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simplytheanthropic: My all time favorite animal. The...

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simplytheanthropic:

My all time favorite animal.
The red-bearded vulture.

The bearded vulture, or lammergeier, lives on a steady diet of bones (more specifically the marrow) and dyes its own feathers blood red.

Bearded vultures come in various shades, from pure white to orange-red. Soils stained with iron oxide give the birds their fiery appearance. Lammergeiers apply the dirt with their claws and then preen for about an hour to ensure a bright orange/red glow. They are also attracted to other red things, like leaves and red wood. Captive birds also partake in this behavior, which suggests the activity is instinctual, not learned.

The soil doesn’t have any practical purposes; it certainly doesn’t make for good camouflage (though the birds have no natural predators anyway). Scientists have noticed that the birds’ age and size are directly correlated to the intensity of color. It is theorized that the hue is a status symbol. More soiled feathers indicates that the lammergeier had the time and resources to find an adequate place to bathe; the brightest-colored vultures should have the most territory and knowledge of their surroundings. Interestingly, these baths are done in secret, so most of the information gathered has been through spying on captive birds.

Bearded Vultures are most commonly monogamous, and breed once a year. Sometimes, especially in certain areas of Spain and France, bachelor lammergeiers will join a pre-existing couple to create a polyandrous trio. Females accept secondary mates because it increases the chances of producing offspring and doubles her protection. The birds usually don’t lay more than three eggs, so they can use all the help they can get.

These giant birds can grow up to 4 feet tall. They have a wingspan between 7 and 9 feet and usually weigh around 10 to 15 pounds.

In other words, this bird is awesome and I love it forever.

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brennen
4 days ago
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Boulder, CO
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Tuesday, November 7 - mushrooms

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Tuesday, November 7

mushrooms

A couple of summers ago, we took a roadtrip with some good friends of ours, meeting them in Slovenia and taking a van down to Croatia and along the coast into Albania.

We saw a lot of remarkable things, and spent time with a lot of remarkable people. This isn’t really a post about most of that, though. This is a post about the Albanian built environment.

Albanian architecture is nuts. Our friend, a local by birth, described the predominant mode of building as “mushrooms”. From googling, “concrete mushrooms” is a term often applied to the pillboxes scattered paranoically all over the country during the course of the Hoxha dictatorship. In her usage, though, it was more along the lines of: These ridiculous things that grew up all over the landscape like fungus after a rain once communism collapsed.

One of the first things you notice is concrete and rebar (“the national plant”, as a friend remarked). Reinforced concrete is everywhere, and little tufts of rebar seem to protrude from every other roof and column. This is because few of the buildings started within living memory ever seem to be quite finished. It’s routine to see three or four level structures which are mostly open concrete boxes with businesses or housing built out only the first floor, the top story looking ready to serve as platform for the next layer once someone gets around to it.

I don’t have the vocabulary or the eye to describe the style, really, but there’s a kind of characteristic hodgepodge of clashing designs and types. Brutalism and weird outbursts of eclecticism coexist with a neo-classical-by-way-of-Las-Vegas vibe, sometimes in the same building. Materials will shift radically halfway through a structure. Sometimes you look over and there’s just a tiny house build on the roof of the casino-hotel next door. Multi-story coffeeshop-hotel-gas-stations with cavernous interiors are a routine feature of the landscape, as are empty shells scattered at odd angles in the middle of fields.

Anyway, I took some pictures, thinking that at some point I’d try to do a kind of photo essay about this. They aren’t very good, but they catch some of the flavor and a handful seemed worth posting, even though I don’t really have the time and energy to research and write about the subject like it deserves.

(I should also say that Albania is a fascinating place for many reasons, and the buildings are probably the least of it, though they point to a lot in the history.)

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brennen
6 days ago
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Boulder, CO
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Interstellar Asteroids

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This was no fruit of such worlds and suns as shine on the telescopes and photographic plates of our observatories. This was no breath from the skies whose motions and dimensions our astronomers measure or deem to vast to measure. It was just a colour out of space — a frightful messenger from unformed realms of infinity…

Aww, come off it.

