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Jul. 21st, 2016 @ 06:02 pm Inspector Spacetime and the Sorcerer's Nuts
I was recently watching Community, and there's an excellent parody, Inspector Spacetime. It starts as a throw-away joke and I worried it might be a bit cringe-worthy, but Abed and Troy return to it over the season until there's a whole host of stuff about it. I hear some fans even made a spin-off (they changed the title).

It's a parody of Old Who. But it doesn't just take the most obvious traits and change the names slightly (though it does that too with Dalek-analogues etc). It amplifies. It takes the concept of the police-box and doctor's attitude and the doctor's time with UNIT and rolls them up into a simple idea where Inspector Spacetime is more directly police-detective themed. Which wasn't in the original, but is somehow even more true to it.

In Inspector Spacetime, there *was* a female incarnation, but many fans hated her (implied to be a combination of disliking the character, and disliking having a female character at all). And the characters argue whether that was a good thing (because more representation) or bad thing (because they didn't like it). All those parts come from Doctor Who, even though that combination never actually happened.

Likewise, sluggy freelance made an excellent parody of Harry Potter. It was occasionally a bit gross. But it didn't seem hostile to its target, as too many Potter parodies are. Rather, it affectionately continued many things people like about the original (Dumbledore being in charge, the camaraderie of the school, etc) while massively playing up everything that was potentially out of place (how dumbledore can be annoying when he orders people around, how the plot is carefully set up, but doesn't always make sense internally).

In particular, for book #2, the monster is NOT a giant snake. It's a completely DIFFERENT monster that incapacitates people in an entirely DIFFERENT way that JUST SO HAPPENS to be caused three different ways for three different victims, giving a clue as to the monster's actual (ridiculous) underlying nature.


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Jun. 27th, 2016 @ 01:20 pm Islamic Calendar
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AIUI the Islamic calendar is purely lunar. ie. the year is a fixed number of lunar months, and the seasons drift round the year, unlike a solar calendar (Gregorian) or lunisolar (Jewish, Chinese (?)).

Traditionally, a month starts when you first see the new moon. However, with astronomical calculation, it's easy to predict what day you are GOING to see the moon (provided it's not cloudy). There's also an understanding that after thirty days you move on to the next month anyway, so even if you follow the traditional system, the months never *accumulate* errors, there's always one month per new moon, and if one starts a bit late, it's correspondingly shorter.

In particular, this Ramadan, for many people following the traditional system, it started one day late, but it finishes a day late at random other years, not particularly the same year it started late, so it's likely everyone will celebrate finishing at the same time.

What I could NOT find in a quick google was which countries used which calendar in practice, for civil use (Gregorian or an astronomical version of the Islamic calendar? usually not an observation-based Islamic calendar?) and which countries' tradition used which calendar for religious festivals (astronomical calendar? observation calendar)? I'd assumed that would be fairly obvious, anyone able to fill me in?

This came about, because someone was complaining that in order to get timezone code correct, you had to take into account that Egypt cancelled daylight saving during ramadan. But I don't know what calendar they actually used for that.

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Jun. 27th, 2016 @ 01:07 pm More books
Runemarks, Joanne Harris

Lent by ghoti, I've wanted to read this for ages and I really enjoyed it.

It's set in a world after Ragnarok, when many of the gods are dead or weakened, and humanity is slowly regaining ground. The magic is really interesting, based on runemarks, both people born with them, and incorporated into various spells. The protagonist is born with a mark, which everyone in her village distrusts; she meets a mysterious one-eyed stranger; and eventually travels to the various underworlds.

Apparently Harris wrote lots of quite *different* books, so I should look to see if there's any others I might like.

Scorpion Rules

In the future, peace is kept between nations by keeping hostages of the people closest to power, of whom the protagonist is one. I'd hoped for more actual politics, but enjoyed descriptions of her mostly-pastoral hostage life, and the AI who rules the world and set up this system.

Iron Druid #N, Kevin Hearne

Urban fantasy about an immortal pre-Christian Irish druid, now on a par with many of the gods, but constantly on the run from his own pantheon. He forged an iron talisman which turns his aura to iron, which makes it harder to do some magic, but makes him immune to most of the magic of the Tuatha De Danann, his his epithet.

Generally enjoyable. It feels a bit fussy, with too much "every possible myth is true", and not enough overarching plot, but not as much as many urban fantasy. I kind of think it might be horrible offensive to people actually from Ireland, though I don't know enough to know either way.

