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In miniature

July 29, 2021

These are cute. patisserie

Comedy, language, and religion

July 28, 2021

I suspect The Kominsky Method is made largely for boomers. It features stars from the era when we were most attentive to popular entertainment. Its plotting — and some of its barbs — are aimed at those of us getting long in tooth, our foibles, and our inevitable ignorance of newer culture. And it partly sates that lack by poking fun at Hollywood. 

MorganFreemanPathologistPhoto shows Morgan Freeman, playing himself, as an actor playing a pathologist. The dialogue there riffed on the attempt to de-gender English by introducing a stack of new pronouns. Which, no, is not an attack on the transgendered or other queer folk. Most of those pronouns never will make it into common usage. Conscious political purpose doesn’t get free play in changing language. Especially when it ignores how language works. Even if some institutions move to using each individual’s chosen pronoun, those then becomes titular, where participants make an effort to find the right one. Much as when sending out invitations, someone might take care to properly address a judge or cardinal. That is not how pronouns work. They are linguistic shortcuts. One reason languages feature pronouns is because we don’t always care whether it was the judge or the cardinal who ate the last slice of carrot cake. Someone did. That “someone” is a pronoun. I suspect the best hope to broadly avoid the gendered “he” and “she” lies with the singular “they,” which already is part of English, and which can more and more replace the gendered pronouns, much as “you” has replaced the formal “thou.”

Recent episodes are skewering Scientology. Given the insularity of that religion, a natural question is how the show does that? It turns out that Chuck Lorre, one of the show’s writers, once was a Scientologist, so is able to pen the patter. And yes, the humor there is critical of the religion. Lorre quite correctly apologizes — not for skewering one of the more absurd religions ever invented, but for having a youthful dally in it: “What can I say? I did a lot of stupid shit when I was young.” 

Well, most boomers will sympathize with that thought, if not that particular stupidity. 

Of shoes and ships and meridians

July 27, 2021

From the time of the ancient Greeks, astronomers knew the earth was a sphere. Even before that, navigators knew the constancy of the pole star. But instruments were crude and charts were rare. It wasn’t until European explorers started voyaging around the globe that there was a practical need to relate meridian arc and distance. Prior to that, I suspect it didn’t matter to most navigation, given the length of most voyages and the state of instruments and charts.

MeasuringDistanceRobert Hues, a 16th c. mathematician and geographer, worked on astronomical navigation. He is credited with defining the nautical mile as the distance of one minute of a meridian. That gained great use as charts became more common. It takes only seconds with dividers to find the nautical mile distance between any two points on a chart, regardless of its scale. The photo shows how that is done.  

A minute is 1/60th of a degree. The Greeks adopted the practice of dividing the circle into 360 degrees, and further by 60s, from the Babylonians. Who may have gotten it from the Sumerians. The start of that measure is so ancient we don’t  know its origin.

No one was much motivated to change the compass until the French revolution. Having inherited the medieval world’s mess of different measures, those Enlightenment radicals decided to put everything on a rational basis. Or at least, on the decimal system. They would divide the day into ten déci-jour, instead of 24 hours. And no longer would French sailors have to add or subtract 180 to calculate a reciprocal compass course. The republican units of measurement divided the circle into 400 grads, rather than 360 degrees. If the current heading is 225 grads, ‘twould be a cinch to know that 25 grads is the opposite direction. The new unit of length, the kilometer, was defined as the meridian distance of one centigrad. Thus was the metric system born.

Somewhere between its inception and near universal adoption, some parts of the metric system fell by the wayside. While you can find old French compasses and charts based on grads, that change in how to measure the circle flopped. Everyone stuck with the old compass with 360 degrees to the circle. 

Which is why the kilometer, standard in so much of the world with landlubbers, is not quite as universal as many people think. Navigators kept a unit of distance that works with how latitude is measured. In cockpits the world over, planes and ships both, regardless of the language spoken or how thoroughly the nation has become metricized, the nautical mile remains a core unit of travel distance. And knots — nautical miles per second — the basic unit of speed.

The nautical mile is not the sole measure of distance on the water. Depth typically is shown in feet or fathoms. The mile posts along the ICW are in statute miles! Every unit of measure is a matter of habit and convention. Navaids are red-right-returning. In the US. The smart navigator gives up on there ever being a single method that unites everything. They just drink and know stuff. Except, when on the move, their exact location. That they always are checking and rechecking. 

