Monday, April 27, 2015

A Soviet computer malfunction almost caused World War III

Thirty years ago, on 26 September 1983, the world was saved from potential nuclear disaster.

In the early hours of the morning, the Soviet Union's early-warning systems detected an incoming missile strike from the United States. Computer readouts suggested several missiles had been launched. The protocol for the Soviet military would have been to retaliate with a nuclear attack of its own.

But duty officer Stanislav Petrov - whose job it was to register apparent enemy missile launches - decided not to report them to his superiors, and instead dismissed them as a false alarm.

This was a breach of his instructions, a dereliction of duty. The safe thing to do would have been to pass the responsibility on, to refer up.

But his decision may have saved the world. ...

"The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word 'launch' on it," he says.

The system was telling him that the level of reliability of that alert was "highest". There could be no doubt. America had launched a missile.

"A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from 'launch' to 'missile strike'," he says. ...

Although the nature of the alert seemed to be abundantly clear, Mr Petrov had some doubts.

Alongside IT specialists, like him, Soviet Union had other experts, also watching America's missile forces. A group of satellite radar operators told him they had registered no missiles.

But those people were only a support service. The protocol said, very clearly, that the decision had to be based on computer readouts. And that decision rested with him, the duty officer.

But what made him suspicious was just how strong and clear that alert was.

"There were 28 or 29 security levels. After the target was identified, it had to pass all of those 'checkpoints'. I was not quite sure it was possible, under those circumstances," says the retired officer.

Mr Petrov called the duty officer in the Soviet army's headquarters and reported a system malfunction. ...

Now, 30 years on, Mr Petrov thinks the odds were 50-50. He admits he was never absolutely sure that the alert was a false one.

He says he was the only officer in his team who had received a civilian education. "My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders," he told us.

So, he believes, if somebody else had been on shift, the alarm would have been raised.
--Pavel Aksenov, BBC, on how lucky we are

What it's like to work for Floyd Mayweather

The gig is like no other. [Floyd] Mayweather is such a reality-warping force in his own training camp that he refuses to set a daily schedule of any kind. Each day, his entourage — including his father-slash-trainer, his uncle-slash-trainer, his hand-wrap specialist, his conditioning coach, his bodyguards, and others — wait outside his gated home with their gear packed, often lingering into the early morning hours for the fighter to decide what he wants to do. Mayweather has thrived off this spontaneous model for years, and while those on his payroll have grown accustomed to his eccentric routines, the shifting schedule is especially challenging for [Maywather's personal chef Quiana] Jeffries, one of the newest members of his team.

“If Champ wants a meal at three, four, five, six in the morning, I have to be ready for that,” Jeffries says. “He’s called me at four and says, ‘I want that oxtail.’” She immediately got going on a batch of her special oxtail stew smothered in gravy. ...

Diet, of course, is a key element of his training regimen. “He wants all organic,” Jeffries says — sometimes a tall order in a place like Vegas. She has looked for a farmers’ market, but says she has yet to find one. Even so, it probably wouldn't be open at 3 a.m.. There are several 24-hour supermarkets, but not all the departments of those stores stay open, and racing to get ingredients for Mayweather’s meals has become a kind of sport for her.

“The seafood counters always close early,” she says — so she's befriended night managers who can retrieve special ingredients for her. “They all know who we work for.” She's generally able to get items like king crab legs and shrimp, essential ingredients for the seafood gumbo Mayweather loves, any time of the day or night.
--Geoffrey Gray, New York, on a man unmoored from social conventions

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Letter from Harvard statistics department to Yale statistics department

October 2, 1963

Professor Frank Anscombe, Chairman
Department of Statistics
Yale University
New Haven, Conn.

Dear Professor Anscombe:

At its meeting of September 23, 1963, the Department of Statistics at Harvard University, after sharp and acrimonious debate,* unanimously instructed the Chairman to extend felicitations to the Department of Statistics of Yale University on the occasion of its founding. The members expressed the view that the new department would add vigor and stature to our field in New England and have a fortunate effect on competence in statistics throughout the nation. Consequently, it is our great pleasure to welcome your department and extend our best wishes.

