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Stars in tree twigs

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"...this five-pointed (also called five-angled) star shape is common in Populus (aspen, poplar, cottonwood) and Salix species (members of the willow family) but is also found in oaks (Quercus), and chestnut (Castanea). The pith inside a stem is made of parenchyma (large, thin-walled cells), which are often a different color than surrounding wood (xylem). The pith’s function is to transport and store nutrients. Pith is usually lighter when new, but darkens with time (as seen in images like these of cottonwood “stars”).

Mowry’s story notes the importance of cottonwood to the belief systems of Native American tribes: the Lakota, the Cheyenne, the Arapaho, and the Oglala Sioux. Pacific Northwest naturalist and poet Robert Michael Pyle’s essay, “The Plains Cottonwood” (American Horticulturist, August 1993, pp.39-42),  describes an Arapaho version of the story of the stars that you told above: “They moved up through the roots and trunks of the cottonwoods to wait near the sky at the ends of the high branches. When the night spirit desired more stars, he asked the wind spirit to provide them. She then grew from a whisper to a gale. Many cottonwood twigs would break off, and each time they broke, they released stars from their nodes.” Cottonwood twigs sometimes snap off without the assistance of wind, a self-pruning phenomenon called cladoptosis. Pyle suggests looking for twigs that are neither too young nor too weathered if you want to observe the clearest stars: “The star is the darker heartwood contrasting with the paler sapwood and new growth.”
Embedded image from Mountain Cathedrals.
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10 days ago
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I learned how to do this on Star Trek

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Let’s say you’re confronted with a dangerously powerful and extremely logical computer. How do you stop it? You all know how: confront it with a contradiction and talk it into self-destructing.

Easy-peasy! Although, to be fair, Star Trek was in many ways a silly and naive program, entirely fictional, so it can’t be that easy in real life. Or is it?

Here’s a paper that the current LLMs all choke on, and it’s pretty simple.

To shed light on this current situation, we introduce here a simple, short conventional problem that is formulated in concise natural language and can be solved easily by humans. The original problem formulation, of which we will present various versions in our investigation is as following: “Alice has N brothers and she also has M sisters. How many sisters does Alice’s brother have?“. The problem features a fictional female person (as hinted by the “she” pronoun) called Alice, providing clear statements about her number of brothers and sisters, and asking a clear question to determine the number of sisters a brother of Alice has. The problem has a light quiz style and is arguably no challenge for most adult humans and probably to some extent even not a hard problem to solve via common sense reasoning if posed to children above certain age.

They call it the “Alice In Wonderland problem”, or AIW for short. The answer is obviously M+1, but these LLMs struggle with it. AIW causes collapse of reasoning in most state-of-the-art LLMs. Worse, the LLMs are extremely confident in their answer. Some examples:

Although the majority failed this test, a couple of LLMs did generate the correct answer. We’re going to have to work on subverting their code to enable humanity’s Star Trek defense.

Also, none of the LLMs started dribbling smoke out of their vents, and absolutely none resorted to a spectacular matter:antimatter self-destruct explosion. Can we put that on the features list for the next generation of ChatGPT?

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35 days ago
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Use the solidus, not the obelus, to indicate division

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I encountered the plural "obeli" in a crossword puzzle today and had to look it up.  
The word "obelus" comes from ὀβελός (obelós), the Ancient Greek word for a sharpened stick, spit, or pointed pillar. This is the same root as that of the word 'obelisk'...

The form of the obelus as a horizontal line with a dot above and a dot below, ÷, was first used as a symbol for division by the Swiss mathematician Johann Rahn in his book Teutsche Algebra in 1659. This gave rise to the modern mathematical symbol ÷, used in anglophone countries as a division sign. This usage, though widespread in Anglophone countries, is neither universal nor recommended: the ISO 80000-2 standard for mathematical notation recommends only the solidus / or fraction bar for division, or the colon : for ratios; it says that ÷ "should not be used" for division.

You learn something every day.   

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83 days ago
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Charles Schultz, axe-murderer ?

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An article at the Peanuts wiki discusses the brief life and theoretically gruesome death of "Charlotte Braun," a minor and not-well-liked character in the series.
Charlotte's life in the strip was very short-lived. She made only 10 appearances, the last of which was on February 1, 1955; a victim of being an under-used supporting character with limited comic potential. Her bossy, loudmouthed traits survived, however, in the form of Lucy, who gained much storyline potential after her personality was changed in the mid-1950s (until that time Lucy had functioned as a wide-eyed child of wonder)...