Wild-eyed extravagances aside, A/2017 U1 — the asteroid-like visitor from interstellar space — is an extraordinary object. In traversing the gulfs, its next encounter with a star that is as close as last month’s encounter with the Sun likely won’t occur for another quadrillion years, and so the mere fact that it zipped through suggests that quite a few interstellar asteroids are out there. And this, in turn, has some remarkable consequences. A straightforward cross-section based estimate suggests that the galaxy contains of order a hundred billion earth masses of A/2017 U1-like planetesimals. Hot Jupiters, terrestrial planets, and super-Earths are all incapable of using gravity-assist to eject bodies out of their parent systems, leaving the strong hint that as-yet undetected Neptune-like planets must be extremely common.

In general, extrapolations from a sample size of one don’t have a good track record. Exhibit A would be our own Solar System — hot Jupiters were discovered at better than 100-sigma significance because solar-system expectations had been projected throughout the galaxy; proper planetary systems should have terrestrial bodies near 1 AU and gas giants at 10 AU.

The arrival of A/2017 U1 seems nicely timed to revival of the AAS’ new low-maintenance communication channel, the “Research Note“:

The purpose of the Research Notes is to provide a home for short submissions that are not suitable for publication as a journal article, but are likely to be interesting or useful to members of our community. Appropriate submissions would include brief summaries of work in progress, comments and clarifications, null results, and timely reports of observations (such as the spectrum of a supernova), as well as results that would not traditionally merit a full paper (e.g., the discovery of a single unremarkable exoplanet, a spectrum of a meteor, or contributions to the monitoring of variable sources).

I especially like the part about “single unremarkable exoplanets” being equivalenced to the “spectrum of a meteor”. In any event, Prof. K. Batygin and I have just submitted a research note that gives our take on the implications of A/2017 U1. Here’s a link to a draft of the note, which we’ll also post on the arXiv within the next several days.

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brennen
9 days ago
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Boulder, CO
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A modern translation of the 1+1=2 lemma

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A while back I blogged an explanation of the “” lemma from Whitehead and Russell's Principia Mathematica:

W. Ethan Duckworth of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics at Loyola University translated this into modern notation and has kindly given me permission to publish it here:

I think it is interesting and instructive to compare the two versions. One thing to notice is that there is no perfect translation. As when translating between two natural languages (German and English, say), the meaning cannot be preserved exactly. Whitehead and Russell's language is different from the modern language not only because the notation is different but because the underlying concepts are different. To really get what Principia Mathematica is saying you have to immerse yourself in the Principia Mathematica model of the world.

The best example of this here is the symbol “1”. In the modern translation, this means the number 1. But at this point in Principia Mathematica, the number 1 has not yet been defined, and to use it here would be circular, because proposition ∗54.43 is an important step on the way to defining it. In Principia Mathematica, the symbol “1” represents the class of all sets that contain exactly one element.[1] Following the definition of ∗52.01, in modern notation we would write something like:

$$1 \equiv_{\text{def}} \{x \mid \exists y . x = \{ y \} \}$$

But in many modern universes, that of ZF set theory in particular, there is no such object.[2] The situation in ZF is even worse: the purported definition is meaningless, because the comprehension is unrestricted.

The Principia Mathematica notation for , the cardinality of set , is , but again this is only an approximate translation. The meaning of is something close to

the unique class such that if and only if there exists a one-to-one relation between and .

(So for example one might assert that , and in fact this is precisely what proposition ∗101.1 does assert.) Even this doesn't quite capture the Principia Mathematica meaning, since the modern conception of a relation is that it is a special kind of set, but in Principia Mathematica relations and sets are different sorts of things. (We would also use a one-to-one function, but here there is no additional mismatch between the modern concept and the Principia Mathematica one.)

It is important, when reading old mathematics, to try to understand in modern terms what is being talked about. But it is also dangerous to forget that the ideas themselves are different, not just the language.[3] I extract a lot of value from switching back and forth between different historical views, and comparing them. Some of this value is purely historiological. But some is directly mathematical: looking at the same concepts from a different viewpoint sometimes illuminates aspects I didn't fully appreciate. And the different viewpoint I acquire is one that most other people won't have.

