Take That, iPhone!

Published at 15:01 on 11 April 2024

After a recent update, my iPhone started letting me control my headphone volume from threshold of pain loud to insane instant deafness loud. I guess some aging hipster who ruined his hearing going to too many rock concerts without hearing protection got appointed to a QC position at Apple.

Based on what I had read about human sound perception, I guessed I needed about 6 dB of attenuation to tame the thing. A simple matter of adding four resistors to the picture (two for each channel, one in series to cut the voltage in half, and another in parallel to restore the impedance the audio amplifier sees to what used to be pre-attenuator).

The worst part about it was all the fiddly soldering (those connectors have some tiny terminals). But it works, and 6 dB was indeed the correct amount of attenuation needed to restore sanity to the device.

Spreadsheets Suck, Here’s Why

Published at 23:31 on 2 April 2024

It’s the math.

Specifically, they all (at least all the leading ones: Microsoft Excel, Apple Numbers, and Libre Office Calc) use floating point numbers and arithmetic.

Fractional radix digits are only capable of accurately representing numbers whose prime factors contain only factors of the radix. For the sort of base 10 numbers we are familiar with, this means that any fraction whose denominator can be represented as a product of 2’s and 5’s can be represented. As an example, 8 factors to 2³, so eighths can be represented with complete accuracy as decimal fractions. It takes three digits, of course, because 10³ (2³ ✕ 5³) is the lowest power of 10 that is an even multiple of 8, but you can do it. And really, three digits isn’t that bad.

If you use a denominator that cannot so be represented, then you get an infinitely-long repeating fractional part. The canonical example of this is ⅓ turning into 0.3333333….

But computers use base 2, not base 10, and this creates a problem. 2 is itself prime, so fractional radix digits in binary notation can only represent denominators that are powers of 2 accurately, and nothing else. Everything else turns into a number with an infinitely-long repeating fractional part.

This is a big problem, because one of the most common uses of spreadsheets is financial calculations, and floating point number can only represent monetary amounts as small as 25 cents accurately. If a financial quantity does not end in .00, .25, .50, or .75, your spreadsheet is representing it wrong! Only slightly wrong, of course, but still wrong. And if you are adding and subtracting enough numbers together, eventually the result will be wrong by a penny or two.

It is for this reasons that banks use decimal arithmetic, not a processor’s built-in floating point arithmetic, for their financial calculations. They don’t want their customers’ balances to drift from reality by a few pennies per year. Banks have done this since just about forever. COBOL, one of the oldest high-level programming languages out there, and designed for business computing, uses decimal arithmetic by default, and this is why.

The rationale for spreadsheets not doing likewise is for “performance” reasons, but frankly, that is a load of horse hockey. Yes, built-in floating point calculations are faster. But the performance hit from using decimal arithmetic is far from a deal-killer. COBOL dates from around 1960, when computers had only a tiny fraction of the computing power they do today, yet COBOL programs ran just fine way back then, and cranked out accurate results without gratuitous rounding errors. (Plus, your average spreadsheet is a lot smaller than your average batch of bank transactions to process.)

I was going to make more use of spreadsheets in figuring my income taxes this year, but after learning the above I am mostly sticking with good old dc, which uses decimal arithmetic. (Actually, it uses base 100, but when it comes to avoiding rounding errors, base 100 works identically to base 10, since the latter is a power of the former.)

The US/Israel Relationship May Change Soon

Published at 10:22 on 16 March 2024

In other words, it may change from unqualified support to conditional support. (It will not change any more, at least not at first. Sorry. This is like turning a large ship; big changes in course happen slowly.)

Israel is pressing ahead with plans for an offensive in Rafah, despite being warned not to, and despite criticism from previously uncritical figures in the USA.

Why do something that is likely to be a blunder, even when viewed in purely self-interested terms? What I call cognitive shorthand. In planning the next day’s activities, one does not spend much time pondering if the sun will rise and set, and when it is likely to. It is taken as a given that this will happen, and at almost exactly the same times it did today. Mental energy is to be spent pondering the variables that are actually variables, and taking the constants as givens.

