Online Privacy

September 27, 2007

I’ve heard a lot about how we (everybody, but minors especially) should be worried about our privacy online – don’t give out our names, our ages, our addresses, our phone numbers, what cities we live in, anything.

Some of it, well, sounds rather absurd. Several schools I’ve went to print a directory with names, numbers, and addresses of all the students. If you look in a phone book, it has most of that information. If you look online at the websites of the various scholarships I’ve won, contests I’ve taken part in, etc, you can probably find out a considerably amount about me. So what is so bad about saying anything about myself online? Supposedly creepy people can read your blog / forum / MySpace (I don’t have one, by the way) / whatever and hunt you down for devious purposes. I suppose that is a faint possibility, but what makes it more likely that they’ll target you rather than some other random person they seen on the street? (From what I’ve read, most of the danger seems to be to people who initiate inappropriate conversations with these creepy people, presumably unaware that they are creepy (c.f. the show To Catch a Predator).)

So honestly, I don’t really care what I tell you about me online, because you can find out pretty much all of it elsewhere anyway, and even the stuff that you can’t find out elsewhere isn’t that big a secret. My name is Joseph Simmons. I go to the University of Dallas, which strangely is located in Irving. Before I started going there, I went to Cistercian Preparatory School, which is also in Irving. Before that I went to Irving High School, before that de Zavala Middle School, all in the Irving Independent School District. I did Math Club at Cistercian, took part in a bunch of contests; they included the USAMO earlier this year. I don’t think you can find out my score anywhere, so I won’t say it. Etc. I’m not going to pretend that this blog has any privacy to it when it doesn’t. And because of that, I’m obviously not going to say anything here that I wouldn’t want to say to anybody I know in real life. For all I know the reader of this I know in real life as well.

What I don’t understand is people who do reveal stuff about themselves online that they want to keep secret in their real lives and expect that information to stay hidden…

Pointlessness of Relationships

September 24, 2007

I’ve now been at college for about three weeks, and I think that’s time enough to observe and digest the social dynamics of the situation we freshmen are in. For those of you who are past their freshman year, you probably have more developed ideas on this than I do right now, but the post still might be interesting.

College is strange in that there is essentially no social continuity between high school and college. From elementary school to middle school to high school, there are transitions in who you are around on a daily basis, but there is a great deal of continuity – for the most part, the same people you go to elementary school with go to your middle school, even if you don’t hang out with them. The same for high school. Now, this is not true for all people; some people move from city to city, some transfer from school to school (*raises hand*), whatever. But that’s the exception, not the rule. There will always be less new people (even if you’re one of them) than old people.

When you go to college, that completely changes. Two other people from my high school are going to my college. Two people that I knew from another high school (I went to an all-boys school, this other school was all-girls) are going as well. So I came into college knowing about four people – and that’s many more than most people do.

The consequences of this are rather odd. For one, the first few days feel like a summer camp. You’re meeting a bunch of new people, not remembering very many of their names, and somewhat randomly picking which ones to hang out with. But it isn’t a summer camp. You’re going to be around these people for four years. So after a few weeks, if you realize that the people you began the year hanging out with aren’t the ones you want to keep hanging out with – you have a problem (this part isn’t autobiographical – I don’t have this problem).

What astounds me is how luck-based it all is. You randomly hang out with someone the first few days of orientation, and suddenly you are in some sense friends, while you have no connection to any of the other 300-whatever freshman, many of whom might be equal or better friends than this random person.

I suppose that this is how it worked in elementary, middle and high school, as well, and that it works out in the end. But since we’re much more mature[1] and aware of what’s going on now, it seems stranger. I haven’t the vaguest idea how I became friends with the people I was friends with in elementary school, or if describing them as friends is even the right word (‘friend’ has kind of been corrupted by things like MySpace and Facebook, of course…).

Another rather amusing feature of the first few weeks of college life is the romantic tension, I suppose is the term, in the air. Perhaps I’m just more aware of it because I went to an all-boys school and now, going to school with girls, I view any such tension as a giant increase. But I think it also has a lot to do with the fact that a bunch of people who have never met are introduced at the same time, and there has to be some time to sort out what’s what. For some reason that I don’t understand, these people think that because they have a crush on someone after the first two weeks they have to act on it. It seems to me it would be much wiser to wait a bit longer and let everything settle down without adding the additional factor of relationships to the social mix. The consequences of not doing this are, well, amusing[2], at least to the observer, but they sound like they really suck for the people involved.

