The mirror test and cats

(Personal, GeekStuff)

2013-05-03 11:52
Comment [4]

One of the standard tests for self-awareness is “the mirror test” — put dye on a creature in a place it can’t see but could see in a mirror, give it a mirror, see whether it investigates the dyed spot. Cats, in general, fail this.

But I’ve found a test they pass using a mirror. Well, that one cat passes.

My cat is consistently surprised if touched from behind. Touch the back of her head, and at the very least she twitches her ears.

Do it while she’s facing a mirror, and she is completely unconcerned.

I hypothesize that she can tell that the thing in the mirror is me-holding-her, and that this means that she knows I am about to touch her, thus, isn’t surprised. Further science is called for. I require a large number of cats, some mirrors, and an NSF grant.

Peter Seebach

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Comment [4]

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The bat: Nature's temporary pet!

(Personal)

2013-05-02 16:49
Comment

Now available for limited time trials: The bat, nature’s temporary pet!

Your new bat will provide minutes to hours of enjoyment before leaving you. It’s the pet you don’t have to take care of^SM^.

Your bat has many amazing talents and abilities.

  • Can fly frantically in circles for hours!
  • Can acrobatically dodge mid-air obstacles you can’t even see!
  • May not be able to dodge walls.
  • Don’t worry about your bat being stingy with infectious diseases; if it has rabies, it brought enough for everyone!
  • Your bat will be fanatically loyal, and will definitely not fly out through any open doorways or windows during its time with you.
  • Not even if you are waving a broom at it or something.
  • Your bat may make noises! If you’re over 20, you’ll never know either way, though.

Goodbye, Mister Squeaky! We hope you remember us fondly now that you are back in the great outdoors.

Peter Seebach

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Living in Minnesota

(Personal)

2013-05-02 01:01
Comment

So, last week, we had a brief bout of freezing weather and snow, with rumors that temperatures would rise. And they did, fast enough that about a day after the snow, I installed a window air conditioner in my bedroom, since I have trouble sleeping when it’s warm. And then we had three consecutive days where it was warm enough that I ran the air conditioner so I could sleep.

And it’s a good thing I installed it then, because it would have been a real pain to try to install it today, what with the six inches or so of snow we just got.

Peter Seebach

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Defining "proceeds": Harder than it looks

(GeekStuff, Personal)

2013-04-30 15:19
Comment

So, there were bombs in Boston recently. You may have heard. And there are people in Boston, and a lot of them feel that this is sort of a thing which affects them. It may in fact affect them significantly. And if they run, say, a company, one of the obvious things to do would be to collect some money and donate it to a charity.

One such company is Turbine. They make MMOs, most notably Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons & Dragons Online. I play DDO. It’s a fun game. And they’re doing some stuff pertaining to the bombings, like donating to the One Fund.

But there’s an issue. See, Turbine’s primary way of selling things isn’t dollars. It’s “Turbine Points”, or TP. You can buy TP for dollars; the conversion rate depends on how many dollars you spend. Sometimes there are sales where the conversion rate is different. Sometimes there’s deals where, say, buying a particular thing entitles you to buy TP at a particularly good rate. If you maintain a “VIP subscription” to one of their games, you get additional points over time. And, perhaps most interestingly, you can generate the points simply by playing the game. As your hero makes a reputation in the world, you are occasionally given small additional pools of points. (I’m told that people have worked out a way in which you could unlock all of the “premium” content by playing the content you get access to for free.)

So, they are selling in-game “ribbons”, at a price of 100TP. There’s a coupon to get them free if you want, but if you don’t use the coupon, you spend 100TP.

Now, obviously, the intent is that the proceeds would go to the charity, right? Only. We don’t know how to define “the proceeds”. If I spend 100TP on a ribbon, how much is that in dollars? I have no idea. I don’t think the question is well-defined. And I suspect the charity would not be particularly happy with a donation of “100 Turbine Points”, because they’re not a very negotiable currency.

Consider the simple case: I go to their store, I spend $20, I get 1,550 points. I buy 15 ribbons. I’ve clearly spent most of $20 on ribbons, right? Okay, now say instead I spend $200, and get 23,000 points. I buy 15 ribbons. 1500/23,000ths of my $200 comes out to about $13.04. Have I spent $13 on ribbons? Probably.

