Velociraptor Safety

I recently received a letter from Dr. Daniel Snyder, a paleontologist from Knox College, who wanted to share some theories on handling dromeosaurids:

Dear sir,

I have recently been introduced to your Web comic, and I write in great admiration. You have a keen mind and wit, as well as the artistic ability to convey them to the reader (me). Thank you, and keep up the efforts!

I notice that many of your comics revolve around people (including yourself) with a phobia of Velociraptor. This phobia revolves around Velociraptor overcoming some 70 million years of extinction and the geographic barriers between its home and yours, leaping out of the underbrush and/or through the kitchen, and doing unmentionable things to your innards with its teeth and claws.

I see little point in addressing the substance of your fears, as that’s perhaps best to someone more qualified to deal with the human mind. I hold a Ph. D. in vertebrate paleontology and am somewhat more qualified to address the symptoms. To wit, I would like to help you overcome your fears by successfully defending yourself against Velociraptor.

It is widely known in the field of agronomy (e.g., Avery, 2002) that birds are repulsed by methyl anthranilate, a natural compound found in many of the less sweet fruit varieties. Methyl anthranilate has been used (with some success) as a bird repellent on crops. Now, we know (e.g., Gauthier et al., 1988) that modern birds are descended from dinosaurian ancestors, of which one close relative was Velociraptor (ibid.). Much as lab rats respond to drugs like humans, it is entirely possible that Velociraptor will respond to methyl anthranilate as does the common crow or European starling.

Thus, I recommend you carry around a loaded SuperSoaker filled with Concord grape juice. Fresh-squeezed would be ideal, but from concentrate should be effective as well. This will not only have the theoretical asset of protecting you from Velociraptor, it will have the pragmatic asset of protecting you from thirst.

In appreciation of your Web comic efforts, I will happily waive my consultation fee.

Bibliography
Avery, M. L., 2002. Avian repellents. Pages 122-128 in J. R. Plimmer (ed), Encyclopedia of Agrochemicals. Volume 1. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, New Jersey, USA.

Gauthier, J., A. G. Kluge, and T. Rowe. 1988. Amniote phylogeny and the importance of fossils. Cladistics-the International Journal of the Willi Hennig Society, 4, pp.105-209.

Daniel Snyder, PhD
Knox College
K-52/x7846/dsnyder@knox.edu

Excellent!

And this makes me think of the can of shark repellent in that Batman movie. Maybe it wasn’t such a silly approach after all …

edit: By the way, as in all my comics, you can just read ‘velociraptor’ as referring not to the beagle-sized dinosaur, but rather as a generic term for whichever dromeosaurid most closely resembles the Jurassic Park animals.  That is, something between a deinonychus and a utahraptor.

Washington's Farewell Address Translated into Everyday Speech

I’ve often heard that Washington’s ‘Farewell Address’ — the speech he sent out (in written form) to a bunch of papers at the end of his second term — is important. Apparently he lays down a lot of good ideas for America. But the common style of writing and vocabulary has changed since then. Maybe people have gotten dumber, too. Either way, the result is that it’s kind of a pain to read sometimes. Particularly tricky are the odd compound sentence structures, where it’s hard to keep track of what the subject is.

Having never read the whole thing, I thought it would be interesting to go through and try to transcribe it into some sort of casual modern speech. I wouldn’t try to recreate the prose and would probably miss out on subtleties and shades of meaning (and no doubt occasionally miss the point completely), but at least I’d get the idea of what he was talking about.

So I pulled up a copy off Wikisource and started reading and typing. Here’s the result:

A Bastardization of George Washington’s Farewell Address

Sup.

Elections are coming up, and it’s time to figure out who we wanna give the keys to. I figure it might clear things up if I take a sec to explain why I’m not running.

Now, I care about the future, don’t get me wrong, and thanks for your trust so far. I just think me quitting is a good idea on all counts.

I’ve been president twice now, and I didn’t want to do it either time. I tried to quit the first time, but the country was in trouble and every single person around me begged me to stay on.

I’m glad to say we’re pretty much in the clear now and I can get out of here without getting screamed at or letting things fall apart completely.

I told you when I started what I thought of the job. All I’m gonna say is that I did my best to set up the government right, but the more I do this the more I realize how dumb I am, and so maybe it’s okay if I let someone else take over.