I also don’t understand why people feel the need to have relationships at this point at all. After all, we’re freshmen in college, none of us plan on marrying while in college, most of us are good Catholics who aren’t going to have sex before marriage, and so what exactly are you going to gain from starting to date now as opposed to waiting until your junior or senior year?

There are essentially three possibilities that can arise from a relationship in college – you break up and hate each other, you break up and are still friends, or you keep going out until graduation and end up getting married. If you break up and hate each other, the relationship was obviously a bad idea – whatever emotional satisfaction you got from it, it’s erased by the break up. If you break up and are still friends, it’s not a total loss, you might have some good memories, whatever. But it still seems like a bad idea, because you’ve poured a bunch of time, energy and money into it and gotten nothing back – nothing that you wouldn’t have gotten by just remaining friends with that person. (Though I can see an argument that such a relationship would actually strengthen and deepen your friendship, I don’t believe it. In most cases ‘breaking up but still friends’ really means ‘breaking up and not hating each other but not really interacting a whole lot afterwards’.)

The final possibility is that you end up getting married. If so, that’s wonderful, congratulations. But… first of all, this seems very unlikely. Secondly, even if this does happen, did you really get married because you started going out your freshman year? Or wouldn’t the same thing have happened if you had asked the other person out your junior or senior year? I suppose she[3] might have been ‘taken’ by that point, but it seems unlikely. Thirdly, not dating exclusively your freshman and sophmore year means you have more opportunities to scope out the possibilities, if you will. If you start dating this person your freshman year and have eyes only for her all of college, it might turn out that someone in all ways superior was waiting for you but you never saw her because you were blind. That wouldn’t be terrible, but it isn’t great either. Finally, if you start dating your freshman year then the pressure over the next four to have premarital sex is just going to keep increasing.

I sound like my theology teacher (sans the Hungarian accent). I suppose that’s not altogether a bad thing. Of course, I talk the talk, but I’m not sure if I can walk the walk – I don’t plan on actively seeking out relationships and whatnot, but if a perfect opportunity comes along I might end up taking it….

[1]: I use this word with some hesitation. I don’t think most of us are particularly mature, but we are significantly more so than we were at age, say, seven.

[2]: I should probably make clear that I’m not laughing at the people who get screwed over by this. I’m friends with some of them, and I do sympathize with them. I’m laughing at the absurdity of the system that brings it about.

[3]: I’m assuming a male perspective here because I’m male and, since the roles of male and female are very different in relationships, I can’t claim to really know anything about what girls should do regarding this issue.

The Seat of Three Kings is Vacant

September 20, 2007

I’m very happy to report that I am done writing the Alfhelm the Wise campaign. I’ve been working on it for over a year. Most campaigns take less than 6 months, but I kept getting writer’s block on this one. But I’m finally finished.

I said in my introduction-to-summer post that I intended to complete it before the end of summer, and I me that goal. Of course, what I meant when I said that was ‘before school starts’, but summer goes until September 21st. So technically, I made it.

Of course, I’m going to have to replay the campaign, balance it, rewrite some dialogue, etc, but all of the scenarios are in place and playable, so the campaign is complete, though not finished.

It’s on to the Orcei Gladiatores campaign Fly from Fighting (tentative name) for me, I suppose. But you, illustrious reader – go play the campaign! I’m going to put it on the server as soon as I can, but for now, you can get it here. The file is a 1.7MB tar.gz.

And if I’ve somehow inspired you to come write a campaign, do artwork, or whatever, for the World of Orbivm, come here and post your idea/artwork/whatever.

Why Base 10?

September 18, 2007

We (at least the math nerds among us) are having an interesting discussion on the Wesnoth forums about why we use base 10 rather than, say, base 6 or base 12. Some interesting ideas have emerged. They all have to do in some way with what base we count in. There’s in a sort of order here, but I’m not trying to make an argument for or against something, I’m just presenting some concepts. Feel free to read some parts but not others.

First off, some notational issues
Talking about bases is hard because we’re so used to thinking in base 10. There’s no real reason for this. In fact, if we had grown up using what we currently term base 6, we would call it “base 10”, because the symbol “10” would then represent the number we currently represent by “6”. What we currently call base 10 we would call “base 14”.

Because of this, I’m not going to use the notation “base 10”, “base 12”, etc. That supposes a system based on the number that equals 5+5. But what to use instead? We have to use something. Since we want a base that presupposes nothing, the most logical choices are the unit base (base 1), and base infinity. In base 1,


But this gets very cumbersome very quickly. Base infinity, on the other hand, requires new symbols for every number. This sounds excessive, but it’s definitely possible. In this post, the sequence of symbols will be 0,1…9,A…Z,a…z, which brings me up to 6bA. That’s high enough for the purposes of this post. So I’m going to use base infinity. (Unfortunately the symbol “b” represents both that the next number is the base we’re in, and the number 37. But hopefully it won’t ever be ambiguous.)