Russel's Attic

Thanks to everyone who recommended this to me, I finally read it. Urban fantasy without much fantasy (?) about a woman whose superhuman maths powers give her supernatural physical skills, who works as a PI/retrieval specialist/mercenary. And runs into trouble defending herself from a secret organisation with mind-control powers.

I love her relationship with the other characters, the obligatory mercenary-sociopath-with-a-close-bond-to-the-protagonist, the hacker, the PI-who-didn't-intend-to-get-this-deep.

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Jun. 22nd, 2016 @ 01:09 pm Rafi Zarum: Defecation and the Divine
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Traditional Jewish prayer for after going to the toilet

So if you don't already know, the most interesting thing about it is that there IS one. It talks about how we're grateful for the orifices and sphincters because we couldn't live without it.

Lots of people have an instinct that it's not really appropriate to mix defecation and prayer. And there's some of that in Judaism, eg. you're not supposed to pray on a toilet. But a big part of his talk was quoting bits of talmud about toilets, to illustrate, there's nothing _bad_ about it, it's like things like sex (and maybe surgery?) which are great and good topics for prayer, even if you're not supposed to mix the two.

Although he never explicitly SAID that distinction. I think it might have been helpful if he had, rather than just giving pro-toilet examples without explaining the distinction explicitly. (I got a lot of this from hatam_soferet's comments on liv's post.)

The overall thesis

I felt like I was missing background here, like there was some cultural disconnect. His overall thesis was related to the fact the prayer refers to god as roughly "throne of glory" and also (?) uses "throne" in reference to the toilet. And there's most probably SOME connection implied there.

But he seemed to imply it was more than that. Which seemed very odd, like, the rest of the talk made the point that it was ok to pray about bodily functions as much as anything else. But (I don't know, but I got the impression that?) it's really shocking to imply God might do _anything_ physical, even eat -- and I didn't get the impression that defection was so much MORE holy it was ok to talk about God doing it.

But I was clearly missing something, like he didn't EXPECT to prove that thesis. He just wanted to advance it. And I guess that's partly him, and partly a tradition of commentary? After all, most talks don't have a thesis they even pretend to prove. But partly, I'm frustrated because if someone SAYS they're going to prove something, I'm not used to the idea I'm not supposed to believe them.

And partly I'm frustrated because I'm really interested in this sort of cross-cultural meta-conventions about study and prayer, but people rarely *talk* about them, even though it might be something Rafi could do very well.


In fact, I get the impression he's rushed off his feet delivering these popular talmud sessions. He always encourages people to participate with ideas and interpretations (less so this time, but more in other sessions I've been in), how you're supposed to when studying something. But a few things made me realise he maybe usually lacks time or preparation to really *engage* with any of those comments, except by plowing ahead with his thesis. So he's still a really good popular educator, but I'm sometimes left not sure what I'm missing.

R. Akiva follows R. Yehoshua into a bathroom and spies on him

He followed with half a dozen pieces of Talmud which supported his thesis in some way, but really, one of the most interesting aspect of the talk is just seeing them in their own right.

R. Akiva: Once I followed my teacher R Yehoshua into a bathroom and watched what he did, so I would know the most appropriate way to go to the bathroom.
Ben Azai: And "not spying on people" you didn't think you could figure out for yourself?
R. Akiva: How to go to the bathroom is part of the teachings (oral Torah?), I had to learn it!
R: Kahana: It's funny you should say that, because I hid under your bed and listened to you with your wife. You chatted and giggled like new lovers. I had to learn how to behave in the bedroom, it was part of the teachings.
R. Akiva: *with a straight face* That was highly inappropriate.

It's also followed by a passage where rabbis argue why you should wipe with the left hand. Because you eat with the right. Because you wrap tefillin with the right. Etc. I'm not sure if any of them end with the obvious answer "all of the above".

The dangers of learning from Joshua the Nazarene

Liv linked to a partial translation here: https://www.ou.org/life/torah/masechet_shevuot_13a19b/

R. Eliezer was accosted by a follower of Jesus (or, so we guess), commonly supposed to be James (?). He proposed a point of teaching, which is implicitly not traditionally correct, but R. Eliezer was amused/moved by the argument, and even though he didn't respond, came under suspicion of following the teachings of Christianity, which was illegal at the time, and temporarily arrested by the Roman authorities.