Before I go I’ve gotta thank y’all, for the awards and honors and stuff but more importantly for your supporting my projects to try to make everything right, even if they didn’t always turn out quite as well as I hoped. Remember, it’s hard to tell how things will turn out when people get all fired up, so thanks for sticking by me even when everything was going to hell. Y’all get the credit for anything good that came out of it, and by God you’d better keep taking good care of the Constitution and the lives of the folks who live here. As long as you do, we’ll be a pretty kickass country and the other guys will start noticing us.

I should shut up, but I care about you guys, so there’s some more stuff to cover. I’ve been doing some thinking and I’ve got a few things to say. You know I ain’t biased ’cause all I want is to leave, so you might wanna listen up.

Now, you all love freedom enough that no one thing here is too important.

You’re all happy that the government’s so together and unified on everything (and you should be — it’s why everything’s so good), but it ain’t always gonna be this way. All sorts of folks from both here and elsewhere are gonna try to divide it, make you lose faith in it, so please don’t sell this whole America thing short. Make it your top priority and don’t ever get in a mindset where you can let ANYTHING divide you.

You’ve gotta be Americans before all else. You’re for the most part the same religion and culture, and you’ve got the same goals, and you’ve only got what you do because you all worked together.

But even though this sounds good, when it comes to crunch time it’s easy to forget that in favor of stuff that seems more immediately important than sticking together.

The North and the South, as equals, help each other. The South gets machines and junk from the North, the North gets crops from the South. Also, the South’s got some nice boats which go out and fetch stuff we need from time to time. You’ve got a similar situation with the East and the West. The East supplies the West with what it needs, and the West gets a market for its crap as well as — once we get a navy in gear — protection on the Atlantic side. There’s really no way they could safely do what they’re doing without the folks to the East.

So, we all need each other and we’re all stronger when we’re together. Being a family also means we can get along a little better, unlike certain countries I might name who aren’t so well unified. This makes us stronger and protects our freedom, and if you wanna keep protecting it you’d better get along.

It should be obvious here that we should all try to keep ourselves together. Sure, it’s a big country, and we’re not sure if we can keep it all together, but what the hell? Let’s give it a shot and find out. It’d be stupid to call it off because we’re not sure if it’ll work. Since it’s obvious how much we have to gain from keeping ourselves together, we can safely say that anyone who tries to divide us, anywhere, hates America.

Let’s think about where those splits might come from. The big one is geography. North and South, Atlantic and West, people are gonna try to emphasize the differences. They’re gonna lie about what the other side wants, and they’ll try to make you hate each other when you should all be brothers. You saw just a bit ago how some folks were trying to stir up suspicion out West that we were trying to pull one over on them with the whole Mississippi thing, but you saw how thanks to Congress dealing with Spain and England they got everything they wanted in the end. So maybe they won’t be so quick to talk about jumping ship next time.

Government’s important, and it’s not always easy to stay together. You’ve figured this out, and that’s why you ditched the last idea and came up with this Constitution. We went over it all carefully, big and small, and it’s definitely something we can trust (we can even amend it if necessary!). Give it some credit, and if you disagree, change it — don’t just disobey. Otherwise it just screws things up.

Getting in the way of the law for the sake of power plays similarly screws things up. Playing that game creates groups just looking out for themselves, turning crazy splinter groups into a powerful force. Let this get too bad and you’ll probably have the country tossed back and forth wildly as the various parties with their pet issues fight for power, rather than nice, consensual, unified government.

Parties are probably gonna look like they’re helping with one popular issue or another, so you’re gonna want support them, but I bet the guys in charge of them will just turn out to be power-hungry assholes who want to run everything.

To keep things going nicely, quit fighting with the government and be careful with letting folk amend the Constitution to weaken it. Just, in general, give it all time and see how it works out before being quick to judge. It’s a big country and we can’t keep everyone safe without a little centralization.

I just said that parties are no good, particularly regional ones. But lemme go a step further and say ALL parties are a bad idea.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty much human nature to gather into little factions like this. It’s worst in the freeest countries, and they suffer because of it.

Control goes back and forth between one party and another, and they just get more and more pissed, and we’ve seen that get really bad in the past. But it also leads to terrible, controlling government and general suckage. This gets the people more angry, they get behind one party leader or another, and that guy just takes that support and does whatever he wants, screwing up the country.