As you may have noticed, I slipped in this thing 61bA. I’m going to use that notation to represent numbers as written in a given base. If I don’t give a base, then the number is base infinity. Obviously, I’m going to use base infinity to represent what base I’m in – that’s why I wrote bA instead of b10. b10 is meaningless – obviously whatever base you’re in can be thought of as b10, but that doesn’t give any information.

I don’t use bA especially in this post except for decimals. This is because you can’t really write decimals in base infinity, and I might as well use bA for them rather than some random base that no one will understand. However, I won’t use bA for the part of the decimal to the left of the decimal place, only for the part to the right. I hope that made sense.

Incidentally, the reason this post is marked “language” as well as “mathematics” is that the question of how to represent numbers when writing them on a page is really one of language just as much as it is a mathematical one. It has to do with how we convert information from symbols – written, spoken, whatever – to abstract ideas.

Why we currently use bA
“Because we have ten fingers”. Perhaps. But A fingers could just as easily lead to base B – we count up to A on our fingers, and then say “10!”(bB) when we put all of our fingers down again. Or we could not count the thumbs, and thus get base 8. Or go one hand at a time, and get either base 5 or base 6. And clearly this argument about it being based on the hand isn’t really applicable, because different cultures have used different bases throughout history, many of which weren’t based on the number of fingers we have:

  • base 8 (Native americans)
  • base K (Mayans)
  • base y (Babylonions)
  • base 2 (Vikings)
  • base C (Imperial- system, Nigeria, Nepal)
  • base 2 (specific Australian Aboriginal nations)
  • base As (Romans, Chinese, Hindus)

(list courtesy of appleide)

So it seems that the reason we use base A is just that Rome, which took over Europe, China, which dominated the Far East, and India, which dominated southern Asia, used it. Mathematics, like history, is written by the victor.

Advantages of using other bases
Firstly, it seems advantageous to have the base have a large number of factors. It makes both multiplication and division easier. Now, A has only two factors (other than 1 and itself) – 2 and 5. Another proposed base, C, is slightly higher, but it has four factors – 2, 3, 4 and 6. Base 6 would give us only two factors, 2 and 3, but that would be fully half of the possible factors. So either of those bases has an advantage over A in terms of factors.

An often-raised objection against base 6 is that, since 6<A, the number of digits required to show a number b6 will increase much quicker than the number of digits for the same number represented bA. This is true to an extent, but the number of extra digits isn’t really that high. Taking the multiplicative inverse of the log base A of 6 gives us
1/log6(A) = 1.285097209...
So about 4 digits b6 for every 3 digits bA. That’s not an excessive amount.

Another base that appeals to me is b8. The concept of “subitizing” is that you can almost instantly determine the size of any set of objects with up to 4 objects in it. An example – when playing cards, in a game where you have, say, 13b10 cards, the easiest way to make sure you have the right number is to look at it as 31b4 and go “1234-2234-3234-and1”. Each set of 4 is counted almost instantly. Try it – it takes must shorter than going “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12-13”. Given that fact, b4 would sound good, except 4 is probably too small (there’s 1.66096…(bA) digits per digit bA. So b8 is the next logical choice.

Strange Base Choices
So it seems that you want bases that have many factors, are fairly low (so that you don’t have to memorize a whole bunch of symbols), but aren’t too low (so that the number of digits per number isn’t too high). But there’s no reason you have to do this. I’m using base infinity a lot in this post. You can also do things like negative bases, fractional bases, and even irrational and transcendental bases.

Consider base e, ~2.718, (as distinct from e, =40bA). In theory it sounds like a good idea because e is the natural base of logarithms. No reason to have to memorize two different bases for two different contexts. But the problem with that is…
OR 100.6109...

I find it interesting how 8 can be written 22.5634 OR 100.6109. this is because 8 = 2*e+2.5634 but it also equals e^2 + 0.6109, both of which would be valid under be.

Another, um, interesting thing to try is a negative base. Here’s b-6 analyzed:

You go up two decimal places at a time, and count backwards, sort of.

Now, let’s try a base between 0 and 1. How about base 1/2?

It’s essentially inverted binary. Bases from numbers 0<number<1 function like base number^-1 but written right to left instead of left to right.

Another interesting idea isn’t exactly a legal base. It involves using both positive and negative numbers. It only works with odd numbers, I think. Here’s how you do it with b3. You have three symbols, say, “!, 0, 1”, representing “-1, 0, 1”. Then numbers are written
(bA)|(odd base)

Any other ideas for strange ways to represent numbers?


