Archive for July, 2010

Of train toilets

July 31, 2010

A Finnish phrase: “toimii kuin junan vessa“, or “works like the toilet on a train”.

I have no idea where that comes from.

The only special insight I have about train toilets is from my year in the army; the army train had a tad primitive carriage whose use-instructions included not shitting when the train wasn’t moving. I gather under the lid there was a hole and nothing more, and the station people didn’t want our stink.

So, “works like a train toilet: only once you get it moving”. (“Well I admit pushing down skyscrapers’s a weirdish hobby, but it’s easy like a train toilet!”)

Or maybe it’s “works like a train toilet: like a terrifying gust of icy wind at your bare privates”. (“Whoa, you really scared me like a train toilet!”)

Maybe “works like a train toilet: all’s fine until there’s a sudden deceleration and then whoops you’re on the floor except it’s a wall and the toilet bowl’s on the other wall and there’s a brown fountain —” (“Then it turns out her sister’s the chick I accidentally choked to death in 2006. Things went downhill then. A real train toilet of a blind date.”)

Or how about “works like a train toilet: it’s the only choice, outside wrenching open a window and whizzing out.” (“Of course I apologized. When a naked biker with a sawed-off shotgun with a bayonet and a hard-on is staring at you, an apology’s pretty much the train toilet thing to do.” — “Wait, a shotgun with what?”)

Hmm. Or something “works like a train toilet: laxation without relaxation, because you’re so bloody afraid of missing your stop.” (“Bah! It’s a total train toilet job — one moment of carelessness and it all blows up in your face. And I always thought baking was nice and relaxing, but no — one moment of inattention and you’ve got a fucking Krakatoa on your hands! With a facehugger pie to show for all your work! Try to relax when it’s in the oven, burbling! And likely watching! What a monster have these hands wrought! What a monster!”)

Short notes: generic brain dump

July 31, 2010

There is no god.

Thursday’s temperature was 37.2 degrees Celsius (99 F). That is 1.3 degrees more than the previous all-time record for all of Finland. And it happened right smack dab in the part of Finland where I happened to exist then.

The worst thing is, you can get momentarily comfortable, but if you do as much as just stand up and fart, you’re veiled in sweat again. I fear I have become a proto-Deep One now, dripping fluids and breathing in water (and some ice), my eyes bulgy and stary (not to mention scary!); and Y’ha’nth’greenland’n’lei is calling, but I cannot go there. (Damn you, University of Greenland, for not having a maths department! Damn you!)

(Also, if anyone wants to set up an Antarctic University, somewhere there at the waters’ edge, I’m willing to come fiddle with maths. And to defend the fort against maraudering gangs of carnivorous punk penguins, if need be. I’m handy with heavy objects you can swing while screaming “Nharrrgh!”; it’s this Scandinavian heritage. And if you ask me, the Antarctic Mammal Exclusion Agreement of 1959 was a trick, and would never have happened if not for the boids’ scam of a nuclear program. Them penguins never had no nukes; they don’t have none now. There’s no need to send, every year, a hundred nubile young human beings to cruel, dehumanizing indentured servitude at the throne of Amundsen-Scott! The scientist hostages at the other bases are small price to pay for the heavy feathery head of the Emperor Penguin, that blood-drinking lunatic tyrant! I say we take the land back from those frock-clad fisheaters! They did the southern polar bear to extinction — we’ll do the same to them! Their bone daggers and chemical rifles are no match to our jets and missiles —)

(Er, sorry for the tangent. With this heat one’s thoughts tend to wander.)

* * *

Also, a gem from a survey, translated from the Finnish:

Which life stage (elämänvaihe) are you in right now?

[ ] I live at home with my parents
[ ] I live alone
[ ] I live with my spouse
[ ] I live with my spouse and children
[ ] I am a single parent
[ ] Other
[ ] I don’t want to say

Clearly “I don’t want to say” is the Great Unspeakable, Death, but the whole trajectory of life stages displayed here is pretty depressing. (“Boom! You’re a single parent now! Life stage five activated!”) And apparently “Other” is a prettier word for “Old Fart”.

* * *

Curious how, when you happen to the university and there’s no-one else around, no-one at all (they didn’t have something unexpected for Monday that needs a bit of Friday to prepare), curious when you’re sitting there alone in your room, with silence all around you… how you get into thinking whether someone would come, should you strip naked and walk up and down the corridor.

