Archives June 2010

Firefox: Reopen Last Tab

Since M. didn’t know about this the other day, I thought I’d mention it, in case it helps someone else: Firefox has a massively-useful feature I’ve been using all the time: reopen the last tab that was closed.

You can find it under History → Recently closed tabs. There’s a Recently closed windows list to go with it.

Reopen last tab is bound to Alt-Shift-T for me, though your mileage may vary, since I’ve adjusted Firefox’s bindings to suit my modifier keys (what’s a Meta for?).

I should also add that Alt-1 is bound to “Go to 1st tab”, Alt-2 to “Go to 2nd tab”, and so forth. I sometimes find this to be quicker than moving my hand off of the keyboard to click on a tab.

A Modest Proposal for the Texas GOP

The platform paper of the Texas GOP shows that they’re as chock-full of crazy rightardiness as ever (like believing in “The sanctity of human life … from fertilization to natural death”, and also being in favor of capital punishment).

In several places, the document underlines their commitment to privacy, e.g.:

Real ID Act – As the Real ID Act effectively creates an unconstitutional and privacy-inhibiting national ID card, we hereby call for its immediate repeal.

Of course, any right to privacy obviously doesn’t apply to what goes on in people’s bedrooms:

Texas Sodomy Statutes – We oppose the legalization of sodomy. We demand that Congress exercise its authority granted by the U.S. Constitution to withhold jurisdiction from the federal courts from cases involving sodomy.

Presumably what they mean is that they want Lawrence v. Texas overturned. The law that was overturned in that case criminalized blow jobs, but since I imagine a lot of Texan good ol’ boys like those, presumably they wrote “sodomy” as a fancy synonym for “buttsecks”. Which is something that straight people never ever ever ever do. At least, not outside of librul hellholes like Austin.

Yeah, they really don’t like teh gays:

Homosexuality – We believe that the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society, contributes to the breakdown of the family unit, and leads to the spread of dangerous, communicable diseases. Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been
ordained by God, recognized by our country’s founders, and shared by the majority of Texans. Homosexuality must not be presented as an acceptable “alternative” lifestyle in our public education and policy, nor should “family” be redefined to include homosexual “couples.” We are opposed to any granting of special legal entitlements, refuse to recognize, or grant special privileges including, but not limited to: marriage between persons of the same sex (regardless of state of origin), custody of children by homosexuals, homosexual partner insurance or retirement benefits. We oppose any criminal or civil penalties against those who oppose homosexuality out of faith, conviction, or belief in traditional values.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Republican political document if it didn’t mention abortion. The GOP is still sore about Roe v. Wade (which, by the way, reaffirmed the right to privacy that they’re so fond of elsewhere). And while they haven’t managed to get that overturned yet, they’re going for the next best thing: make it so hard to get an abortion that it’ll be effectively, if not legally, banned. And lo, the “Legislative Priorities” section begins with:

We urge the Texas legislature in its next biennial session to enact legislation requiring a sonogram be performed and offered as part of the consent process to each mother seeking an elective abortion.

And that, along with Mike Huckabee’s implied admission that homophobia is mostly about the “ick factor” of buttsecks, gave me an idea: Lawrence v. Texas isn’t going away any time soon, and neither are gays. Gay marriage is coming. So what they should do is do the same thing as with abortion. Allow gay marriage, but before two dudes can get married, they have to watch a gay porn video.

I think my favorite part of this is that this would make it someone’s job in Austin to buy pr0n for government purposes.

Autistic Artists and Plagiarism

I’ve been having a bit of an argument with someone on another site — a wiki — over his tendency to copy pages from other sites, instead of restating the information in his own words.

Stick around. This isn’t about SIWOTI. I promise I’ll get to the autistic artists soon enough.

I think we all recognize that there’s a difference between copying, and summarizing or paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is a two-step process: first, you read and understand the original text, that is, you convert it into an internal representation in your brain; and then you take that internal representation and turn it back into text. Copying, on the other hand, is a relatively mindless activity: you just take the original string of words and duplicate them.

Paraphrasing takes much more mental activity than copying, and that’s why it’s more respectable: if you can successfully paraphrase an article, that means you’ve managed to understand it, and have also managed to express thoughts in writing.

There are a number of autistic people with exceptional artistic talents: , Gilles Tréhin, Stephen Wiltshire, and others. Chuck Close isn’t autistic, but he is face-blind, meaning that he doesn’t see faces. Yet he’s an artist known for his portraits of faces.

Stephen Wiltshire - Royal Albert Hall
Drawing of the Royal Albert Hall by Stephen Wiltshire, made at the age of 9.