Now, what if six months ago I spent $50 on points, so I had 5,000. Since then I’ve picked up 3,000 points that were given as bonuses from my $10/month subscription, and I bought a $10 expansion pack code that included 500 points, and I’ve been adventuring a lot and my characters have earned me 750 points, and I’ve spent 6,000 points on stuff in their store. So that’s 3,250 points left. And I spend 1500 of them on ribbons.

How much was that in dollars? I have no idea.

One simple approach: We sum all the expenditures, and assume that’s the cost of the points. So that’s $120 of spending, for 9,250 points. Only the subscription and the expansion pack thing both contained things other than points. And I don’t know what those things are worth. And it gets more complicated.

Let’s look at an easier case. I spend $200 on points, getting 23,000. I then spend 22,000 points on various in-game shinies. I have 1,000 points left, which cost me roughly $8.69. Now I spend another $50, and get 5,000 points. I now have 6,000 points left. I have spent $250 on points, getting 28,000 points — 112 points to a dollar. But the points I have right now are 6,000 points which cost $58.69 — only 102 points to a dollar.

Which is to say: There is no way to make a sensible decision as to what the “proceeds” of such a sale are. No definition is unambiguously correct.

Turbine’s solution is to admit this, and say that they are making a donation out of their own funds, and they are not trying to exactly tie the amount of that donation to the sales of ribbons. And a lot of customers are mad at them for this, because they want to know where their money is going. And I don’t entirely blame them for wanting to know, but… It’s not possible. So I’m gonna go with “I think these people care more about this issue than they do about trying to cheat their customers.” And probably buy some ribbons.

Peter Seebach

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Sympathy for the devil

(Politics, Religion)

2013-04-21 03:04
Comment

A poster on tumblr recently expressed some unpopular views; to wit, the hope that Dzokhar Tsarnaev would escape and never be captured or killed. Lots of people have expressed the hope that he’d be captured alive, and some have hoped that he might one day be rehabilitated. Not so many have thought to show off their empathy by hoping a killer escapes to kill again.

There’s a lot to be said for trying to care about people whom everyone else does not care about. It is, in principle, a good idea. It can be the thing that provides a path to redemption in an otherwise horrible situation. However, that doesn’t mean that everything that looks like this is actually a good or healthy thing.

Occasionally, I see Christians who are starting to think a little more thoroughly about their beliefs come to wonder what the right response to the Devil is. One answer, which I personally quite like, is “to love him, and pray for his redemption.” After all, we were asked to love our enemies. Not just the easy ones. Not just the weak ones that aren’t a threat. And from that, you can get to a stage of thinking that it might be quite reasonable to love, and hope for the redemption of, just about anyone.

In Diane Duane’s “young wizards” books (So You Want To Be A Wizard and its sequels), the canonical greeting given to the Lone Power is “Greetings and defiance, fairest and fallen.” The key point I wish to call your attention to: “and defiance”. To love an evil person is not to love their evil, or to make excuses for it, or to paper over it. You have to accept and acknowledge the evil, and to react to it in the best way you can — with unceasing opposition.

The problem with the poster on tumblr isn’t the notion of wanting to empathize with and care about a very troubled young man. It’s that, finding the man unlovable, she’s decided to ignore him and instead make up a fictitious man who is lovable, but not actually evil. She’s making excuses for his choices, and denying the reality. This does no one any good. There is no redemptive power in finding out that people have invented someone very different from you because they wanted to love something, and you were beyond their ability.

It is a good and noble thing to try to love people who are hard to love. Not everyone can do it. Virtually no one can do it all the time. And the thing is, if you can’t do it… Don’t fake it. Don’t pretend to love someone, while actually loving an imaginary thing you constructed because the real person was too horrible. Recognize what you see, see it truly, and go from there. You may find that some people are beyond your ability to love. That happens. It’s okay; not everyone has to be a saint today. Keep being honest, keep plugging away, and you might get there. Give up on the honesty, and you won’t even be making progress anymore.

