Witchcraft Murder Round-up

The Bulldada News Blog mentions an article about two women who were killed for suspected witchcraft in Papua New Guinea. There’s quite a bit of this sort of thing going on, and not just in PNG. A few recent highlights:

  • In Nigeria, two brothers beheaded their mother, believing that she was magically responsible for a string of misfortunes in their lives. A son of one of the brothers was living in the same house; he was beheaded as well, presumably to keep him quiet.
  • The government of the South African province of Limpopo has created a special unit to investigate witchcraft, ritual murders, and “related activities.” Premiere Sello Moloto commented, “In the recent past, we have seen the escalation of these heinous acts of crime in an uncontrollable manner.”
  • Suspecting an 81-year-old Kenyan man of murdering his three grandsons by witchcraft (they were killed after falling into a collapsed septic tank), a gang of his fellow villagers beat him to death and set his body on fire.
  • Representatives of the Catholic Church, the Anglican Church of Kenya, and the Council of Imams and Preaches of Kenya have condemned the killing of suspected witches. Bishop Julius Kalu stated, (and it’s hard to argue with this) “It is against the principle of peaceful co-existence to lynch someone for suspecting them of witchcraft.”
  • On the other hand, “scholars” from the Catholic University of Eastern Africa (also in Kenya) are concerned that even though witchcraft is destroying the Catholic Church in Africa, the church continues “to dismiss the dark arts as mere superstition, thereby unwittingly assisting the devil.” Theologian Michael Katola wants priests to understand that they have the power to confront these evil powers . . . otherwise the Catholic Church will start losing members to evangelical movements that offer exorcisms.
  • In Kokrajhar, Assam, India, a man was arrested for beheading a housewife. After his arrest, he claimed that she had practiced witchcraft, and that two other men had participated in the murder.

It may be time to start translating The Crucible into a few more languages.

computer science

Two Stanzas on Euclid's GCD

Here’s an double tanka on Euclid’s algorithm (for finding the greatest common divisor of two numbers), executable as a Scheme program. My notes indicate that I wrote it during a tedious teleconference.

(define gcd
 (lambda (m n) (if (zero?
  n) m (gcd
   n (remainder m n))))) ; Look!
    ; Falling leaves unveil the tree.

      ; Two integers stand.
       ; They divide, m's ghost remains.
        ; As autumn passes,
         ; n succeeds m, floating down.
          ; Zero reveals the great truth.
discordianism games

Discordian Games

The Game of SinkIf you’re a Discordian (and who isn’t?), you’re probably familiar with the game of Sink. Unfortunately, if your intelligence is higher than that of a cabbage, this recreation will eventually lose a bit of its luster.

Fortunately, there are other Discordian Games suitable for even such jaded sophisticates.

  • Discordian Solitaire (for two players; suits do not matter because Eris is color-blind)
  • Hybrid: the role-playing game. “RULE # 223: You can using the cloning equation to figure out the # of people that you can effect telepathically. And, you can use the nuclear equation to figure out the radius within which that you can affect others, but you can use topology to increase the maximum distance that you can affect some particular individual. And, the same method of topology, you can, also, generate or simulate singularity (black hole): % = X^X, where X = (C2/M); or, % = Y^Z, where Y = (C1/10) & Z = exponent, which is inverse exponent that is used on his Life Span.”
  • Illuminopoly: Monopoly that forgot to take its anti-psychotics. “RACE CAR: Automotive interests. May roll 3d6 to move if it desires, or just 2d6. Wins if all four railroads are destroyed at any point in the game.”
  • Memetic Truth-or-Dare: Defend the indefensible.
  • Mao: Mao is a card game.  You want to know the rules?  That’s too bad.

And failing all of the above, you could always give Nomic a try.


How to Defend Yourself with a Stick against the most Dangerous Kick of an Expert Kicker

Illustration from Barton-Wright’s “Self Defense with a Walking-Stick”, 1901

Two masculine habits of previous decades have fallen into sad decline in these present times: the wearing of hats and the carrying of walking sticks. It falls upon those of us who appreciate what has gone before to make up for this modern degeneration. Despite my lack of avoirdupois, I feel great kinship with Douglas Adams’s Dirk Gently:

He was rounder than the average undergraduate and wore more hats. That is to say, there was just the one hat which he habitually wore, but he wore it with a passion that was rare in one so young.