The Chairman was also directed to explore the possibility of cooperative enterprises that the two departments might develop to their joint advantage.

Sincerely yours,
Frederick Mosteller
Chairman

*The minutes of the meeting are woefully incomplete, but the question whether blue was not a melancholy color for statistics was countered by the opinion that it might be as satisfactory as a shade of red. Concern whether canine tenacity was adequate for either Bayesian or classical statistics was allayed by the depressing thought that it may be superior to complete absence of animal spirits, our diligent researches having failed to uncover any Harvard mascot.
--Letter on display in the common room of the Yale statistics department building

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Oprah's misunderstanding of Anna Karenina

The myth embodied in great romances tells us that love envelops our whole being. Romantic love presses upon us with irresistible intensity. ...

What is more, according to this ideology, we do not choose such love. It befalls us. We “fall in love,” we do not jump in love. Such love is a “passion,” not an action. ...

For this reason, romantic love feels like fate, and an ideology of amoral fatalism often accompanies it. Lovers live in a realm beyond good and evil. After all, good and evil depend on choice, and where fate governs, choice is out of the question. No matter how much pain the lovers cause, one cannot condemn them. Adultery becomes as noble as revolution, and only cramped moralists worry about the pain caused the betrayed spouse or abandoned children.

That is the story Anna Karenina imagines she is living. As one of her friends observes, she resembles a heroine from a romance. But Anna’s sense of herself is not Tolstoy’s sense of her. He places his romantic heroine not in a romance, where her values would be validated, but in the world of prosaic reality, where actions have consequences and the pain we inflict matters.

Oprah Winfrey, who chose Tolstoy’s novel for her book club, followed many others in viewing Anna Karenina as a celebration of its heroine and of romantic love. That gets the book exactly wrong. It mistakes Anna’s story of herself for Tolstoy’s. Just as Anna Karenina imagines herself into the novel she reads, such readers imagine themselves as Anna or her adulterous lover Vronsky. They do not seem to entertain the possibility that the values they accept unthinkingly are the ones Tolstoy wants to discredit. ...

Anna’s story illustrates the dangers of romantic thinking. As she gives herself to her affair, she tells herself that she had no choice, but her loss of will is willed. Returning by train to her husband in St. Petersburg with Vronsky in pursuit, she experiences a sort of delirium:
She was constantly beset by moments of doubt as to whether the car was going forward or back or standing still altogether. Was it Annushka beside her or a stranger? “What is this on the arm, a fur or a beast? And is this me here? Am I myself or someone else?” She was terrified of surrendering to this oblivion. But something was drawing her into it, and she could surrender or resist at will (Part I, chapter 29).
The relativism of motion she experiences is a precise analogue to the delirious moral relativism she is falling into. Though she will later insist she could not have done otherwise, Tolstoy tells us that “she could surrender or resist at will.” Her fatalism is a choice.
--Gary Saul Morson, Commentary, on one of the moral messages of Anna Karenina. HT: SWR

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Jury duty is for everybody

Imagine you're a lawyer entering the courtroom to select the 12 men and women who will decide the civil case you've been preparing for nearly a year. Sitting in the gallery's second row, squeezed in among dozens of other ordinary Maryland citizens grudgingly or enthusiastically performing their civic duty, is the chief justice of the United States, John G. Roberts Jr.

Would you want him on the jury?

That was the question confronting a pair of attorneys last week at the Montgomery County Circuit Court in Rockville, Maryland. Roberts was Juror No. 49 in the pool under consideration for a case that stemmed from a car wreck, according to the Washington Post. After answering two questions in open court and then speaking quietly with the judge and lawyers, he was not selected for the jury. ...