Peter Seebach

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Making OS X a little smarter: Conditional network configuration

(GeekStuff)

2013-04-16 15:40
Comment

So, I have ethernet, but I don’t always use it. If I’m not plugged in, I want my laptop to use the wireless. If I am, I want it to not use the wireless.

Some guy solved this.

His solution is pretty clever, but I’d point out a couple of quibbles: First, I’d probably use LaunchDaemons, not LaunchAgents, for this so it’d be up before I logged in. I would NOT use /System/Library either way; this is a local change and belongs in /Library. Also, I put the script in /usr/local/bin.

The gimmick is that the system can run a script any time the configuration changes, and the script can then, say, evaluate the current state of the wifi and ethernet connections, and select accordingly. This means that simply plugging or unplugging the Ethernet cable causes a toggle, which gets the result I want.

Peter Seebach

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Dear Casey's: Also, autistics speak.

(Autism, Personal)

2013-04-15 08:41
Comment [2]

While I was out picking up delicious pizza last night, I noticed that our local convenience store (Casey’s General Store) was doing fundraising for Autism Speaks. This makes me unhappy. On the whole, I like existing.

Autism Speaks is a pretty awful entity. First off, they are a classic money grab; the bulk of their money goes into fundraising and expenses, with very little going towards programs that are even nominally intended to actually benefit autistics. However, that’s the good news. Because their programs are by and large directed towards eradicating us, and many of us are unhappy with this. We do not want to be “cured”. We are not necessarily highly enthused about research on ways people could abort fetuses that might turn into autistic children, either.

Autism Speaks has a long history of excluding autistic voices. For a long time, they had no autistic participation whatsoever, and I think they now have a single token autistic involved in their work. They sued a 14-year-old autistic child for making a parody of their website. They refused to hire a woman when they found out she had an autistic child. They actively promote language designed to medicalize autism and present it as a horrible affliction from which people ought to be freed. This leads directly to increased hostility to, and discrimination against, autistic people.

I don’t think this is an accident. Their aggressive anti-autism propaganda benefits from any suffering associated with autism. If austistic people are discriminated against, that means they have bigger numbers to point to for how much worse off autistic people are, so they can make even scarier films about how horrible it must be for us to exist.

If you are looking to have a highly-recognizable charity affiliation, I think you have chosen reasonably well, except that Autism Speaks is starting to have a much worse reputation over time. Under the threat of having the only organization nominally speaking for us telling everyone that we are the horrible monsters that replaced the real children our parents could have loved, autistics have started organizing and educating the people around them, and most of the people I know are now aware that, by and large, autistic people find Autism Speaks a very threatening organization. And that tends to make them work out less well as a reputation booster.

If, on the other hand, you were looking to do something that actually benefitted autistic people, well. You pretty much got that one exactly wrong. I am not aware of a program or organization more hostile to us. If you would like to put some resources towards organizations that are actually interested in the wellbeing of autistics, I would call your attention to the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), an organization mostly run by autistics who would like to be permitted to speak for themselves.

Thank you for your consideration.

(Submitted via contact form, also posted on my blog.)

Peter Seebach

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Comment [2]

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The difference between doubts and questions.

(Personal, GeekStuff)

2013-04-14 14:18
Comment

There is a fascinating dialect quirk which has caused occasional confusions, which I think ought to get talked about. Many people who learned English in India tend to use the word “doubt” where most other English speakers would use “question”. I have been told that this is because, in one of the common languages around there, there’s a single word which is the best translation for both “doubt” and “question”, and people get told to translate it to “doubt”.

This occasionally causes confusion, because doubts and questions are not the same thing in English. For one thing, a question is a request that someone else provide information. A doubt is merely an uncertainty. For another, “doubt” has the connotation that you have been given information already, but think it may be incorrect.

What this means is that if you haven’t already got at least some information, it is at the very least highly unidiomatic to say you have a “doubt” about a topic. And if you have got some, there’s a worse landmine: The connotations of “doubt” allow it to be used as a way to not quite explicitly accuse someone of lying. If someone tells you something, and you say you have a doubt about it, you are asserting that you do not find what they told you believable for some reason. This requires that they are mistaken or lying, and a lot of the time, being mistaken about an issue would imply lying about one’s expertise or competence. Especially with technical issues.

