blogging miscellanea

Skulking toward normalcy

I suppose it’s about time for an update, as my frayed nerves are beginning to return to normal.  Sleep may knit up the raveled sleave of care, but don’t underestimate the healing power of a good lay-off.

Indeed, almost exactly two years after the last adventure, the hammer came ’round again, and in November I found my at liberty.  This time, however, I volunteered to step into harm’s way: the timing was serendipitious, as I was rapidly moving toward my Ph.D. candidacy exam.  On November 1st, I found myself at ends, out of the office but still officially on the books through the end of the year, on “gardening leave,” as they call it in the UK.

snowy bushesI barely noticed that I was no longer working, as the exigencies of research and writing pressed hard, and November passed quickly.  In mid-December, happily, I passed into the exalted status of Ph.D. candidate: classes complete, and now on to the dissertation.  (At my department, achieving candidacy also greatly reduces tuition, in another bit of cheerful timing.)

It was well into January, however, before my mind began to feel a bit less like suet.  It’s quite possible to pursue a Ph.D. while working, but I will observe that it’s extremely painful, much harder than working on a Master’s.  The relatively well-defined demands of classwork can be contained much better than the open-ended, all-consuming requirements of research.

I’m now starting to settle into the new rhythm of the days; the recent heavy snows that have been assaulting Philadelphia have not inconvenienced me at all, as I happily had chanced to refit my home office before finding out about my impending free agency.

With that in mind, I’ve begun to fire up again,  To those patient readers who have kept this site in their RSS readers: huzzah to you, friends.

mad science miscellanea

Chariots of the Muses

Consider, for a moment, alternate history.

We’re speaking here not of a particular history, but of the genre, the speculative fictions that ask: What if things had been different?

There are many variations on this theme. Perhaps an important event has a different outcome (Persia crushes the upstart poleis of Greece, wiping democracy from the historical stage), or a strange development changes everything (Jean-Marie Jacquard follows up the principles suggested by his earlier invention and creates a general-purpose Ciphering Loom, ushering in a Napoleonic ère de l’information). Quite often, the change selected for the story is a small one, and the interest is in working out the complex ways that things might change further down the time-stream. (For encyclopedic, alternately-historical fun, check out Uchronia or the bite-sized glimpses into nearby universes dished out at Today in Alternate History).

Perhaps these phantasies are more science fiction than one might think at first: in the July 2 issue of Nature, Peter Turchin writes (behind a paywall, unfortunately):

…[W]e need a historical social science, because processes that operate over long timescales can affect the health of societies. It is time for history to become an analytical, and even a predictive, science…Rather than trying to reform the historical profession, perhaps we need an entirely new discipline: theoretical historical social science. We could call this ‘cliodynamics’, from Clio, the muse of history, and dynamics, the study of temporally varying processes and the search for causal mechanisms

Shades of Asimov’s psychohistory!

Ken Hite, in his Suppressed Transmission column, often writes of Clio and alternate histories. (In fact, I suspect that a search of his essays might turn up a prior coining of the term ‘cliodynamics’.) In “An Alternate-Historical Alphabet”, he propounds the following theory:

All Change Points (q.v.) from Xerxes (q.v.) to the last presidential election, create worlds with clean, efficient Zeppelin traffic. Changing history may produce Zeppelins as an inevitable by-product, much as bombarding uranium produces gamma rays. Often, the quickest way to tell if you are in an Alternate History is to look up, rather than at a newspaper or encyclopedia. From this premise, it is not outside the realm of Plausibility (q.v.) that our history between 1900 and 1936 was, in fact, an Alternate History. It would, at least, explain a lot.

With this in mind, how are we to interpret this recent New York Times story?

As the cost of fuel soars and the pressure mounts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, several schemes for a new generation of airship are being considered by governments and private companies…[B]ecause of new materials and sophisticated means of propulsion, a diverse cast of entrepreneurs is taking another look at the behemoths of the air.

