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The Big Bang should have made cracks in spacetime—why haven’t we found them?

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A computer-generated simulation of cosmic strings.

Enlarge / A computer-generated simulation of cosmic strings. (credit: Chris Ringeval)

Remember that time in the Lord of the Rings lore when the dwarves of Moria dug too greedily and too deep, unearthing the Balrog, an ancient horror not meant to roam free in the modern age?

Cosmic strings are kind of like that but for physics. They are hypothetical leftovers from the momentous transformations experienced by our Universe when it was less than a second old. They are defects, flaws in space itself. They’re no wider than a proton, but they may potentially stretch across the observable volume of the Universe. They have unspeakable powers—the ability to warp space so much that circles around them never complete, and they carry enough energy to unleash planet-destroying levels of gravitational waves. They’re also the path into some of the most exotic physics known (and unknown) to science.

But perhaps the greatest power cosmic strings possess is their capacity to confound physicists. According to our best understanding of the early Universe, our cosmos should be riddled with cosmic strings. And yet not a single search has found any evidence for them. Figuring out where the cosmic strings are hiding, or why they shouldn’t exist after all, will help push our understanding of cosmology and fundamental physics to new heights.

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kryptothesuperdog
6 days ago
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Court Says Bees Are Fish

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Though this headline is short, some may still believe it is, to some extent, an exaggeration for comic effect. Without conceding that is true, or indeed that I have ever done such a thing, if I were doing it here the exaggeration would be minimal:

The issue presented here is whether the bumble bee, a terrestrial invertebrate, falls within the definition of fish….

Almond Alliance of Cal. v. Fish & Game Commission, No. C093542, 2022 WL 1742458 (Cal. Ct. App. May 31, 2022).

That was the issue, and the court held that it does.

Let me try to explain WTF was going on here, and maybe more importantly who’s to blame for the completely insane result.

The dispute in this case was whether the California Fish and Game Commission had the authority to designate four bumblebee species as candidates for the endangered-species list. The opinion does not discuss the consequences of such a designation or why it was disputed, but I am guessing that either it would limit the property rights of California almond growers in some manner or there is a group of people named “Almond” in California who really *#&%ing hate bees. Possibly both. But the only issue the opinion discusses is whether the Commission had statutory authority to do this.

For that to be true, the bumblebees had to fit within the definitions of “endangered species” or “threatened species” found in the California Fish and Game Code. And that means they would have to be “native species or subspecies of a bird, mammal, fish, amphibian, reptile, or plant.” Cal. Fish & Game Code §§ 2062, 2067, 2068. Well, bumblebees, like all other bees, are insects. This means they are not birds, mammals, fish, amphibians, reptiles, or plants. The end.

No?

This opinion is somehow 35 pages long?

Yes.

To understand why, we apparently must go back many decades and start with the California Legislature’s original definition of “fish.” (Don’t worry, this won’t make any sense eventually, either.) Back then, the Code defined “fish” as “wild fish, mollusks, or crustaceans, including any part, spawn, or ova thereof.” Are mollusks fish? Nope. Are crustaceans fish? Nope. So is there already a problem? Yep.

In 1969, the Legislature decided to expand the Commission’s authority to include amphibians. Did it do so by narrowing the “fish” definition to fish and then adding one for amphibians? Nope. It just stuck them in with the fish. And then in 1984, it wanted to add “invertebrates.” Did it take this opportunity to straighten things out? Nope. In they went. And this is how we got the statute that the Court of Appeal was interpreting in the Almond Alliance case. It now says this:

“Fish” means a wild fish, mollusk, crustacean, invertebrate, amphibian, or part, spawn, or ovum of any of those animals.

Cal. Fish & Game Code § 45.

So the definition of “fish” now includes even more things that aren’t fish, including entire categories of things that aren’t even vertebrates like fish are, in addition to the mollusks and crustaceans that are also invertebrates but for some reason are still listed separately unlike all other invertebrates. But it doesn’t include insects.

Or does it?

See, insects are invertebrates. Specifically, they’re in the category of “invertebrates that aren’t mollusks or crustaceans,” which is not to say that’s a category recognized by anyone but the California Legislature, because it isn’t. But insects are definitely in that category, and that means bees are in it.

Or maybe they’re not.