If you have an awareness that you do not fully understand something, call it “uncertainty”. If you have a desire for other people to tell you about something, or tell you more about it, call that “a question”. Only call it “a doubt” (or doubts, plural) if you have information but suspect that it isn’t true.

A lot of people will know what you mean anyway, especially if you have other similar signs of English as a second language and they’ve encountered the idiom before, but even then, using the same word for all of these different things reduces the clarity of your communication. Every time you make people guess at your meaning, you create doubts…

Peter Seebach

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Theme and variations

(Politics, Religion)

2013-04-02 17:53
Comment [1]

Music tends to rely heavily on the use of recognizable themes; little bits and pieces of melody and/or rhythm which are repeated to create consistency in structure. In the simplest form, a theme may simply be repeated. The “rounds” often used in early music classes add the complexity that each part may be at a different point in the theme than the others, but all the parts are still the same. The famous example is “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, a piece of music which still has the power to enthrall children up through the age of seven or so, but tends to pale a little after that.

What really makes themes interesting, to me, is that they are subject to variation. You don’t just play the exact same melody over and over; rather, you start seeing different presentations of the theme, pieces of it taken individually, or presented in a different order. Changes in key, changes in progression, notes added and removed.

And this leads to one of my favorite forms of music, the fugue. I love me some fugues. My favorite ever is the Little G Minor fugue (link is to a video showing the MIDI notes in color and space rather than in musical notation; this can be really helpful if you want to visualize what’s happening).

Now, here’s the thing. If you were to take the main theme of that piece, and just repeat it a lot, you would not end up with nearly as awesome a piece of music. The inclusion of things which are not the theme, and especially of things which are similar to the theme but not quite identical, is not some sort of newbie error. Bach did that to highlight and strengthen the theme.

So, where am I going with this? When you have a clear theme or pattern, it is easy to identify when something does not quite follow the theme, and then easy to assert that this is an error; that one has “failed” to follow the theme. And I am arguing that it’s not necessarily an error, or a failure to conform. It may be a variation, intended to reflect, and highlight, and support that theme.

I occasionally encounter people who insist that, for instance, marriage which does not fit a particular model of “traditional” marriage (roughly as practiced in the US in the 1950s, only with more divorce), is a “deviation” from God’s Plan for Marriage. And I don’t believe that, because I don’t think God writes plans with all the subtlety of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. Let us stipulate for the sake of argument that there is a Divine Plan of “marriage” which is one man, and one woman, who are married until one of them dies. What should we make of all the other things we see, which are similar enough to be recognizable, but not quite exactly fitting that theme? Are they “deviations” from that? Not always, certainly. Sometimes, they are variations on that. They are things which, while different from the theme, reflect the theme’s essential character. They are things which allow people who might otherwise be outside the plan’s scope to find that they are in the plan after all.

So when people get divorced, the Plan is that they are done — they have failed at marriage, and it’s over. Indeed, the Catholic Church still won’t perform a marriage for someone who’s been divorced, in general; you have to get an annullment declaring that you were definitely not actually married before. And many people do feel that remarriage is in some way invalid. But our society, as a whole, has come to think that letting people remarry after a divorce is not such a bad thing. It’s not exactly the same as the original marriage, but it’s a fundamentally similar thing, so similar that we call it by the same name and give it the same legal and social treatment, in general. It serves the same role in our society. Perhaps more importantly, it draws people in and includes them.

Our society is starting to recognize that the same principle applies to marriages with two men, or two women, instead of one of each. They may not be identical to the form we’re most familiar with, but they are clearly related to it and built on it. With rare exceptions, even people vehemently opposed to legal recognition of these relationships seem to acknowledge that life-long committed romantic relationships between two men or two women are fundamentally similar to marriage, arguing only that they are defective in a way which should exclude them from legal recognition. But the fact is, they aren’t defective. They are not deviations from the theme; they are variations on it. They may differ in some ways from the theme, but they reflect it and harmonize well with it. They make our culture and our world richer. They are a new voice joining the fugue, revealing that what seemed like a complete and coherent whole had still more space for additions which contributed depth and vibrance to the experience.