Clearly, these are parlous times, and the cold, hard light of Science reveals a looming Change Point.

Watch the skies!

Arise, Cliodynamics!” article via Complexity Digest

Zeppelin article via Gizmodo.

Image of a Zeppelin-Luftschiff LZ 127 courtesy Schockwellenreiter.


Get it off get it off getitoff!

My workplace is located conveniently close to Valley Forge Park, so I typically head out for a lunchtime hike. I’ve walked the trails for quite a few years and have had a number of Aldo Leopold moments: an immense swarm of ants executing a slave raid against another nest; a daddy long-legs feasting on a still-twitching beetle; two fawns nursing at their mother’s teat.

Pennsylvania is tick country, and after each hike I try to remember to perform the requisite self-examination, making sure nothing has latched onto my pants or socks. I’ve never actually seen a tick while doing this, but I’m a responsible guy and it’s just part of the drill, right?

Today, I was caught in a drenching downpour when I was a good half-mile out in the woods, and I was thoroughly soaked by the time I slogged back to the car. A bit later, sitting in my cubicle, I reach up to rub my forehead, and something falls, something arachnoid that scuttles under my laptop. Yergh. A tick.

Looking underneath the machine does not reveal it, as it had quickly scuppered off somewhere amongst the cables and papers. I’m not particularly squeamish about insects or spiders, but I have to admit to the newly-discovered fact that ticks give me the willies. A careful check of my trousers, legs and arms revealed no further hangers-on. The tick emerges from a pile of papers, so I trap it in a plastic container. It’s a big, perhaps a bit larger than a pencil eraser, so I’m relieved that it’s probably not a Lyme-infested deer tick.

A bit later, I rub my neck and find a lump, something that feels a bit like a mole. In full acarophobe mode, I find a mirror and, yes, around the back quadrant of my neck a large tick has attached itself, nearly out of sight. YERGH. One should never pull out a tick with one’s fingers, so I vibrate in my seat during the fifteen minute drive over to to visit the company infirmary, remaining CALM, because it doesn’t matter that I have a PARASITE embedded in my flesh.

Later, back at my desk, I find there’s something crawling across the lens of my glasses. Taking them off to look more closely, I find a third tick. Thoroughly creeped out, I put it in the plastic container with the first and check myself again. No ticks, but that’s not particularly reassuring by this point.

Now, one thing I’m a bit worried about is my hair. Once I pass my Ph.D. candidacy exam, I expect I’ll be required to join the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists (the club for scientists who have, or believe they have, luxuriant flowing hair). Flowing, perhaps, but could it be a haven for vermin?

In short, yes. Upon returning home, M—— checked my scalp and, sure enough, a fourth tick had embedded itself in my left temple. YERGH! Was the rain knocking them off the trees?

I think it’s time to buy a new hat.

CC-licensed image of a wood tick courtesy of bogdogmax, as I didn’t have my camera and didn’t really feel like keeping my specimens around for purposes of nostalgia.

computer science miscellanea

I should probably mention….

…that I again number myself among the ranks of those receiving regular remuneration in exchange for the sweat of their brows.  You’d think that as a unemployed layabout I’d have been writing blog posts like mad (and perhaps a novel or two), but it just didn’t seem to work out that way.

The most striking thing about the experience was how mentally exhausting it was.   I kept up my spirits though application of the hot irons of optimism, but by the end of January the whole thing was starting to wear a bit thin.

Now, two months into the new position, I’m finally beginning to emerge from the cloud of blue devils into something resembling my usual snarky, obsessive persona.  I’m back at the same company that laid me off (with a satisfyingly ironic bump in grade), in the same cubicle, with the same accretion of technological paraphernalia that had built up around me over the previous decade.  The work, at least, is somewhat different, and should keep me interested for the next few years.