I’m not talking about anyone in particular here, but this isn’t necessarially too far off, and it’s always gonna be a threat, so keep an eye out.

This division distracts us, enfeebles the government, it gets everyone riled up with jealousy and false alarms, it pits us against each other, and eventually creates riots and stuff. It also opens the door to other countries getting a hand in our system, since they can reach in through the party structure, and then we just become their puppets.

Now, there’s the idea that the parties are important to defend freedom and put the government in its place. That might even be true sometimes; when you’ve got a real Nazi in charge, you can afford to rally behind a party, but you shouldn’t like it, and you should dump it ASAP. And there’s always gonna be a feeling of opposition to whatever the government is, so be sure you know what you’re doing before getting all partisan, and be very careful to know when to drop it so you don’t just make the problem worse.

Also, make very sure that you keep all your politicians in their place. There’s this tendency to let all the power shift into one office, which inevitably creates tyranny (just look at human nature and how much we love power). If you just divide up the power, and get everyone to watch everyone else, we’ve seen both in the past and right here at home that things will work out pretty well. And if you think the powers aren’t laid out right, just go ahead and amend the Constitution. But be careful, because that’s an easy way to destroy everything. Make sure you’re not switching to something that, no matter how good it is for now, sucks in the long term.

Now, religion and morality are vital here, and it’s silly to say that patriotism could ever be more important than those. Politicians need to be pious and respectful folk; it would take forever to list all the ways that being a good politician is tied to being moral and religious. All you need to do is ask — without religion, how can we trust anyone who swears an oath? And be awfully careful before suggesting that we can be moral without religion. There’s a lot of philosophical junk out there, but the bottom line is we can’t possibly suggest that we can keep our morals as a country without religion.

So, virtue is the root of Government. So anyone who screws with the basis of the government is obviously a bad guy.

Make education of everyone a high priority, because the government will only be as smart as the average people are.

Public credit’s important too. Don’t run up debts during peacetime so you can afford to draw on them when there’s a problem — and then pay them back ASAP. This is the job of the politicians, but the people need to keep them in line. And remember, to pay debts you need cash, and you have to get the cash from somewhere, and there’s no way to do that which people will like. It’s a tough issue with no easy answer, so try to have a good attitude and pay up when necessary.

Try to stay at peace with everyone. Religion and basic decency both say to do this, so it should be a no-brainer. It might even turn out that God arranged it so if we’re nice to everyone, we’re better off in the end. Wouldn’t that be sweet? It sucks, though, that we tend to be jerks sometimes.

It’ll help a lot if you can avoid permanent rivalries and permanent alliances. Just try to get along with everyone when you can. Otherwise, you’re a slave to your policy, which may take you somewhere bad when the situation changes. Constantly being enemies with a particular country makes you stupid and reactive, and can even lead you to war when you really don’t need to. The government gets all involved in this, and one way or another it turns out badly. Permanent alliances are bad too, because they makes you give stuff up when you shouldn’t, cause jealousy, and divide loyalties of your own citizens, often with pretty bad results.

The idea of this kind of alliance should scare any real American because it lets foreign countries meddle with us. And remember, if a weak little nation (us) gets too attached to a big strong nation (anyone else) you know we’ll be stuck in that arrangement forever.

Now, foreign meddling is one of the worst threats around, and you should be constantly paranoid about it. But be careful to be fair and sensible about it, otherwise you’ll get so focused on one country or another that you slip into alliances with other countries. And then, like I said, you turn into tools.

The most important thing about commercial trade is to avoid getting politically tangled. We’ve obviously gotta keep the promises we’ve made, but in the future let’s try not to make new ones.

Europe has a whole lot of issues that don’t mean a thing to us. So they’re gonna be fighting, and we need to make sure not to get involved with the folks on either side. We might make some nasty enemies we don’t need to.

Since we’re out here across the Atlantic, we get to do our own thing. And if we just keep it together for a little while, we might be strong enough to stand up for ourselves. And if we’re tough enough, other countries won’t want to start anything, so the choice of whether to go to war or keep the peace will be up to us.

And why give up this great situation? Why give up our country just so we can live in someone else’s? Seriously — why get involved in Europe’s squabbles?