Peter Seebach

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Comment [1]

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A thought experiment...

(Personal, Politics)

2013-03-18 13:50
Comment [5]

As commented previously, there’s a lot of outrage because a couple of kids who raped underage girls got sentenced as though they had comitted a crime.

First, some baseline facts:

  1. These kids identified themselves as “the rape crew”.
  2. These were not crimes of opportunity, but premeditated setups.
  3. They openly bragged about what they’d done, until someone revealed that you could in theory get in trouble for raping people.
  4. The boy whose house the rape occurred in was not charged. His mom is the prosecuting attorney for the county…
  5. I’ve read allegations that she also tried to pressure the victim not to press charges.
  6. The victim was drunk, and possibly drugged, enough that she didn’t know what happened until she saw pictures and heard comments through social media.

Now, normally, if you have people demonstrating a clear plan of arranging to get someone unconscious enough to be unable to even comprehend what’s happening, let alone consent to it, that’s considered pretty good evidence of bad intent. But! This happened in a big football town, and the boys are big football stars. So there’s a ton of commentary from various bystanders (mostly apparently unaware of the details of the case) asserting that it was just a girl who got herself drunk and then regretted her actions the next day, not “rape” at all.

There’s a lot of problems with this; for one thing, do we generally expect a sixteen-year-old to be competent to manage her alcohol intake? Do the allegations that she was drugged, not merely drunk, matter?

But you can see the real nature of the problem through a little thought experiment: Imagine that the crime weren’t rape. Imagine that it were basically anything else. Say… Theft.

So, consider the hypothetical town of Bustenville, a small town with a very popular and avidly-watched youth hockey league. It comes out that some of the players on the hockey league have taken to calling themselves the “mugging crew”. What they do is, they have parties, and arrange for people at those parties to get really drunk — so drunk they can’t remember what happens — and then take all their valuables. Cash, jewelry, and so on. They post pictures of this, they talk about it, they brag about how much money they’re taking in. And finally one of the victims comes forward and complains. Videos and pictures are recovered showing the unconscious victim and the “mugging crew” lifting cash out of the victim’s wallet. It comes to trial, and the kids are found guilty of having stolen money from their victims, on the grounds that they took money without any consent from the victims.

Would you expect to see dozens of posts on social media sites defending the kids? Calling it youthful hijinks? Explaining that the people they took the money from were probably just really generous and then regretted it the next day?

No, you wouldn’t.

If these kids had killed someone, you might see attempts to claim it was a tragic accident, but if they had been calling themselves “the murder crew”, and talking about it and planning it and posting pictures, and making it clear that the resulting death was an outcome considered in advance and actively sought… Do you think you’d see a lot of people outraged at the suggestion that they could be called “murderers”? No.

And that’s the point of the little thought experiment. What’s happening here is not that these kids are facing unfair charges. It’s that people have very different standards for rape, which are mostly that they don’t think it’s all that serious. Change it to theft or murder, and the general feeling is that people who commit crimes are criminals. Change it to rape, and suddenly there’s a lot of people who think it’s horrible that these boys will be known as rapists. Well, maybe they’ll be known as rapists because they are.

I’ve been told that the distribution of rape among rapists follows a power law distribution. I can’t find a way to verify that — because it’s really hard to construct search terms that involve “rape”, “power”, and “law” and have to do with distribution curves rather than legalities or imbalances of strength or capability. But it seems pretty reasonable. I am pretty sure I don’t know any guys who have comitted any rapes. I certainly don’t know any who brag about it. On the other hand, if these kids hadn’t gotten in trouble, do you really think they’d have stopped?

That said, there is one point where I think it makes sense to suggest that maybe people other than these kids are at least a little culpable. Where the hell were the adults? Why was the football coach threatening people who asked questions about this rather than getting involved and investigating the students? Why was the mom, who is presumably at least basically aware of the law, not more involved in finding out what was happening and educating her kids? Why were multiple parties acting to defend these kids, and help them cover things up, rather than cooperating with getting them busted?

Heck if I know. But I’d guess the very sympathetic reporting about the horrible loss of these kids’ football careers is a factor.

Peter Seebach

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Comment [5]

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