My Ph.D. studies are starting to pick up in pace, as well.  I opted for a machine learning class this quarter, as it’s highly relevant to my intended areas of research.  This will mean that I finally have to get around to developing some better statistical chops, but to my surprise I also have to dust off my embarrassingly rusty calculus (“You’re computer scientists,” said the professor, “of course you hate calculus.”).


Bad revolting stars: an untold tale of woe

It has indeed been an ill-aspected tetrafortnight, and I shall not try the Gentle Reader’s patience with lists of my miseries and woes. Should you be a sympathetic soul who wishes to commiserate, you can soak up some of the atmosphere by listening to the duet “Woe” from P.D.Q. Bach’s half-act opera, The Stoned Guest. (I’m sure you’re not the sort of cad who’d try to find a torrented copy on Mininova. The Vanguard recording is still readily available, as is the printed score, and Prof. Schickele could probably use the royalties.)

Let’s be truthful, though—you likely wouldn’t be interested in my misfortunes, as your own may be much more pressing. Should they be threatening to overwhelm you, may I recommend . . . a woesary?

The Woesary

Pictured about is a woesary constructed by M—— (made, I have to admit, at my instigation). There are twenty-seven small and seven large beads. Attached to the bottom is an Unnecessary Weight.

Proper use is as follows: at each small bead, speak one of your woes, and cry, “Woe!” in a loud voice. At each large bead, hold forth with as full-voiced a “Woe!” as you can muster. If others are around (which makes the process much more cathartic, of course), encourage them to join in the wailing.


Roma Revivens

Shinjuku LogloIn Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson posits a future where traditional nation-states have been superceded by FOQNEs: Franchise-Organized Quasi-National Entities. In this vision of shattered sovereignty, each bite-sized chunk of real-estate (called a ‘franchulate’) is the legal territory of its corporate parent, governed by its laws, and one may become a ‘citizen’ by paying appropriate membership fees.

FOQNEs were brought to mind when I did some research on Nova Roma this past week. I’m more than passingly familiar with historical recreation groups, having had an intermittent association with the Society for Creative Anachronism for the past twelve years or so. Nova Roma seems to be of the same ilk, focusing its efforts, as one might deduce, on classical Rome. Even so, the following passage on their wiki took me somewhat aback:

Roman Historical Recreation EventNova Roma is more than a historical recreation society, although we are that. We are more than a pagan religious organization, although we are that, too. We are more than a classical studies group, but that falls within our purview as well. We are nothing less than a sovereign nation; an attempt to re-create the best of classical pagan Rome (with a few compromises to modern times), and we invite you to join us by applying for citizenship today.

Surely, you’re saying to yourself, they can’t be serious. They’ve anticipated this reaction, and address your skepticism in their FAQ:

Are you serious about the sovereignty thing?

Yes, we are completely serious about our declaration of sovereignty. However, we are also very realistic and do not expect to function as an actual sovereign nation with our own territory in the foreseeable future. We look at it in three ways; as a long-term goal towards which we can reach, as a very convenient way to organize the administration of Nova Roma (especially given our Roman orientation), and as necessary for the full and complete restoration of the Religio Romana (since many religious duties were inherently tied to the State).

The SCA, while half-jokingly claiming to maintain the world’s largest private army and organizing itself via an elaborate system of kingdoms, baronies, shires, and so on, to the best of my knowledge has never claimed to be an independent nation. How are we to understand ‘sovereignty’ in this sense?

In fact, there is a curiously vigorous stream of semi-secessionist movements of varying degrees of seriousness. Perhaps the best introduction to their variety is this Angelfire page on micronations, which groups these efforts into a taxonomy that includes self-proclaimed states (Sealand is the most famous of these), sedition and exile groups (including the impressively straight-faced Neue Slowenische Kunst movement), new country projects (Nova Roma is categorized here), United States tribal groups, model countries (including the SCA), and actual small countries (I retain a soft spot for the S.M.O.M.). The exuberant florescence reminds me very much of the panoply of constructed human languages, from Lojban to Esperanto to Klingon to Eaiea to DiLingo.