Moral compasses

July 26, 2021

compass_gradsJonathan Haidt famously has stated that American conservatives carry some moral values that liberals lack. Tomas Ståhl at the University of Illinois at Chicago has performed a study of atheists and the religious, in both the US and Sweden, reaching a similar result:

The most general take-home message from these studies is that people who do not believe in God do have a moral compass. In fact, they share many of the same moral concerns that religious believers have, such as concerns about fairness, and about protecting vulnerable individuals from harm. However, disbelievers are less inclined than believers to endorse moral values that serve group cohesion, such as having respect for authorities, ingroup loyalty, and sanctity.

(Cite.) That makes intuitive sense to me. Religion is a kind of abstract authority, telling its adherents why they should believe certain things and think in certain ways. Few social constructs are as effective as religion at creating an in-group and out-group. And sanctity is quite bound up with most religious ideologies, though no doubt there are exceptions.

If you think the compass shown is familiar, look closely at how the circle is divided and numbered.

The spy in your pocket

July 22, 2021

Most of the reporting on Monsignor Jeffrey Burrill resigning as general secretary from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops plays to the angle of a powerful priest getting caught cruising gay bars and using Grindr. A dog barks.

The more important story is that he was found out using commercially available, badly anonymized data sold by the cellular carriers. That data includes both location information and app usage:

The Pillar says it obtained 24 months’ worth of “commercially available records of app signal data” covering portions of 2018, 2019, and 2020, which included records of Grindr usage and locations where the app was used. The publication zeroed in on addresses where Burrill was known to frequent and singled out a device identifier that appeared at those locations. Key locations included Burrill’s office at the USCCB, his USCCB-owned residence, and USCCB meetings and events in other cities where he was in attendance. The analysis also looked at other locations farther afield, including his family lake house, his family members’ residences, and an apartment in his Wisconsin hometown where he reportedly has lived. The de-anonymized data revealed that a mobile device that appeared at those locations—likely Burrill’s phone, The Pillar says—used Grindr almost daily.

Degas_Portraits_Stock_ExchangeThe kind of investigation that The Pillar did into Monsignor Burrill’s private life is something that most anyone can do to anyone else, regarding anything that cellphone usage patterns expose. That should have broad concern. The Catholic Church doesn’t mind its moral watchdogs using such means to turn out their priests. What will it think when it is various crooks shaking down their priests? “Well, Father, a weekly donation will keep this secret.” And not just priests. It’s easy to imagine all sorts of pattern matching on such data that exposes ordinary people to scams and extortions. Imagine spammers calling a cardiologist’s patients: “Margaret, Dr. Phillips was wanting us to make sure you were on this supplement.”

Anyone who thinks that won’t happen because the data lacks phone numbers should keep in mind there is plenty of other commercial data matching names and phone numbers and addresses. It is pretty simple data analysis to find matches based on that.  

As a technologist, I can’t help but look at current cellphone OSes, and think they are quite deficient in controlling what carriers can see, and in protecting personal data from malware. Google and Apple have considerable conflicts of interest in addressing those areas. Both are intent on controlling the platform. That doesn’t leave much room for third parties wanting to provide a technical solution. Regulation controlling what the carriers can sell would help. So long as the data exists, it is a target for hackers. 

If you’re looking for a more secure or more open device, don’t be fooled by the Freedom Phone. That is yet another right-wing grift, looking to relieve the MAGA cultists of their money. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep sympathy for the victims. 


July 21, 2021

There seems to be fault all around on why the Ever Given got stuck in the Suez Canal. The pilots didn’t understand big ship steering. They argued with each other and the captain. No tugs were assisting. And as often is the case with a costly or deadly foul up, the sequence started with the decision to shove off in the face of bad weather. Likely because of schedule.

CorpusChristiBayOur local port is hitting record volumes this year. And preparing for LNG fueling. There is a tug or two assisting most every large ship I’ve seen entering or exiting port facilities, the large tankers making way independently only when in the ship channel. These days, it seems most of them are assisted by tethers aft, the tugs using swivel propulsion. All of which is good, since we need to avoid accidents that risk our bay waters.

The US Navy plans to enhance its training of bridge personnel. This comes after the disastrous collisions suffered by the destroyers McCain, in 2017, and Fitzgerald, in 2019. While that focus is on war training, the mistakes that led to those collisions with commercial vessels had more to do with ordinary ship management. A tank crew doesn’t have to regularly navigate their war machine in rush hour on Manhattan streets. US Navy vessels regularly navigate all the waters of the world, including some of the busiest. They should rank among the more responsible ships doing so. Does the Navy yet have the commitment to that ordinary yet important goal?