Today, the hat marks its wearer as a mild eccentric (a label I do not eschew).  Sadly, the carrying of a walking stick would be truly outré.  I’ll be devilled, though, if this article by E. W. Barton-Wright (from Pearson’s Magazine, 1901) doesn’t make me want to round out my ensemble:

The student of the art of self-defence with a walking-stick might think it hardly worth while to study any particular method of defending himself which might insure him against an attack by a savater, or foot-boxer. You might suppose that there would be no great difficulty in guarding a high kick, provided you carried a stout stick in your hand. Those who have seen savaters at work, however, and realise the extraordinary swiftness of the kicks which they plant on their opponents’ bodies, will understand that scientific kicking can only be guarded with certainty by a scientific method of defence.


Abandoning Our Legal Heritage

Winchester Mystery House - Aerial ViewThe edifice of Law could perhaps be described as a sort of Winchester House, obsessively extended and larded with unexpected features: stairs that lead nowhere and 47 fireplaces. Every so often, some reformer decides it’s time to root out some particular bit of cruft. The New Jersey state constitution, for example, holds this gem in Article II, Section I, paragraph 6:

No idiot or insane person shall enjoy the right of suffrage.

Leaving aside whether this rule is actually enforced, it is has been suggested that this provision is deeply insensitive to idiots and the insane. Thus, New Jersey Senate Concurrent Resolution 134 has been adopted, proposing a constitutional amendment removing the language.

Somehow, I can’t shake the feeling that there’s an ulterior motive, here. Perhaps certain senators wish to pack the polls with the feeble-minded and the mad to shift the balance of power that brought about certain recent legislation.

(via reddit)


Robert Anton Wilson Festival: Music and Hot Dogs (Sorry, no buns)

A friend of Wigner’s friend tried to tell me that Robert Anton Wilson is dead, but I wouldn’t listen. He could be, but I haven’t looked in the box myself.

Still, I did just peek into my email inbox, and I found this:

Flyer for the Robert Anton Wilson Wake on 23 Feb 2007Robert Anton Wilson Wake and Erisian Festival
Friday, February 23

Northern Liberties
Radio Eris
Oneiric Imperium


Improvisation, Video Screeing, Poetry and Open-Mike, Crowd Participation,
+lasagna, text experiments (exquisite corpse and cut-up), hot dogs with no buns.

Eris Temple
602 S. 52nd St (52nd & Cedar), West Philly

Doors opens 7PM. Lasagna at 8.

$5 suggested donation for bands and temple renovation.

Oh, yeah. It looks like there’s some serious Erisian action happening in Philly. Radio Eris, Northern Liberties, and Oneiric Imperium have pages on MySpace . . . this could be Yohimbe referenced, but I’m not making any assertions.

Update 24 Feb 2007: I’d be very interested to hear from anyone who made it to this event . . please drop me a note or comment.


Textual Retrogaming: Nightfall Lives!

Nightfall MUD Login ScreenI am agog.

Please pardon the excursus – I have just discovered that Nightfall (a MUD that was founded back around 1990), is still alive and kicking. See for yourself:


and there it is. I was quite surprised to find that my old account and character are still there.

Back in the early nineties MUDding, was a de rigeur recreation for an undergraduate computer science major. I don’t care to think how many 3 AMs would find me still at a terminal in the computer lab, trying to get those just a few more points. The patterns of gaming haven’t changed that much over the years, even if the specifics have flashier graphics.

It’s very interesting to observe how much of a sense of place I still have for a world that exists only in textual form, and that I haven’t spend time exploring in well over a decade.

Novels are different; the details of navigation are brushed aside in the interests of telling a story. When interacting with the world of a MUD, your primary activity tends to be travelling from one point to another. I’m sure I still have the pages upon pages of maps that I drew as I explored Nightfall (and other MUDs, such as Ivory Tower): practical cartography for imaginary places. I remember the path from my house to the guildhall of the Seekers of Magic.