For the entire time that I have had any degree of political awareness, since approximately my early teen years, the USA has supported Israel no matter what. It has been taken as virtually mandatory that all officeholders profess their unwavering support for Israel.

This has always struck me as odd, given that also for the entire time I have been aware of politics, Israel has been colonizing land seized in warfare, in contravention of international law. That almost never got criticized by any US figure with any degree of political power, and if any such individual did make the criticism, it was usually very weak and qualified, and there was almost always blowback for making the criticism. The blowback often ended in apology and a proclamation of unwavering support for Israel. Departures from this norm were taken as departures from respectable, mainstream politics.

Given that level of decades-long support, it was natural for Israelis to engage in cognitive shorthand, and take it as a given. And for decades, this worked perfectly. Israel would do whatever it wanted, and the USA would publicly back Israel. If you are a small country, it is great to have that sort of power, particularly if you have larger, hostile neighbours.

Old habits can die hard, and it seems that the Netanyahu regime is failing to revisit its cognitive shorthand, despite all the recent evidence that some assumed constants have now become variables. Maybe they are focusing on the weakness in Schumer’s latest speech, instead of the more significant fact that he made the speech at all.

It won’t be the first time a regime’s hubris ends up costing it, and it won’t be the last time, either.

Israel’s Self-Inflicted Decline Seems to Be Accelerating

Published at 17:19 on 14 March 2024

This is actually quite significant. Congress’ most powerful Jew, and one of Israel’s staunchest allies there, is issuing criticism of Israel far harsher than anything he has done so far in his entire (and lengthy) political career.

One could focus on how far it falls short, and I am certain most Left sources will. Yes, his proposal that Netanyahu step aside once the war is over is both weak sauce and incredibly naïve; it merely puts Netanyahu on notice that he can remain in power so long as he prolongs the war. It is pretty obvious what that will accomplish in the short term.

But it doesn’t matter so much. What is important is that a politician who never previously let any daylight show between his public stance and Israeli state policy now feels free to criticize Israel and Israeli imperialism.

The reputational decline of which I wrote earlier is, in fact, accelerating more rapidly than I thought it would. Criticize Schumer for making a baby step if you wish (I just did above), but realize it is a larger baby step, and it happened sooner, than many would have thought possible.

Either Netanyahu’s days are far more numbered than many think, or the days of the US-Israel alliance are far more numbered than many think, or perhaps both. Which it is, is largely up to an Israeli public that increasingly leans right.

If they choose to follow apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia into the wilderness of international isolation, Israel will end up like those two apartheid regimes did. If money talks, and they want to remain part of the Western world, with Western affluence, for the Palestinians it doesn’t matter so much that it was done grudgingly and for self-interested reasons instead of enthusiastically and altruistically. Progress is progress.

Yes, significant progress on the Palestine issue may be likely, and far sooner than many think.

Update: Yet more evidence emerged today of the damage Israel is inflicting upon itself.

Next Comes the “Terrorism”

Published at 09:58 on 13 March 2024

In quotes only because it, and not the Israeli offensive that provoked it, will end up being labelled “terrorism” in the Establishment media. Because of course this will happen. “Terrorism” is, and always has been, a subjective label, used for propaganda purposes to delegitimize  violence with which one disagrees.

And yes, I have used the term in these pages before. Which, yes, means I was posting propaganda to delegitimize violence with which I disagreed. Because of course I post propaganda here. Pretty much everyone with a set of political beliefs (which means pretty much anyone who cares about things political) makes propaganda.

Propaganda per se is not evil or immoral. What is dishonest is to paint propaganda as if it were impartial news.

But I digress. A big new round of acts of political violence on the part of the Arab and Muslim world, particularly the Palestinian subset of it, against the West, particularly Israel and the USA, is coming.

