A machine made of wood, metal, paint, bone and magic
19,934 words

More words

I wonder what proportion of the people who so busily argue that 'master', 'slave', 'blacklist' and so on could not possibly be offensive terms when used in computing are black?

In May 2020, Google reported that 3.7% of their employees and contractors were black. That number covers more than just programmers: it covers, presumably, cleaners and catering people for instance. Perhaps the proportion of black people is much higher among programmers ... don't be silly, of course it's not: it's lower. Well perhaps Google are particularly bad, but probably they're not: in 2016 only 8.6% of graduates with a bachelor’s degree in computer and information science were black. Apocryphally, things are even worse in open source projects: we know that only 1.5% of people who work on such projects are female: do you think the proportion of black people is much higher? Of course it's not.

Well: it's hard to know for sure in a world of pseudonymous trolls, but my guess is none of the people who claim so vigorously that use of language is not offensive to certain groups belong to those groups.

So, here's an idea: before making a claim about what a group of people find offensive or belittling why don't you ask some members if that group? Unless you don't actually like people in that group very much, of course.

Towers

Very tall towers become exponentially wide in their lowest levels, and how high they can be is bounded by the strength of the rock on which they rest. This also places a bound on the height of mountains: tall enough mountains sink into the crust of the planet.

Don't use Uber

Uber are a deeply, deeply shitty company. There's Facebook shitty, and then there's shitty:

I think that government said that they made a mistake. It's a serious mistake. We've made mistakes too, right, with self-driving... So I think that people make mistakes. It doesn't mean that they can never be forgiven.

Dara Khosrowshah, CEO of Uber

The 'mistake' he's talking about is killing a journalist by cutting him up with a bone saw. And apparently that is forgivable. Here's a clue: no, it's not.

And there are just many, many more shitty things about them.

Don't use Uber. Just don't.

Blacklist

The maintainers of Linux are making changes to discourage words with unfortunate connotations following some recommendations. Words like 'blacklist', 'whitelist', 'master' & 'slave'.

And of course a lot of people are up in arms about this:

Would these SJWs please take Etymology 101 before banning every other word in English. Blacklist has nothing to do with ethnicity or BLM or IOU or WTF, etc. Stop the nonsense.

Well. Perhaps people should also study some linguistics, where they will learn that the connotations of a term have absolutely nothing to do with its ancient history in the form of its etymology. No-one worries when they say 'avocado' that it comes from a word in Nahuatl which also means 'testicle' or that 'foray' comes from a word meaning 'straw' in old French. The etymology of terms does not matter at all to people speaking a natural language: what matters is what the term means and what its connotations are in the language spoken at the time they are speaking.

But of course they won't do that: instead they will invent spurious reasons why terms which many people legitimately might find offensive should continue to be used because of the distant history of those terms. And of course this is nothing to do with the fact that they have benefited from the suppression of the people who will be demeaned by the use of these terms. Of course it's not.

The argument that etymology should control the language you use today is exactly the same as the argument that who your distant ancestors were should control what rights you have today, and it appeals to exactly the same people.

Geometrical units

The mass of the Sun is about 5μs or about 1.5km.

Planet 9

There's a fairly mad theory that planet 9 (which probably does not exist) is a primordial black hole, in this case meaning an object far too light to have formed from a collapsed star. I suspect primordial black holes may not exist, and we've already done measurements which show they are at least scarce if they do. Well, here's an experiment which will tell us if any exist in the outer Solar system. In the likely case that it finds none we have another data point which puts an upper bound on how many there are, which is worth having. In the unlikely case that it does find one or more then not only do we know black holes which are either primordial or have some completely unexplained origin exist, we also know of a black hole which we probably could send a probe to without implausible engineering. We could send a probe which does direct measurements of the immediate environs of a black hole. Nobel prizes fall like rain on the people involved and we're suddenly living in a world which is as cool as fuck.

I'll take 'small chance of discovery which will change physics for ever' any day, thanks.

History is written by the winners

if they can write: if they can't, then it is written by the losers.

reStructuredText: how not to do it

reStructuredText manages:

  • to be very painful to write compared to, for instance, Markdown (why double backquotes around code? I mean, seriously, what purpose does that serve?);
  • to be complicated enough that you often need to look things up, and end up using it in inconsistent ways ('what's the right syntax for a reference to a method in another class again?, oh, I'll just use ``...``: it's wrong but it will do');
  • to not be expressive enough that it becomes second nature in the way (La)TeX does for mathematics – TeX was written by someone who typed a lot of maths, reStructuredText seems to have been designed by a committee some of whose members may have been camels.