One of my current low-priority projects is reading W. Burnside's important 1897 book Theory of Groups of Finite Order. The value of this, for me, is not so much the group-theoretic content, but in seeing how ideas about groups have evolved. I hope to write more about this topic at some point.


[1] Actually the situation in Principia Mathematica is more complicated. There is a different class 1 defined at each type. But the point still stands.

[2] In ZF, if were to exist as defined above, the set would exist also, and we would have which would contradict the axiom of foundation.

[3] This was a recurring topic of study for Imre Lakatos, most famously in his little book Proofs and Refutations. Also important is his article “Cauchy and the continuum: the significance of nonstandard analysis for the history and philosophy of mathematics.” Math. Intelligencer 1 (1978), #3, p.151–161, which I discussed here earlier, and which you can read in its entireity by paying the excellent people at Elsevier the nominal and reasonable—nay, trivial—sum of only US$39.95.

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brennen
9 days ago
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Boulder, CO
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Mastodon: The First 30

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Mastodon: The First 30

I love the web. I still have that feeling of awe when my friend Kevin in college first showed me the basics of HTML on a Silicon Graphics workstation. It was love at first site. It always has been.

Unfortunately, my experiences with social media has not been quite the same. Don't get me wrong. I believe the web represents a quantum leap in terms of how we globally share information and interact. I think this is an infinitely beautiful thing. However, I am often disgusted by how platforms exploit and denigrate this ability for the sake of profit. Being a career web person, I'm not above using the web to make money. We all have to live. But the way popular locations sacrifice their audiences' safety and trust to do it is beyond the pale for me.

This was my context when I had come across a tweet by the wildly talented Catt Small mentioning a self hosted social media alternative called Mastodon. This was a month ago.

Mastodon at its core is a decentralized open source social network server. No one person owns Mastodon as it can be installed by anyone who has their own server. That's right. The software makes it possible to anyone to set up and deploy their own social media site. As I host pretty much all of my own content, this is the point that hooked me.

To get my feet wet, I decided to find an instance (what individual installations of Mastodon are called) and sign up for an account. I was so fascinated by what I saw, I ultimately decided to set up my own instance a couple of days later.

There are already many technical write ups that describe the installation process (which is surprisingly easy, especially considering I'm not really a Ruby guy), so I am going to focus on what captured my attention: the culture.

From the moment I started my installation and started exploring the community, there is a fundamental difference in how people who use this platform versus the behavior of what is allowed on the popular commercial site, i.e. Facebook, Twitter, etc. If you know me, you know I do not like these places because they allow so much violent bigotry to go unchecked for the sake of having eyes to view their ads.

People who use Mastodon just aren't like that. And that single point is what has me hooked.

There are probably a few reasons why this is. The growing disgust of how social media platforms exploit their users, the unchecked behavior of white supremacists and sexists online, the utter incompetence tech 'leaders' have shown when it comes to managing their services, etc. There quite a few to choose from.

My experience in my first month of administering my own instance has been a bizarre mix of tech heads, social rights advocates, adorable lewd posters, anti-capitalists, Twitter refugees and everything in between. There is such a wild mix of people and ideas that takes some time to wade through, but that's the magic of it. People just talk. There are no algorithms that prioritize one type of user over another or to showcase one type of content to the detriment of others. It's a stream of people from all walks of life sharing their thoughts about an incalculable amount of topics. That's just fucking cool.

This is not to say the platform is perfect. You are still bound to run into a bigoted fool here and there. The internet is just a big place and all the people aren't nice. But, unlike other platforms, Mastodon give you the tools (you can block an entire instance if they continuously have users that harass) to to deal with them rather than just leaving them to their own devices to spread their toxicity. Of course, not solution is perfect for people being shit, but the big take away for me is that there is effort being put forth to help people deal with it. That alone puts Mastodon head and shoulders above most, if not all, popular social platforms. People who use it just give a shit about other people.

I am a person of many interests. Some days I want to talk about my process for how I build websites, while on others I want to wax about the insidiousness of racism and sexism in the States. Some days I feel like talking about my favorite movies and shows, while others I prefer to showcase some of my favorite writers and thinkers talking about whatever they are interested in at the moment. I'm into all kinds of shit.