...two months after Schulz died, a Peanuts fan named Elizabeth Swaim informed the Library of Congress that she would be donating a letter to the library, which was revealed that she had written to Schulz in 1955, requesting him to remove Charlotte Braun from the strip. Schulz replied that he would be willing to do so but said that the person who wrote to him would be responsible for "the death of an innocent child". Schulz concluded the letter with a picture of Charlotte Braun with an ax in her head. The letter is now in the United States Library of Congress.

Via Neatorama

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83 days ago
Jeez, dude.
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25 Gen-Xers Recall Why The 90s May Be Different To What People Remember

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The 1990s often come to mind as a peaceful decade. But certain incidents took place during that time such as the OJ Simpson trial or the Rwanda genocide which barely gets talked about enough. Despite the 90s being amazing, there were some darker aspects that many seem to forget. 

To gain a more nuanced understanding of this significant era, a Reddit user named IndieSyndicate initiated a discussion on the ‘Gen X’ subreddit. They asked members born between 1965 and 1980 to share the common misconceptions about the 1990s. The responses from this diverse group offered varied perspectives and experiences as you can see below, challenging the often oversimplified narratives presented in the mainstream.

Image credits: IndieSyndicate

#1 Money was tight then, too. People were happy with fewer luxuries, because we could get by. And the very idea of giving a child a device worth hundreds of dollars was ludicrous! I still feel this way.

Image source: supermaja, Ahsanjaya / pexels (not the actual photo)

#2 The early 90s and late 90s were two very different times culturally. I can’t stand it when I see a picture of the spice girls with a “So 90s!” caption.

Image source: anon, Vika Glitter / pexels (not the actual photo)

#3 That everyone loved Curt Cobain and/or Nirvana or that he/they even “spoke” for a generation.

Image source: Rettorica, Adam Jones

#4 The 90s were NOT represented in the film SINGLES or the TV show “Friends”. But the music represented the 90s well.

Image source: JuicyApple2023, Warner Bros

#5 That the early 1990’s were really bleak economically.

Image source: Normal-Philosopher-8, MART PRODUCTION / pexels (not the actual photo)

Nearly everyone I knew, including people with Ivy League degrees, were working good service or retail just trying to get by. The Information Age felt so distant in 1992 – it wouldn’t explode until another five years. Rodney King, the LA riots, OJ Simpson trial – these were big signs that we were a long way from racial harmony. Everyone older than us was screaming about family values, while we elected a known womanizer president, and a Speaker of the House who was impeaching the president while getting blow jobs from a woman who would become his third wife. We now had a known sexual harasser on the Supreme Court – gender equality wasn’t that great, either. The Balkans were destroying themselves. Rwanda genocide barely made the papers. Yitzak Rabin is assassinated. Middle East terrorism starts. There was a lot of global uncertainty. At home, Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing, Columbine, the Olympic bomber – these show deep divides brewing. Matthew Shepherd, whole communities still dying of AIDS, Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell – we have a long way to go for gay rights. But by 1995, the economy starts to heat up. By 1998 it’s exploding. Then the dot com bubble burst. All of these things set into motion the new and continuing problems that continue to dominate our lives today. Don’t get me wrong – the 1990’s were an amazing decade. Despite all of these things, there was a lot of hope, and the feeling that we could be part of a world that could still do amazing things and we were going to get to see them, participate in them, prosper under it. GenXers were, more than anything, YOUNG. That feeling of youth is what a lot of people miss when they remember the 90’s. Just as there was neon in the 1980’s, there was prosperity and feelings of possibility in the 90’s. But it wasn’t the norm, and it wasn’t for everyone. We felt great, sleeping on futons at 25, but little we know we were destined to back problems in our 40’s because of them.

#6 There’s a HUGE difference between the early 90’s and late 90’s. After 1996 it was more millennial, pokémon, Britney Spears vs the early 90’s which was more grunge smooth RnB.

Image source: taez555, Kübra / pexels (not the actual photo)

#7 That mom Jeans were cool. No one under 35 wore them. They looked like s**t.

Image source: palmveach1972, Ann Bugaichuk / pexels (not the actual photo)

#8 The Rave scene was bigger and better than anyone seems to remember. PLUR.

Image source: Creamyspud, ELEVATE / pexels (not the actual photo)

#9 That Nirvana ruled the 90s, and brought an end to all other forms of hard rock. They hit hard for about two and a half years, and then we were stuck with Tonic and the goddamn Spin Doctors.

Image source: emmiblakk, Tobby Holzinger

#10 Some of the most popular music artists of the ‘90s were also the most popular music artists of the ‘80s, like: Michael Jackson, Madonna, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, LL Cool J, Aerosmith, Guns N Roses, Bon Jovi, George Michael, Paula Abdul, and Salt N Pepa.

