» around the sun

9 May A.D. 2013 @ 7:23 PM

My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

”You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

”You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

”But the Solar System!” I protested.

”What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently: “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

—from A Study in Scarlet by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I had read a fair number of Sherlock Holmes stories before seeing the recent reboots in the movies and on the BBC. And after going back and reading the stories, both for the second time and first time, I am continually impressed with how many small details they have worked in and how faithful they have been to the original stories.

» contemporary church life

7 May A.D. 2013 @ 7:02 PM

It is one of the remarkable features of contemporary church life that so many are attempting to heal the church by tinkering with its structures, its services, its public face. This is clear evidence that modernity has successfully palmed off one of its great deceits on us, convincing us that God himself is secondary to organization and image, that the church's health lies in its flow charts, its convenience, and its offerings rather than in its inner life, its spiritual authenticity, the toughness of its moral intentions, its understanding of what it means to have God's Word in this world. Those who do not see this are out of touch with the deep realities of life, mistaking changes on the surface for changes in the deep waters that flow beneath. An inspired group of marketers might find a way of reviving a flagging business by modifying its image and offerings, but the matters of the heart, the matters of God, are not susceptible to such cosmetic alteration. The world's business and God's business are two different things.

—from God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams by David F. Wells

» industrial waste

28 March A.D. 2013 @ 8:51 PM

Like many Americans, I had come to consider the hundreds of millions of tons of municipal solid waste produced annually as an indicator the “the throwaway society.” Then, ten years into my study of solid waste, I stumbled on a waste statistic quietly put out by the EPA in a document called Guide for Industrial Waste Management (U.S. EPA 1999). This technical manual, meant to provide tips to factory managers for handling waste at their plants, noted, without further comment, that manufacturing industries were generating some 7.6 billions tons a year of solid waste. Some digging on my part uncovered an older, unpublished report that was the source of this estimate as well as two follow-up government documents that cited other industrial, mining, extractive, and agricultural operations as bringing the total industrial waste tonnage generated in the United States up to around 12 billion tons (U.S. EPA 1987, 1988; OTA 1992). These amounts were an order of magnitude greater than the tonnage of municipal solid waste that every book, volunteer effort, government program, or household conversation about trash and its problems seemed to focus on. Yet very little had been published about this far larger quantity.

—from Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States by Samantha McBride

» religious ritual

24 March A.D. 2013 @ 1:52 PM

Religious ritual, which seems so idiotic to the secular mind, has the same feel as Carl's nth chance to go straight or Phil's nth repetition of Groundhog Day. The words and motions of the mass give the faithful repeated chances to get it right. At the nth repetition of “this is my blood, the cup of salvation” you for the first time grasp, really grasp, the meaning of redemption through Christ's sacrifice. Well...part of it at any rate.

—from The Bourgeois Virtues by Deirdre N. McCloskey

» an obviously grotesque child

9 March A.D. 2013 @ 8:43 PM

A child like Mary Ann, [Flannery O'Connor] observed, is obviously grotesque, and in the modern world such a child is thought to “discredit the goodness of God.” How can a good God allow such a child to die? the Ivan Karamazovs of the world ask. How, moreover, can a good God allow such a child to be born? The modern unbeliever prides himself on his realism, his willingnness to recognize suffering and to ponder the problem of evil directly. But in O'Connor's estimation such an outlook is not realistic; is it naive, sentimental, and even dangerous. It is the believer, not the unbeliever, who is the realist. In a child like Mary Ann, the believer sees the likeness of every human person—deformed, limited, imperfect. In human deformity the believer sees “the raw material of good.” In human suffering the believer sees the grounds of our ommon humanity, recognizing that it is through suffering, above all, that human beings are stirred to the love of one another, and to the love of God, who showed his love for humanity through his willingness to suffer as one of us.

—from The Life You Save May Be Your Own by Paul Elie

» idolizing the body

17 February A.D. 2013 @ 9:03 PM

...contemporary medical Gnosticism seemingly idolizes the body, but primarily as an expression of the mind's (or the will') quest for perfection or permanence. The body is altered almost at whim, reinforcing its role as the malleable—and someday, perhaps, fully replaceable—envelope for something far more real and pure. Some reshape the body to fit a desired image, while others eeks endless fixes to keep thmselves alive. Even the reistance among some Christians to withdraw futile mechanical support from a dying relative can be a form of Gnosticism, valuing the ability to control and manipulate the body over the mysterious gift of an embodied life—a gift that was never actually ours to keep.