What I notice about these artists is that their pictures are realistic. They seem to have an innate grasp of perspective. Windows and such are not evenly spaced on paper, but become progressivel closer as they are bunched together. Balconies and buttresses change orientation as they go around a building, and so forth. These are things that pre-Renaissance artists struggled with. (Okay, I’m not talking about Chuck Close so much here. More Wiltshire and Tréhin.)

And this brings us back to copying vs. paraphrasing.

The stereotypical child’s drawing has a house represented as an irregular pentagon, a tilted rectangle for a chimney, some curlicues for smoke coming out of the chimney, and one to four stick figures one and a half to two stories tall, standing on a flat expanse of green. In other words, it looks nothing like a house.

So I suspect that the way normal people draw is comparable to paraphrasing, as described above: when we see a house, or a tree, or a person, we don’t really see the lines, colors, and shapes formed on our retinas. All of that detail is processed, number-crunched, and turned into some internal data structure that represents the subject. For instance, I can instantly recognize my friends and family, even under different lighting conditions, or after the passage of time has altered their features. But I would have much more trouble describing them to you in such a way that you could pick them out of a lineup. I’d have even more trouble drawing a picture of them.

So when ordinary people draw a house or a face, we have trouble converting our abstract internal representation into concrete lines, because we never paid much attention to those lines. That’s one of the things you learn in art class. You have to unlearn the intuitive understanding of what a thing is, and look past it to see what the thing looks like. (This may be related to “first sight” in Terry Pratchett’s A Hat Full of Sky.)

But if someone has a problem recognizing things, if their world is a jumble of lines and colors, that may serve them in good stead in artistic endeavors, in that they’re not distracted by what things are, and can see what things look like. There’s an art class exercise in which you have to copy a picture — say, a portrait — that’s been turned upside-down. That way, the original picture is what it is, but it isn’t a face, and you’re not distracted by its being a face.

Just in case it wasn’t obvious, I’m not a neurologist, psychologist, or even an artist, so I’m not qualified to make pronouncements on this. But it seems like fairly nifty idea.


For all the diversity in human speech, as far as I know, every language has verbs and nouns.

No big surprise there: our world is full of things, like trees and lakes and ostriches and stars, something that nouns are very good at describing. And a lot of these things do things that we care about, like attack or fall or impede, which is where verbs come in.

But nouns refer to a lot of things that aren’t, well, things, like symmetry and justice and heaps and understanding. I can imagine an alien species in which every language uses different parts of speech for things and for collections of things that, as a whole, have a certain property. Call this an assemblage. Thus, to them, “rock” would be a noun, but “heap”, as in “a heap of rocks”, would be an assemblage. “Symmetry”, “pair”, and “order” would also be assemblages, rather than nouns.

They might even go further, and have yet another part of speech to describe the motion of things that has certain properties, like “dance” or “following”.

I want to emphasize that this wouldn’t change what the world is like; it would just change the words and sentences they use to describe it. And perhaps say something about the way they think.

To these aliens, a sentence like “time is money” would sound odd, because it would have a grammatical error (assuming that “time” is an assemblage, while “money” is a thing). In fact, we already have something like this in English, which treats nouns about people differently from nouns about things: “Who didn’t finish its dinner?” is bad English (note, too, how this makes the line “It rubs the lotion on its skin” in Silence of the Lambs particularly creepy).

It’s known that our brains are wired to treat people differently from other elements in our environment. See, for instance, the way we’re more prone to see people and faces in random noise like inkblots, clouds, and wood grain, than inanimate objects. So it seems reasonable to consider that our brains have special-purpose modules for nouns and verbs.

The obvious explanation is that our distant ancestors, before there was speech, still needed to deal with things and actions to survive. Once language appeared, the brain already had the infrastructure necessary to model things and actions, and manipulate that model, so evolution built on what was available. This can perhaps also be seen in the way that a lot of expressions treat abstractions as though they were things: “weighing the evidence”, “transferring ownership”, and so forth.

I don’t want to read too much into these sorts of things. I note, for instance, that in French, there’s a smaller distinction between nouns about people and nouns about non-people. And in German, the gender of both “Kind” (child) and “Mädchen” (young woman) is neuter.

Nonetheless, there does seem to be scientific literature on stroke patients who have trouble naming things, but no trouble naming actions, or vice-versa.[citation needed] And this suggests that the brain has separate modules for dealing with nouns and verbs.

In practice, I think this means that we are predisposed to see the world in terms of nouns and verbs, even when we’re not dealing with concrete things, and this can affect our perceptions. I guess it’s a bit like Neil DeGrasse Tyson explaining to people that a hot ball of rock, a huge ball of gas that generates its own heat, and an irregular lump of ice are vastly different things, and so it doesn’t make sense to lump Mercury, Jupiter, and Pluto all under the label of “planet”.