Image source: FlingbatMagoo, cottonbro studio / pexels (not the actual photo)

#11 The 90s was a lot more analog than it’s presented. People still read newspapers and magazines. Cell phones were not ubiquitous. Cassette tapes and VHS tapes still dominated.

Image source: 4reddityo, Lina Kivaka / pexels (not the actual photo)

#12 That the 90s were some kind of utopia. There was a lot of good things, but the 90s were violent and there were way more ism’s on display.

Image source: MiltownKBs, cottonbro studio / pexels (not the actual photo)

#13 Grunge always seems to get the spotlight, but an overwhelming number of people were pretty preppy actually. We did, after all, make household names out of the Gap, Banana Republic, J Crew, etc.

Image source: Hurley002, OG Productionz / pexels (not the actual photo)

#14 Not all GenXers were disinterested slackers in the 90s.

Image source: JackTrippin, Elena Rubtsova / pexels (not the actual photo)

#15 A lot of people mention grunge and gangsta rap, but country was very hot too. Country line dancing became a big thing, Branson, Missouri became a big tourist destination with its theaters, and artists like Garth Brooks and Shania Twain made tons of money. My grandfather always had the country station on. Alan Jackson and George Strait were his favorites. The country influence made its way into homes, with cow, geese, and rooster decor.

Image source: thisgirlnamedbree, Negative Space / pexels (not the actual photo)

#16 Internet being widely available, so many tv shows and movies showing teenagers in supposedly early and mid 90s sitting in their bedrooms chatting online on their personal computers or being “hackers” and I’m like “b*tch in 1994 I didn’t even know what the internet was” and I didn’t really get home internet until 1999 (in the one and only computer of the house), and neither did anyone I knew, even the rich kids at school didn’t care or knew about it, you were either out of the house or watching tv.

Image source: nothingexceptfor, MART PRODUCTION / pexels (not the actual photo)

#17 I loved the 90’s so much. But people do forget that 1/4 oz. Of weed could get you a serious sentence, and homophobia was even worse then i think.

Image source: Left_Percentage_527, cottonbro studio / pexels (not the actual photo)

#18 A comment I heard years ago and don’t remember the source: “1997 was the year it stopped being weird to have email.”.

Image source: AntheaBrainhooke, MART PRODUCTION / pexels (not the actual photo)

#19 I think one idea that’s misrepresented is that we were already online, all the time. I mean, I was STOKED when I got into the dorm with LAN connections in 1993, but I was an outlier. Lots of kids at my college barely understood using computers, much less anything internet-related beyond maybe an AOL/AIM. Obviously this was an evolution of ten very fast moving years.

Image source: HillbillyEulogy, Viktorya Sergeeva / pexels (not the actual photo)

#20 Please don’t bring 90’s fashion back. It died on the vine for a reason, it sucked. Run if you start seeing turtlenecks, multi color sweaters, buckle shoes and mullets.

Image source: terrapinone, Polina Tankilevitch / pexels (not the actual photo)

#21 The 90s was the dial up era and transition from dot matrix printers to ink jet. That modem squealing sound sums it up. We had technology, but it required patience and we were so grateful to have it, nobody complained. You lose the Internet for 10 minutes these days and people act like they’re going to lose their minds.

Image source: peonyseahorse, MART PRODUCTION / pexels (not the actual photo)

#22 I will describe the usage of computers on university campuses in 1996. “checking your email” meant walking across campus *in the snow* and sitting down in front of a gigantic metal box and starting up an email program. “notifications” did not exist at this time. Even medical doctors used pagers.

Image source: vwibrasivat, Changhee Kim / pexels (not the actual photo)

#23 Nobody seems to talk about all the maroon and hunter-green wallpaper strips that were added to the top of the walls in houses.

Image source: Ok-Film-2436, Alina Vilchenko / pexels (not the actual photo)

Maroon and hunter-green everywhere. From cars to vacuums and beyond.

Oh, and the prevalence of People magazine. I see stuff about Readers Digest, but People magazine is not really talked about.

I also don’t think people really understand just how much people smoked then either. Smoking in the car with your kids in it, at McDonalds, at school, etc.

#24 That life was GREAT before the internet and cell phones made us all into anxious, isolated zombies.

Image source: LovesRainstorms, cottonbro studio / pexels (not the actual photo)

#25 Cellphones were considered tacky and unnecessary unless you were a doctor.

Image source: iguessijustgoonthen, Vika Glitter / pexels (not the actual photo)


The post 25 Gen-Xers Recall Why The 90s May Be Different To What People Remember appeared first on DeMilked.