The reason I am sticking with Mastodon is because the culture there welcomes my eccentricity and varying interests in a way I have not experienced in a long, long time.

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brennen
9 days ago
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Working to Rule

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“Not my circus, not my monkeys”.

That’s what I mostly say these days when asked about British politics. Up to about a year ago, I was an active member of a political party and involved in a fair amount of volunteering. I saw myself as being part of things, an enthusiastic party to the social contract. Those days are done.

I’ve been an immigrant in four different countries, and in only one of them did I ever feel at home. I used to tell this story about being a civil liberties lobbyist in the UK in the early 2000s. I’d go and do a briefing over tea and biscuits with some member of the House of Lords. They’d start a little in surprise at my accent, and then the meeting would go on as normal, with me offering talking points about the surveillance and police state as counter-productive in fighting terrorism. Then at the end, when the business of the meeting was finished and everyone relaxed and munched the biscuits, the peer would make a point of telling me how much they liked Ireland, had relatives there, had visited or wanted to, some day. As if they were saying “It’s ok for Irish people to lecture us on human rights and terrorism, now.” My story was about tolerance and civility, and how no way could an Arab have a similar meeting in Paris or Washington D.C.

Maybe it’s just as well we white, well-to-do professionals are getting the same stick other immigrants or minorities always have. The gloves are off. An Italian friend was accosted by two men in the cinema queue in Oxford and told to “go home”, for the crime of speaking Italian. (Because she’s a badass, she bought them popcorn and they didn’t know what to do with themselves.) A woman I met last week was abused in the street for speaking Polish on her phone. I can pass until I open my mouth, and if I try I can sound fairly British. But I don’t want to.

Perhaps the UK only feels significantly nastier because it now treats white, middle class EU people more like how it treats the brown-skinned, less connected, less wealthy, or less likely to be able to kick up a stink people. My kind can still get a Guardian sad-face piece if the Home Office messes us around. We have our liberty and our voice. But can any of us say we know what is going on in, say, Yarl’s Wood detention centre, or that its secrecy, authoritarianism and arms-length contractual deniability are not the perfect conditions for institutional abuse? We’ve all heard that kind of story a dozen times, but can no longer even be arsed to say “never again”.

I live in Theresa May’s “hostile environment” for immigrants, seeded several years ago, and bearing poisonus fruit just this morning as the first day when foreign-seeming people can be stopped from using the NHS. EU citizens are still a lot more equal than other immigrants. (And Irish people more equal again, in terms of our legal status, because of history.) I’m extremely lucky. All I have to worry about are the value of my home slipping (frightening for us, but a property crash would help more people than it hurts, generationally), my ability to find work (most of mine comes from outside the UK, anyway), and the rather bad luck that every time I try to send money to my under-water Irish mortgage, the prime minister opens her mouth and the pound plummets, again. My concerns are incredibly minor and show just how privileged I am.

I’m not getting letters from the Home Office, telling me to leave, or bills from my local NHS’s fraud department, insisting my newborn had no right to treatment. I have no relatives caught up in the grey netherworld of the asylum system, being told they weren’t actually raped and they’re not actually gay, and will therefore be detained without time-limit. I don’t have to prove to a sociopathic immigration regime that, although I spend my time caring for children or ill family members now, I will in the future earn enough money to not be a “burden”. I don’t need to fear that calling the police to protect my children from domestic violence will result in the Home Office being alerted to our presence, and the whole family being deported.

The UK has become a nasty little country. It sticks out a bit less in a neighbourhood with Austria, Hungary, Poland and Turkey nearby. But as a country, the UK is working hard to make itself objectively nastier, and to suppress the voices of those in British society who could curb its sharpest, most small-minded insecurities. Charities here are gagged from speaking about poverty, church-leaders and protesters go unreported and ignored. Xenophobic attacks are up by almost a third, since the Brexit vote. The government and media thinks it’s unremarkable for people on benefits – and their children – to go without a penny of income for two or three months at a time. (And when they eventually get paid, to go without when there’s a fifth Monday in the month.) Women inmates in the prison system have a lower chance of survival than did British soldiers in Afghanistan. The education system is expressly designed to herd the 93% with rote-learning, box-ticking and arbitrary discipline into a life of menial under-employment, while the 7% enjoy Olympic-sized swimming pools and theatres better equipped than most professional ones. And when privatized state school “academy” chains go tits-up, the funds raised by their Christmas fairs and sponsored runs are asset-stripped by company directors, but private schools for the wealthiest are officially charities, with £100 million in tax benefits a year. The country’s flagship news programme thinks “balance” is pitting a soft versus a hard brexiteer, and the millionaire-funded Leave campaign admits using botnets to spread its lies, but no one even shrugs.

