“Rounding Corrections”, by Sandra Haynes, and “The Floor”, by Melissa Hall

Passing these along from the folks at io9 on planet Gizmodo:

What might life be like in a future where every citizen was guaranteed a universal basic income? Two very good short stories imagine the sociological and cultural changes that might happen, in poignant and chilling ways. One of them was good enough to earn a sizable cash prize and you can read it now.


Meltdown and Spectre: What they are, who’s affected, and what’s being done about them

ArsTechnica has a concise, well-written article on two recently-disclosed vulnerabilities found in nearly all Intel processors and some AMD and ARM processors.   Particularly worrisome is the impact these flaws can have on virtualised environments, which includes cloud-based virtual machines and their hypervisors.  Remedying these vulnerabilities will ultimately require replacing the processors.  However, near-term software-only solutions have been developed and are already being deployed.   This article gives a good, moderately technical overview of the what, who, and how of the flaws and the fixes.

A Gentle Introduction to Quantum Computing

A very good, truly gentle intro to quantum computing.  A basic understanding of probability and complex numbers is required.  But, if you’re truly interested in gaining a basic understanding of QC’s mathematics, you’ll likely already be familiar with those.

ABSTRACT: Quantum Computing is a new and exciting field at the intersection of mathematics, computer science and physics. It concerns a utilization of quantum mechanics to improve the efficiency of computation. Here we present a gentle introduction to some of the ideas in quantum computing. The paper begins by motivating the central ideas of quantum mechanics and quantum computation with simple toy models. From there we move on to a formal presentation of the small fraction of (finite dimensional) quantum mechanics that we will need for basic quantum computation. Central notions of quantum architecture (qubits and quantum gates) are described. The paper ends with a presentation of one of the simplest quantum algorithms: Deutsch’s algorithm. Our presentation demands neither advanced mathematics nor advanced physics.

Noson Yanofsky et al.


Aida … or, Operation Desert Spiel

One could say that Verdi’s Aida is an opera about a love triangle.  A love polygon would be more accurate, as Aida has several more facets.    You see, Amneris, the high-priestess of Isis, is hot for Radames, who is hot for Aida, who is Amneris’ slave and, unbeknownst to anyone is also the daughter of Amonasro who is the king of Ethiopia, which is about to attack Egypt, the king of which is the father of Amneris.

With me so far?

Radames wants to impress Aida, and what would be more impressive than, say, winning a war against a rival nation? What woman wouldn’t be charmed by a gift of diamonds, gold, and a couple of slave pool-boys?  And the nation  Radames will conquer for her? Why, Ethiopia, of course! Radames hopes that Isis will choose him to be the conquering general. Knowing that Amneris has a thing for him, he figures he’s got an “in” with management.

As our story opens, Radames comes storming out of the gate with Celeste Aida, a brilliant tenor party piece with beautiful pianissimo high B-flats that no one ever sings pianissimo.1.   The name means “heavenly Aida”, but the gist of it can be summed up as “If I were a gen’ral … yedl deedle deedle didle didle didle didle dum.  All day long I’d yedl deedle dum, if I were a ge-ner-AL!”.   The Egyptian goddess Isis2 speaks, through Amneris3, saying that Radames will lead the armies of Egypt in battle against the Ethiopians.   The act wraps up with a big finale wherein Ramfis4, Amneris, and Radames lead the Egyptians in a ceremony of thanks and praise to the Egyptian god Ftha5. They beseech him to look upon them favorably and help them kick Ethiopian butt all the way back to the source of the Nile. All then retire to the banquet hall for a beautifully prepared buffet dinner and dancing.

Act II: Radames and his armies win the first battle and present the captured Ethiopians to the king as slaves. But, wouldn’t you know it! Amonasro, Aida’s father, is among these slaves. He whispers6 to her not to reveal his true identity. The king, always flattered by people’s gifts – especially when the gifts themselves are people – asks what honor Radames, as conquering hero, would like.  Aida discreetly pulls Radames aside to tell him that that slave, right there … no, the other one… yes, the big one … is her father, and suggests he ask for all the slaves to be freed as a sign of generosity and goodwill.  Radames, really turned on by her whispering in his ear like that, mindlessly repeats her suggestion to the king, who’s been politely pretending not to see or hear any of this exchange.     Amneris and the priests start to wonder whether maybe Radames has been sniffing the sacrificial incense a little too much, and counter his proposal by saying  Amonasro and Aida should remain in Egypt as hostages. The king agrees, and everybody – everyone except Aida and Radames, that is – goes off to party.