Kathy Arberg, a spokeswoman for the Supreme Court, said that while several other justices had reported for jury duty in recent years, the Court did not keep records on whether any of them had served on a trial. Roberts made no apparent attempt to be excused from the trial, the Post reported. The judge asked the potential jurors to speak up if they had relatives in the medical profession, and Roberts said that his sister was a nurse in Indiana. When Judge Ronald Rubin then asked, per the custom, whether that would prevent him from being "fair and impartial," the chief justice replied, "Nope."
--Russell Berman, The Atlantic, on the nation's most qualified juror

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"They" may finally become accepted as a singular pronoun

Copy editors might seem like stick-in-the-mud traditionalists when it comes to language change, but when I attended the American Copy Editors Society’s annual conference in Pittsburgh a couple of weeks ago, I found growing acceptance of a usage that has long been disparaged as downright ungrammatical: treating “they” as a singular pronoun. ...

According to standard grammar, “they” and its related forms can only agree with plural antecedents. But English sorely lacks a gender-neutral singular third-person pronoun, and “they” has for centuries been pressed into service for that purpose, much to the grammarians’ chagrin.

When pressed on whether “they” could serve as a singular pronoun, my fellow lexicographers and I pointed out that it already has done so for about seven centuries, appearing in the work of writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Jane Austen.

Merriam-Webster associate editor Emily Brewster turned the question back to the audience. The only thing standing in the way of singular “they” becoming more acceptable? Copy editors who take it upon themselves to edit out the usage, she said. ...

Dozens of gender-neutral pronouns have been put forth over the years, including “thon,” “xe” and “ze,” but all have failed to catch fire. “They” has the virtue of actually being in common use, and even grammatical sticklers may be coming around to it.
--Ben Zimmer, WSJ, on cracks in the wall

What is the Terminator theme song's time signature?

As the [Terminator] score kicked in, I immediately recognized it was in a strange time signature. I’m a (very) amateur musician, and my ears are attuned to bizarre beats. This was as jarring as it gets. A disorienting rhythm—in particular the driving, industrial-sounding beat that gets louder and more prominent as the opening theme progresses. It wasn’t in 5/4 or 7/8, both of which I can generally suss out with not much difficulty. I tried to count the beat in my head, and by tapping on my thigh: “DAH-doonk, dah-doonk, dah-doonk, gonk gonk.” But for the life of me I couldn’t make anything fit. My world had been ripped apart, much like Sarah Connor’s when she discovered she was being hunted by an implacable killing machine from the future. ...

[Composer Brad Fiedel] explained that before The Terminator, he’d worked on a score for a TV movie about Hitler’s last days. The producers were concerned that lush string music might lend sympathy to Hitler, so Fiedel conjured up a crashing, metallic ruckus. It was this sound that formed the germ of the later Terminator score.

Fiedel was at heart an improviser. To create the Terminator theme, he first set up a rhythm loop on one of the primitive, early-’80s devices he was using... He recorded samples of himself whacking a frying pan to create the clanking sounds. Then he played melodic riffs on a synthesizer over the looped beat. Amid the throes of creation, what he hadn’t quite noticed—or hadn’t bothered to notice—was that his finger had been a split-second off when it pressed the button to establish that rhythm loop. Being an old machine, there was no autocorrection. Which meant the loop was in a profoundly herky-jerky time signature. Fiedel just went with it. The beat seemed to be falling forward, and he liked its propulsiveness. He recorded the score that way and (not being classically trained) never wrote down any notation. ...

Much like the creators of Skynet, Fiedel was only later forced to consider what he had wrought. He got a call from the legendary film and TV composer Henry Mancini, who was planning to record an album of movie scores with a full orchestra. Fiedel was giddy to learn that Mancini wanted to include the Terminator theme. But then Mancini asked for the “lead sheet”—the notes the bandleader would use so the orchestra musicians could walk in off the street and nail the recording in one take.

Fiedel enlisted a friend named George Kahn, a jazz musician who had a music degree and more formal training, to help set the score to paper. “He called me up and said, ‘Brad, what time signature is this in?’ I said, ‘I dunno, 6/8?’ He said, ‘No, it’s quirkier than that.’ ” ...

And the verdict? “It’s in 13/16. Three plus three plus three plus two plus two.” ...