—from Reclaiming the Body by Joel Shuman and Brian Volck

» new software releases

14 January A.D. 2013 @ 10:55 PM

Updated versions of ironclad (0.32.1), nibbles (0.11) and chipz (0.8) have been released. The usual crop of bugfixes (Gray streams in ironclad and chipz, among others) and new features (float accessors in nibbles) are present, as well as compatibility with ASDF 2.27.

» helping one another

5 January A.D. 2013 @ 3:41 PM

Consequently, as a professorial leader who is interested in enhancing the performance of my educational organization (which includes me) by reducing or eliminating the anaclitic depression blues, I write the students in my introductory class a letter. I have found that I have to present my thoughts in writing so that students can assimilate the content at their convenience; they simply can't seem to understand what I say if I profess my point of view orally.

My letter reads as follows: “You may take examinations alone, with another person, or with as many other people as you like. 'Other people' includes classmates, parents, children, spouses, students from other classes, professors or 'hired guns.' I go absolutely blind with rage if I catch anyone cheating. I define cheating as the failure to assist others on the exams if they request it” (Harvey, 1997a)

How do you think our dean reacted when one of my outraged (and terrified) colleagues, apparently in an effort to avoid suffering from the anaclitic depression blues, showed him the letter? For starters, he invited me to his office for “a little discussion.”...

He burst forth in a voice powerful enough to dislodge the green eyeshades from the furrowed brows of my beloved colleagues ensconced in the deep recesses of the accounting department, “Professor Harvey, are you aware of the absolute chaos that would be generated at the George Washington University if everyone began to help one another?”

Are you aware of the absolute chaos that would be generated at The George Washington University if everyone began to help one another?

What an extraordinarily relevant question for someone in a leadership role to ask—not only about The George Washington University but also about any other organization. To his everlasting credit, though, the dean immediately followed up his pithy query with another that was equally, if not more, poignant in nature.

“Professor Harvey, did I just say what I think I said?” he asked.

“I'm pretty sure you did,” I replied.

—from How Come Every Time I Get Stabbed in the Back, My Fingerprints Are on the Knife? by Jerry B. Harvey

» commentary on job

20 December A.D. 2012 @ 10:33 PM

What was it that Job “saw” when God spoke to him out of the whirlwind that he had previously only “heard by hearing of the ear,” so that he despised himself and repented in dust and ashes (Job 42:5-6)? Job has persistently held God to account in his protests over against his “comforters,” who tried to exonerate God by their “theodicies.” Job's friends thought his speech laying the responsibility on God was outrageous and blasphemous, but Job insisted on crying out against God since God is, according to “the hearing of the ear” (perhaps we might the say “The Doctrine of God!”), the one who is supposed to be in charge. Now God, in declaring his awesome and universal majesty out of the whirlwind, actually approves what Job had said over against all the explanation of the “theologians.” So God declares (42:7-9) that Job had spoken the truth, terrifying as it was and is. Job now sees that in the voice of his suffering he had unwittingly spoken the truth, and he is terrified by it: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me which I did not know” (42:3). Job sees that through suffering the truth had literally been wrung out of him. He sees where previously he had heard and complained. He thus “despises himself and repents in dust and ashes.”

—from On Being A Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard O. Forde

» schwarzenegger's california

19 December A.D. 2012 @ 11:10 AM

[Schwarzenegger's] view of his seven years trying to run the state of California, like the views of his closest associates, can be summarized as follows. He came to power accidentally, but not without ideas about what he wanted to do. At his core he thought government had become more problem than solution: an institution run less for the benefit of the people than for the benefit of politicians and other public employees. He behaved pretty much as Americans seem to imagine the ideal politician should behave: he made bold decisions without looking at polls; he didn't sell favors; he treated his opponents fairly; he was quick to acknowledge his mistakes and learn from them, and so on. He was the rare elected official who believed, with some reason, that he had nothing to lose, and behaved accordingly. When presented with the chance to pursue an agenda that violated his own narrow political self-interest for the sake of the public interest, he tended to leap at it. “There were a lot of times when we said, 'You just can't do that,'” says his former chief of staff, Susan Kennedy, a lifelong Democrat, whose hiring was one of those things a Republican governor was not supposed to do. “He was always like, 'I don't care.' Ninety percent of the time it was a good thing.”

Two years into his tenure, in mid-2005, he'd tried everything he could think of to persuade individual California state legislators to vote against the short-term desires of their constituents for the greater long-term good of all. “To me there were shocking moments,” he says. Having sped past a DO NOT ENTER sign, we are now flying through intersections without pausing. I can't help but notice that, if we weren't breaking the law by going the wrong way down a one-way street, we be breaking the law by running stop signs. “When you want to do pension reform for the prison guards,” he says, “and all of a sudden the Republicans are all lined up against you. It was really incredible and it happened over and over: people would say to me, 'Yes, this is the best idea! I would love to vote for it! But if I vote for it some interest group is going to be angry with me, so I won't do it.' I couldn't believe people could actually say that. You have soldiers dying in Iraq and Afghanistan, and they didn't want to risk their political lives by doing the right thing.”