Like interactive fiction, MUDs are far from dead. They have been eclipsed by more elaborate successors, but some people always seem to prefer text to visuals.

mad science politics and Unintended Side-Effects promotes an interesting strategy to get more people to the polls on Election Day. Taking a page from Lysistrata, site visitors can pledge to (a) withhold sex from non-voters for a week following the elections, (b) have sex with a voter on election night and withhold sex from non-voters for the week following the election, or (c) have sex with a voter on election night and withhold sex from non-voters for the next four years.

Here’s the problem with this plan, though: nothing prevents non-voters from having sex with each other.

This is it: this is how Wells’s vision will be realized. As these pledges are carried to their logical conclusions, the population will divide into completely separate breeding populations, voters segregated from non-voters. I leave it to your prejudices to figure out which become the Eloi and which become the Morlocks.

(via the Bulldada NewsBlog)

input devices

Multi-touch keyboard

Atari 400The year (if you’ll cast your mind back) is 1982.  Atari Computer has just released the Atari 400, with its flat, membrane keyboard.  It is a nice idea: just type on the surface (with raised edges around each key as key guides), no moving parts.  Unfortunately, the implementation is terrible.  It’s very extremely hard to get a consistent response from the keys, touch typing is nearly impossible, and it’s terrible for playing games.  Atari wasn’t the first to try the membrane keyboard, of course . . . the Sinclair ZX80 and ZX81 kit computers had an even worse implementation.

Fast-forward twelve years: the Apple Powerbook 500 has an interesting innovation, a touchpad that can be used as a mousing device.  Again, touchpads weren’t new, but they quickly moved to become nearly ubiquitous on laptops over the next decade  Some people find touchpads very natural, others despise them.  Certainly, after you’ve brushed one with your thumb while trying to type  for the fiftieth time, you’re likely to become a bit exasperated.

The common touchpad cannot detect multiple simultaneous touches.  Or rather, it selects the centroid of all the contact points as the touch location.  If you’re reading this on a laptop, try playing with the touchpad.  Place two fingers, or three, lift one, then place it back down again.  Amusing (if you’re easily amused) but limited.

FingerWorks TouchStream LP KeyboardFor the past four years or so I’ve been using a FingerWorks TouchStream keyboard on-and-off.  This is a return to the completely flat keyboard, but it bears little resemblance to either an Atari 400 or a conventional touchpad.  It is two pads, each around five inches by seven inches, connected by a very short ribbon cable.  The entire assembly can rest on a metal stand or lie flat on a table.

The device serves as both keyboard and mouse.  Without a doubt, it is the most natural mousing device that I’ve ever used. When using the TouchStream, you no longer have to reach over to the side; simply drop two fingers (your right index and middle fingers) anywere on  the right pad, and move them.  The mouse pointer naturally follows your gesture.  Clicking is as simple: tapping those same two fingers is a mouse click, while tapping three fingers is a double click.

Typing is as simple, though it does require more precision.    It is not the same as using a normal keyboard, as no force at all is required.  You simply type, touching your fingers lightly to the images of the keys.  Unfortunately, it is difficult to keep oriented when in full-on high-speed touch-typing mode.  Additional modes (including an embedded programmer’s symbol pad) allow you to reduce the range your hands have to travel while typing.

The array of gestures supported is huge, and completely configurable.  The configuration software is written in Java and works under Linux, Mac, and Windows. Certain common gestures (such as pinching the thumb and middle finger together for ‘cut’ and flicking them apart for ‘paste’) quickly become part of your repetoire, and you miss them greatly when returning to more conventional input devices.

This is one of my favorite gadgets, without a doubt.  It’s never managed to become my primary input device due to the difficulty of keeping fingers aligned with the keys while typing, but as a mousing and gesture device it is unsurpassed.  Sadly, FingerWorks has ceased operations, so this very cool technology is lying fallow.  Apple touts the multi-touch interface screen of the iPhone as  revolutionary, but it’s hardly an original development.

There are a number of TouchStream keyboards floating around on eBay, so it is still possible to obtain one.  I’m tempted to pick up a second, against the eventual failure.  (For this same reason, I have a closet full of IBM clicky-keyboards, the best and most satisfying traditional keyboard design.)