Act II: She’s not the sharpest ceremonial sword in the vestry, but it finally dawns on Amneris that Radames is in love with Aida. She tricks Aida into admitting this7, and then tells her that she’ll never be good enough for Radames because she’s not royal, like Amneris. Aida avoids what could have been a literal royal smack-down scene and keeps her royal standing to her royal self and goes off to console herself by singing something down by the river in the next scene. Amneris, meanwhile, stays put and sings about how great life will be once she’s married to Radames.

Act III, scene 2: Amonasro, having seen how whipped Aida’s got Radames, reckons he can prevail upon  her to get the inside dope on the Egyptian battle plan. First he tries the soft approach, telling Aida how much he missed her, how glad he is to see her, how great it’ll be when his army kills all the Egyptians so they can all go home, back to Ethiopia, and live happily ever after. Just one small problem. He needs her to get Radames to tell her where he plans to attack. She tells her father that she’s “very conflicted”, but decides that she cannot betray the man she loves. So, Amonasro starts to mess with her head. He berates her for denying her people, for forsaking her country and her heritage, for leaving the lights on after she’s left the room – it’s a “dad” thing, ok? — and reminds her of that time she crashed the family chariot right after she’d gotten her learners papyrus. This all cuts deep, but still, no sale. Finally, he goes all Reb Tevya on her and threatens to disown her, telling her that she’s no longer his daughter, just another slave of Egypt.   This is more than she can bear, so she relents and reluctantly agrees to get the information from Radames, adding that  it was her sister, Mildred, who was driving the chariot, not her.

Act III, Finale

Radames and Aida meet secretly in the sacred rock garden.   Radames shows up, all glad to see Aida. Aida, caught between a rock and … well … another rock, begs Radames to come and run away with her to some other country8.  Radames mutters something about leaving behind the fame, the glory, and the awful-tasting beer. Aida says, yes, but we’ll be together, dear. Radames, who’s beginning to sense that this is one of those “unwinnable arguments”, asks how she expects him to forget his home, his country, his beer? Aida gives him a look that says “Do I really need to answer that?” and gives him one last chance before she pulls out the big guns. Radames, now wishing she’d just asked him something he knows9 how to answer, like “Does this dress make my butt look fat?” tries to take the easy way out by changing the subject and sweet-talking her. No deal. Aida tearfully fires the next salvo: “I guess you must not love me anymore!” Radames thinks “Oh, Ftha! Here we go again.” “What do you mean, I don’t love you?” Aida replies, “I saw the way you were looking at her, I know you want Amneris.”  Radames swears this isn’t true. (We’re just friends, honest!) Aida stands firm, and Radames, who, with all that military training, knows when he’s beat, says “Fine! We’ll run away together.”

Now, the opera could have just ended right here. The story was a bit contrived, but still believable10. Aida and Radames could have run, ridden, chariot-ed, or otherwise been conveyed into the sunset to, say Chad, or maybe Argentina. Instead, we are now subjected to a climactic series of Really. Dumb. Moves.

Dumb Move#1: Instead of saying “ok, let’s go”, Aida asks Radames HOW they’ll escape. He says he knows where all the armies are, so he knows which road out of town is unguarded. “Which one might that be, honey?”, asks Aida. “Napata Drive.”, he replies. I guess Radames must have been cutting class at General School the day they went over why they put the word SECRET in the term MILITARY SECRET. Or maybe, since he lives in a desert, the meaning of “Loose Lips Sink Ships” was completely lost on him. In any case, Amonasro, who’s been hiding behind another rock, overhears this, bringing us to

Dumb Move #2: Suppose you’re commanding an army and you just found out where the other army’s gonna be hiding. Do you call up the other army and taunt “I know where you’re hiding, I know where you’re hiding! Neener neener neeeeeener!”? Of course not.  But, that’s pretty much what Amonasro does. He jumps out from where he’s been hiding and declares that he now knows where to attack the Egyptians. Understandably, Radames becomes pretty grumpy with Aida, and with himself for being so stupid, but … there’s still a chance to recover. He’s got options. Option 1: Kill Amonosro and tell Aida he’ll do the same to her if she breathes a word to anyone, then continue with tomorrow’s attack as planned. Option 2: pretend to run off in shame, but in actuality run back and tell the Egyptians that he’s tricked the Ethiopians into thinking Napata Drive will be unguarded so they’ll be lured there to their doom, unsuspecting. But he does neither, opting instead for

Dumb Move #3: He resigns himself to running off with Aida and her dad, leaving his armies to be slaughtered at the hands of the Ethiopians.

