Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

What's Immoral?

Last week I dashed off a quick response to an on-line discussion group about morality. I said that it seemed to me that morality -- a sense of right and wrong -- is really an individual thing. Everybody HAS morals, but not everyone agrees.

There are also societal norms, which correspond pretty closely to what most of the people (or at least most of the powerful people) in the society think of as morality, and so those norms get CALLED "morals".

But people deviate from those social norms and conduct themselves according to their own personal morals. I wrote that, when the deviations are ...
 • minor and inconsequential, we call them "bad manners".
 • of middlin' import, we call them "immoral".
 • serious, we call them "illegal".

But, since then, I've been thinking more about that middle category, and I've decided that I should have been more detailed. Specifically, of the various kinds of middlin' departures from societal expectations, if they ...
 • offend the senses (like cigaret smoke or shouting), we call them "rude" or "annoying".
 • displease us esthetically (like clashing colors or whatever music young people are listening to in whatever generation you care to name), we call them "ugly".
• take advantage of the weak, gullible, or helpless, we call them "unfair" or "dishonest".
 • involve sex, we call them "immoral".

I realize that this is a generalization, and probably not a completely fair one, but it seems to me that, far more often than not, people who use the terms "immoral" or "immorality" are probably obsessed with sex. And not with their own -- with other people's.

Case in point: Wisconsin's recent Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage on the grounds that it's "immoral". What, MARRIAGE is immoral? You'd hardly get any of the amendment's proponents to agree to that. No, they think that a particular kind of SEX (the kind that they themselves choose not to engage in, no matter how much they want to) is immoral.

Unfortunately, as I said above, the morals of the powerful tend to become the laws that apply to everybody.

As far as I'm concerned, there should be only a single standard for having the law prohibit any kind of behavior: is it harmful? If not, then it's just moralizing.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

In Case Sudoku Is Getting Boring

A General Parameterized Solution to the Leap-Year Problem

Problem Statement:
Find an algorithm that will generate the year, given the number of an arbitrary day after the beginning of an epoch on an arbitrary planet, based on parameters for the relevant variables.

Example: The mean synodic day on Earth (midday to midday) is 24 hours 0 minutes 0 seconds. The period of solation (AKA tropical year, the mean time between vernal equinoxes) is 365.2422 days. The conventional (calendar) year is 365 days. This undercorrects for the tropical year by 0.2422 days, so in every 4th year (a leap year) an extra day is inserted, bringing that particular year up to 366 days and bringing the 4-year average up to 365.25 days. This overcorrects for the tropical year by 0.0078 days, so in every 100th year, after 0.78 days of overcorrection have accumulated, a 2nd-order correction is instituted, and a leap year is omitted. This results in an undercorrection of 0.22 days, which is offset by having a 3rd-order correction every 400 years, when the leap year occurs after all.

Therefore, if we assume the current epoch begins on 2001 Jan. 1, in what year does Day 1461 occur? The brute-force method is to start with 1461 and subtract off the number of days in each consecutive year until we run out. Thus 1461 - 365 (2001) = 1096 – 365 (2002) = 731 - 365 (2003) = 366 - 366 (2004) = 0. The tricky part comes in knowing that, in 2004, we need to subtract 366 instead of 365.

But this approach is inelegant, tedious for things like Day 1,000,000, and peculiar to only a single planet. We seek a general formula based on no advance knowledge of planetary conditions.

Simplifying assumptions:

(1) Deal only with the 1st-order corrections; don't worry about higher-order corrections.

(2) Assume that the granularity of days to years is ~2-4 orders of magnitude. Any finer granularity, and the problem becomes trivial. Any coarser granularity, and you end up with things like the 3-6-8-11-14-17-19 cycle of the Jewish lunisolar calendar, which verge on the arbitrary.

(3) Assume that the entire 1st-order correction is applied to a single year at the end of each leap-year cycle which, for convenience, you may assume is evenly divisible by the number of years in the cycle.