Nomic: Rules Are What You Make of Them

The Lady of Justice on the gates of DublinAfter graduating from college I lived for a time at my parents’ house, working in a local bookstore until I could find a job at least nominally related to computers. On a trip down to Ann Arbor to haunt the excellent used bookstores, I found a copy of Douglas Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themas at Dawn Treader.

MT is a collection of Hofstadter’s Scientific American columns from 1981 to 1983, and it is a cornucopia of fascinating tangles. Chapter 4 describes the game of Nomic, invented by Peter Suber. If you’re not familiar with it, the concept behind the game is deceptively simple: the rules are changable, and the players take turns suggesting new rules.

A game of Nomic begins with an initial rule set designed to facilitate this self-modifying gameplay and to deal with common situations. For example:

107. No rule change may take effect earlier than the moment of the completion of the vote that adopted it, even if its wording explicitly states otherwise. No rule change may have retroactive application.

116. Whatever is not explicitly prohibited or regulated by a rule is permitted and unregulated, with the sole exception of changing the rules, which is permitted only when a rule or set of rules explicitly or implicitly permits it.

The initial rules for winning are simple: the first player to reach 100 (positive!) points wins. If a player proposes a rule that is accepted, they gain ten points. If their proposal is defeated, they lose ten points. Rule changes are adopted only with unanimous agreement, but some rules handle possible situations in the face of changed rules:

204. If and when rule changes can be adopted without unanimity, the players who vote against winning proposals shall receive 10 points apiece.

To keep things moving, in addition to proposing a rule each player also rolls a die and gains that many points. Of course, that rule is often the first one to go!

Upon returning home, I immediately drafted my younger brothers into a game. I had already written out the rules on individual 3″x5″ cards, and we went out to the back yard to start the game. The garage contained any number of game materials suitable for livening things up: bocce balls, a croquet set, Frisbees, an astonishing number of hula hoops, and so on. I figured that in addition to playing with the rules, we could add some interesting physical challenges. Both of my brothers were amenable, so play began.

We began by abolishing rules. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m pretty sure the first to go was rule 201:

201. Players shall alternate in clockwise order, taking one whole turn apiece. Turns may not be skipped or passed, and parts of turns may not be omitted. All players begin with zero points.

The ideas was that we would strip out the rules that didn’t match the kind of game we were working towards, and then build up a new set. We then went on to remove seveal other rules.

Suddenly, a problem became clear: Rule 201 was a very, very bad rule to remove. We no longer had any legal way to determine who would go next! We began discussing the problem. Disagreements arose.

An hour later, we were still arguing. The nub of the conflict was this: were any of the rule changes we had made after revoking rule 201 actually legal?

The game moved inside, and we were all getting hungry and tempers were getting short. As the argument continued, we split into two camps: M~ and I held that the game was always in some particular state, and by examining the rules closely enough we could determine exactly what that state was. K~ held that the historical aspect was irrelevant, and only the current ruleset was relevant for determining the state of the game.

We went on in this vein for quite some time, and K~ threatened to resign. I forstalled this by pointing out that he may actually have won. The last rule deals with paradoxes:

213. If the rules are changed so that further play is impossible, or if the legality of a move is impossible to determine with finality, or if by the Judge’s best reasoning, not overruled, a move appears equally legal and illegal, then the first player who is unable to complete a turn is the winner. This rule takes precedence over every other rule determining the winner.

As K~’s turn was right after mine, and I had proposed the abolition of 201, we all agreed that I had completed my turn, but K~ had been unable to complete his. Resolution!

My first game of Nomic was not a rousing success. For some reason, I was unable to get anyone interested in a second game.

Thank Eris for the Internet! A few years later I discovered online Nomics. These saw a real surge in popularity in the mid- to late-nineties. Sadly, most of these have now closed down. I particularly liked Acknomic, which had a highly-complex chess variant (Ackanomic Party Chess) as a sub-game. There are still a few running these days. As a starting point, see the database of active Nomics at, which lists 13 as of this writing.

(Image of Dublin’s Lady of Justice courtesy of MacBuckley.)