But there you go. That’s how I would see things, wouldn’t I? What with being a saboteur and enemy of the state, and a foreigner, to boot.

Anyone who thinks being an immigrant, even a deluxe EU three million-type immigrant, is easy, should try it. We compete on equal terms with all comers, but with no social or economic safety net and, for many, hustling like mad in second and third languages. No dole, no network of couches to sleep on, no contacts and no introductions; qualifications from institutions you’ve never heard of, references from employers you aren’t sure are real but can’t be bothered to check, acting as daily fodder for stereotypical jokes we laugh off to show we’re one of you. You don’t hear us complaining about it because it’s just part of the deal. But when the terms of the deal change, and you tell us we’re social welfare parasites who are also, somehow, taking all the jobs and are the reason the country is failing, then the deal is probably dead.

The government and brexiteers’ empty claims that “it’ll be fine” are not reassuring. They unwittingly communicate the contempt we are held in, the manifest unimportance of our plight. I don’t see acres of think-pieces on why the government and the Labour party should ‘reach out’ to economic migrants and try to understand us. Ironically, we’re the ones keeping the stiff upper lip because we know we’re not allowed the luxury of an epic, country-wide tantrum.

Right after the brexit result, I felt sorriest for my British friends who were having part of their identity yanked away. I’ve even been told once or twice in the last year that it was worse for them, because at least I could move away. And I agreed. But I don’t any more. Their lives are going on as before, albeit in a poisonous political atmosphere. But ours have changed. EU citizens in the UK worry about their ability to stay employed, are being refused mortgages and rental contracts, are shouted at in the street, don’t know what will become of their pension contributions and fear they could be just one family crisis away from losing their “right to remain”.

I thought I would feel better over time. That the sorrow and fear at being in a country turning its back on internationalism at the precise historic moment when our biggest problems are cross-border would be replaced by something less painful and more constructive. After the referendum I went to a few more meetings. Over the winter I made signs for protest marches. After the women’s march last January, I felt I could almost breathe again. But since then it’s just gotten worse. A couple of times this year, I’ve been on the phone to my mother in Ireland and she’s repeatedly asked “But don’t they know…” about certain pertinent economic facts or how treaties work or what happens when the peace process collapses. And I have to answer that no, honestly, a lot of people don’t know the basic facts of their own existence, and it is no longer politically feasible for politicians to mention these facts. And that most newspapers do not report these facts because these facts have become unpatriotic. And that there is no opposition. And that lies, repeated often and brazenly enough, are pretty much all that is left of British politics.

I suppose part of my feeling worse over time is that Britain is actively choosing to be this way. The liars lie and you pretend to give them a hearing. The poor suffer, and sometimes burn, but can’t be saved or housed. The immigrants take their lumps, and plan, and quietly disappear. And the politicians give a week and more to standing around, whining about a fucking clock, and pronounce any work on fixing the mess they’ve made impossible until a farcically bad election campaign has been fought, or party conference season is over or whatever the next Conservative psycho-drama is going to be has played out, while the country stumbles over the cliff because democracy, it now appears, was a one-shot deal.

In all that mess, here’s one thing among the many that seems to have gone unnoticed. When you reduce all your dealings with a group of people to the purely transactional, you may think you are being very clever and forcing a better deal, but you have changed the way those people will interact with you, and also whether they will trust you in future. I used to be an immigrant who, for all the UK’s shortcomings, felt loyalty to my chosen home. And gratitude, though it’s embarrassing to admit that, now. I knew there were certain ways of acting and being the UK had developed for itself – to do with tolerance, civility, self-deprecation, humour, curiosity, a general broad-mindedness and the underlying cultural confidence of a country that knows cooperation isn’t a zero-sum game – that meant there was room for people like me to belong.