For instance, if we’re thinking about the way languages have migrated through history, it might be tempting to think of one language displacing another, much as putting a finger in a glass displaces water. But of course languages don’t behave the way that solid objects like fingers and water do; multiple languages can coexist, even in the same mind.

I guess what this all boils down to is that there’s a difference between what something is, and what it’s called.

Update, 15:47: Typo.

iOS 4 Degrades Photos

Like millions of other sheeple, today I upgraded to , graciously provided by our benevolent overlords at Apple.

One problem I noticed is that after the upgrade, when I tried setting the wallpaper, all of the pictures I had had turned into their thumbnails, i.e., they were small grainy pictures. I could blow them up to full-screen size, but of course they lost a lot of resolution and generally looked like crap.

The fix turned out to be pretty easy: in iTunes→your iPod→Photos, uncheck the box that says “Sync Photos from”, and apply to delete all photos. Then check the box again and reapply. Evidently the pictures are still stored on the desktop, in glorious full resolution and everything. This reuploads them to the iPod.

Friday Playlist, World Cup Edition
  1. Colourbox – The Official Colourbox World Cup Theme
  2. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band – Africa Suite
  3. The Alan Parsons Project – Games People Play
  4. Peter Gabriel – Games Without Frontiers
  5. Tack>>head – The Game
  6. Queen – We Are the Champions
  7. Mojo Nixon – Not as Much as Football
  8. AC/DC – Big Balls
  9. Concerto No. 5 for Vuvuzela
Prop 8 Trial: They Got Nuthin’

Just to remind everyone, in 2000, California passed Proposition 22, which said that California would not recognize same-sex marriages, even out-of-state ones. In 2008, the California Supreme Court ruled that Prop 22 was unconstitutional, and furthermore, that marriage is a fundamental right. This gave gays the right to get married in California. Then, later in 2008, Prop 8 amended the state constitution to say that only opposite-sex marriage is valid or recognized.

I mention this to make it clear that Prop 8 took away a right. A right that courts have called fundamental.

So anyway, Prop 8 was challenged in court, and we’re finally approaching the end, with closing arguments presented yesterday. The wheels of justice certainly turn slowly, and one can only hope that they grind exceedingly finely.

So you’d think that after months of lead time, both sides would bring their A game and try to make a compelling summary for why their position is correct. You’d be wrong, as witnessed by this exchange between pro-Prop 8 attorney Charles Cooper and judge Vaugn Walker:

Walker: “Why is it that marriage has such a large public role? What is the purpose?”

Cooper: “This relationship is crucial to the public interest. Procreative sexual relations both are an enormous benefit to society and represent a very real threat to society’s interest.”

Walker: “Threat?”

Cooper: “If children are born into the world without this stable, marital union both of the parents that brought them into the world, then a host of very important, very negative social implications arise…. The purpose of marriage is to provide society’s approval to that sexual relationship and to the actual production of children.”

Walker: “But the state doesn’t withhold marriage from people who cannot have children.”

Cooper: “It does not.”

Walker: “Are you saying the state should?”

And this one:

“What testimony in this case supports the proposition?” Walker asked.

“You don’t have to have evidence of this,” Cooper said.

This gives some insight into the world that the anti-gay folks inhabit. The usual expression is “I don’t know what you’re smoking, but where can I get some?”, except that I like my drug trips to be better than reality.

Apparently, on planet Conservo 8, homosexuality is so appealing that if it isn’t forbidden, restricted, and blocked at every turn, everyone will instantly turn gay, stop having children, and the human race will die out. Entire continents will be devastated by the Fabulous Blight.

The only reason people get married, there, is to have sex and children. Love has nothing to do with it, nor are people allowed to decide for themselves why they should get married. Couples who fall out of love after they’ve had children are not allowed to get divorced (unless they’re straight, I’m guessing), and adoption is evil (since the child doesn’t grow up with its biological parents).

But I do have to give the anti-gay side some credit. For a long time I thought the only arguments against gay marriage, or gay rights in general, were religious, and should therefore not be used as the basis for legislation under a secular government. Turns out I was wrong: as the above shows, there are also secular arguments.

The remaining question is, are there any arguments against gay marriage that are neither religious, nor pants-on-head retarded?

Update, Thu Jun 17 11:10:03 2010: The best argument I’ve seen in the reporting about the closing arguments is that Prop 8 honors “the will of the people”. This does carry a certain weight: in a democracy, we the people get a say in the laws that govern us.