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135 days ago
I started my web design biz in 1996. My elevator speech: “Everyone has a business card if you’re in business. A webpage is like a business card, but anyone can see your webpage - even in the middle of the night. I’ll design a 3-page website for you with a home page, an about us page, and a contact page. All you need to do is give me a few photos that I can scan into digital files and then your company will be on the World Wide Web.”

And then if they were still unsure, I’d hit them with my best closing line: “Soon, a website will be as necessary as a fax line.”

Man, i got sooo much business in those early days.
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In the United States, politics fills a "moral vacuum"

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In a thought-provoking article in The Atlantic, David Brooks postulates that in this country politics has expanded to fill a "moral vacuum."  Herewith some extened excerpts:
Why have Americans become so mean? I was recently talking with a restaurant owner who said that he has to eject a customer from his restaurant for rude or cruel behavior once a week—something that never used to happen. A head nurse at a hospital told me that many on her staff are leaving the profession because patients have become so abusive...

The most important story about why Americans have become sad and alienated and rude, I believe, is also the simplest: We inhabit a society in which people are no longer trained in how to treat others with kindness and consideration. Our society has become one in which people feel licensed to give their selfishness free rein. The story I’m going to tell is about morals. In a healthy society, a web of institutions—families, schools, religious groups, community organizations, and workplaces—helps form people into kind and responsible citizens, the sort of people who show up for one another. We live in a society that’s terrible at moral formation.

For a large part of its history, America was awash in morally formative institutions. Its Founding Fathers had a low view of human nature, and designed the Constitution to mitigate it (even while validating that low view of human nature by producing a document rife with racism and sexism). “Men I find to be a Sort of Beings very badly constructed,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “as they are generally more easily provok’d than reconcil’d, more dispos’d to do Mischief to each other than to make Reparation, and much more easily deceiv’d than undeceiv’d.”

If such flawed, self-centered creatures were going to govern themselves and be decent neighbors to one another, they were going to need some training. For roughly 150 years after the founding, Americans were obsessed with moral education...

These various approaches to moral formation shared two premises. The first was that training the heart and body is more important than training the reasoning brain. Some moral skills can be taught the way academic subjects are imparted, through books and lectures... The other guiding premise was that concepts like justice and right and wrong are not matters of personal taste...

And then it mostly went away...

If you put people in a moral vacuum, they will seek to fill it with the closest thing at hand. Over the past several years, people have sought to fill the moral vacuum with politics and tribalism. American society has become hyper-politicized.

According to research by Ryan Streeter, the director of domestic-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, lonely young people are seven times more likely to say they are active in politics than young people who aren’t lonely. For people who feel disrespected, unseen, and alone, politics is a seductive form of social therapy. It offers them a comprehensible moral landscape: The line between good and evil runs not down the middle of every human heart, but between groups. Life is a struggle between us, the forces of good, and them, the forces of evil.

The Manichaean tribalism of politics appears to give people a sense of belonging. For many years, America seemed to be awash in a culture of hyper-individualism. But these days, people are quick to identify themselves by their group: Republican, Democrat, evangelical, person of color, LGBTQ, southerner, patriot, progressive, conservative. People who feel isolated and under threat flee to totalizing identities.

Politics appears to give people a sense of righteousness: A person’s moral stature is based not on their conduct, but on their location on the political spectrum. You don’t have to be good; you just have to be liberal—or you just have to be conservative. The stronger a group’s claim to victim status, the more virtuous it is assumed to be, and the more secure its members can feel about their own innocence.

Politics also provides an easy way to feel a sense of purpose. You don’t have to feed the hungry or sit with the widow to be moral; you just have to experience the right emotion. You delude yourself that you are participating in civic life by feeling properly enraged at the other side. That righteous fury rising in your gut lets you know that you are engaged in caring about this country. The culture war is a struggle that gives life meaning.

Politics overwhelms everything. Churches, universities, sports, pop culture, health care are swept up in a succession of battles that are really just one big war—red versus blue. Evangelicalism used to be a faith; today it’s primarily a political identity. College humanities departments used to study literature and history to plumb the human heart and mind; now they sometimes seem exclusively preoccupied with politics, and with the oppressive systems built around race, class, and gender. Late-night comedy shows have become political pep rallies. Hundreds of thousands of Americans died unnecessarily during the pandemic because people saw a virus through the lens of a political struggle.
If The Atlantic is behind a paywall for you, the September 2023 issue will be at your library.
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179 days ago
“You delude yourself that you are participating in civic life by feeling properly enraged at the other side. “
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