(That same expansiveness could be seen in how this country treated its poor, less educated, chronically ill, disabled people, to mention just a few groups. Britain has never had much of a political culture of solidarity or shared purpose, whatever World War II fantasies claim, but it wasn’t vindictive. Now it is. Turn on the television. “Factual television” doesn’t inform or entertain; it pits people against each other in artificial competitions with ever more theatrical ways to tell the losers exactly what they are.)

By reducing the British state’s relationship with the three million EU citizens who live here to a single cost-benefit analysis (calculated with striking actuarial incompetence), the UK has made the mistake so many employers make when they put the bean-counters in charge. They have failed to account for the value of good will. Good will of a company’s suppliers and customers – analogous to a countries’s partners and allies – has a value and can be destroyed. Similarly, working to rule is often one of the first steps employees – in this analogy, immigrants – take towards industrial action. Working to rule demonstrates that for all the Taylorist calculation of what a job entails, it’s the extra 15-20% we do that makes the world go round. The government seems to think it is grown-up and serious to treat us like economic widgets that can be ordered when needed and discarded when not. It’s wrong. It will lose out, too, from making citizenship and belonging purely transactional.

Many immigrants who had felt loyalty, affection and feelings of grateful belonging are now emotionally working to rule. We will go through the motions, paying our taxes and being decent neighbours, perhaps even wearing a poppy, as that ever-lengthening season draws near. But we know our place, now. We get it. We’re not proper citizens, just “economic migrants” or “citizens of nowhere”; assets to be sorted, milked of taxes and then disposed of when no longer revenue-positive. The loyalty that makes people stick around when you’re going through a tough time, as the UK is clearly about to, has gone. The soft power it yielded, by way of people who moved here and, when the time came, moved on with deep ties and happy memories, has gone. This isn’t about revenge, it’s just how the human heart works.

Because it hurts, for me at least. I believed all that inclusive, expansive, tolerance stuff in the first place. Never, in my couple of years as an army wife, did anyone grimace or hesitate or show hostility or even surprise at me being a non-national. There were lots of us amongst the spouses and soldiers; Irish, South Africans, Fijians and more. I baked, fund-raised, spent half a year in the permanent nausea of low-level fear while he was on tour, sat uncomfortably near the front of the church by a coffin with the Union Jack draped over it, comforted – insofar as anyone can – a grieving father, wrote letters of condolence, stood for hours on parade grounds and performed dozens (hundreds?) of the little tasks and favours that just make things go round when you live inside an institution that can ask you for almost anything.

And now I feel like a stupid, naive little fool. I look back on that time and think what baseless, idiotic, pathetic faith I had in something it turns out didn’t exist. Or if it did, it’s gone, so it all meant nothing, anyway.

Whatever the UK does now, the trust, loyalty and affection are gone, and they won’t come back. We know we can’t plan our lives with any certainty. We know we are despised by a large amount of the country, including the government itself. We know the majority of people voted to make our lives unmanageable because they didn’t want to know or just didn’t care. We have all the hurt feelings of kids who used to be in the clique and got kicked out for some unknown slight, but still have to go to school every day anyway. And I use that metaphor advisedly, because I understand that there is something slightly child-like in this feeling of rejection.

But, well, tough luck. It’s a fall from grace but it could be much worse. It has opened our eyes to the truth of the UK’s narrow and punitive social contract. I hope that many of us make common cause with people in the detention centres or at the mercy those who exploit May’s “hostile environment” for their own ends. I hope privileged immigrants join the dots and do what that calls for. God knows I hope the vast number of EU citizens staffing the NHS do all they can to subvert the myth of expensive “health tourism” (a phenomenon I suspect is as rare as false claims of sexual assault and rape, not that you’d know either from reading a British newspaper).

We have a place to live, for now, though it isn’t home, and will never feel like it again. I used to say “we” when I talked about politics in the UK. Now I say “you”, or better, nothing at all.

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brennen
17 days ago
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Boulder, CO
acdha
17 days ago
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Washington, DC
chrishiestand
17 days ago
Similar feelings towards the us government, though the details differ. Lack of compassion is the same.
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