Coptic fragments

September 21st, 2012  |  Tags: , ,  |  9 Comments

Many (primarily secular) scholars are interested in the very few fragments we have from the Gnostics and other adherents of long-extinguished Christian heresies. For Christians, these writings are interesting for the same reasons that heresies that got more traction or have more extant documentation are interesting: it’s fascinating to identify why something is wrong and to identify its eventual consequences; furthermore, most of the contemporary heresies that we should like to avoid are not particularly original. For general journalists who don’t actually know that much about Christian history (or, I suspect, any serious Christians), these writings are interesting because of the unsupported expectation that they should “[prove] deeply troubling” to believers.1

The latest in this series is the discovery of a 4th-century Coptic scrap that includes the line “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife….'” The researcher behind the announcement is very careful to indicate that this fragment — even if is authentic and has been correctly interpreted — only tells us what some people recorded and believed about Jesus of Nazareth several centuries after the Gospels and Pauline epistles were recorded and not anything about Jesus himself. However, most of the mainstream press have been presenting this discovery as a major scandal that shakes the foundations of Christian orthodoxy and is absolutely sure to impact everything from Roman Catholic clerical celibacy to gender-role debates around the margins of traditional churches. (I first heard of this story from Jason Kottke, whose gloss on the story misses the point in the same way as most media reports.)

In a related story, I was recently cleaning my basement. While so doing, I found a scrap of white paper, dated May 1998, with shocking new evidence that will change how we see the genesis of early philosophy of mathematics:

IMG 5532

This fragment is damaged and stained, and the script is obscure. But I consulted with a historical graphologist, who was able to give me a transcription:

I can’t believe
I just beat Blaise
Pascal in a cutthroat
game of Mario Kart!
He had the blu[e?]…
shell and every[…]

I’ve had to keep this discovery embargoed while validating the fragment with other scholars, but we’re reasonably convinced that it is authentic. We’ve determined that “Mario Kart” refers to an electronic game that was popular roughly 33 decades after Pascal’s death (and, coincidentally, towards the end of my undergraduate career), and that the “blu[e] shell” was a rare game piece of great power that could almost guarantee victory for the player lucky enough to possess it. Our analysis is that Pascal lost his interest in explaining the world through probability after even the bonne chance of acquiring such an advantage failed to help him win the game.

We have not yet concluded whether or not a wager was involved.

1 cf. this NYT article about the “Gospel of Judas” from a few years ago.

Web services for improved web application usability

April 10th, 2012  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

Via DF, Ziptastic is “a simple API that allows people to ask which Country, State and City are associated with a Zip Code.” This is truly excellent, and it addresses a longstanding pet peeve of mine.

In a similar vein, I’m pleased to announce my latest project. Ageist is a simple API to determine whether or not an individual is older than 13 given his or her birthday. (As an example, click here to see how old the Pixies album Trompe le Monde is, if you want to be really depressed.) While it does not (yet) calculate one’s racing age, I suspect certain race-registration websites could employ some combination of Ziptastic and Ageist to eliminate most of my user-experience complaints.

An open letter to the random guy, coincidentally also named “Will Benton,” who has been giving out my address to his friends and correspondents for years as if it were his own.

September 13th, 2011  |  Tags: , ,  |  5 Comments

Dear Will,

I hope this semester of college (your first? or is it your third?) is treating you well. I feel like I’ve known you for a long time, even though we’ve never met. You see, when you’ve told people to email you, you’ve given them my address. It’s been great to watch you grow up over the last few years.

Read the rest of this entry »

If only all film reviews were this awesome

October 15th, 2010  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Here’s the opening paragraph of Dan Kois’ excellent review of Jackass 3D:

I know what you’re thinking: Am I highbrow enough to see Jackass 3D? No doubt you read about this challenging art film’s premiere this week, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where curators praised the film’s revolt against phallocentrism and its use of the body as canvas for acts of transgressive violence. But have no fear: Indebted as director Jeff Tremaine is to Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty and the works of Luis Buñuel, Jackass 3D remains surprisingly accessible.

You should probably read the rest.


April 21st, 2010  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

This morning, I discovered that my credit card had been compromised and had been used to pay for several hundred dollars of “World of Warcraft” subscriptions without my knowledge. The helpful and thickly-accented woman at the call center asked me if I played “World of Warcraft” (I do not); she then asked multiple times with increasing intensity whether the “other user on this account” might be responsible for the charges before finally saying “Your wife, sir, I suppose she is playing a lot of ‘World of Warcraft’ and you do not know?”

This line of questioning may only be hilarious to those of you who know us, but let’s just say that I regard the prospect of Andrea playing “World of Warcraft” and racking up massive credit card charges in the process as only slightly less likely than the prospect of her using the card to buy plutonium from the Libyans. (Although that’s too bad, since I understand that you can get triple reward points for all purchases of fissile material from state sponsors of terrorism.)