I’ll admit to some curiosity. Nova Roma doesn’t appear to have a strong Pennsylvanian base, but there does seem to be an active New York contingent. One of these days I’ll play the traveler and make the trek to the City for my chronicles. Perhaps they know more than they’re letting on: after all, ‘the Empire never ended’.


[Image of Shinjuku Loglo courtesy KinkiMcG. Image of a recreation of a classical Roman festival courtesy Livia Drvsilla.]

miscellanea tools

Name That Font!

For the non-specialist, trying to identify a font from a small sample is a nearly futile exercise, particularly if it is at all obscure. Most of us can manage to pick out fonts that have been overused to the point of banality (such as Times New Roman, or heaven forfend, Comic Sans). Wouldn’t it be nice if you could discover the name of a font given a sample?

A while back I discussed several tools for identifying music given only a few bars of a tune. During my font search, I happened across several resources to help you chase down an intinerant typeface.

Totally Automated Font Identification

Gulim Bold font sample, created with the Gimp

WhatTheFont should be your first recourse. You supply it with an image of a few characters of the font (ideally, tweaked to accomodate their usage guidelines). To test it out, I picked a relatively typeface that was installed on my system (Gulim Bold), and uploaded to the WTF website. I was immediately prompted with potentially identifications for each letter, which I then had the opportunity to correct. This was unnecessary, as WTF correctly identified each one.

Sample of Prima Sans provided by WhatTheFontNext, I was presented with a list of five matches. I was initially dismayed that Gulim Bold did not appear on the list, but upon closer examination, the first suggestion, Prima Sans Bold, is a dead ringer. I’d have to guess that Gulim is a not-very-subtle clone; I’d be very happy with such a close match if I needed to match Gulim for a project.

The next three choices (variants of Fago Ex) were quite close, but the ‘b’s clearly differ. The final choice, Pragmatica Bold, had the right ‘b’, but overall appeared to be a slightly lighter weight. Want to try the search yourself? Go to the WhatTheFont page, and provide it with the URL of the above Gulim Bold sample image:

Choose Your Own Adventure Font

Identifont takes another path. Rather than automatically analyzing an image, it asks you a sequence of questions about the characteristics of the font to be identified, much like a field identification guide for trees or twenty questions. You start by specifying which characters you have in your sample, to eliminate questions that you won’t be able to answer. After each answer you provide, it narrows the field of possible candidates; after you get through its list of questions, it presents you with its choices for the best thirty matches so you can eyeball them to see which looks like the best fit.

Again using my Gulim Bold sample, above, I walked through the series of fifteen questions. I was unclear on how to answer questions about several of the characteristics, so I selected the option indicating I was uncertain. Finally, I was presented with a list of fonts that seemed to have very little to do with each other and not much to do with Gulim Bold. I went back I tried answering the two questions I was uncertain about, but no luck, no matter which way I answered them. Sorting through the list of fonts was a pain, as well, as you have to click on each to view a sample.
My conclusion? All I know is that it didn’t work for one five-letter sample. For a better test, I might try it with a complete Gulim alphabet, or try another font. Regardless, if WTF doesn’t turn up any matches for you then this might be worth a shot.

Pre-Identified Gameshow Fonts

This is getting a bit specific, but if you’re looking for fonts that were used in a particular game show then a lot of your work may be done already. I’ve happened across collections of show title fonts, fonts used to display scores, and of other miscellaneous game show fonts.

(Oh, and Jeopardy!? There’s a simulacrum of the title font called ‘Gyparody‘, the clues are displayed something very close to in a face named ‘Enchanted‘, and player winnings were displayed [from 1975-1993] in Vane Type II. My information is not yet complete, though. I did find some speculations about the current winnings font and the face used to display categories, but nothing conclusive.)