Right about this time, Amneris, who’s been lurking about behind yet another rock, has had about all she can stand of this idiocy (and there’s more to come) so she jumps out along with the priests and guards11, and declares Radames to be a traitor. Amonasro, backed up by basically no one, threatens to kill Amneris.  Radames stops him, asking, literally “Are you nuts?” This brings us to

Dumb Move #4: Radames urges Amonasro to take Aida and flee. Now, if you were Radames, wouldn’t you sorta want to get out of Dodge yourself, with them? Does he? No. He turns to Amneris and her posse and surrenders himself to them. The upside is that we have a really nice “tenor moment” when Radames cries “Sacerdote, Io resto a te.”, which, loosely translated means “I would like to speak with an attorney.

Act IV: Scene 1 – Judgement

Radames is called before the high priests and the king. Ramfis, the high priest, tells him to defend himself, to explain his actions, but Radames remains silent. (Considering it was his big mouth that got him into this mess to begin with, he’s probably better off not saying anything.) Amneris begs Radames to come up with an explanation that will make sense of what he’s done, and allow him to escape his doom. But, as we’ve already seen, Radames isn’t all that fast on his feet when it comes to thinking12, so … he remains silent. In the end, Radames is condemned to be entombed alive13.

Act IV: Finale – the Tomb Scene

Radames mopes about the tomb while an unimaginably large slab of rock is positioned over the only exit. “I’m so screwed” – or words to that effect – he mutters to himself. As he laments no longer being able see the light of day, and how he will no longer see Aida, the gravity and enormity of his blunders being to dawn on him. “At least Aida is still alive”, he says, trying to console himself. “I hope she will find happiness, and soon forgets what a big jerk I’ve been.” (Being somewhat anal-retentive he further laments not having had mail and newspaper delivery cancelled.)

Suddenly, he hears something14. A sigh? A ghost? A vision? Nope. It’s

Dumb Move #515: Instead of heading back to Ethiopia with daddy, Aida decides, instead to hide out in the tomb and die with Radames. Why is this dumb? If she was able to sneak INTO the tomb without being noticed, don’t you think it might have been possible to sneak OUT of the tomb the same way? So she, too, had some options. Option 1: sneak in, leave a note, flowers, candy, one of those little plastic cats perpetually waving bye-bye, and sneak right back out. Her conscience would be assuaged, Radames would have his final “I love you” from her.  Sure, it’s still a sad ending, but, like the man said, at least she gets to live. Then there’s option 2: sneak in, wait until Radames shows up, then go to him RIGHT AWAY and show him how she snuck in and how they can both sneak out, run off to Monaco (don’t take Napata Drive – it’s a little backed up today), and live – I repeat, LIVE! – happily ever after.

No. She waits until the friggin’ tomb has been sealed shut with that humungous rock and only then does she pipe up. Rather than try to save some oxygen and prolong their last moments together, they use up what little breathable air they have left by singing what is arguably the most beautiful death scene in all of opera.   The opera comes to its tragic conclusion with Amneris singing a song she co-wrote with Ramfis praying for peace as the two lovers suffocate in each others arms.

Although the opera ends here, a recently discovered manuscript by the librettist offers us some clues as to what a sequel might have looked like:

Amonasro defeats the Egyptians and then goes back to Ethiopia.   Rather than die on the throne like all the kings before him, he turns over the family country to his first son-in-law – Mildred’s husband – and moves to Florida where he ended his days after suffering a stroke16.

The king of Egypt gets caught up in some sort of pyramid scheme, loses his entire fortune, and spends his final years living on cat food and dying in the Nile.

Amneris and Ramfis leave the priest[ess]hood and team up to pursue their common passion for music theatre, writing such hit musicals as “How to Succeed in Memphis Without Really Trying”, “Annubis Get your Gong”, and “A Horace Line”.

Copyright © 2011,2017 Nick Seidenman, All Rights Reserved.

Puccini’s “La Rondine”: Hard to Swallow

Opera connoisseurs all know the soprano aria from La Rondine.  It’s a fairly common party piece, it is beautiful, musically, and for sopranos who have the range and killer pianissimo high C’s  it’s a perfect showcase for these in concerts and auditions.   Yet, ask any of those same opera-lovers what the opera itself is about and most would be hard put to tell you.    As it happens, there’s a good reason for that:  it is dreadful.   The “good” thing about it is that, unlike nearly all other Italian operas involving a tragic romance, no one dies.1

To come up with this left-over stew of an opera, Puccini probably started with La Bohème: a starving poet (Rodolfo), suffering hack artist (Marcello), and their respective paramours, Mimi, conspicuously dying of consumption, and Musetta, who lives entirely to consume conspicuously.  Next, he switched Rodolfo and Marcello, and gave Mimi back her health. Scratch that.2  Switch Mimi out completely for Despina from Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte.    And that garret they were living in?  Too depressing.   Now Violetta’s Parisian digs in La Traviata … THERE’s a crib to envy, AND it comes with a posse:  Germont pater and Douphol.  Change all of the names to protect the composer from charges of abject plagiarism, make them all nauseatingly bourgeois,  give it a good stir, and voila`!    Out comes the tasteless slop of an opera  titled La Rondine (The Swallow).  