September 16, 2007

I have never had a cell phone, and I don’t really want one. But now that I’m in college I have a phone in dorm room. I actually do have to use a phone every day or two, so I guess it’s useful.

But I don’t really like having it. Here’s an example of why. Last night I was awoken about half an hour past midnight by an idiot (I’m still not sure who it was, and I really don’t care) making a crank call. It was really obvious, too. He claimed to be someone from CSO (Campus Safety Office) who had gotten a tip from my dorm room’s extension that something or other had happened (he was really vague on this point) and my roommate was in trouble, and for some reason they wanted to talk to me. Obvious tip-offs were, he didn’t know my dorm room number or my name (I would assume CSO had access to that information given my extension), he didn’t know my roommate’s name, and he didn’t know whether or not my roommate was in my room or not.

He said that he was in the lounge, which is about 50 feet from my room. Which wasn’t plausible either, since if he was there he would have just came and knocked on my door. But anyway, he said to go and talk to him.

At this point, I had already been woken up, and I wasn’t going to be able to get back to sleep immediately anyways, so I wandered out of my room down to where the guy had said he was. I assumed the guy would be watching through the window and would see me there, and I might find out who it was. There were people out there, but I didn’t bring my glasses so I was too blind to see who it was… not that I would have recognized them anyways. I suspect they enjoyed themselves laughing at me.

The question is, what should I have done in that situation? As I see it, what I did was as good as anything. It gave me minimal inconvenience (just ~30s of my time, which I would only have wasted anyway, to paraphrase Hans Moleman), it gave them amusement, and there was a miniscule (~0.001%, maybe) chance that it was real, in which case I should definitely go down and talk to them. So I think I did the right thing.

I’m reminded of the story about Thomas Aquinas. His fellow Dominicans came up to him and said there was a dragon out the window. So of course Thomas went over and looked out the window. When they started laughing at him, he said that he’d rather believe that there was a dragon out the window, improbably as that was, than that one of his fellow brothers would lie to him. When someone gives you a crank call, it’s not your fault that they’re being idiots, you should just go along with it. Definitely if it won’t cause you much inconvenience, and perhaps even if it will.

The problem with this philosophy is that it encourages the pranksters. It would be nice if people didn’t do stuff like that once they realized you went along with it not out of stupidity, but out of not caring, but it won’t happen. I’m not sure what the solution to that is, but perhaps it is that that isn’t a problem at all. After all, God allows man free will even though it often results in evil.

Still, I prefer not having my time wasted. I think the next time someone tries something like that on me, I’m just going to ask them, is there a dragon outside your window?

Intellectual Sympathies

September 12, 2007

I’m a fairly conservative Roman Catholic. As such, it would appear that I would have a lot intellectually in common with other Roman Catholics, a bit less so with, for example, Orthodox Christians or Protestants, less but still some with religiously minded Jews, less with Muslims, less with members of the Eastern faiths, and very little at all with deists, agnostics and atheists. However, this does not appear to be the case.

I don’t mean that I think atheists are closer to the truth than Protestants in the sense that what they believe is more true than what the Protestants believe. What I mean is that I can more easily see how atheists believe what they believe than see why Protestants believe what they believe. To put it a different way, I disagree with the axioms that atheism accepts, but I think they tend to draw the right conclusions from their premises. And I simply can’t see how Protestants can reasonably believe what they do believe (in the inerrancy of Scripture, for example) without also believing in other things (such as succession of Peter).

Here’s another example. I’ve recently been having a few debates with a traditionalist Roman Catholic. (Traditionalist in this case means he believes that mainstream Catholicism is heretical and that the Pope is teaching heresy, but he is still the Pope, and all that the ‘faithful remnant’ can do is try to re-evangelize the Church. He compared the situation today to that of Athanasius when fighting against Arianism.) They’ve covered various topics, but centered on the Novus Ordo Mass, specifically the fact that the vernacular (as opposed to Latin only) is now allowed to be used. He claimed that since the Council of Trent expressly stated that only Latin was allowed at Mass, and that the vernacular was not allowed, and since declarations of ecumenical councils are considered infallible, that rule is still in effect, and the current Novus Ordo mass is invalid (or sacrilegious, or heretical, or something – I couldn’t figure out what exactly the degree of wrongness was in his opinion).