There is nothing good about it.

Cars

I feel sorry for all the people whose sense of well-being is so dependent on them having a car, people whose thinking is driven by the mindless fear of change and the complete inability to reason about, well, anything. I feel sorry for the people whose tiny sense of self-worth is so threatened by cyclists1: I always suspect because people who cycle a lot get to look kind of fit and attractive, instead of like blobs of dirty grease2. It must be horrible being them.

Well, ten years ago I used to feel sorry: since they've managed to take over great chunks of the world and deny us all a future I feel less sorry. They still must have horrible lives but they've doomed the rest of us – the people not driven by fear and the inability to think – to horrible lives as well. So thanks for that.


  1. Yes, I'm a cyclist, yes I also have a car. 

  2. But I don't ride enough and I look like a blob of dirty grease. 

Words matter

People argue, endlessly, repetitively and in enormous detail, that changing terminology doesn't matter, and indeed is just a waste of time1.

Changing language does matter: language is an enormously important part of what it means to be human – our use of natural language is arguably our single defining characteristic as a species. The choice of language is really important to humans at an extremely basic level2. If you haven't read a book which makes you cry or makes you really angry I feel very sorry for you. If you haven't listened to a speech or a play and thought how wonderful it is I feel the same. Haven't you ever got really upset when arguing on the internet? That was done by choice of language. Have you ever tried really hard to upset someone when arguing on the internet? That too was done by choice of language. Why is it we endlessly go back to the words of Shakespeare, or Churchill, or Martin Luther King, or the KJV? It's because language matters, a lot.

Language matters because we are humans. Changing language matters because we are humans.


  1. If choice of terminology is so unimportant to these people, why do they spend so much time arguing that it is unimportant

  2. I don't mean picking between French or English or something, although that matters too, I mean choice of wording within a given natural language. 

Winter is coming

BERT is a natural language model built by Google. It was trained using a corpus of more than three billion words of English text1. If a human could read at 200 words a minute, 12 hours a day, every day, it would take a little less than 60 years for them to read this much text, once. BERT has more than a third of a billion parameters.

This is nothing like how humans learn a language, which they do in a few years with a relatively minute amount of data.

The current AI hype cycle is built on two pillars:

  • the ability to throw truly vast amounts of training data at enormous computing systems, to achieve rather limited benefits;
  • the willingness of people involved in this programme to make absurd claims about it, in the same way that similar lies were told during all the previous AI hype cycles.

Another AI winter is coming.


  1. Most of this text was the English language Wikipedia. 

A shocking development

Sometimes, even very rich people have to obey the law.

'We were treated as if we were criminals, it's not fair' they say. Yes, you were treated like a criminal because you are a criminal, fucker and, just sometimes, even loathsome parasites like you get to obey the law, however much you whine and bribe.

I know, this almost never happens.

Sand

The underlying argument of many climate-change skeptics1 is

anthropogenic climate change is frightening, therefore it must not be true and the evidence for it must be faked.

It is entertaining to apply this argument in some other places to see how well it works:

bankruptcy is frightening, therefore I cannot be bankrupt and the nasty demands for payment people keep sending me can be ignored.

Or:

cancer is frightening, therefore I do not have cancer and the red stuff I am coughing up is not blood.

What's that thing that ostriches are meant to do?


  1. Or, fools and liars. 

Our noble masters at work

So Dominic Cummingsthe very wonderful UK government is in the process of buying a stake in OneWeb1 with the money of his slavesits taxpayers because, among other things, it

[...] hopes the network could also work as a replacement for the loss of access to the EU's Galileo sat-nav system.

Because, of course, it is trivial to repurpose satellites, some of which are already in orbit, to do what GPS does. Because, of course, they have sufficiently accurate clocks, and their radios work on the same frequencies that GPS receivers use, and everything is easy when you are so very clever and competent.

The UK Government: not even the smartest people in an empty room.


  1. Also, and, and

Perhaps not

A little while ago I pointed to an amazing paper which argued that there's a black hole in a naked-eye-visible star system, about 1000ly from us. There may not be:

So, that's sad, but it's also a good example of science doing its job: someone claimed something which was plausibly correct & some other people looked at the data behind the claim and found that, probably, it was not correct after all.