Because what we now have to figure out is whether the California Legislature intended to include invertebrates that don’t live in water in the definition of “fish.” As you may have noticed, everything else in the list is something that lives in water, at least if you don’t think too hard about amphibians. This of course would make sense because this is, after all, a definition of “fish,” which definitely live in water all the time (except when they are jumping unless they are lungfish, which walk or at least creep a little). So, DOES THE CALIFORNIA LEGISLATURE THINK NONAQUATIC INVERTEBRATES ARE “FISH” IS THE REAL QUESTION HERE, and also possibly the reason you just tore up your law school application, for which I commend you.

To answer this question, the court had to go back through decades of legislative history in an effort to figure out what the hell the Legislature was thinking. And while it was mostly thinking about water-based critters, this was not always true. In 1980, the Commission decided certain butterflies should be on the endangered list, and also the “Trinity bristle snail,” which is, the court notes, “a terrestrial gastropod that is both a mollusk and an invertebrate.” (I forgot about snails when writing the paragraph above, but I’m not going back.) But someone objected, for what seems like a pretty darn good reason: “Mr. Livingston contended that insects are not fish[.]” The Commission did not necessarily agree with this outlandish position, it seems, but the butterflies came off the list. Since then, there has apparently been an ongoing debate about whether insects are fish in California.

But, remember, four years after the butterfly crisis, the Legislature added “invertebrates” to the definition. Insects are invertebrates. And this didn’t seem to be limited to aquatic beasts, the court held, because of that goddamn snail, which is terrestrial. Nobody had ever complained about it being on the list. If the Legislature cared about the aquaticness of invertebrates, the court seems to have reasoned, it would have done something about this, but it didn’t. Therefore, nonaquatic invertebrates can be on the list, and that’s what bumblebees are.

This is why, at least for purposes of California’s section 45, bees are fish.

If you want more, there’s a wonderful discussion of worms on page 34 of the opinion, but I need a drink.

        
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kryptothesuperdog
87 days ago
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It's magic: Using an IR camera and Raspberry Pi to scan an invisibly marked card deck during a magic performance

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Card tricks would be a lot easier if the magician knew the location of every card. Paul Nettle created a Github project, 'The Nettle Magic Project,' that uses special markings and a camera to identify and locate every card in a deck.

Each card in the deck is marked with a unique barcode. Of course, if the cards were marked in traditional ink, that would disrupt the illusion, so the cards are marked with ink only visible under specific IR conditions. Nettle and Van Goey designed a Raspberry Pi device with a NoIR camera to see the marked cards.

The device runs a scanning server, and it's connected to an iOS client application, Abra, that shows what the server's camera sees and the decoded deck. With the technology, magicians can know the ordered list of every card in the deck, which card(s) are missing, and even which cards are face-up in the deck. The device can be run while performing as it can scan/decode a 1080p image to an ordered deck in 'as little as 4ms.'

The testbed applications provided are written for macOS and iOS, although there's also support for Linux and the Raspberry Pi platform. There currently aren't Windows or Android versions. The full documentation outlines the testbed application in detail.

There's also a high-level overview of how the device works. While speed is important, correct results are critical. An error during a live performance is problematic. While scanning results can be incorrect, it's very unlikely. Performance is improved by scanning several video frames rather than a single frame. The results of multiple frames are analyzed and combined. However, efficiency concerns are important, as the device will likely be hidden on a magician's person and can't become too hot or run out of power.

High-level overview of the Nettle Magic Project system and its steps

There's an input video frame augmented by configuration parameters and a deck definition. The deck is searched, decoded, resolved and analyzed before a report is generated for the user. Each of these primary steps includes secondary and even tertiary processes, which are extensively outlined here.

Each playing card is about 0.3mm thick, and they're scanned under low-light conditions using a narrow-band IR camera. Further, cards become worn, and some cards are held in someone's hands, so the scanning process isn't perfect. However, it's 'generally' reliable. The 'analyze' phase tries to overcome a lack of confidence by combining results from scans that are 'mostly' correct with scans that 'may actually be' correct to generate a single 'confident' result.

The Abra client shows the full results of the scan. We can see that this scan generated a high confidence value (98).

Different scenarios produce failures, including the deck not being in the frame or too small, the readability check failing because the scanned video isn't sharp, there being too few cards or just some other more generalized failure. There are also different success conditions, including low and high confidence results. Once all steps are complete, the final result is sent to the Abra client.