Brad Fiedel went on to write the theme for Terminator 2: Judgment Day (in the much less jarring time signature of 6/8, because he felt that film had more warmth)...
--Seth Stevenson, Slate, on musical geeking out

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Female circumcision has stronger support among women than men

In 1996 I went to Kenya—northern Kenya among an ethnic group called the Rendille. ...

[The women] realized that not only had I gotten married without being circumcised, but that I had obviously delivered children without being circumcised, which in their culture was unthinkable.

These women were my very good friends, and they were covering up their faces to not show how repulsed they were by the idea of somebody being uncircumcised and delivering a baby. They were, you know, revolted. ...

They said, “There’s a wedding going on, do you want to go?” And I was like, “Alright.” They took me to this blended-branch hut. They brought in the bride, and they brought in the circumciser, a woman, and a couple of other women followed. ...

One woman went outside and announced the circumcision was successful. People started roasting lamb, meat. A little while later, warriors came over to the hut and started singing and dancing praises to the bride and the groom. This went on for hours. There was this complete celebration. I was completely perplexed. I sat there just sort of, you know, “Did anyone just see what I just saw?” ...

[The bride] was proud. She sat there stoic and looked up at a focal point. She didn’t flinch, and that’s apparently a really important part of showing your maturity: Can you withstand the pain? It shows that you have the maturity to face the hardship that is coming as a woman. ...

A little bit later, I excused myself and ran back to the hut where I was staying, and I travel with a little medical first-aid bag. I raced back to the hut and gave her these codeine tablets. ...

The bride came out and joined the dancing. I almost died. I thought she must be on codeine, but she wasn’t. She was joyful. I didn't understand the joy about this.

But later I remembered that when I gave birth to my first son, I had a very difficult delivery. After my son was born, everyone in the delivery room popped a bottle of champagne. I felt like I had been hit by a Mack truck and they were toasting champagne. But it was a good pain, and that’s what this was. This girl had become a woman.

When I went back two years later, the girl came to me and gave the pills back. She said, “You don’t understand, this is not our way. And if I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be a woman now.”

I understood why. And I respected her. ...

Some people in Africa believe that bodies are androgynous and that all male and female bodies contain male and female parts.

So a man’s foreskin is a female part. And for a female, the covering of the clitoris is a male part. The idea of becoming a wholly formed female includes being cut—having any part that is somewhat male-like removed from the body. ...

The sort of feminist argument about this is that it’s about the control of women but also of their sexuality and sexual pleasure. But when you talk to people on the ground, you also hear people talking about the idea that it’s women’s business. As in, it’s for women to decide this. If we look at the data across Africa, the support for the practice is stronger among women than among men.
--Anthropologist Bettina Shell-Duncan, The Atlantic, on the complicated reality behind female circumcision

Friday, April 3, 2015

The film industry hated Christopher Nolan before it loved him

[Christopher] Nolan described the difficulties he met after finishing 2000’s psychological thriller Memento, his first big-budget feature after his self-financed debut, Following.

"We organized a big distribution screening in L.A. the weekend all the distributors were coming to town for the Spirit Awards," he said. “But every distributor passed [on it] in one night — nobody wanted it. Some of the distributors were really awful to us, actually, and said they’d walked out of the film. It was a really, really tough ride … pretty devastating."

After failing to find a buyer, Memento eventually was distributed in North America by the film’s financier, Newmarket Films, which set up its own distribution arm. The film went on to earn almost $40 million from a budget of $5 million, and two years after the rejections, Nolan and his producer wife, Emma Thomas, returned to the Independent Spirit Awards to pick up the best director, best screenplay and best supporting actress awards, followed by a couple of Oscar nominations. Memento eventually was recognized by many as one of the best films of the decade.

"It was a really unique road. I don’t think I’ll ever have a moment like that [again] in my career," said Nolan. "We took a huge knock, back as far as we could go. But we came back from it with sheer good fortune."
--Alex Ritman, Hollywood Reporter, on the fickleness of human opinion