Why wouldn’t it be, seeing as how brutalized Gaza has been in recent months? I really can’t think of any examples of comparable brutality that have passed without further cycles of retribution to some degree. Anyone who believes Israel’s disproportionate retaliation for the events of October 7th will be the final word in what is now a near century-long ongoing conflict is a fool.

And it seems as if the intelligence community, whatever its faults, is not run by fools. So it’s hardly just me that can see it.

Israeli Barbarism

Published at 09:50 on 3 March 2024

Really, it is hard to call this anything but pure, unvarnished barbarism. Probably the most damning part of the article is this bit:

Dr Husam Abu Safyia, director of Gaza’s Kamal Adwan Hospital, said the majority of the injured taken there had gunshot wounds in the upper part of their bodies, and many of the deaths were from gunshots to the head, neck or chest.

So they deliberately opened fire on starving civilians and shot to kill. Pure barbarism.

And I think it is important to use the b-word to refer to what the Netanyahu regime is doing. That term has historically been used as part of gaslighting propaganda by Western nations to justify their own imperialist barbarism, by accusing those they are “civilizing” as being saved from it.

And Zionism is hardly exempt from this. From Theodor Herzl’s 1896 pamphlet Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State):

We should there [in Palestine] form a portion of the rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism.

Needless to say (but I have to say it, else some stooge for Israeli barbarism might bring it up) “but October 7th” is not a valid answer to this. Yes, what Hamas did on that day was barbarism, too. So what? As I wrote last November two wrongs don’t make a right.

Israeli barbarism is now causing more death and suffering than Palestinian barbarism ever did. It is the greater problem, and it is logical to spend more political energy on addressing it.

And it is barbarism. If the b-word fits, use it.

A Problem and Some Capitalist Snake Oil

Published at 09:53 on 1 March 2024

One of the things I did when packing up and cleaning out in Bellingham was listen to NPR. You see, I live just below a ridge to my south, so my home is blocked by that ridge from receiving FM radio signals from the USA. It’s one of the mildly annoying features of my home.

One of the things I heard was a segment from On Point about the problems some US military barracks are having with mold infestations. So far, so good: the government is responsible for the housing needs of those enlisted to serve, and it is a dereliction of duty to fail to supply safe, hygienic housing.

The problem comes at the end when privatization was sold as a silver bullet. Not study to uncover the root causes of the problem. Not spending money to exterminate the mold and rectify those causes. Privatization.

Changing the ownership of a mold-infested building does absolutely nothing to make the mold go away. In fact, it can easily make it harder to get rid of the mold. Before, the Army owned the building. Issue the necessary orders and spend the necessary money to remove the mold and rectify the defects that let the mold fester. Now, someone else owns the building; everything is at an arm’s length. Not so easy to issue orders to a private business over what that business is to do with its own property.

The military already has plenty of problems overseeing private contractors, to the end that such contractors are already routinely implicated in wasteful spending. I once, long ago, worked in that sector, and from personal experience, private defence contractors combine the avarice of private enterprise, the insulation from market forces of government bureaucracy, and the secrecy of the national security establishment. Approximately as good an incubator of corruption and waste as those unsanitary barracks are of mold.

In fact, there has already been some limited privatization of military housing and (surprise, surprise) the military has already struggled with ensuring that the private contractors don’t cut corners and deliver unacceptable results.

The arguments offered for privatization were very weak. So weak, in fact, that if you look into those arguments, you find that they are actually arguments against privatization. First was the (totally unsupported) assertion that “this cannot be solved through the traditional military construction process.” Then there was some mumbling about how “Congress just won’t appropriate” and “We’ve got to use the capital markets to do this.”

Well, if Congress won’t spend money fixing up those barracks, why will private businesses? Just to altruistically be nice? It is to laugh: Capitalists are in business to make money. No, that money will have to come from the government, via the fees it pays to the contractors. Go look up cost-plus and get back to me.