Ricky Gervais’ celebrity lullaby

March 27th, 2010  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  1 Comment

If you aren’t regularly around preschoolers, you might not have seen this spectacular “Sesame Street” sketch in which Ricky Gervais serenades Elmo with a “celebrity lullaby:”

Amazing movie trailer

October 7th, 2009  |  Tags:  |  2 Comments

I haven’t yet checked IMDB to see if 2004’s Karate Dog is a real movie. But essentially, I don’t even want to know. I just am glad to have seen the trailer, which is almost too ridiculous to be a plausible parody (dig the Jack Russell on the wheels of steel):

Least fixed-points of machine translation

August 11th, 2009  |  Tags:  |  4 Comments

Translation Party is a cool web application that takes an English phrase and then repeatedly translates it to Japanese and back until it reaches a phrase that is the same after being translated from English to Japanese and back. (It will give up if it hasn’t reached a fixed point after some number of iterations; some phrases I tried lead to three– or four–phrase cycles.) Many of the equilibria it finds are humorous or surprising. Below, I’ve included some of the results from phrases I tried; click on each phrase to see the original input and the steps to quiescence. The last is especially amazing (click here in case it becomes unavailable).

  1. I know him.
  2. We recommend our way of thinking.
  3. Known is known. In other words, we know that many people are ignorant. However, it is known as unknown. Also, I see him, please.
  4. I, on behalf of it, I live in a more complete correction work. Cause I have the same number. I’m straight and meditate like a Buddhist.
  5. To translate is to betray.

Input quote sources include NWA-period Dr. Dre, Tractatus-period Wittgenstein, the source code for the V6 UNIX kernel, and (so I hear, anyway) an old Italian proverb.

An expensive habit

July 17th, 2009  |  Tags:  |  2 Comments

I don’t smoke cigarettes, so I don’t typically know how much they cost. As a consequence, I am generally surprised when I notice a gas station display indicating that a carton of cigarettes that costs as much as a decent bottle of whisky is offered at a “special price.” “Special” isn’t the word I would use, but that’s probably why I’m not in marketing. I suspect that even if you’re a nonsmoker like I am, you can agree that cigarette taxes are out of hand these days, as per this AP report:

A New Hampshire man says he swiped his debit card at a gas station to buy a pack of cigarettes and was charged over 23 quadrillion dollars.

Josh Muszynski […] checked his account online a few hours later and saw the 17-digit number — a stunning $23,148,855,308,184,500 (twenty-three quadrillion, one hundred forty-eight trillion, eight hundred fifty-five billion, three hundred eight million, one hundred eighty-four thousand, five hundred dollars).

Muszynski says he spent two hours on the phone with Bank of America trying to sort out the string of numbers and the $15 overdraft fee.

If he would have spent $70 quadrillion on three packs, he could have also gotten a free t-shirt.

Lesser known operas: Il deficiente

July 10th, 2009  |  Tags: , ,  |  Leave a comment

It occurred to me tonight that I should write a series of short notes about relatively unknown operas that I’ve encountered and enjoyed, and I’ve a real gem to begin the series: Baldassare Galuppi’s 1758 opera buffa Il deficiente della metà-adriatico.

Galuppi and librettist Carlo Goldoni sought to replicate the runaway success of their 1754 comedy Il filosofo di campagna with a shorter work, and engaged in a substantial gamble: that if the lead were entertaining enough, there would be little need for sympathetic characters or much dramatic conflict. So Goldini invented a character overfull with stumbling bravado and slapstick, Don Giuseppe, who is perhaps the most over-the-top buffo lead in the history of the stage.

Don Giuseppe is the sort of hapless nobleman whose mere presence in a dramatic work was enough to earn French censorship (Indeed, Il deficiente was banned by Louis XV’s ministers almost immediately). His genesis is clearly as a stock character — in early drafts of the work, he was named Don Scaramuccia — but is written with such panache and brilliance as to make this otherwise brief and unremarkable work into an charming artifact of Italian comic opera. Unfortunately, Il deficiente was a commercial disaster, and the throng of angry theatre-owners and investors in the wake of its failure played no small part in Goldoni’s decision to emigrate to France in 1761, although he would collaborate with Galuppi once more by writing a very fine libretto for La buona figliuola (1760).

The dramatic action is divided into two scenes and is confined to Senigallia in Ancona, an unattractive city midway up Italy’s Adriatic coast that was well-known for its many usurers. The first scene begins with the entrance of Don Giuseppe, a widower and nobleman of questionable wisdom. Giuseppe demonstrates his ample self-confidence in a lengthy parlando aria (“Sono probabilmente”), in which he asserts that he is probably the smartest man in the town. Contemporary listeners should pay close attention here, as Goldini introduced many deliberate errors in this aria that are not obvious to us as they were to eighteenth-century audiences. After some interactions with townspeople in which Giuseppe is made the butt of a great deal of physical humor and wordplay, he lashes out at a local merchant in a bizarre and scurrilous scena (“Sei un segreto moro”) that has not aged well and demands some explanation: apparently, there was a widespread prejudice among the coarser people of Ancona in Galuppi’s time that all merchants were either Moors or crypto-Moors.