One of these decks is marked. Can you tell which one?

The documentation also shows how to generate marks using a Sharpie or a custom-printed stamp. The section on UV reactive inks isn't complete yet, but there are some interesting details about creating a marked deck that looks normal to the naked eye.

If you like card tricks, you can try the Nettle Magic Project for yourself. All packages, tools and documentation are available on Github.


Image credits: Nettle Magic Project / Paul Nettle and Jeroen Van Goey / Github

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kryptothesuperdog
87 days ago
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ShadyURL: Don't just shorten your URL, make it suspicious and frightening

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kryptothesuperdog
135 days ago
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The “Dark Yellow Problem” in Design System Color Palettes

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Designers try to strike a balance between “yellow being yellow” and meeting the accessibility requirements.



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kryptothesuperdog
152 days ago
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Bad grammar, bugbears and dæmons

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Dafne Keen as Lyra with Pantalaimon, from the BBC adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Susan McDonald, an experienced subeditor at the Guardian, has written an article that appears to be about grammar and usage but is really about everyone’s favourite topic: how annoying other people are.

McDonald doubtless knows more than a thing or two about whipping ungainly sentences into shape. Her daily work involves tweaking punctuation, replacing clichés, shepherding stray verbs towards their subjects, and making all sorts of other small changes that smooth the path from the writer’s brain to the reader’s.

But she says she doesn’t nitpick for the sake of it, instead using common sense to decide when rules can be bent. I agree with that as a broad principle, but the thing about common sense is that it’s never as common as you think. What strikes one person as sensible flexibility will strike another as sloppy inconsistency; one person’s high standards will be another’s restrictive dogmatism.

McDonald gives some examples of things that definitely do matter (to her):

Some of my personal bugbears come up more regularly than others.

“Compared to” is different from “compared with”. Use the first if you want to liken one thing to another, the second to contrast.

And that reminds me: in my book “different from” is correct, “different to” and “different than” are not.

“Who” and “whom” are both needed but not interchangeable. The same goes for less/fewer, like/such as and imply/infer.

As a copyeditor, I think I would be absolutist about only one of these six. For moderately formal pieces, I’d probably apply three or four more of them across the board and the other one or two depending on context.

But I would also usually avoid using ‘regularly’ to mean ‘frequently’, as McDonald does here – so on that point I’m more of a stickler than her. And there are people who would scorn both of us for beginning sentences with ‘and’.

There’s no objective way of telling which ‘rules’ are the ‘correct’ ones. Any of us can talk about what’s right ‘in my book’ – but each of our mental rulebooks is different.

Some people respond to these differences by saying that the safest thing to do is always follow all the rules – that way, you won’t annoy anyone. But a lot of these (alleged) rules are, to put it politely, stupid. Picking every conceivable potential nit would be enormously time-consuming and make prose awkward, stiff – even annoying. McDonald rightly points out that, for instance, split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions often produce better results.

A lot of these decisions are judgement calls. You have to think about audience, medium and desired effect. You have to keep abreast of how people are using the language and how they expect it to be used. You have to estimate which fine distinctions are too fine to be reliably clear, and you have to have a nose for what might be likely to cause a stink.

You also have to remember that the people who complain about ‘broken rules’ are far louder than those whose reading is eased by a certain breakage – but that doesn’t mean the loud ones are anything like a majority.

Sometimes there’s no right answer. Language isn’t like mathematics; it’s like life.

McDonald describes her linguistic gripes as bugbears, and many people talk semi-fondly of having pet peeves, but really these attitudes are more like Philip Pullman’s dæmons – they’re aspects of ourselves. They are changeable during childhood but become fixed as we grow up. They might cause us annoyance, but they are a dear, cherished part of who we are, and any attempt to separate them from us causes terrible pain.

The last line of McDonald’s piece is:

Language reflects – and can even define – who we are. So a little respect, please, for its rules.

It’s not just language but also our attitudes to language that are part of our identities. But the ‘rules’ we get the most righteously angry about don’t belong to language in itself. They belong to our personal conception of it. And when we meet someone whose internal rules are frustratingly different, we have two options: banish their dæmon or pacify our own.

Neither is easy.



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kryptothesuperdog
242 days ago
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