—from Boomerang by Michael Lewis

» new archive release

16 December A.D. 2012 @ 2:56 PM

I've released archive 0.9; it can be found in the usual place. Notable in this release is better handling of directories, both in extracting them and forming archives with them.

» matching sexps in emacs lisp

11 December A.D. 2012 @ 8:01 AM

Occasionally, you come across a piece of code that looks quite complicated. And then you realize that the code is really overcomplicating the situation, not that the task is inherently difficult. Today's specimen:

(defun icalendar--convert-block-to-ical (nonmarker entry-main)
  "Convert block diary entry to iCalendar format.
NONMARKER is a regular expression matching the start of non-marking
entries.  ENTRY-MAIN is the first line of the diary entry."
  (if (string-match (concat nonmarker
                            "%%(diary-block \([^ /]+[ /]+[^ /]+[ /]+[^ ]+\)"
                            " +\([^ /]+[ /]+[^ /]+[ /]+[^ ]+\))\s-*"
                            "\s-*\(.*?\) ?$")

All of the line noise after diary-block is manually matching subexpressions of a sexp with regular expressions. Words fail me.

» exact float conversion

28 November A.D. 2012 @ 10:11 PM

Somebody at work asked how to determine whether an integer (assuming to be 32-bit) was exactly convertable into a (IEEE single) float. There's the obvious:

exactly_convertable_p (int32_t x)
  float f = x;
  int y = f;
  return x == y;

but it's more fun to reason things out from first principles. The __builtin_ctz call below is GCC-specific, but it should be straightforward to write your own ctz function:

exactly_convertable_p (int32_t x)
  /* The easy cases: an exponent of 0 and mantissa of the integer.  */
  if ((-1 << 24) <= x && x <= (1 << 24))
    return true;

  /* Count trailing zeros and see if we can use a non-zero exponent.  */
  int first_low_bit = __builtin_ctz(x);
  if (first_low_bit == 0) {
    return false;

  int32_t shifted = x >> first_low_bit;
  return (-1 << 24) <= shifted && shifted <= (1 << 24);

It should be fairly obvious how to extend this to 64-bit integers and IEEE double floats. Bonus points for doing a templated solution that works for given integer and float types.

» ironclad 0.32

13 November A.D. 2012 @ 8:23 PM

Ironclad 0.32 has been released and is available from the usual places. The highlight of this release is scrypt support, added by Chris Howey. This release comes with the usual crop of bugfixes, including one that permits Ironclad to be loaded on SBCL/Win32 (oops!). CCL users on x86-64 will also notice that SHA-512 and SHA-384 work properly now.

» faith and reason

30 October A.D. 2012 @ 10:03 PM

Nevertheless, since we are finite beings, it can be very hard to keep this in mind when faced with severe suffering. The arguments of philosophers and theologians, however logically impeccable, seem cruelly abstract and cold when compared to the agony of the parents of a raped and murdered child. But then, reason is abstract and cold. Atheists are always telling us how we need soberly to follow it where it leads us, even if it were to break our hearts by telling us that there is no hope for cosmic justice, no hope for seeing lost loved ones ever again, no hope for a life beyond this one. Then, when a Thomas Aquinas reassures us that in fact no matter how bad things get in the life, reason assures us that God can set it right, they feign outrage at such cold-hearted logicality. Some people just can't take yes for an answer.

In any event, it is precisely because of the abstraction and coldness of reason that a kind of faith is needed where evil is concerned. Not because faith is emotional. Faith is not emotional; it is rather an act of the will. And again, not because faith contradicts reason, for it doesn't. Rather, faith in God in the face of evil is nothing less than the will to follow reason's lead when emotion might incline us to doubt. The intensity of the pain one feels can make him want to shake his fist at God, like Job. Yet reason says that the pain is part of an overall plan which we cannot yet fathom, but one in which God can bring out of that pain a good compared to which it will pale in insignificance. Hence reason tells us: have faith in God. We will not always be able to understand what that plan is, or how this or that particular instance of suffering fits into it. We have some general clues here and there--for instance, the fact that certain goods, like patience, forgiveness, and self-sacrifice, cannot be had without certain evils. But we don't know the details. And yet, why should we expect to know them? If there is a God of the sort the arguments I've described point to, and if the soul's ultimate destiny surpasses the cares of this life in the way its immortality implies, then these matters are so far beyond our ordinary experience that it would be extremely surprising if we could fully understand them.

—Edward Feser, from The Last Superstition