Cuba simmers

July 20, 2021

Yoani Sánchez is hopeful that current protests mark a step to changing Cuba’s government for the better. I am skeptical of anything in the short term. The regime there maintains a cruel grip, and there seem few other social institutions capable of exerting leverage. I would love to be proved wrong about that.

Biden is linking aid and relaxation of the US embargo to modest guarantees and transparency from the Cuban government. I doubt that will have much effect either.

There is one thing the US Congress could do that would provide opportunity and freedom to hundreds of thousands of Cubans quickly: Lift the US immigration gate. Allow an unlimited number of Cubans to immigrate here, to be permitted permanent residency, and to receive green cards. Whether they arrive wet foot, dry foot, or dusty foot. That also would put ever increasing pressure on the Cuban government to liberalize.

I hope someone in Congress steps up and introduces such a bill. Alas, that also is just hope at this point.

The J/22 World Championship!

July 19, 2021

J22sThe J/22 World Championship is being held here in Corpus Christi this week. More than 40 boats are competing. Volunteers have been measuring them this weekend past. Mayor Paulette M. Guajardo is joining the opening ceremony today.

We attract many state, national, and world regattas. The Finn class championship was three weeks past. That is easy to understand: We have an active sailing community. The coastal bend has good wind. Our bay is large and the ship channel runs to one side, so sailors need enter it only when sailing to or from Port Aransas, Rockport, or further destinations. The city marina is the best on the gulf coast. Small sailboats and wind surfers and other craft suitable for beaching can be launched directly from public beaches. The city actively supports sailing events. Hotels, restaurants, bars, and other amenities all are an easy walk away from the water. There are many spots on shore from which spectators can see the sailboats racing. The Wednesday night races start and finish in the city marina, making them a community event.

All which explains why this is one of the top sailing spots in the US. Thank you to all the volunteers, and to the Corpus Christi Yacht Club! Photo credit: Emily Stokes.

On the road again

July 15, 2021

Beto O’Rourke and Willie Nelson are raising funds for the Democratic legislators who have fled the state to deny Abbott the quorum he wants. The core issue is the urban-rural divide. Conservatives in Texas are walking an ever narrower path. They want to reap the economic benefits that come from Austin, Houston, and the other growing cities in this state. But they detest the more liberal culture that brings. Their bill targets practices in Houston that raised voter turnout:

Among its new restrictions are bans on drive-thru and overnight voting that were pioneered by Harris County — the once prized battleground turned Democratic stronghold — to widen access to voters for whom the usual rules limit opportunities to vote. After analyzing their voting data, county election officials found those measures were particularly successful in reaching voters of color in the last election.

WillieNelson_1974I suspect that the Republicans in this state eventually will get their way on this law. The longer run is more bleak for them. Texas cities will continue to grow. And will continue to have the politics that goes with urban culture.

One of these days I’ll get used to Willie having a beard.

Update: Anyone who wants to think about or discuss voting integrity needs to first make sure not to parrot MAGA lies.

Who believes in Q?

July 14, 2021

Or more generally, who believes the conspiracy theories that the Trump cult peddles? The LA Times reports that belief in MAGA madness is spreading in the wellness community in California. There is clear affinity between some of the pseudoscience that is common there with the conspiracy theories of the MAGA cult.

It’s interesting to ponder the similarities between the wellness community and veterans, another group from which that cult draws support. In both, there is considerable regard for leadership, practice, and seniority.

Two statistical notes: First, to anyone attuned to data, articles such as the two previously linked leave open the question whether the claimed affinity is anything more than subjective perception. In the case of veterans, we have at least one objective piece of evidence: they were more represented as participants in the storming of the Capitol on 1/6. Though that could be from characteristics other than their susceptibility to fabulism. Second, it is important that just because a group is more inclined toward some trait does not mean that the trait is present in anything more than a small minority of the group. Most veterans do not fall for that craziness. Most people who practice pilates or yoga or tai chi do so simply as a form of exercise. The crow pose has become a part of my regular routine, and it gives me not a whit more sympathy for such nonsense.

The Michigan sanctions hearing did not go well for the lawyers behind the “Kraken” suit. I expect that is a first peek at how the courts will deal with these cultists. And if any reader expects Trump to be reinstated as president in August, I am happy to sell them some insurance  against their coming disappointment. A simple wager: ten dollars premium for each hundred of benefit!