So, what’s this opera actually about?  A couple of rich, self-absorbed assholes prattling on to their long-suffering friends about their first-world problems. That’s what.

Act I takes place at a cocktail party at the home of Magda, who, as a young “working girl”, recounts the happy evenings she enjoyed dancing at Maxim’s  Bullier’s.   (This is the part where she sings that famous aria.  If this is your first time seeing this opera, leaving immediately after the aria is finished, while perhaps rude, is nonetheless strongly advised.)   Then in comes Alfredo Germont Ruggero Lastouc (seriously) with a letter from his father introducing him to one of Magda’s clients … er … guests, Douphol Rambaldo.  Prunier reads Magda’s palm which reveals she likes to swallow.  No, no!  She is like a swallow3, craving migration to sunnier climes, always looking for love, and so forth.   Ruggero, only just arrived and yet already bored to tears, tells the group he’s new in town and wonders where he can find a real party.  Lisette recommends Bullier’s, and Ruggero is off to it with nary a second kiss on the cheek.   Magda, hearing all this, heads off to change into her secret Working Girl identity after muttering something to Lisette about staying home for the rest of the evening.   Lisette, having heard that line before, grabs Prunier and they both make tracks for Bullier’s to get a front-row seat to the drama about to unfold there.

In Act II we find ourselves at Bullier’s, everyone’s already well in the bottle by the time Magda shows up, and several men (and perhaps one or two women) are instantly all over her like cheese on risotto.  Looking around she quickly spots Ruggero staring at his mobile and joins him on the ruse that she needs to look like she’s with him until those guys quit staring at her.  (Perhaps one or two are in fact staring at Ruggero?)  He closes his facebook app and tries to pay attention to her, trying hard (and mostly succeeding) to keep his eyes north of her collarbone.   Prunier and Lisette show up, arguing.  It seems Prunier wants to turn Lisette into a lady and she’s perfectly happy being a grotty little slut.   They see Magda and Ruggero and walk over to join them.    Ruggero, now swiping his way through snapchat, has thus far failed to recognise Magda in her disguise.   Again, Puccini lifts a scene straight out of another opera — Adele and Eisensten’s meeting in Act II of Die Fledermaus this time — and has Magda oh so subtly get Lisette (and Prunier, presumably) to go along with her charade.   Ruggero, who just can’t seem to put his damn phone down for few minutes, is now chuckling at cat videos on youtube.   Prunier then recites a poem he’s written, which somehow gets Ruggero’s attention.  The four of them face off in a quartet that is the opera’s only other bright spot.   (Leave NOW, I’m telling you.)   Enter Rambaldo.4  Prunier sees him before the others do and instructs Lisette to get Ruggero the hell outta there before the merde really hits the fan.  For once, she complies.   Rambaldo, who is clearly far more perceptive that Ruggero, heads straight for Magda and demands to know what’s going on.   Magda wordily tells him to shove off, which he does.   Ruggero and Lisette return and with dispatch that can be rivaled only by Rodolfo and Mimi’s hooking up scene, Ruggero and Magda decide they want to live together.   The act closes with Magda, who still hasn’t told Ruggero her real name let alone anything about herself, wondering if perhaps this isn’t such a good idea.