The answer, I reckon, is “the headmaster and a delegation of ten foreign headmasters and master academicians, including the Supreme Mugwump of Olden Tenuria”.

Good thing my imagination is wild all the way. If there was no dread of bizarre consequences, I’d be running around already.

* * *

Never have heard a peep about the philosophy of mathematics in any official way; looking at Wikipedia makes my eyes water. Such silliness about an idea-world where all mathematics dwells, waiting for our call — that’s no better than some delusion of gods and heavens.

If you ask me, mathematics is a game, a free art, a statue of cold austere beauty swaying up in a hurricane of undetached logic. Mathematics is a patchwork of statements of the form “if this is true, then by these rules the following is (not) true”. A mathematician studies the patterns made by a choice of axioms and the application of a set of rules; no less; no more. No need to invoke a Platonic world of ideas there, or any pre-existence or fundamentality; mathematics is the record of many a round of a very subtle and beautiful game. (Who thinks such freeform mess is not much of a game hasn’t tried playing 1000 Blank White Cards.)

Since most games are best started with some training wheels, many chosen sets of mathematical assumptions are similar to those underneath the rules that govern the existing world. Hence physicists and biologists and the like are happy to use some mathematics; but to a mathematician that’s not very important. (Well, except for funding.) Sometimes mathematicians try to run away from the application people, into something bizarre and unreal like number theory or non-Euclidean geometry; but usually those bloody applicators follow, and applying hone the art of cryptography, Einstein’s scribbles or the like. That might be great and good for humankind, but to a mathematician it is not very interesting. Might as well ask a painter if she finds postcards featuring her work interesting.

(“Well, the associated fame is nice, you know. And the money, oh yes. But it doesn’t give the same nice warm fuzzy feeling as first creating the thing, or the ‘oh!’ of a fellow artist, viewing it as the object it is, not as a vehicle for some cause. These… postcards? Not very interesting.”)

* * *

Heard the phrase “saada joku langan päähän“, or “to get some on the end of a string”; that means reaching someone on a phone. The said phone was then hurtling along a road at 80 km/h; there was no telephone line string connecting the two phones, as there once should have been.

In a few decades the young ones will still use that casual phrase, but when they stop to think where it comes from, they may not have had the necessary experiences to know. There are more and more cell phones; less and less landlines; soon the phrase will be as puzzling as “earning one’s spurs”. (“What spurs? What is a spur anyway?”)

The same with computers — a lot of computer slang in various languages makes no sense anymore because the technology where it originated isn’t in use anymore. (Even the blue screen of death is, so I’ve heard, now green.)

It’s a bit startling to see the process that one usually thinks involves medieval customs happening here and now.

Frozen life

July 29, 2010

I hate summers. This summer has brought it home to me: I hate summers. I hate the excessive amounts of light, I hate the noise, the crush of people, the bugs (oi, the fecking mosquitoes! and the flies! and the small black nameless biting things!), I hate the twittering of birds and the slickness of the outside of a cold drink leaving a ring on your table; and most of all I hate the temperature.

If only it could be cold, dark, rainy and stormy all the time, but no! Mother Nature, that feminine dog, conspires for my discomfort all the time!

The nighttime temperature here in Finland is over 20 degrees Celsius (68 F) right now. The daytime temp is pushing thirty (86 F). That’s abnormal, unnatural and likely to soon have me running around screaming and blubbering like Homer Simpson, if you ask me. I feel like I’m surrounded by a pack of invisible, intangible, puffing, drooling, sweat-tongued lick-happy dogs all the time. I feel like my hair’s turned to a dead weasel wet by a bladder malfunction every twenty minutes or so. It’s so hot it’s a sweaty, uncomfortable chore even to visit the toilet, the small cubicle that it is, to say nothing of trying to sleep when sweat makes you feel your mattress is a leaky waterbed. Even when I open a window it’s the same wall of too warm air meeting me; and outside it’s just as bad except with bugs.

The only solace is in fans, in cold drinks that are 80% ice, and in sauna. Because though a sauna is much hotter than this unbearable weather, it is so in accordance to all the traditions of the Finnish psyche. A sauna is supposed to be sweaty; weather on the other hand is supposed to be cold in the summer, and super cold the rest of the time.

