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Basil Davidson

I used to own a book by him, on Africa, the title of which I now forget. Story of Africa, maybe. My friend S has an earlier book by him, Lost Cities of Africa, which I started reading; I am torn between fear of wasting time on an old -- 1959 -- books, and enjoying the rhythm of his prose style. I should say that he's well respected as s historian of Africa, sympathetic to its peoples while not going overboard in ahistorical 'redemption'.

In reading up on him, I found this obituary. He had a rather interesting life, such as being a special forces operative helping partisans in eastern Europe, and being a radical journalist, often blacklisted for being too friend to Communism, though not one himself. Later he threw himself into African history, with strong anti-colonial opinions.

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I gave to this book to G in 2003; I just re-read that exact copy. It's a neat book about... I'm not sure how to summarize it. The first chapter is about standard cube-square scaling laws as applied to animal size, and why elephants are shaped differently from antelopes. But most of the rest of the book is about warm vs. cold bloodedness, to which scaling is one but not the only issue. Were dinosaurs warm blooded, or something in between; why there aren't more 'in between' animals; why warm bloods dominate large fauna on land and in the oceans; why cold bloods dominate rivers and are (or were before humans) prominent in Australia.

Very small animals are all cold blood, because warm can't eat enough and keep enough heat at that scale. Small animals are split; hiding is a good strategy, being warm has high costs, the world is more complex and has more niches at a small scale. Hiding doesn't work well for big animals, who are also driven to a simpler 2D world, so being ready for action has very high value and warm bloods dominate... unless food is so uncertain that you get long intervals of not eating, as in rivers or Australia.

Also river ecology is complex and poorly understood. Naked mole rats are practically cold blooded mammals, protected by their tunnels and living in very marginal areas, where the food tends to be a limited number of large roots. Ostritches used to span a wide area, like Greece, Moldavia, and China.

There's also discussion of how warm bloodedness evolved in the first place, given the high costs. Answer, we don't know, but there are a couple theories. One is that some ancient large animals in stable climates were mass homeotherms, with fairly stable temperatures even without working at it, so they optimized their enzymes to adapt to that (enzymes have narrow ranges of optimal performance; lots of organisms have more genes than humans probably because they needs lot of alternative cellular biochemistry), then when some branch shrank again, it was easier to invent warm bloodedness rather than re-invent a whole slew of enzymes.

The other idea is that boosted aerobic performance is beneficial by itself, and eventually some animals were boosted enough that they were significantly warm blooded as a side effect. This feels less elegant to me, but Lavers said it was favored at the time of writing.

The last chapter is on global mixing of species, thanks to human transport, and making a worrying analogy with the Permian mass extinction, which followed mixing (supercontinent) and global warming (massive volcanism, probably.)

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A terrible Christmas article

A friend shared this https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/christmas-jesus-christ-birthday-25-december-brits-ignorant-nativity-christianity-bethlehem-a8094496.html for reasons of his own; I find it notable as a case of a newspaper trying desperately to find pearls to clutch. The tone is of shocking British ignorance about Christmas, but it only makes sense if you assume that every single Briton should know about it. "Almost one in ten didn't know!" "Only 8 in 10 knew!" If you instead consider that nearly 8% of Britons claim non-Christian religions[1], and 25% no religion at all, and the possibility that some people will troll pollsters with dumb answers, then 80-90% of Britons knowing the basics about Christmas and Jesus's life is pretty damn good. The only things that fell below that level were Maundy Thursday, which I've barely heard of myself, and Jesus probably knowing Greek, which I'd grant is non-obvious to the average person knowing little about the ancient world.

I wonder if pollsters have done calibration questions, like "can you name the Queen?"

]1\ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion_in_the_UK

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eating out costs

There's a deli near my office where you can get a breakfast for $5-6. Say $5. 6 of them would be $30.

From the store, a dozen eggs is under $2, decent bread is under $5, call it $7 including butter costs. 6 sausages can be $6-9, so $13-16 for six almost-equivalent breakfasts.

Almost because I think the deli breakfasts include potatoes, which I'm not cooking fast for breakfast anyway. Unless I microwaved frozen hash browns. Another $3-5 for that.

Of course, this deli seems unusually cheap for Boston. Probably more common to be $8 menu, $10 after tax and tip, after which you're looking at $60 for 6 of those.