Don't try to disprove Terry Pratchett

The mighty hedgehog Bestiality sure is a fun thing to do
But I have to say this as a warning to you:
With almost all animals, you can have ball
But the hedgehog can never be buggered at all.

Gytha Ogg, as readers of Pratchett’s Discworld novels will know, has a penchant for drinking songs with rather rude lyrics. The two mentioned most frequently are “A Wizard’s Staff Has a Knob on the End” (possible lyrics) and “The Hedgehog Can Never Be Buggered at All”.

The spines on his back are too sharp for a man
They’ll give you a pain in the worst place they can
The result I think you’ll find will appall:
The hedgehog can never be buggered at all!

Clearly, Dear Reader, you are thinking to yourself that this bit of ribald folk wisdom is naught but common sense. Alas! Witness, if you will this sobering article from Ananova (via reddit):

A Serbian man needed emergency surgery after he had sex with a hedgehog on a witchdoctor’s advice.

Zoran Nikolovic, 35, from Belgrade, says the witchdoctor told him it would cure his premature ejaculation.

But he ended up in an operating theatre after the hedgehog’s needles left his penis severely lacerated.

A hospital spokesman said: “The animal was apparently unhurt and the patient came off much worse from the encounter. We have managed to repair the damage to his penis.”

Clearly, Mr. Pratchett’s novels need to be translated into Serbian.

I find the choice of the word “witchdoctor” is also quite curious, and I admit that I was previously unaware that this particular trade is practiced on the Balkan Peninsula.

Practiced, dare I observe, with a rather direct sense of humor.

At the end of the day, when you’ve had your rough way
With all of those creatures, you’ll just have to say
“That damned Erinaceous has been my downfall–”
For the hedgehog can never be buggered at all!

(There have been far too many fan attempts to create lyrics for the Hedgehog Song.)

(Hedgehog image courtesy of stonefaction.)

language miscellanea

Branding the Axolotl

Drawing of an Axolotl by William Steig from “Alpha Beta Chowder” Eliot claimed that feline onomasty was a vexed endeavor, but most people seem to have neither creativity nor compunction. Too many cat names range from the banal (“Mindy”) to the heinous (“Smoke Dancer”). When such unfortunates become part of one’s family, renaming is a strict requirement.

A new cat recently entered our household from the local rescue and, somewhat surprisingly, he arrived with an acceptable name. While not exotic, ‘Alexander’ has impeccable Macedonian roots, and also evokes the first poem from Jeanne and William Steig’s fine abecedarium, Alpha Beta Chowder:

Abhorrent axolotl, scat!
Unless you’d like to feed my cat.

Come at once , dear Alexander,
Have a bit of salamander.
See its tasty little gills?
Don’t they look like lamb-chop frills?

Amphibian, avoid thy fate:
Slither off! Absquatulate!

Photo of an AxolotlThis bit of verse recalled to mind, I began wondering about the the axolotl. One can deduce its Mexican indigenity from the distinctively Nahuatl ‘tl’ at the end of its name (made explicit by its scientific name, Ambystoma mexicanum). The Internet yields up many attractive pictures of these aquatic amphibians. Wikipedia, as ever, provides a reasonable overview, but I found that my attention was captured by this somewhat curious paragraph:

In Japan, axolotls are known by the trademark WuperRuper (ウーパールーパー). Originally the trademark was going to be registered as “SuperRuper”, but since there are many trademarks starting with “super,” the S was changed to a W so the name could be registered more quickly. It is said that the reason why they are not sold as “axolotl” is to avoid them being called “aho no rōtoru”, a similar-sounding Japanese phrase meaning “stupid old man.”

Capitalism once again joins with the Adamic impulse to name the creatures of the land and the sea! This unavoidably calls to mind the mighty Sea-Monkey. (Disclaimer: proceeds from your brine shrimp purchase may be used to support neo-Nazi causes.)