It’s so warm I almost wish I had an excess freezer I could live in.

That might end bad, mind you. In so many different ways.

* * *

“It’s a weird case and that’s no puzzler”, the junior constable said. “No sign of invasion, of theft. Just the freezer drug to the middle o’ the room, and the man himself inside it, frozen to death. Must have been a right bastard that locked him in, eh, boss?”

“Indeed.” The older constable had seen many a thing in his twenty years at the Littletown, Finland, police force, but someone frozen to death during the week of the temperature record seemed outright perverse.

He just hoped it wasn’t a budding serial killer of some description. The Ice Box Man, he could already see the headlines screaming.

* * *

“Look, this has nothing weird in it.”

So I said, with as much conviction as I could, but the doctor still seemed alarmed; and watching sweat droplets jiggle on a nervous man’s forehead wasn’t my idea of fun. Nor was explaining how my injuries had come to be.

“Excuse me”, he said, “but frostbite? In weather like this? Surely that is somewhat weird, wouldn’t you agree?”

“What of it?” I sniffed.

“Well, it’s the week of the temperature record! A bare degree away from the all-time record!” The droplets, running down now, made him look like he was crying. “No amount of holding a drink on the rocks will give your hand a frostburn like that!”

I cursed inward once again. How was I supposed to know it wasn’t safe to sleep inside a freezer? It had been so nicely cold and all. I had even had the forethought to leave the door ajar, to keep myself from getting locked inside; but who ever thought you could get frostbite in a freezer?

“Tell you”, the doctor wheezed, “you tell me where it is so gloriously cold, which particular backwoods spot, and I’ll write you two weeks of sick leave. Does that sound right?”

* * *


“Er, hello.”

“I — you — what?”

“Em, sorry. This may seem like something weird, but —”

“What’re you doing in my freezer? And where are my berries?”

“It was too hot on the outside. Your berries are in my freezer.”

“Why, why aren’t you in there then?”

“It was too small. I recalled you had this megalodon of a coldbox, so I did some arranging, and so here I am.”

“In my freezer. With a book and a… cold drink?”

“Well, it is summer, isn’t it? Oh, and that child of yours — if you see her around, say sorry. She ran away before I could say the ice cream isn’t here anymore.”

My internet-fu is mediocre strong

July 26, 2010

So; I come across a news item about a book published in Japan that teaches the periodic table by presenting the elements as a litany of pretty (as in moe) manga-style girls.

First reaction: That is so Japan.

Second reaction: That is brilliant, in a totally weird-assed anthropomorphorandom way… wait, I said that already. I mean, I love it, I want. (Read Japanese? Of course I don’t, but the pictures would be nice. If I can’t squeeze any other fun out of it, at least I can, shortly after getting the book, brag that I’m the only person round that’s jacked off to a picture of actinium. My if-nothing-else processor is a bit funny.)

Then I investigated a bit. The story was sourced back to a now dead article over at Mainichi News, a Japanese newspaper; occasionally there was a link to a small American importer of Japanese weirds, whose inventory didn’t seem to hold the book no more. The various blog posts had pretty much the same info, and the same incestuous sources; only the amount and quality of snark differed. I got to know, over and over again, that the book was called “The Periodic Table: Learning Basic Chemistry through Moe” (in Japanese Gensoshuki: Moete Oboeru Kagaku no Kihon), and was invented by one Miyuki Mitsuda, a chemistry teacher. (A female chemistry teacher, I hasten to add, before you hypothesize altogether unpedagogical origins.)

Googling her name gave what was probably her very bare homepage over at the Musashi Institute of Technology; googling the book’s name gave only the same English blog entries over and over again; as Japanese isn’t written in these here letters, that was both predictable and fruitless. No way to leap to the Japanese side of the Net going that way. (I wasn’t gonna try transcribing the kanji and kana in a picture of the book’s cover into actual glyphs I could Google with; I am the kind of lazy that sooner does an hour of tedium than five minutes of hard work.)

Then: the article told the initially skeptical publisher was “PHP Interface Publishing Co.”; a bit of googling brought me to that entity’s page, and its catalog of about seventy books published… per month… for quite some years. All names in kanji and kana and nothing else.