The same place sold me a basic pastrami sandwich for $7. From McKinnon's I can buy pastrami for $8/lb; a quarter pound in a sandwich would cost $2, under $3 including bread. I don't know how heavy the deli sandwich was, though it probably included a pickle. Again, it's cheap; other places would be $8-12.

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This link goes to a longish article on the complexity of sentences and changes therein. Those who are familiar with the literature of the 18th or 19th centuries, including such documents basic to the USA as the Declaration of Independence, may have noticed a difference in the length and complexity of many sentences from those periods, compared to those of the current era. The author says that there is a real difference, across not just time but also languages: it is written languages which most reliably embed clauses in each other like Russian dolls. Even oral languages which have the tools for such behavior may have likely acquired them from contact with written languages.

Does that mean purely oral languages are simpler? Nay! Though their sentences are allegedly childishly simple (examples given include "It will be possible? You will teach me. I will make bread." "He came near those boys. They were throwing spears at something then."), their complexity "erupts" elsewhere, with frighteningly complex word formation, such as in polysynthetic languages.

However, not all complexity is the same. The author claims that the word-formation form of complexity requires massive amounts of memorization, by speakers "marinating" in the language from childhood, and makes analogy to a rise in compound words in modern English whose meaning is not derivable by pattern. (Examples given: "A house boat, for example, is a boat that functions like a house, but a housecoat is a coat you wear in a house, and a housewife fits neither pattern.") Whereas syntactical complexity is generative: once learned, you can generate it, and decompose it, with equal ease and glee.

My lay grasp of linguistics is far from able to judge the accuracy of the claims. I would note though that it's not a matter of the article contrasting modern Western languages to indigenous ones like Yupik: the claim is that the earliest written languages also showed the pattern:

"According to linguist Guy Deutscher, the earliest clay tablets (about 2500 B.C.) of the ancient language Akkadian reveal few embedded clauses. The same is evidently true of the earliest stages of other ancient written languages such as Sumerian, Hittite, or Greek. Although these languages boasted a profusion of grammatical features suitable for expressing subtle nuances of meaning, and included a variety of fancy word-building techniques, they avoided complicated sentence recursion."

(Bold emphasis mine.)

So instead of recursive embedded clauses, you get long run-on sentences of chained clauses. Which rings a bell about something I found odd in translations of old Sumerian and Akkadian writing.

Finally, the article tries to link this to esoteric vs. exoteric communities. Small isolated communities can build up memory-taxing stores of word building patterns, which in turn keep the community isolated; large and diverse communities need something with clearer rules. The esoteric community needn't just be some small ancient tribe: modern scientific discourse is identified as an area where sentence complexity diminishes, while non-transparent compound nouns or phrases grow in use.

"Evidence shows that the most insular scientific communities have led the march away from elaborated sentences in favor of complex, compressed nouns: Science articles in specialist publications such as the Journal of Cell Biology contain fewer relative clauses and more noun compounds than articles in publications like Science, which target a more diverse community of scientists."

(That said, I recall a friend's advisor explaining scientific language differently: given a desire to appeal to many people for whom English is not their first language, the acts of keeping sentences simple and free of colorful idioms, and using unambiguous vocabulary, are virtues.)

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Against Facebook

Long and with some bits you can skip over, but thought-provoking.


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Winter Tide

Winter Tide is awesome and y'all should read it. At least if you liked the novelette it springs from.


Ada Palmer "non-review" of the story. http://www.exurbe.com/?p=2951

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Red Delicious?

The Davis Square farmers' market is still going, mostly selling apples, squash, and fish. I got a bunch of apple varieties which I won't be able to identify when I eat them, apart from some outliers. They had a sign saying New England Red Delicious was the real Red Delicious. I was skeptical, as I few but horrible memoies of RD apples, dry and mealy. But I figured I'd give them a chance, bought one, and ate it.

It was a lot better than my memories, crunchy and moist. And... otherwise utterly bland, with some odd mucusy bits, unless that was left over cantaloupe juice in my mouth. While it was in fact the best Red Delicious I've ever had, I feel safe in letting it be my last.

At least all the other apples should be better!

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hating architecture

New link: why we hate modern architecture. https://www.currentaffairs.org/2017/10/why-you-hate-contemporary-architecture Long but mostly good. Big-name architects hate beauty and plant life. Modern buildings in general hate decoration. I think there's one possible reason for that which the authors only lightly touch on: labor is relatively more expensive these days. This is related a couple of quibbles: one is an end-piece swipe at skycrapers in general, and the other is a repeated claim "until 1900 when people made things they were beautiful." Strong selection effect there: we see the better made and preserved elite buildings more. Relatedly, in 1800 your artisans to cover your building in rococo carvings were a lot cheaper, if you were someone who could build a big building in the first place.