My argument against this is pretty simple, I think, though I didn’t manage to explain it in full during the real-life conversation… First of all, it is true that solemn declarations of ecumenical councils on matters of faith and morals are infallible, but I would say that this is not a matter of faith and morals. This should be clear from the fact that it has to do with how the Mass is practiced, not with, well, faith and morals.

But if it isn’t… Well, if the declaration was infallible, then what it said (that the Mass must always be in Latin) would have to have always been true, and the Church would have simply been clarifying a timeless truth. This is clearly not the case, though – the very first Mass, the Last Supper, was in Aramaic, so it simply cannot be a timeless truth that masses must be in Latin.

As such, while it is perfectly fine for the Church to say (as it did at the Council of Trent) that every mass from this point on must be in Latin, that’s not an infallible statement, it’s just a decision the Church has made that the faithful must adhere to. As its simply a decision, the Church can go back on it at a later time, as it clearly has.

So it seems pretty clear to me that the Novus Ordo, whatever one thinks of it (I don’t particularly like certain aspects of it, to be sure), is not heretical or sacrilegious or contrary to Church doctrine. And I can’t understand how one could believe it is.

It can be quite frustrating arguing with Traditionalists, mainly because of how similar our positions are. I often find myself thinking that they have pretty much everything right, except certain nuances of logic are lost on them, so they go from true premises to false conclusions. That situation is completely different from that between me and, for example, atheists. With them, I can try to change the assumptions they make, but in general I can’t point to flaws in their logic.

And, importantly, it would be rather easy for me to become an atheist by simply changing my axioms (not that this is likely to happen, but in theory it could), but it would be impossible for me to become a Traditionalist unless I decided that the logical steps I’ve followed from my axioms to my Catholicism are invalid. Which won’t happen. That’s what I mean when I say that my intellectual sympathies tend to lie more with atheism than with other forms of Christianity – even though other forms of Christianity have more of the truth than atheism does.

Pro-Life Murderers

September 7, 2007

I recently read a book review on a historical piece that tries to show that Josef Stalin was actually a model leader. I obviously disagree with this, but still, it sounds like an interesting book. I certainly wouldn’t argue that Stalin was good, or that communism wasn’t a grave evil. But I might argue that it’s no worse, or very little worse, than our current democracies…

I’ve been posting recently on the Wesnoth forums about abortion. The basic argument I was making (though I’m not sure I believe it myself – remember, this is just speculation) was that the murder of abortionists is justifiable. Here’s what I said:

It’s the same principle whereby if you’re walking down the street and you see someone beating someone else to a bloody pulp, in a way that will probably lead to the victim’s eventual death, and you see a cop standing by and doing nothing about it, you would be justified in stepping in and stopping the attacker from killing the other person. Talking to the attacker obviously will accomplish nothing, and clearly the cop has for some reason decided not to intervene, so you seem justified, perhaps even obligated, to use force, even lethal force, even if the cop would arrest you for doing so. Vigilantism, perhaps, but if the government has abandoned its people in this way, vigilantism is justified, I think.

Or imagine you’ve stumbled upon a secret government facility where they detain and execute a bunch of political prisoners, and you have the chance to break in and free them, but doing so will require shooting some of the guards (who aren’t exactly innocent, seeing as they’re responsible for running this death camp). I personally think that would be completely morally licit.

This situation is the same with abortion. There is a class of people – unborn people – that the government has for some reason decided it is legal to murder.

The main problem with this is, as I said, that it wouldn’t have any appreciable impact, and it would make people who weren’t pro-life less likely, not more likely, to become pro-life, and that it would probably result in the abortion laws becoming even more firmly entrenched. But I think the act is probably justified – it shouldn’t be practiced because it isn’t prudent, not because it’s immoral.

Remember that according to Catholic doctrine unborn people are still people. Life begins at conception and should end with natural death. Anything else is immoral.

Another question is how far you could go to change the government… here’s what I said:

I think rebellion against the government of the U.S. would also be justified. As the American Declaration of Independence says,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Legalized murder seems to me more than a light and transient cause.

But, like I said, it’s not prudent. I don’t advise anybody to go out and start murdering abortionists or attacking Washington D.C.

I don’t see any problems in my above arguments, but I haven’t been putting maximal effort into it (I’ve actually been preoccupied recently with the aesthetic and ethical implications of dancing, if that makes sense). But anyway, this is an example of how the U.S. is, in some ways, as evil as the Soviet Union – they killed millions of political dissidents and suchlike, but we’ve killed millions of unborn children. I don’t mean to imply that the U.S.S.R. is good – only that we are bad, and that we have to try to be better. We must not be complacent. Just something to think about. If you want to comment on problems with my argument, go ahead, I’d be interested to see what people have to say.

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