Happily, since Internet addresses are in our letters, even full-Japanese, for Japanese, by Japanese web sites tend to have straightforward English tree structures, like this: and so on

— which means you can navigate a bit with luck, and with looking at the address each link points at. (Well, unless the webmaster has gone all translitteration-happy. Then there’s and a lot of stumbling around and cursing.)

The only clue as to what book each page extolled was a small picture of the cover; nice, as I knew what kind of a cover to look for. Not so nice that each individual page had the cover, but not the catalog or the search result list. As I wasn’t going to wade through a few hundred pages looking for something familiar — even lazy has standards — I instead thought about the name of the book — “The Periodic Table: Learning Basic Chemistry through Moe” — and did a standard trick I do with Japanese names. I went to Wikipedia and looked up “moe“.

Like with most Japanese concepts and personal names, the first paragraph of the article had the corresponding Japanese glyph for the word. I copied, I pasted that to PHP Interface’s search box, and bam! There the book was.

I copied the glyphs for the title (could have taken the ISBN too), went to, and bam! there the book was, for sale for 1995 yen or round 18 euros, plus 30 euros for the postage.

Now I just need to wait for that reckless impulse, and then Paypal makes a swishing sound and something flies home to me. And then happy actinium days, if nothing else.

Edit: And shortly afterwards I notice one of the first blog entries had a link to the PHP Interface page for the book, the noticing of which would have saved me 90% of the bumbling above; but hey, I sooner feel clever than observant.

From the Dictionary of True Meanings

July 26, 2010

National security — “my ass”. As in, when a politician says “the release of this information is hurtful to national security.” (Sometimes meant collectively, in the spirit of “do not do to your predecessor anything you would not want your successor doing to you”, the Pyrite Rule.)

Stress, insist, lament, deplore, criticize, condemn — various synonyms of “whine” or “whine about”, in a roughly increasing order of shrillness. “The government stresses these are isolated incidents, and deplores the gross breach of national security, insisting it was uncalled for.”

(Tangentially related to the Wikileaks leak and the governmental hissy fit resulting. See Guardian for more.)

Transfer of adoration: er, no

July 25, 2010

Here’s a thought: some religious people are so disgusted by the irreligious because they think they still have that same adoration the religious have for God, except aimed at a different target.

Consider it: God is a boss that’s never wrong. You just have to trust Him, try to understand Him, let yourself be totally guided by Him, even if that’s not your first moral intuition. He’s the reason for everything, and the origin of everything, world, life, love, art and songbirds; He’s all-powerful, everywhere, worth more than your friends and family, and to be obeyed over all calls of duty, love, decency or sanity.

That’s quite some adoration; and I think that’s a part of how a believer might view his or her God. If you then get the mistaken impression that an infidel has replaced God with Science, or Money, or Themselves, or the State — well, that’s monstrous, that’s true! Money more important than your friends? This cold, abstract thing called Science more important than everything else added together, and the wellspring of all art and love? This vague humanist philosophy of life more important than all your personal loves and loyalties? You, yourself, the most good and most loveworthy being in all existence?

Such statements are either ludicrous or monstrous, or maybe both, probably because God’s the only target towards which such abject adoring surrender is normal anymore. A long time ago the same would have been normal when serving a king with particularly honest diligence, but today God’s the only target that remains. Even blind political devotion is a much depleted thing nowadays, in most places. Personal romance might cause similar statements, but though the emotion’s true the statements tend to be understood as somewhat exaggerated and poetic by both parties. (“You’re my moon!” — “What, inconstant, pockmarked and fat?”)

I think that horrendous power of devotion isn’t re-targeted when a person becomes non-religious, it’s not realigned to self or some other target, or mirrored into hatred of God; it just goes away. A person then finds other things to care about, but not with quite the same worrisome intensity. Might be a good thing that is so; such grovely love is not particularly pretty, or conductive to a balanced life. God’s the best of worst targets, though, maybe, because He’s an inert thing, not much given to issuing surprise proclamations. (For a real live “devotion god” in action, consult North Korea. Absolute devotion starting to look bad yet?) Any ideal with so devoted followers would quickly triumph over all reason, truth and moderation, them being things vastly inferior to the truth of the One All-Loved Thing. (Pick a political ideology you don’t like; you see what I mean.)