I’m curious: how many creatures have been “rebranded” to make them more marketable? Offhand, I recall that “Chilean sea bass” is a marketing name for the Patagonian toothfish (and the Chileans, in fact, call it “bacalao de profundidad“). More basically, I suppose, we use the language of our Norman overlords for our beef, mutton, and pork, rather than that of those rude peasants who raise the dirty oxen, sheep, and pigs. In truth, though, I’m thinking more of specific acts of commercially-minded naming rather than general linguistic trends.

Anything else come to mind?

[Photo of axolotl courtesy of amphioxus at flickr.]

books computer science miscellanea

Calliope and the Spambot

Calliope, Muse of Epic Poetry Randomly-generated spam email can have a certain “found art” quality to it. I’ve seen plenty of articles over the past few years gleefully musing over some chance juxtaposition in the inbox. See, for example, this article from The Register. A sample:

If you get it overnight, you can lose it just as quick
When Mumma dead family done.
Take heed of reconciled enemies and of meat twice boiled

The algorithms that generate these messages are quite simple, for the most part. The most common is the Markov chain.  A program of this type first takes a corpus of text and analyzes it to generate a table of probabilities that a given word follows another. To create a first-order Markov chain based on words in the corpus, the program repeatedly asks and answers the following question: given a certain word, what are the most likely words to follow it in the source text? It then randomly picks one of those following words, weighting its choice by the calculated probabilities.  After that, it picks the next word using the word it just generated as the base. A second-order chain bases its probabilities on the previous two words, and so on. Increasing the order of the chain can produce more authentic-seeming phrases.

One of the most common methods of content-filtering spam is Bayesian analysis, which uses a related algorithm to analyze the probability that a particular message is spam, based on the frequency of words in other messages already received and identified. If you are a spammer, the care and feeding of your spambot, your bulk mailer, is matter of great concern. You need to produce messages that have enough randomness to slip through recipients’ spam filters, but that look like they could be a valid messages. Project Gutenberg was an early source of texts for these Markov text generators, resulting in bathetic, surprisingly pseudo-literary nonsense.

I received the following message this morning, the text of which I reproduce in its entirety:

Summer bees were saying
That desire has ever built, have approached
How can they get the point of how a world
Pallid waste where no radiant fathomers,
From there. Toward . . .
demonstrating their talent for comedy?stroke
Glimmering of light:
Rise, to the muffled chime of churchbell choir.
Reshaping magnified, each risen flake
XVII. Greenland
Silent patch of ultimate paint. You are
marked with a dark stroke from the left, encroached
A matter of getting all that right . . .
What I have in my hands, these flowers, these shadows,
Come, swallows, it’s good-bye.
Place of absorbing snow, itself to be
With a hand freed from weight,
Is the moon to grow
Suddenly, in a savage, dreadful bend,

With minor editing (particularly the punctuation), this could almost be passed of as something from a modern poetry review . . . and here’s why: rather than generate its text word-by-word, the bulk mailer worked line-by-line from actual poems. (The line “XVII. Greenland” is a good clue.) A bit of Googling revealed that most of these lines can be found on a particular page of poems about winter on the website of the University of Chicago Press. The unfortunate question-mark in line 6 is an em-dash on the source page.

PIPO: Poetry In; Poetry Out.

This recalls to mind one of my favorite pieces of randomly-generated text.  In 2004, a group of SFWA members set out to show that a company called “PublishAmerica” is not a “traditional” publisher (that is, that they do not engage in any sort of editorial quality-control over their books).  To this end, this group produced a very good candidate for the worst novel ever written: Atlanta Nights.  Each chapter was written by a different person to be as terrible as possible.  Chapter 34 was actually machine-generated using the rest of the book as the source material.  The pseudonymous author-of-record, “Travis Tea”, now has his own web site.

[Image of Calliope, Muse of epic poetry, courtesy of Wikipedia.]