After the merchant leaves, the town square is empty, except for Giuseppe, who laments his desire to go to the country and woo Donna Iolanda, a beautiful woman who lives there (“Devo andare al paese”). However, even Giuseppe recognizes that his command of rhetoric and poetics will be inadequate to win Iolanda’s heart. He encounters a group of visiting British soldiers (“Buongiorno, brittunculi!”) and is irritated until he realizes that the general is a gifted poet. Giuseppe steals a collection of love-letters from the general, intending to read them to Donna Iolanda as if they were his own, and heads to the country. As he leaves, the scene ends.

A nearly-perfect pastoral intermezzo divides the two scenes; it has been performed and recorded far more often than Il deficiente itself. Sadly for Galuppi, his writing was rather too prescient. In particular, the oboe lines throughout were far too technical for most eighteenth-century players, and contemporary accounts indicate that the brief col legno depiction of the beginning of a storm was particularly troubling to audiences. As a consequence, Galuppi eschewed aggressive experimentation in his later works.

The action of the second scene begins twenty years after Giuseppe’s first trip to the country; he is returning to Senigallia after a final attempt to woo Iolanda. In a soliloquy (“Ahime, crudela Iolanda”), he reveals that Iolanda discovered his initial deception and rejected him, that subsequent trips to the country have been even more fruitless, and that he is only able to maintain power in Senigallia because of regular and unscrupulous favors to local loan sharks. The townspeople gather around Giuseppe as if to greet him, but instead begin to mock him in a rousing chorus (“Cacasentenze è uno cafone”). Giuseppe despairs and runs to the top of a tower in order to jump, but is interrupted by a trumpet fanfare: a powerful duke has just arrived in town. Mass confusion ensues, but eventually it becomes clear that the duke would like to hire Don Giuseppe to serve as his right-hand man (“Vorrei utilizzare questo pezzo di cavolo”). Giuseppe is overjoyed, as he can assume a position of greater power even in spite of his manifest and demonstrable incompetence, while the townspeople of Senigallia are thrilled to be rid of him. The opera ends with a comic fugue (“Viva Don Giuseppe, finché vive altrove!”).

Although the duration of Il deficiente recalls very early comic operas (e.g. Pergoleisi’s forty-minute La serva padrona), its obvious breaks with the conventions of commedia dell’arte indicate that Il deficiente is better regarded as a bridge from early opera buffa to the perfection of the genre in the hands of Rossini and Donizetti. Unfortunately, Galuppi’s least-known opera remains largely obscure to contemporary audiences and is almost never performed. Recordings are few and fetch a dear price if and when they appear on the used market. In recent years, a successful Anconan agribusiness mogul has been working to remedy this sad situation by funding a new recording of Il deficiente with period instruments and very detailed notes; we can only hope that his enterprise can give this work the hearing it so richly deserves.

Cheap fonts are worse than Hitler

July 7th, 2009  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

This video is pretty lowbrow, and some of the subtitles are in poor taste, but it did make me laugh until I cried. (Via Hoefler & Frere-Jones on Twitter.)

Shooting 2012 style

July 6th, 2009  |  Tags: ,  |  Leave a comment

Here’s a thought I had earlier tonight: consider photo-manipulation novelty software — the kind of programs that make contemporary digital pictures look like they were taken with a Polaroid instant camera or a lomography camera or a 35mm film camera loaded with Velvia, or whatever. (Good examples of this kind of software include Poladroid and CameraBag.)

Now, consider that conventional incandescent light bulbs will be illegal in 2012, and consider also that most people will probably still not have learned to adjust the white balance on their digital cameras by then. Imagine the years of surreal, unnatural snapshots that will accumulate under these conditions. Doesn’t it seem probable that future photo-manipulation novelty software will have a “2012” setting that turns all skin tones pallid before overlaying an unnatural green cast?

Consider this camera-phone snapshot of a young golfer taking a break from throwing his ball in the river. After applying the “2012” filter, we could get this extremely desirable and artistic effect (see before and after side-by-side to fully appreciate the subtle coloration differences). In fact, we are able to apply the 2012 indoor-lighting effect even to photos, like our golfer example, that were taken in inferior natural light, leading to endless creative applications. Do you need to give your office picnic photos that “in the office” feel? Simply use the 2012 filter!