A spam comment with a new tactic

July 23, 2010

Well, now this is damn clever. A would-be comment from Mr. “penis enlargement”, with the five or so links removed:

HELP! I’m currently being held prisoner by the Russian mafia xyzrxyz penis enlargement xyzrxyz and being forced to post spam comments on blogs! If you don’t approve this they will kill me. xyzrxyz penis enlargement xyzrxyz They’re coming back now. Please send help!

Request denied, Mr. “penis enlargement”. There are some things a man can not do. I hope you still accept my apologies for not approving your comment; and my congratulations for bringing something new into the War of Spam.

Fecal matters

July 23, 2010

This is supposedly a true story. An elderly relative bought a bag of “instant fertilizer” — a big plastic bag of dirt with circles painted on the side, so you could just plop the bag down in your garden, cut holes at the circles, put plants in, and be ready. (We don’t need no steenking flower pots round here!)

This relative planted, instead of flowers, some potatoes, and pleased with her cleverness put the bag to a corner of her garden, and waited. In the fullness of time, she harvested the potatoes, cooked them… and found the fertilizer had been so terribly strong and acrid the potatoes tasted of it and were altogether inedible. Her words, as I recall them, were the taste was like that of cat urine. I do not know how she knew; but I’ve heard times were tough in the old days.

Now, let us use that as springboard to this thought: cat droppings are too acrid to be used as a fertilizer for food crops. This is a great relief, though some students may curse thinking this, and looking at their pet, sure that a chance to earn a few bucks just slipped by. (“Here kitty kitty… no, not the sandbox. This funnel here… No sandbox! Here kitty…”)

As I’ve understood it, cow and horse dung is often used as a fertilizer. (The latter’s even called “horse apples”. The former, “cow pies” in English; “slide mines” in Finnish. Because if you step in one, you’re likely to become such a casualty. Liukumiina, pl. liukumiinat.) For one reason or the other, as far as I know, pet droppings are not used as a fertilizer. This then leaves one particular kind of an animal… and to begin with, I’ve heard diabetic urine is rich in sugar. The problem is, to get at it you’d have to build separate toilets for diabetics. But if you go with that insanity instead of fighting it, why not have separate ones for those with a lot of fiber in their diet; for those that eat a lot of meat; you could produce dozens of different kinds of fertilizer! Most ought to be good for some particular crop or the other. (Though I think using it “raw” would be a health hazard. “And our next contestant is Joey, a technician at the Yucca Flats Hi-Fatty Humanure Composterodrome! So, you looking at me with avarice, Joey? Eh, heh heh! ‘If I could just-a get my hands under that guy I’d be set for life’, righty-o? Hur hur hur!“)

Or maybe you could have just one kind of a toilet, or two if you insist on the containment of cooties, but have a sorting mechanism in it. “Be sure to press the right flush button, my love! You’ve been eating veggies all week!” (“Uggh this medication makes me feel funny. See, it’s brown triangle and all. I’ve been shitting straight into the unusable bin all week.”)

“Clyde Hoover from Fecaureus Services, good day. Are you getting ripped for shit? Your night soil is valuable — we know it is so, because you subscribe to Sugoi!, the Diabetic’s Magazine — and you deserve a fair deal for it. With Fecaureus, no more lugging your bins to a central depot — one of our handsome, hygienic and highly skilled Collection Technicians unburdens you of the contents of your privy once a week, ensuring you are never, like they say in my native Brooklyn, “shit full”. We are discrete, we are tidy, and we’re never late! And we at Fecaureus pay top dollar for your shit! No shit! By dry weight, we pay at least 20% more than the average, guaranteed! To get a free estimate of your lower income with Fecaureus, a fascinating one hundred dollar value personal estimate, call now! I am Clyde Hoover… and I want your shit.”

Okay; this is about as far as I can stretch this particular line of thought.

Possible Wikipedia comedy

July 23, 2010

Witness this, from the Wikipedia article for Halt and Catch Fire, a general term for unwise computer instructions:

The MIPS-X was a processor supported by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The Programmer’s Manual for this chip describes a HSC (Halt and Spontaneously Combust) instruction, that is only found in a version of the processor designed for the National Security Agency.[4] The manual entry is a joke, and does not describe a genuine feature of the CPU.[citation needed]

Especially note what has a citation, and what does not. A wee bit doubtful about how far the NSA would go, are we? (Also, hello NSA web checkup squad! How’s the coffee over at the No Such Agency? Nothing suspicious here; over to the next Google hit you go.)