Though they note that for the cost of keeping a Gehry building functional, you could probably afford a lot of decoration.

Peter Eisenman is a nasty piece of work:

"For example, Eisenman split the master bedroom in two so the couple could not sleep together, installed a precarious staircase without a handrail, and initially refused to include bathrooms."

"Eisenman had used oddly-angled walls, making placing furniture well impossible, and putting the windows at floor level, so one would have to get on one’s knees to see outside."


I may have linked this already, but a kchoze piece on modelitis seems relevant to the above article. Planners viewing cities and buildings from above, not from the view of pedestrians actually using them. https://urbankchoze.blogspot.ca/2015/08/point-of-view-matters-scourge-of.html

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books read since my last post

The Game of Kings
The Black Company in Middle Earth
Penric's Mission
Nine Princes in Amber
One Night in the Lonesome October
My Own Kind of Freedom
Penric's Fox
Rust by Example
Midnight Never Come

8 of those are re-reads.

It seems like a lot for 16 days, but none of them are that long; Dunnett is probably the longest, 530 pages in my trade paperback. The two Penrics are novellas, and the Brusts are on the short end, both the Vlad novels and the Firefly fanfic.

Yes, I count sufficiently long fanfics as books. Also the amalgam of web pages that Rust by Example is.

It's a bit misleading: I *finished* Game of Kings on the 14th, I did the bulk of the reading before then. OTOH I'm most of the way through Queen's Play, so it balances out.

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B-5: The Cortez

B-5 things that look poor in retrospect: who the hell named a peaceful exploration ship the Cortez?

"Pleased to meet you, Hoo-Mans. Why is the name of your ship?"
"Oh, a man from our history, who conquered an empire with a scant expedition force."
*aliens open fire*

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joining the Rust cult

So, programming languages. Years ago I'd run across D, aiming to be a better C++, or even a better Python -- enabling high level coding without giving up type safety or speed. It had lots of features, including contracts from Eiffel, and being functional friendly; overall it seemed like a language I'd design. It was cool, but I didn't code actively enough to bother learning it.

Last weekend I did start, but also started on the new cult kid, Rust. I went in parallel a bit, but Rust has pulled ahead.

D is not very exciting or revolutionary; it's like a better done kitchen sink. There's a lot of value in that, and in what it's trying to be, and AFAICT the language itself is pretty good. I've seen people criticize the toolchain, and uptake has been rather modest -- though the forums do see daily activity, at least.

Rust, OTOH, is trying to be revolutionary: compiler-enforced memory safety, meaning not just no memory leaks but "fearless concurrency", where the compiler would enforce no data races in multithread code unless you did something specifically unsafe. "No leaks" doesn't sound exciting unless you're an engineer who's had to worry about them; "safe concurrency" is potentially sexy to lots of people.

On diving in, I noticed something else sexy to me: it's like the unholy love child of C and ML and other functional languages; one blog post even called it a functional language in C clothing. Enums/sum types/algebraic data types/tagged unions, which I quickly fell in love with while playing with Ocaml; 'traits' or type classes a la Haskell, which serve for generics, dynanmic dispatch, and overloading, all with one coherent mechanism; hygienic macros a la Scheme, something I thought I'd never get to play with seriously unless I got into Clojure. Also, supposedly, an easy and powerful package system, and a minor taste of mine, nested comments.

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Re-reading Harry Potter

I re-read the first three novels last week, and have started the fourth. Observations:

* It is a fast and easy read, it feels like I'm zipping through in no time.
* It feels like we barely see Quirrell, especially as a teacher. But then, we see very little of any classes in the first book.
* Arthur Weasley seems feckless as a person and silly in his ignorant Muggle-enthusiasm but he's pretty competent as a wizard, making a flying TARDIS car, and casually repairing Harry's glasses.
* Rowling's naming wordplay is still great. Yes, it's 'childish' compared to Tolkien or Hodgell, but it works, and there's so much of it.
** "Quirinus is also used as an epithet for the Roman god Janus"
* I remember thinking Harry/Ginny came out of the blue when I first read the 7th book, but Ginny's crush on Harry is pretty starkly obvious from book 2 on. Harry's interest, I dunno. I still favor Harry/Luna myself.
* People often say the Wizarding World is stagnant but there are a lot of counterexamples. One early one is broomsticks, which get better and better over the course of the first few books. Possibly too much so, for something they've been using for centuries. Also, the werewolf suppression potion Snape make for Lupin was a recent discovery, postdating their time at Hogwarts.
* What's with Crookshanks the intelligent cat?
* Owls have some convenient deep magic to be able to find people otherwise in hiding but not be abused to reveal their location or deliver a letter bomb. Well, maybe you could do the latter. [Edit: reading the wikia, there is in fact magic you can use so owls don't find you.]
* First book is 350 pages, 4th is 750. :O