Of course, just because something is popular doesn’t mean that it’s right: slavery, denying women the right to vote, Prohibition, and segregation used to reflect the will of the people as well, but I think we’ve grown up since then.

Hope for the Catholic Church After All?

So, yet another priest in the Boston area has been accused of child abuse.

So far, it’s bad, but nothing you haven’t heard before.

What surprised me, though, was this bit from Fox’s coverage:

“The Archdiocese immediately notified law enforcement of the allegations and has initiated a preliminary investigation into the complaints,” Cardinal Sean O’Malley said in a statement released over the weekend.

(emphasis added).

Could it be that — mirabile dictu — they’ve figured out that covering up crimes so as to not make the church look bad might not be the best course of action?

Or am I being a naive optimist?

I notice that BillDo hasn’t leapt to the priest’s defense yet. I’m guessing he’s too busy badgering the owners of the Empire State Building to honor Mother “No painkillers for you!” Teresa in lights.

Monthly Reports with Org-Mode

Like a lot of people, I have to submit a monthly “bullet” report, listing the things I’ve done in the previous month.

Since I use Org-Mode for planning, scheduling, and organizing tool (or rather: I tend to throw a bunch of notes into a file and tell this love child of a day planner and a wiki to tell me what I should do next), I figured I should use that.

I could use the timeline feature (C-c a L), but that only works for the current buffer, and I want a report that covers all buffers, just like the agenda.

What I’ve done in the past is to use C-c a a to get the agenda view, go back a month, toggle displaying completed/archived/whatever items, and go through that to make my bullet list.

But I finally got around to encapsulating that into a single M-x bullet command:

; Make it easier to generate bullets for $BOSS
(defvar bullet-entry-types
  "Org-mode agenda types that we want to see in the monthly bullet report
See `org-agenda-entry-types'."

(defun bullets ()
  "Show a list of achievements for the past month, for monthly reports.
Uses `org-agenda'.
  (require 'org-agenda)
  ; All we're doing here, really, is calling `org-agenda' with
  ; arguments giving a start date and a number of days. But to do
  ; that, we need to figure out
  ; - the date of the first of last month
  ; - the number of days in last month
  (let* ((now (current-time))
	 ; Figure out when last month was. Assuming that I run this
	 ; close to the beginning of a month, then `now' minus two
	 ; weeks was some time in the previous month. We can use that
	 ; to extract the year and month that we're interested in.
	  (time-subtract now
			 (days-to-time 14)))
	 ; We'll also need to know when the first of this month was,
	 ; to find out how long last month was. If today is the 12th
	 ; of the month, then the first of the month was `now' minus
	 ; 11 days.
	  (time-subtract now
			  (- (nth 3 (decode-time now))
	 ; Ditto to find the first of last month.
	  (time-subtract 2weeks-ago
			  (- (nth 3 (decode-time 2weeks-ago))
	 ; The length of last month is the difference (in days)
	 ; between the first of last month, and the first of this
	 ; month.
	   (time-subtract 1st-of-this-month
	 (start-date (decode-time 1st-of-last-month))
	 (start-year (nth 5 start-date))	; Year number
	 (start-mon (nth 4 start-date))		; Month number
	 ; Restrict the agenda to only those types of entries we're
	 ; interested in. I think this takes advantage of dynamic
	 ; scoping, which is normally an abomination unto the lord,
	 ; but is useful here.
	 (org-agenda-entry-types bullet-entry-types)
    ; Create an agenda with the stuff we've prepared above
    (org-agenda-list nil
		     (format "%04d-%02d-01"

I hope this proves useful to someone.

A Classic Flame

One of the delightful things about the Internet is reading the occasional well-written flame. Flamage is a specialized subset of writing, with its own requirements; being able to write a good essay or novel is no guarantee that you can write a good flame.

But of course the genre predates the Internet. And one of the all-time classics is Mark Twain’s Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses (also at Project Gutenberg).

Here’s a sample:

The conversations in the Cooper books have a curious sound in our modern ears. To believe that such talk really ever came out of people’s mouths would be to believe that there was a time when time was of no value to a person who thought he had something to say; when it was the custom to spread a two-minute remark out to ten; when a man’s mouth was a rolling-mill, and busied itself all day long in turning four-foot pigs of thought into thirty-foot bars of conversational railroad iron by attenuation; when subjects were seldom faithfully stuck to, but the talk wandered all around and arrived nowhere; when conversations consisted mainly of irrelevancies, with here and there a relevancy, a relevancy with an embarrassed look, as not being able to explain how it got there.

Now go read the whole thing. It’s as enjoyable now as it was a hundred fifteen years ago.