So, we’ve gotta avoid permanent alliances. We can’t break the promises we’ve already made — the government has to be honest just like anyone — but we don’t need to make more and we don’t need to actively make the current ones longer.

(Now, as long as we’re fighting a defensive war, alliances are okay in emergencies.)

In the same way that we should be politically friendly and stay on good and fair terms with everyone, we should be fair and open financially too. Just let everything go as it will without being biased. Let natural trade routes open up, and don’t try to mess around with the whole thing one way or another. Just keep and enforce the laws on trade and traders, and keep them flexible enough to change as the situation changes — always keeping an eye out for those foreign meddling. Never get used to paying one country or another, and never get used to expecting them to pay you.

I like you all. We’re friends. I’m not gonna hope that you’ll actually remember all this for long, but I can hope that every now and then people will look back on what I said and use it to calm down a crazy political party, remind us not to get tied up with other countries, or to try to expose phoney patriots. That’s the only payment I need — the hope that in return for my looking after you, you’ll look after yourselves.

You can look at my record. In my years in charge I’ve done my best to follow all the ideas laid out in this message.

Oh, and about the war still going on in Europe right now — check out what I said on 4/22/1793. It’s the outline of my principles on the subject, which I have followed as closely as I possibly could.

I gave it a lot of thought, decided that we could stay neutral, and then took reasonable steps to make sure that’s what happened.

You know, if you just look at basic common decency it should be pretty obvious what a good idea neutrality is.

As to the reasons it’s a good idea, you can probably come up with plenty on your own. For me, the main thing has been that we’re a pretty new country, just trying to get settled, and we don’t wanna interrupt that with war right away.

Now, I can’t think of anything I knowingly screwed up over the last eight years. But I’m sure I’ve made mistakes, and I pray that God helps to repair any harm they caused. And I hope that you’re understanding about them. I’ve spent 45 years working really hard for this country, and I hope that you won’t be too hard on my incompetences once I’m gone.

Speaking of being gone, I am really looking forward to this retirement. And I’m especially looking forward to retiring to live in a peaceful, free country of good laws under a good government — a government which is a good reward for our shared hardship, work, and love.

Wow. That was fun, depressing, inspiring, and a little bit spooky.

The Clarkkkkson vs. the xkcd Number

I just stumbled upon this webpage in which some kid (years ago, presumably in high school) who uses odd slang defined a huge number by putting various operators together and making recursive call after recursive call. He supposes that this is the biggest number anyone’s ever bothered to concisely define. My intuition is that A(g64, g64) (feel free to call it the xkcd number) is bigger. However, intuition is completely useless in this kind of question.

The Clarkkkkson defined:

http://lab6.com/old/school/yearbook/clarkkkkson.html

(And the xkcd number is the result of the Ackermann function with Graham’s Number as both the arguments, as defined in this comic.)

Anyone want to take a crack at setting up some correspondences and demonstrating which is bigger — The Clarkkkkson or the xkcd number?

iPod Announcement Five Years Ago

Every now and then when new products are announced, I like to take a moment and go back to read the Mac Rumors forum thread from when the iPod was first announced.

http://forums.macrumors.com/showthread.php?t=500

It only gets better the further you go. Arguments one after the next explaining why the iPod will be a collosal failure and clearly spells doom for Apple.

It’s just a cheerful reminder to be a bit more humble in making predictions and assertions, and one i will try to keep in mind more often (although, in the spirit of the above, I offer no guarantee).

Johnny Cash will not leave me alone.

I once shot a man in Reno as he calculated pi.

I once shot a man in Reno ’cause he was a samurai.

I once shot a man in Reno ’cause he smiled and I’m shy.

I once kissed a girl in Reno but I think I might be bi.

I once shot a man in Reno in a game of Jai-Alai1.

.

1.(Gone awry)

Renaissance Artists in a Half-Shell

Today’s comic provoked an awful lot of discussion on the forums, the LJ feed, and in my inbox over the respective notoriety of the various turtles/artists.