And finally... so, more obsessed minds than mine have grappled with the Wizarding World demographics, but some things leapt out at me. It's very explicit that there are 5 boys in Harry's Gryffindor year, and 20 broomsticks in a two-House flying class. Assuming uniformity, this points to 40 students a year, 280 for the whole school. Given the number of teachers we see, and that one teacher will teach a subject for all seven years, this fits.

Assuming an average lifespan of 150, that'd be 40*150 = 6000 wizards in Britain. Maybe up to 12,000 if you assume severely damaged demographis due to Voldemort.

IMO this fits too. 6000 is a large town or small city by medieval standards, certainly capable of supporting a fair number of businesses, especially given that wizards are quasi-post-scarcity in mundane ways. They don't have an actual city, but with Floo and Apparate teleportation they can basically be a distributed city. The economy is Vague but being based largely on doing magical services for each other fits. Having a top-heavy government for the population kind of fits; you've got a heavily armed population with a lot of free time and a lot of secrecy, leading to high regulation and high "keep them busy". No idea how that's paid for, though.

Some oddities though. 200 people show up on Slytherin's side in a Quidditch match, but maybe they were from outside the school.

If most people don't break their wands much, Ollivander's main business would be supplying 40 students a year. But he's best in the world, maybe he gets a lot of international business. And if 1% of British wizards break or lose their wand a year, that'd be another 50+ wands a year.

6000 wizards in Britain implies 600,000 in the whole world. 100,000 showing up for the World Cup would be 1/6 of the population! But again, middle-class population with teleportation.

JKR apparently has opined 1000 students at Hogwarts and 3000 wizards in Britain, which is an insane population distribution. 1/3 of the population would be in the 11-18 age range. That's not a high life expectancy. Having gone to a 900 student college, I'll say Hogwarts does not feel like that to me.

I'm assuming a modern age pyramid, stable population, tapering off in the mid-100s. One fan disagrees, noting that wizards died of Dragonpox, and suggesting that while wizards have great healing magic when it comes to injuries, they may be subject to diseases, magical or even mundane (how many are vaccinated?) As well as a rather higher death rate from violence, what with being a population of gunslingers, Voldemort being the most feared Dark Lord of the century... implying more Dark Lords. (We *know* of Grindelwald.)

Other questions:

* How do they get food and raw materials? You'd think they magic it up, but the last book sai they can't live on conjured food, IIRC. Though magic could steal food or tranform biomass, I'd warrant.
* Do pure-bloods like the Malfoys and Weasleys, or Dumbledore, even exist as far as British bureaucracy is concerned? Harry and Hermione should, 'just' living a rich secret life, but what about others? Do their houses exist on Muggle records of title, or are they all mentally invisible to Muggles? We're told Hogsmeade is the only all-wizard community, implying everywhere else wizards have Muggle neighbors, but their deep ignorance of Muggle life belies that. The Malfoys have a manor, but the Blacks had a "don't notice me" house right in London.
** Likely this simply doesn't stand up well to critical thought.

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Gun ownership vs. homicide

Gun ownership vs. total homicide rate, by state and country. Some observations:
* high gun ownership is compatible with low homicide rate
* there's an empty quarter of low gun ownership and high homicide rate
* Many low-population states are low in homicides, but Alaska is high.
* This is still total guns, not handgun specific; it also throws in Switzerland, where yeah they have guns but the control regime is very different.
* Compared to the US all the other countries listed are low, but there's still a large multiple between Japan or Switzerland and Finland.
* The 'empty quarter' effect holds for those countries.

By the way, if you dip into current gun control debates, you may see people repeating an AEI talking point that "gun ownership has gone up but crime has gone down". This is "damn lies and statistics", as I'd expect from the AEI; the number of guns owned in the US has gone up a lot, but the number of people owning guns has gone down.