“…and, Mr. Brown, if the Russkies are at the gates, with, with their red tanks and pink uniforms and the like… hope it was a credible report… then sudo run instruction HSC. With recursion. And with alacrity. For every single computer we have.”

“What does instruction HSC do, Mr. Instructor?”

“You’re not cleared to know that.”

Non serviam

July 20, 2010

“I don’t believe in your God” is one thing; to put it more forcefully, it is “I think your God does not exist”. But it can also mean a second thing, and one I’m as stoutly (being a person of great stoutness) for as for the first; namely, “I do not serve your God”. And, and I think this is an important thing to remember, I wouldn’t serve any commonly proclaimed God even if one was shown to exist. (I suspect this non serviam attitude is shared by many other atheists, but I’ll speak for myself because that’s the demographic I best know.)

Much atheist rhetoric is aimed at exploring the seedy and evil parts of religion and theology. That is, I think, mostly to get people to look at what they believe critically, skeptically. Even if that does not lead to godlessness, it may have other good results; breaking casual certainties tends to. Liberal Christians are much preferable to Benedict and his ilk; and the difference between them is in application of doubt. (Just having doubt is not enough; the tame version of doubt that’s not allowed to persuade is useless, though commonly encouraged.) Now, there’s a second thought beneath that doubtmongering first, mind you.

The first is: “See this awful thing! See how awful it is — maybe you are wrong to think it a rosy thing whose veracity it would be weird, horrible and sinful to doubt? Maybe just a little bit of doubt would be a good thing, yes? Or maybe an avalanche of doubt!

The second is: “See this horrible thing? See? Is this and the people who believe it something you wish to associate with, whether it is true or false?”

I feel the second message so strongly I can say that if a God existed, it would be necessary to stage a rebellion against that careless tyrant, and to strike Him down and bring Him to justice for all His crimes of negligence and creation. (Ha ha, liver flukes! Nice one, O Creator!) Mind you, if that God was really omnipotent and -scient and the like, that rebellion would be doomed to fail; but it would still be better than slavery.

And I say slavery and tyranny because most depictions of God I’ve seen have been nothing but celestial slavery: God creates us, and hence owns us, and does to us whatever He and He alone sees fit; He sets the laws and decrees how one gains bliss or hellfire, without any legislative process or appeal; He rules and demands worship, despite His qualifications being no popular mandate, just brute force. (Well, of course He has the mandate of His worshippers — the others are behind the gates of His gulag of Gehenna and don’t get to voice their dissent.)

It is comical to try to imagine a Heavenly Parliament voting to emancipate Group X from the fires of Hell; it is likewise silly to think of Heaven’s Amnesty International petitioning God for the release of a particular heretic from the same. I think the silliness comes from us all being used to a civilized, democratic modern world, a world of negotiation, compromise and civil liberties, while still mostly being content to think of afterlife as a primitive Near-Eastern tyranny of the kind we know just does not work, not with people in it. (Wait a minute — “But it would be a tyranny with an all-wise, all-benevolent, etc. tyrant! Surely that works!” Well, it does not. Look around yourself! Liver flukes, tsunamis and prophets preaching Hell — what kind of a slum must Heaven be if we’re this screwed at a distance from the tyrant’s throne?)

Now, it can be argued that the Christian image of Heaven originally was an image of some tyrant’s court, a place of splendor and power above patterned on those below; but no matter the origins of that image and the system of the world implicit in it, it should be clear that is not a place a modern man (much less a woman) would be happy in. If God exists, He is an incompetent, a fool and a villain. Let him stand down; we’ll organize instant-runoff elections to fill His spot with people of less vanity, and more ability. I’m voting for Einstein and Gandhi myself. If God doesn’t stand down, well, then rebellion, because He has not earned the following, much less the worship, of any free man (or woman), and that kind of power is not for those who have not earned it.

* * *

For other sweet elections unlikely to happen, see this mathematical paper by Michael Balinski. (The choice of semi-related endpieces was that or XTC’s “Dear God”, and too much rage at heavens gives one acid reflux.)