In order to bring you the example above, I have painstakingly reproduced the effect of untamed fluorescent lighting with advanced signal processing techniques and many difficult longhand calculations. Obviously, only the most dedicated hobbyists and professional photographers would be able to devote such effort to enhancing their photos. However, it is hard for me to see how this effect, once automated in software or hardware, could not revolutionize the digital photography of the future.

Computer science and plumbing

May 12th, 2009  |  Tags: , , ,  |  1 Comment

I enjoyed this comment by Marc Hamann in a discussion of MIT’s switch away from SICP for undergraduate computer science education; the whole comment is thought-provoking, but this excerpt is especially delightful:

Somewhat more facetiously, I have to suggest that maybe they are just being merciful to their students, since it seems that many people, seduced by the excitement of SICP, go on to suffer miserably in their career as API and framework plumbers, wishing that being a programmer was actually the elegant and rational process that Abelson and Sussman had made it out to be.

SICP, if read carefully and properly, presents almost an entire undergraduate computer science curriculum in a semester. It’s a shame that MIT EECS students won’t be drinking from that firehose any more. Furthermore, I have long believed that Scheme is unbeatable as a language for teaching computer scientists rather than programmers. (Although “unbeatable” implies a partial ordering: I’d guess it’s possible to argue that Haskell or an ML-family language is equally suitable.)

Iron law of pancakes

April 1st, 2009  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

Pancakes taste awesome but are bad for you; these are both necessary properties of pancakes. To attempt to design “pancakes” that are not unhealthy will surely result in pancake-like foodstuffs that are only marginally less healthy but taste substantially worse. As such, so doing is not only a waste of time, but a crime against logic.

I speak from substantial experience, both with contingency and with pancakes.

Mustard watches

January 23rd, 2009  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment

It seems impossible that I haven’t already linked to Jean-Yves Girard’s pseudonymous masterwork “Mustard Watches: An Integrated Approach to Time and Food,” but it looks like I haven’t. Enjoy.

Rent-a-coder hilarity

November 26th, 2008  |  Tags: , , ,  |  1 Comment

This amazing “want-ad” for an impossible task is maybe the greatest thing I’ve seen on the internet this fiscal quarter:

The purpose of this project is to create a debugger program. This program will take as input the source code another program, and will analyze that other program and determine if it will run to completion, or have an error, or go into an infinite loop.

Predictably, many “bidding contractors” are in on the joke — “KurtG” and “GeorgeCantor” make appearances — but the best part are the completely earnest, form-letter replies from contractors who are willing to get this done on time and under budget, like this fellow (all errors are in the original):

Dear Sir/Madam, I looked at your bid request and I am here to tell you that we are really interested in this project and we are exacatly the coders you are looking for. I assure you that we can really do it the way you want.In 15 days we can bring you high quality results to your complete satisfaction, along with 90 days of warranty upon the delivery of the final version of our product. We’re looking forward to starting this project as soon as possible. Just give us a chance , you will never be disappointed. Its not about doing it , its about doing it professionally exactly according to the requirements.

Just awesome. One wonders what other undecidable problems could be contracted out for less than a grand. It would almost be worth the money to get one of these firms — especially those with an ironclad guarantee — to produce a deliverable.

UPDATE: all of the comments are now gone. Fortunately, I anticipated this and saved a screendump (pdf link).

(thanks to mef for the link)

All seventeen sections

September 5th, 2008  |  Tags: , , ,  |  Leave a comment


(Click for the whole picture.)

You aren’t just required to indicate that you accept the Terms of Use; rather, you’re required to indicate that you have read and agree with all seventeen sections of the Terms of Use. It’s like they’re telling me that I shouldn’t even consider moving the scroll bar before clicking “Submit.”

  • Mark Pilgrim: “I never really understood how people found bugs like this until I had kids.” My experience confirms that toddlers are experts at fuzz testing.



August 2nd, 2008  |  Tags: , , , ,  |  Leave a comment


I recommend to everyone — but especially to my friends finishing dissertations, and doubly especially to those in Computer Science — Olin Shivers’ amazing acknowledgments section from the scsh manual, which I first encountered as a young Scheme nerd a long time ago. (Philip Greenspun’s gloss on Prof. Shivers’ acknowledgments is pretty delightful as well; scroll ahead to the second block quotation and prepare to be amazed.)


Speaking of acknowledgments, I make brief and jocular reference to the “preface paradox” in the draft preface of my dissertation. This is one of my favorite paradoxes (originally due to David C. Makinson). The basic idea is that a writer believes every individual claim in a manuscript is true (or else he or she would not have committed them to paper); however, some writers claim that their work inevitably will be found to contain some errors. As a consequence, writers are in the curious position of believing the conjunction of every claim in a book and believing the negation of the conjunction of every claim in a book. Whether or not this is irrational is — I guess — an open question with a few plausible solutions.

  • Thanks to Mark Eli Kalderon for bringing this cartoon to my attention.