(4) The number of corrective days must be an integer.

Complicating assumptions:

(5) The number of corrective days may be other than 1.

(6) The number of corrective days may be greater or less than 0.

(7) Use only the functions (notably including "mod") available to an ordinary computer spreadsheet or programming language; no calculus.

Extra credit:

(8) OK, do try to figure out how to deal with 2nd-order corrections.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Money for the Blind

Money for the Blind

You may have heard or read that a federal court ruled that US currency is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), because it provides no reliable way for blind people to be able to tell the various denominations apart. The court ordered the US Treasury Department to come up with a solution.

The Treasury Department, not surprisingly, pointed out that a serious, significant overhaul of American currency could massively disrupt the economy, which has come to expect standard-sized bills for things like cash-register drawers, vending machines, ATMs, etc.

This is the sort of thing that gets my mind going, and I believe I’ve come up with a compromise plan that would work, while keeping all interests reasonably satisfied.

First off, a review of where we currently are. These are our coins:
 • 1¢ (Abraham Lincoln; cent or penny)
 • 5¢ (Thomas Jefferson; nickel)
 • 10¢ (Franklin D. Roosevelt; dime)
 • 25¢ (George Washington; quarter)
 • 50¢ (Liberty, Benjamin Franklin, or John F. Kennedy; half dollar)
 • $1 (Liberty, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Susan B. Anthony, or Sacagawea)
And these are our bills:
 • $1 (George Washington)
 • $2 (Thomas Jefferson)
 • $5 (Abraham Lincoln)
 • $10 (Alexander Hamilton)
 • $20 (Andrew Jackson)
 • $50 (Ulysses S. Grant)
 • $100 (Benjamin Franklin)
 • $500 (William McKinley) *
 • $1,000 (Grover Cleveland) *
 • $,5000 (James Madison) *
 • $10,000 (Salmon P. Chase) *
 • $100,000 (Woodrow Wilson) *

* no longer in circulation; never in public circulation to begin with

So here’s my plan:

(1) Withdraw from circulation the 1¢ coin. We don’t really need the penny any more. It’s more of a nuisance coin, as evidenced by the penny-exchange cups at checkout counters everywhere. Indeed, Congress recently had to pass legislation to keep people from melting pennies down, because they’re worth more now for their copper content than for their face value.
(2) At the same time, withdraw the $1, $2, and $5 bills. Mint more $1 coins as part of the replacement process.

(3) Institute a new $5 coin featuring Abraham Lincoln.

(4) Issue new currency with holes in it: 5 holes for the $10, 4 for the $20, 3 for the $50, 2 for the $100. Leave the 1-hole option available for when inflation eventually makes the $500 bill a viable denomination again. The holes should be of different sizes and arranged in different shapes for each denomination.

Blind people would be able to tell the new denominations by feel, but the bills would still physically fit in all the places that have come to expect them. Having more holes for the smaller bills means that counterfeiters can’t artificially increase their apparent value by punching more holes in them. And there’s no easy way to UNpunch a hole.

Now, could some unscrupulous person hoard up a bunch of, say, spanking new $5 bills of the old style, punch 2 holes in them once the new currency is available, and try to pass them off to blind people as C-notes? Yup. So my plan wouldn’t be a perfect solution. But it would still be better than what we’re doing now, and eventually these fake bills would all be confiscated.

Would the holes cause the bills to wear out faster, make them more prone to tearing, etc.? Probably. But our present paper money is made of pretty sturdy stuff as it is to forestall those very problems. A few more tweaks (and possibly some additional embedded fibers), and we should have this one licked as well.

At the same time the new, “holey” currency is issued, the Treasury should make it more palatable to sighted people as well by adopting different colors for the different denominations. This way everybody wins.

So I think solutions are available. Of course, the Treasury apparently has chosen not to avail itself of them and is instead intending to fight the court order. *sigh*