What's fascinating is that it's one of the few (possible?) mentions of Jesus in the Talmud. And it gives me dissonance, in that I know much Talmud was written down about the same time as Jesus, but they don't easily go together in my head. R. Eliezer stars in such stories as the oven of achnai, where he pursues an academic argument by making increasingly impossible miracles, culminating in being outvoted shortly after God speaks from the sky to endorse him personally. And is exiled, and loses it, and gazes on the crops and sea, which are ruined wherever he looks. It's like the time of myths. But then there's other stories like this one where he bustles around early-AD middle east going to market, administrating universities, arguing with political authorities, etc. (Right?)

And the particular point in question was, it was forbidden to use money from exploitation and vice[1] as donation to the temple (subject to a lot of details). The disciple asked if it was appropriate to use it for the high priest's privy, that already being full of uncleanliness in some sense. And this gives a very strange view of how jewish leaders at the time might have viewed christianity at the time (or the temple for that matter). Eliezer is inconvenienced by being associated with Christianity, but he doesn't recoil shouting "blashphemer, blasphemer". And the christian disciple is more persecuted, but not so much he can't stop in the middle of the market to buttonhole rabbis and have theological arguments.

It seems likely this is an implicit criticism or mocking of Jesus' followers' beliefs of the time SOMEHOW but I don't know the context to say how. I don't know if that's something Jesus' followers WOULD have had an opinion on, or if it's supposed to discredit them.

[1] The translation is fee from a prostitute, but I prefer to read that as the bad thing being betrayal of vows, exploitation, or whatever, rather than prostitution per se, anyone able to add details?

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Jun. 21st, 2016 @ 01:06 pm Cambridge Limmud
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On Sunday, Liv and I, ghoti and cjwatson, and youngest and middle child attended cambridge limmud, a one-day Jewish conference. At some point, I got lucky or got better at judging which talks would actually be interesting to me, and went to several talks I'm really glad I got to see.

And maybe because I've started carrying caffeine pills, which I resolutely do not use day-to-day, but I find really useful if I'm at an all day event, or in a foreign city, and even if there is tea/coffee readily available, it may be inconvenient to actually get hold of it.

The limmud makes a big effort to have an actual children's program, with things that are exciting to go to and several of the same speakers as the adult program, and not just be somewhere to leave children. Middle child loves people and really loved it -- hummus making, drumming, puppet show, a little bit of the aleph-bet etc. Youngest child finds it quite difficult to meet new people, he said "i don't always like adults", and I sympathised a lot. But we were allowed to sit with him, and after a couple of sessions of wanting ghoti, I was really impressed he joined in a lot of things. He was always good at cooking (I am in awe, I'm only now really learning any cooking) and also colouring, and talking to people. And said he was looking forward to next year!

The organisation was pretty good. There were a few problems, but none really evident to me. It was a bit smaller than the previous one, but they managed to get the popular speakers into the big rooms so there was no-one turned away, which had sometimes been a problem. Lunch is always tricky to arrange, but was handled fairly well.

Talks I went to:

Calne - a famous transplant surgeon (?) who talked about the ratchet of science, how science always gets more, not less, and we have an obligation not to build dangerous things with it. With a smattering of interesting history and philosophy. I kept expecting him to make some overall philosophical argument, but I never really heard it.

Freedman - expert on Middle East problems. Mostly conflicts between other countries, not Israel. It was mostly about "why it's so difficult", but to felt optimistic in that it was at least talking about how things could improve, even if it was hard to ever achieve.

Rita Rudner -- light anecdotes about her life story and life in hollywood

Rafi Zarum - talmud study for non-experts, he does this a lot and is a really good speaker. This was on the prayer for after going to the toilet. Pending a post about it.

Boyarin -- a real scholar, always talking about something that doesn't really exist at all yet, usually to be future published in a book, he was the one I was most excited about. But I correctly predicted it would be full of digressions on the bits he was working on this month, and hedged around with detailed justifications of dating of texts etc some people will find controversial but I'd be happy to take his word for, and generally I didn't have enough background to understand. So I sent liv and cjwatson to listen, and went to Freedman instead, and made them promise to explain it to me at length afterwards which worked pretty well. May be a future post coming.

Levine -- talking about how what some of Jesus' parables might have been interpreted by people belonging to jewish tradition at the time. I love that sort of thing, and she apparently published an annotated NT in addition to some other books, which we should maybe seek out. And she was a hilarious and effective speaker. However, I had some reservations about the actual examples she used, I didn't get any good idea what they might have meant other than "not what Luke said", and when they're only known via Luke, you can only go so far in expecting Luke to have preserved a clarity of meaning different to the one he said they meant. May be a future post coming.

