absurd to contend that removing a law regarding religious practice would hurt religion, much less that it could extinguish the religion altogether. Bauer seems to regard this as part of the definition of "religion." ... Bizarre.

I also found a fascinating discussion of the different words for "Citizen" used in this article. That's one of the tricky bits of any German philosophy or politics... the words are similar, but the nuances are often very different.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Pittsburgh & Japan

Apparently Pittsburgh and Japan share a couple of linguistic markers. Well, not so much share. They are completely different, technically. But they function the same way, which is so cool.

Okay, so in "Pittsburgh English", there is a linguistic marker, "n'at." It is a contraction of "and that", and is commonly appended to many types of sentences. It means something like

"along with some other stuff," "the previous was just an example of more general case..."
Which is very much like the Japanese constructions たり。。。たり (tari... tari) and し。。。し (shi...shi). The "tari" construction is used for verbs/actions and the "shi" construction is used for nouns and descriptions. They are both used to list items in a longer list... or just one item in a longer list. In other words, exactly the same as "n'at". (Although I think the Japanese is a bit more formal and is "proper Japanese", while the Pittsburghese is more slangy.)

Similarly, it is common in Pittsburgh to use a falling question intonation when you are nearly certain of the answer.

Example: "Are you painting your garage?" (with pitch rising in intonation up to just before the last syllable and then falling precipitously).
Further explanation: Speakers who use this intonation pattern do not do so categorically, but instead also end many questions with a rising pitch (Fasold 1980). Such speakers typically use falling pitch for yes/no questions for which they already are quite sure of the answer. So, a speaker uttering the above example is simply confirming what they think they already know, that yes, the person they’re talking to is painting his/her garage.
This is quite similar to the Japanese use of の (no) in a question to indicate that you think you know the answer to the question... or sort of that given the context, it is clear that you have a reason for asking and that has given you an idea of the answer.

The example we got in class was, I think, that you are studying with your friend, who gets up and turns the heat up in the middle of your study session. You could ask, "寒いですか?” (samui desu ka?), "are you cold?" But you have a reason for thinking your friend is cold, so you think you know the answer. And you're sort of more asking to confirm why she got up to adjust the heater, maybe. So it sounds more natural to ask, "寒いのですか?" (samui no desu ka?), which is something like, "is it that you're cold?" or "is it because you're cold?" You already know the answer, probably, but you're double-checking.

If I'm way off-base here, native Pittsburghians or Japanese, feel free to correct me!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The sky is pretty neat

There are like fifteen different kinds of light artifacts visible in the sky at different times, not counting rainbows! I'm going to be looking for light haloes every day at lunch this next week.


I was looking at last night to help my parents pack and somewhere in there I came across this amazing shoelace site, which I have just finished investigating further.

I knew two ways to tie the standard shoelace knot (the "around-the-tree" and "double-loop" methods), and I had seen two or three different lacing strategies... But holy crap, you guys, this is crazy. I'm going to tie my boots in a zipper style immediately.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


I had no idea nanotech was so far along! The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology is admittedly not exactly an unbiased source, but they predict workable molecular manufacturing in the next twenty years.

This sort of thing freaks me out, in my gut where I can't reason with it. A side effect of too much science fiction? But often the best way to deal with that feeling is to move in closer until I understand it and can deal with it, instead of living with the low-grade worry that comes standard. Cory Doctorow is excellent at thinking about these problems in human terms, as in the story After the Siege (scroll down to view a selection of formats for downloading purposes).

I want to go to space. Perhaps I could get there through a combination of architecture and nanotech expertise. I wonder how many years of intense schooling I would need for that? Two years for the architecture, perhaps. Three for the physics/engineering/chemistry necessary for nanotech research? Some of the necessary math and engineering may overlap, and I'm sure many courses could be taken simultaneously. On the other hand, this sample engineering major requirement list indicates a need for a minimum of three or four years of high school science classes including physics and chemistry, in addition to college math through Calculus and Calculus-based Physics. So probably I would need at least a year of intensive preparatory classes in addition to the five of real classes. Hmm.

Designing structures for humans to live in space using nanotech would be interesting, and important, and maybe even useful. Maybe I wouldn't feel so much like I'm wasting my time. The kind of materials engineering possible through nanotech might be able to mitigate the radiation hazards and seriously reduce the mass of vehicles and cargoes going into space, thus decreasing fuel needs and making the undertaking cheaper all around. Although it occurs to me that for example a nanotech air filtration system would be much more difficult to repair on the fly than a traditional mechanical one. Or would it? A personal nanofactory might be able to churn one out in seconds.

The last thing I need to hear is that this is too ambitious. But is it ambitious in the right direction?