If Congress won’t spend money on fixing up those barracks directly, why would it spend money on hiring private businesses to fix them up? Once again, capitalists are in business to make money. Now you not only have the labour and materials costs of construction to contend with, you have the profits of a capitalist as well. Those profits are not going to come from some secret orchard of money trees the capitalist knows about. They are going to come out of money the government pays the capitalist. In other words, costs to the government will go up, not down, if the traditional military construction process (done at cost) is privatized. Congratulations! The gap between available funds and necessary funds has now grown wider.

So far as the “capital markets” go, again, the problem is worse with privatization. Capitalists get to borrow money from the private capital markets. Banks charge borrowers rates in excess of interest paid to savers. Of course they do: bankers are capitalists, too, and have to get their profits from someplace. You can cut the bankers out of the picture with bonds, of course, but the government can do this as well. And since government bonds are backed by the full faith and credit of the government, while private businesses can and sometimes do go bankrupt, the government can get away with paying bondholders less interest, because it doesn’t have to reward them for accepting the additional risk of private bonds. Again, congratulations! You are now spending more to borrow money.

It all makes me wonder who is paying the two “experts” this show interviewed. I would be very surprised to learn that they and/or their spouses are not in some way invested in businesses likely to be hired as contractors under the privatization schemes they are arguing for.

None of the above downsides of privatization were, of course, mentioned in the program. It just ended on a high note of free-market pixie dust being able to work its magic, if only the bad old Congress would allow it to.

And this was on NPR, the allegedly left-leaning public radio network that is supposed to be at the best capitalism-sketpical. No wonder the parameters of public dialogue are so badly skewed in the USA.

Oh Yeah? Well I’ll Double Dog Sanction You!

Published at 23:26 on 23 February 2024

Frankly, that’s what this sounds like. And I doubt it will be significantly more effective than the original sanctions.

Sanctions have their limits, particularly when the world is addicted to the fossil fuels that are the sanctionee’s main export.

Three Thoughts on the Passing of Navalny

Published at 08:09 on 16 February 2024

Of course Putin did it. If Putin didn’t order it directly, he did so indirectly by having Navalny jailed and sent to a penal colony in Siberia famed for its harsh conditions. And why wouldn’t Putin order it directly? An astounding number of his opponents have suddenly, mysteriously, and prematurely dropped dead. The odds of all those deaths simply being coincidence are so small as to be safely disregarded.

The West, particularly the USA, is being hypocritical about it. There has recently been a little bit of daylight allowed to show between US and Israeli foreign policy, but the USA is still shovelling military aid Israel’s way as it ruthlessly pummels the troublesome Palestinians in Gaza. Plus the USA is now dropping bombs on Iraq with the stated aim of offing more enemies (and no doubt some innocent civilians as well). Plenty of disrespect for human life there, yet not a whole lot of concern about it. So spare me the excess sanctimony.

Trump, and many of his followers, dream of being able to do this. Because of course they do. They, and only they, are in their eyes the only “real” Americans; everyone who dissents from their politics is a threat to the nation. Trump and his followers openly admire Putin, and they do so not in spite of his tactics, but because of them. Trump already regularly uses words like “vermin” to refer to his adversaries. What does one do to vermin? What does one do to rats or roaches if one finds them in one’s house?

Starting to Win on Palestine

Published at 15:19 on 12 February 2024

This is what a win on Palestine looks like at this point.

You didn’t think the decades-long policy of backing Israel no matter what would suddenly end completely, did you? Because longstanding policies locked in by iron triangles just do not vanish in one fell swoop.

That there is any daylight now publicly showing between US and Israeli foreign policy is nothing short of amazing. That it is happening via a joint message from a US president and an Arab leader adds to the significance.

That accelerating decline in the State of Israel’s reputation of which I mentioned earlier, plus growing public sympathy for the Palestinian cause, is starting to work its changes.