Also see liv and ghoti's write up:

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Jun. 15th, 2016 @ 11:02 am Endless Hell and SMS
There's a story. I can't remember where I saw it (slatestarcodex?) It was really creepy. It described someone in hell, and he/she/they were walking across an endless desert, getting thirstier and thirstier, never relieved, never dying. And after an endless aeon, the devil came to them, and offered them a different hell. And he/she wouldn't tell them anything about the alternative, but they thought "anything but this".

And inevitably, the alternative was infinitely worse, and they suffered for another aeon, all the time thinking this was worse than anything and they wished they'd stayed in the desert. All the time blaming themself, and feeling they brought it on themselves. And then the devil came to them again, and offered them the choice to be put into a different hell. And they thought "I know it was a mistake, but anything at all is better than THIS".

And of course they were wrong, and the suffering was even worse, and they wished they could go back to the second hell. And this pattern repeated every aeon for eternity, getting ever worse and ever more self-blaming.

So anyway, it turns out, when I get an SMS, now google hangouts says, "would you like to install google's SMS messaging app?" and I say "surely it's more convenient than hangouts?"

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Jun. 7th, 2016 @ 12:28 pm Recent media
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Caped anthology

A collection of superhero short stories. Not a must-read, but I found all were a good read in a different way.

Archivist Wasp, book

Which was on the wiki of "potential hugo nominations" with a great title. I loved the basic setting, a post-apocalyptic world, where the protagonist is honoured/trapped as the archivist, ghost-hunter, forced each year by the priest to fight to the death to keep her role as intermediate to the supernatural. Straining to keep the community safe from dangerous ghosts, and to record what scraps of information she can, to add to the archives for future archivists.

Then she meets a pre-apocalypse (or contemporary-with-apocalypse) ghost, much stronger than any other, and they flee together, passing through the ghost underworld, and... Well, I liked the start but got bored, so I didn't finish it.

Quantum Thief, Hannu Rajaniemi

I loved the premise here, all about life in a mostly-post-uplift solar system. The inner planets are ruled by some of the cabal who were uplifted first, now effectively Gods. The Oubliette is one of the few havens for non-uplifted, but ruled by a massive shared exo-memory, people share or refuse permissions from. Other humans live in the Oort cloud. Jean Le Flambeur is an anti-hero thief, with unspecified ties to the "gods", broken out of a virtual prison to recover... something from Oubliette.

When I first read it, I completely bounced off it. On second reading, all that mostly made sense to me, and I was really interested in it. But I wasn't sure how consistent it could be, if it would be kept up for the following books or not. I will probably try them at some point.

And it constantly felt like they waved "quantum" around as magic, and I'm not sure, if my understanding is lacking, or the book's is.

Better Call Saul

The prequel series to Breaking Bad, about Jimmy McGill (later aka Saul Goodman), an ex-huckster small-time lawyer trying to make good, and torn between his impulses to "be basically decent", "screw everything up" and "open his mouth at the wrong time". From the reviews it sounded like I would enjoy it more than BB, and I quite enjoyed the first half-a-dozen episodes, but then I mostly lost interest.

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Jun. 6th, 2016 @ 01:02 pm Saturday morning watchmen

The fictional saturday morning cartoon version of Watchmen was really funny. But it also looked pretty fun. Like actually, maybe a lot of what people responded to in watchmen was the characters, the worldbuilding... things which were good but separate from the "real life superheros would suck" message, and could be incorporated into an annoyingly-up show just as easily as an annoyingly-down show.

Just like you have Batman appearing in heroic, campy, and grimdark versions.

And in some ways, it's making the same parody about how the low collateral damage of of superhero fights used to be unrealistically low, but showing them EVER LOWER, rather than VERY HIGH :)

But also, given how relentless grimdark has become since, "happy watchmen" might be almost as subversive now as the original was :)

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Jun. 6th, 2016 @ 12:57 pm Uninitialised variable
In C and C++, you should avoid using an uninitialised variable for several reasons, not least of which, it's undefined behaviour (?) But in practice, what are the relative likelihoods of the (I think?) permitted outcomes:

(a) it being treated as some unknown value
(b) the following code being deleted by the compiler
(c) something even weirder happening?

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Jun. 6th, 2016 @ 12:45 pm Compile to C
Why don't more languages compile to C?

It seems like, you can use your own memory manager etc if you want, and any specifics you want to optimise you can write a specific optimiser for, but even if it's a mess of pre-optimised assembly-in-C and higher-level-C, there's already a C compiler for most target systems, which produces reasonable machine code.

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