I got the percentages in the graph through Google. But direct Google comparison of turtles and artists has the problem that the artists seem to turn up quite a bit more material. There might be many reasons for this, but in creating the chart I decided to assume a priori that the ninja turtles and the Renaissance artists were, on the whole, equally notorious. I’ve seen merchandising for both — Ninja Turtle bedsheets and renaissance-artist-themed ceilings, so this is obviously a fair assumption. Then I used Google to find the respective notoriety of each turtle/artist with respect to their contemporaries — searching for [artist name] Renaissance, summing the total results, and getting each as a percentage. So Leonardo [da Vinci] takes up about 57% of the artist results, Michelangelo [long Renaissance name] takes up only 13%. Then I did the same thing for the turtles, seaching for [turtle name] Ninja Turtles, where Leonardo is again the most notorious, but by a smaller margin (47%). So the pie charts compare the notoriety of each within his group. Donatello gets an 18% share among the turtles but only a 3% share among the artists, so his ratio was 85% turtle : 15% artist. Michelangelo’s was 18:13 = 57:43. Michelangelo is more turtle than artist on the chart because while he’s popular among the artists, he’s more popular among the turtles, and we’re assuming that on the whole the turtles are as notorious as the artists.

Sure, I could’ve gotten all subjective about it, and said “but when I hear ‘Michelangelo’, I think of David before they think of the nunchucks,” or “Raphael is more a turtle than an artist in my mind,” but that’s a dangerous road to start down. Once you start letting your personal biases interfere with serious scientific research like this, it pollutes your data. And that kind of subjectivity not only changes the whole attitude of your research, it affects your project in unpredictable ways. The polluted data starts seeping out into other projects — infecting them, if you will — and creating these unscientific monsters, half natural phenomenon, half human bias. Fleeing the scientific community that shunned them, they seek solace underground, searching for results outside the establishment, delivering truth and justice as they see fit, living off delivery pizza. And that’s just the beginning.

The Map of the Internet

Some additional information on the map in today’s comic:

The labeled websites (“Google”, “Flickr”, “Slashdot”, etc) are just based on the location of the particular server I got when I pinged the site from my home machine on the day I was working on the map. Each site there has many servers and mirrors, and the IP of each may change from day to day. But their location is actually based on both the first and second quad — although the map is drawn in the style of a geographic map, with wobbly borders, it’s laid atop a regular grid which can be extended fractally downward. When I was putting down the location of a server for a particular website, I worked out where within the grid it should fall. This isn’t really for the purpose of telling you anything useful about that website, but rather to suggest that IPs can be placed as unique points on this map. Everything here was done by hand across a couple large sheets of paper, and it’s not trying to be completely accurate in all the details (although I did my best). It’s more of a survey than a practical road map.

The fractal behind the comic is a mapping of the integers to a plane (it could be extended, I assume, to the real numbers). I came up with it in 1999 when I was trying to figure out a way to graphically show the contents of long blocks of computer memory, which is basically linear. I wanted a mapping that would show strings of consecutive addresses as contiguous, compact blobs, and that would work on all scales. I played with and coded a couple mappings, but this was the only one I found that really fit that qualification.

Edit: The fractal is the Hilbert Curve, discovered in 1887. I had done some poking around but had never seen it before. Thank you, folks here and on IRC. It cannot be extended to the reals, but rather to the binary fractions (a subset of the rationals). This lets you get arbitrarially close to any number you want (and cover all the IEEE floating points).

I never come up with an algorithm to do the mapping — that is, a function that would take an integer and return the pair of coordinates. Years later, several months ago, I remembered the mapping and showed it to my cousin, who looked at it for a while and worked out a Scheme algorithm to do the mapping both ways.

Edit: I will be posting a version of the algorithm ASAP.

However, I also posed the problem as a puzzle to the forums:

http://forums.xkcd.com/viewtopic.php?t=864 (Problem)
http://forums.xkcd.com/viewtopic.php?t=866 (Solution)

I posted a sample of the mapping mangled into an integer-to-integer function and asked people to come up with the next set of numbers. The mangling was in part to make it less obvious what they were playing with and in part to encourage a different way of thinking about the problem. I informally offered two xkcd t-shirts as prizes for whoever provided the first correct answer and the most elegant algorithm. BaldAdonis very quickly took apart the problem (very impressively) and will — once I’m finished with this batch of shipping — get at least one t-shirt (depending on whether someone else finds an algorithm to do the mapping more elegantly). The other shirt is still up in the air. I’ll leave it open for the next week or two, and if you want to send me a piece of elegant and easily-executed code that does this mapping — taking in a number and returning the coordinates (bonus points for the reverse operation) — you’ll have a shot at winning a free xkcd t-shirt of your choice. (Note: for the next few days I’ll be working on t-shirt orders and then I have a wedding to go to, so I may not be able to check over your code until next this week.)