In yet another shameless imitation of La Traviata, Act III of Rondine takes place in a villa well outside of Paris, and as with Alfredo and Violetta, Ruggero and Magda have been shacked up living together in bliss for several months.   Regrettably, unlike Violetta, Magda is not suffering from consumption or any other terminal malady.   Moreover, after all these months together she has yet to tell Ruggero who  she really is.   As with Leonard and Penny5, Ruggero keeps proposing marriage to Magda and she keeps putting him off.  He sings of how great it will be when they have a little Ruggero or … saaaaay … What IS your name again? … running around.    Magda feels a migraine coming on.  Prunier shows up with a letter for Ruggero from his mother.  Ruggero takes this and goes off to find a letter opener or something.   Prunier tells Magda that Rambaldo wants her back and will take her on whatever terms she likes.   Her lips tell him she’s not interested while other parts of her anatomy beg to differ.  Ruggero returns and reads from the  letter wherein his mother tells him that if this woman is half as wonderful as he’s described her, they will have a long marriage filled with happiness. 6    Realizing that there is no way in hell her past would be acceptable to his family, and finding the prospect of being sentenced to this fiction for life growing less appealing by the day, along with the recollection of Rambaldo being way better in bed that Mr. Droopy-Drawers over there sends Magda over the edge.  She confesses everything to Ruggero and tells him they cannot be married and that she can no longer be with him.   He cries, stamps his feet and carries on like the spoiled little sook that he is.  The opera ends with Magda returning to Paris to be with Rambaldo leaving Ruggero there on the stage, sucking his thumb while staring at his facebook app.

Opera should be experienced, in large part because it is, after all, story-telling and the most interesting parts of any story are its characters.   The best stories captivate us by introducing us to characters we can strongly, or at least quickly identify with.   In La Rondine there are no such characters.  Well, perhaps Prunier (the name sort of gains something in translation, don’t you think?) and Lisette, who are sort of the Fred and Ethel7 of this little clique` aren’t so bad.   One might even regard them as “cute”, whereas Rodolfo … I mean Ruggero … and Magda (wait … Mimi?   No.  Magda. Got it right that time.)  swing from cloyingly codependent to gag-inducingly maudlin so often you’ll lose count by the time she finally ditches him for Douphol Rambo Rambaldo.  (nailed it!)  Maybe the opera would be performed more often if there were an app for that?

Requiem for Suzie

I first met Suzie at the Liberty Humane Society Animal Shelter almost 14 years ago.  She was one of a litter of four, nearly identical kittens.  Three of them were fast asleep with mamma.   Suzie, however, was wide awake, and completly engrossed in the obviously very serious business of catching a gnat.   She was still a bit too young to bring home that day, but I adopted her on the spot and picked her up from the vet, where she’d been spayed, a few weeks later.
Our dear little companion, Suzie, breathed her last at 8:31 this past Sunday morning while my wife held her.   As we lay awake, stroking Suzie to comfort her through her final hours, we could feel her start to purr a little.    You have to understand that Suzie always purred quietly, very softly, almost imperceptibly.  Yet now we could feel her quite unambiguously — I’d say even audibly — purring.   Whether it was a sign she was improving or just her letting us know she was alright, comfortable, didn’t want us to be sad, grateful for our being there with her, for her, I didn’t know.   I guess I do, now.   She yowled, weakly, once or twice during the night, in pain, sad to be leaving us, a bit of both?  It’s only natural to anthropomorphise whatever she was experiencing.   Seeing her yellow eyes, pupils now completely dilated brought to mind another little grey, yellow-eyed being that visited several years ago.
I was home alone one night not long after we’d moved to our present home, when I heard a commotion in the back garden.  I looked out and could see something jumping around in the dimly-lit shadows on the upper of the two terraces just outside our back door.  Torch in hand, I went to investigate further and found a tawny frogmouth — a small, grey species of raptor (often mistaken as an owl) common to these parts —  flapping about, dazed, perhaps wounded.    I went back inside and called our neighbours down the street who I knew to be trained in wild animal rescue.  They said to wrap it in

tawny frogmouthsomething warm — a towel — and bring it down.   I went back out with the towel, and gently picked up the wounded bird.   It weighed maybe half  kilogram at most, grey feathers, and had large,  yellow eyes.

I gently carried the bird down to our neighbours (Steve and Carol) and Steve was there waiting for me outside.    The owl, which I could feel still moving (if only a little) when I first picked her up was now still, it’s pupils completely dilated showing only thin bands of yellow-gold around the edges.    The bands of yellow gold in Suzie’s now lifeless eyes looked like well-worn wedding rings, and brought Edward Lear’s poem, “The Owl and the Pussycat” to mind.

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The Owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What a beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”

Pussy said to the Owl, “You elegant fowl!
How charmingly sweet you sing!
O let us be married! too long we have tarried:
But what shall we do for a ring?”
They sailed away, for a year and a day,
To the land where the Bong-Tree grows
And there in a wood a Piggy-wig stood
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose,
His nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.

“Dear Pig, are you willing to sell for one shilling
Your ring?” Said the Piggy, “I will.”
So they took it away, and were married next day
By the Turkey who lives on the hill.
They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

It was a full Moon Saturday night.
Good bye, Beautiful Suzie.