(Gallup disagrees with GSS and Pew in that, but it also disagrees with a claim of rising gun ownership. Their data also looks noisier.)

Pew also says that "protection" is now the top reason given for owning a gun. Given that crime rates have been going down, and that gun owners tend to be suburban or rural white men, not exactly high crime targets, this seems rather absurd.

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black on black crime

1) most crime is intraracial, why don't we talk about white on white crime as such?
1a) a black man is less likely to commit a violent crime than a cop is to kill an unarmed person.
2) it's a distraction
3) blacks talk about it all the time, thanks.
4) crime is linked to poverty, blacks are poorer, duh. In fact, poor urban whites are more violent than poor urban blacks. But more blacks are poor.


https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=5137 for the last claim.

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The true cost of guns

2015 Mother Jones article: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/04/true-cost-of-gun-violence-in-america/

'Mother Jones crunched data from 2012 and found that the annual cost of gun violence in America exceeds $229 billion. Direct costs account for $8.6 billion—including long-term prison costs for people who commit assault and homicide using guns, which at $5.2 billion a year is the largest direct expense. Even before accounting for the more intangible costs of the violence, in other words, the average cost to taxpayers for a single gun homicide in America is nearly $400,000. And we pay for 32 of them every single day.

Indirect costs amount to at least $221 billion, about $169 billion of which comes from what researchers consider to be the impact on victims’ quality of life.'

By contrast, the gun industry is $13.5 billion/year.
If we estimated the positive utility of gun ownership at $1000/year for each of 100 million gun owners, that would be $100 billion... still a huge social cost.'

(Also, social cost of motor vehicle crashes is estimated at $871 billion.)

Gun industry revenues are a whopping $13.5 billion/year. https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/san-bernardino-shooting/americas-gun-business-numbers-n437566

Assuming 100 million gun owners, the utility to each of gun ownership would have to be $2300/year for society to be breaking even.

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A modest proposal

We shouldn't have a Coast Guard, or at least not one that does rescue. People knew the risks before they got on a boat, or into the water; they should take responsibility for their decisions. Or buy rescue insurance, if they want someone to help them out of trouble. Tax dollars shouldn't be spent on bailing them out. Besides, market solutions are best -- the government is corrupt and wasteful, after all! I'm sure the Coast Guard is inefficient and overpriced.


That was sarcasm, but with a point: I see no difference between a Coast Guard and a Health Guard, say, protecting us against illness instead of storms. (Except that most illnesses are a lot more random and uncontrollable than mucking around in a boat.)

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sqlite the miracle DB

At work today, Boss suggested I look at sqlite a bit, since our client code uses it. What I thought might be a brief glance turned into hours of reading, as it became rather fascinating. For those who don't know, it's an embedded SQL database, with not much code, unlike the client/server databases of Oracle or anything else you've probably heard of. As their docs put it, they're not competing with such databases, they're competing with fopen() and other filesystem access.

They call their testing "aviation grade", possibly without hyperbole: 100% branch coverage, 100% coverage of something stronger than branches, 700x more testing code than actual library code and a lot of that generates tests parametrically... it sounds pretty nuts. They worship Valgrind but find compiler warnings somewhat useless; getting warnings to zero added more bugs than it solved. https://www.sqlite.org/testing.html

They claim "billions and billions of deployments", which sounded like humorous hyperbole until they added being on every iPhone or Android phone, every Mac or Windows 10 machine, every major browser install... There are over 2 billon smartphones, so just from the phone OS and the phone browser, you've got 4 billion installs...

They also make a pitched case for consider a sqlite database any time you'd be considering some complex file format. With almost no code to write, you'd get consistency robustness, complex queries, machine and language independence, and at least some ability to do partial writes[1], compared to throwing a bunch of files into a zipfile.


They also had a nicely educational description of their rollback and write-ahead models. https://www.sqlite.org/atomiccommit.html

[1] I do wonder about this. One odd thing about sqlite is a looseness about types, and AIUI cramming numeric values into the smallest range that will hold them. So I'd think that if you UPDATED a value 100 to a value 1000000000000, you'd have to shuffle the trailing part of the file, compared to a format that e.g. reserved 8 bytes for a numeric type. But maybe they do buffer numeric or string storage. And not having to write the whole file, or not having to read the whole file (e.g. to decompress it) seem like at least partial wins.

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Damien Sullivan

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