Suggestions for future work: When I was constructing the map, I also did some ping surveys of the various /8 networks to see how densely populated with active hosts each one was. The density data didn’t make it into the simpler final map, but that’s just one of many data sets one could slap up on a map like this to visualize the ‘net in an interesting way.

South America, Verizon Math

South America should be able to reach xkcd again. I’m sorry to those of you there who haven’t been able to reach the site over the last week. There was a semi-complicated problem with some dead routers at ThePlanet’s datacenter. It should be fixed now. The problem with posting about it is that it doesn’t reach the people who are actually being affected 🙂

The whole Verizon thing continues to be incredibly entertaining. It’s great when someone is dealing with some minor-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things-but-incredibly-frustrating situation — and the entire blagosphere just decides to drop in commiserate, and back him up. Fun times to be had by all! Here’s my contribution:

http://xkcd.com/verizon/

Dividing by Zero

I’ve gotten a few emails about a math professor who claims to have solved the problem of dividing by zero.

With the caveat that I am not a professional mathematician, I’m pretty sure this is silly. For one, any time that you have a major, front-page scientific or mathematical result reported by a mainstream news organization that does not contain some version of the phrase “this discovery, which was published in [name of major peer-reviewed journal],” you are probably looking at a news organization that is not doing their job. Until I see a group of mathematicians look over his results and say that they are consistent and significant extensions of the current body of mathematics, I’m really not buying it.

The other reason I’m not buying it is that I don’t see how you can “solve” that problem. The article says that the whole idea is that this can make divide-by-zero crashes go away. This doesn’t really make sense. When I worked with LabVIEW, one thing I noticed was that the result of dividing by zero was propagated through the system as “NaN” — Not a Number. This didn’t make anything work better. It just pointed out that I had made a mistake somewhere. If you have set up an equation where you are trying to divide by zero, you have done something WRONG. You can make the system fail gracefully or not, but that’s a matter of crash handling. Just spitting out the result “Nullity” doesn’t fix things. Sure, you could then make the next part of the program handle “Nullity” as a special case. But that’s not mathematical, that’s algorithmic.

Now, it’s true that this is sounds similar to the way the mathematical community responded to the idea of the square root of minus one being treated as a number, which was only really accepted in the 19th century, or the way negative numbers were dealt with before that. But I don’t think dividing by zero is really the same thing. Until someone can do more than just use a word like “Nullity” to mean “Undefined” (I remember trying that in 10th grade), this isn’t a useful concept, and it’s not going to stop programs from crashing when the programmer writes a function with an equation that’s supposed to spit out a real number and doesn’t. We’ve been using symbols to refer to the result of dividing by zero for years now. They don’t mean anything mathematically and they don’t solve any problem.

Wondermark Auction for Child's Play

David Malki: He’s the author of Wondermark, in which he painstakingly scans and cleans up illustrations from his collection of 19th-century rare books, and then smears poop jokes all over them in Photoshop. He and his Sharpie collection are also the reason they have guards standing around around so many of the paintings in the Louvre. He is also the seach-and-rescue pilot who picked you up that one time when you were playing with your GPS outside Las Vegas (this line will make sense in a few weeks when you read one of the upcoming xkcd comics. TEMPORALLY UNCONVENTIONAL COMEDIC REFERENCE!). He also edited that trailer you saw a while back when you went to watch Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties for some reason.

The reason I bring this dude up is that he’s auctioning off three unique framed Wondermark poster prints via eBay auctions, the first of which is now in progress. One hundred percent of the proceeds will go to Child’s Play, a charity started by webcomickers Gabe and Tycho of Penny Arcade to buy games for hospitalized kids to play with as they lie in their beds for weeks on end.

So, here’s a chance to put genuine art on your wall without letting go of your inherent cynicism regarding anything heartfelt! And at the same time, you can rationalize your bid by knowing that if you win, your money goes to do something good and help show that gamers and bloggers are maybe good for something beyond standing in long lines outside Best Buy at 3:00 AM. Go bid.