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Novelty Requires Explanation

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Epistemic status: Reasonably confident, but I should probably try to back this up with numbers about how often elementary results actually do get missed.

Attention conservation notice: More than a little rambling.

Fairly regularly you see news articles about how some long-standing problem that has stumped experts for years has been solved, usually with some nice simple solution.

This might be a proof of some mathematical result, a translation of the Voynich algorithm, a theory of everything. Those are the main ones I see, but I’m sure there are many others that I don’t see.

These are almost always wrong, and I don’t even bother reading them any more.

The reason is this: If something is both novel and interesting, it requires an explanation: Why has nobody thought of this before?

Typically, these crackpot solutions (where they’re not entirely nonsensical) are so elementary that someone would surely have discovered it before now.

Even for non-crackpot ideas, I think this question is worth asking when you discover new. As well as being a useful validity check for finding errors and problems, if there is a good answer then it can often be enlightening about the problem space.

Potentially, it could also be used as a heuristic in the other direction: If you want to discover something new, look in places where you would have a good answer to this question.

There are a couple ways this can play out, but most of them boil down to numbers: If a lot of people have been working for a problem for a long time during which they could have discovered your solution, they probably would have. As nice as it would be to believe that we were uniquely clever compared to everyone else, that is rarely the case.

So an explanation basically needs to show some combination of:

  1. Why not many people were working on the problem
  2. Why the time period during which they could have discovered your technique in is small

The first is often a bad sign! If not many people work on the problem, it might not be very interesting.

This could also be a case of bad incentives. For example, I’ve discovered a bunch of new things about test case reduction, and I’m pretty sure most of that is because not many people work on test case reduction: It’s a useful tool (and I think the problem is interesting!), but it’s a very niche problem at a weird intersection of practical needs and academic research where neither side has much of a good incentive to work on it.

As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised an appreciable percentage of person-hours ever spent on test-case reduction were done by me! Probably not 10%, but maybe somewhere in the region of 1-5%. This makes it not very surprising for me to have discovered new things about it even though the end result is useful.

More often I find that I’m just interested in weird things that nobody else cares about, which can be quite frustrating and it can make it difficult to get other people excited about your novel thing. If that’s the case, you’re probably going to have a harder time marketing your novel idea than you are discovering it.

The more interesting category of problem is the second: Why have the people who are already working on this area not previously thought of this?

The easiest way out of this is simply incremental progress: If you’re building on some recent discovery then there just hasn’t been that much time for them to discover it, so you’ve got a reasonable chance of being the first to discover it!

Another way is by using knowledge that they were unlikely to have – for example, by applying techniques from another discipline with little overlap in practice with the one the problem is form. Academia is often surprisingly siloed (but if the problem is big enough and the cross-disciplinary material is elementary enough, this probably isn’t sufficient. It’s not that siloed).

An example of this seems to be Thomas Royen’s  recentish proof of the Gaussian Correlation Inequality (disclaimer: I don’t actually understand this work). He applied some fairly hairy technical results that few people working on the problem were likely to be familiar with, and as a result was able to solve something people had been working on for more than 50 years.

A third category of solution is to argue that everyone else had a good chance of giving up before finding your solution: e.g. If the solution is very complicated or involved, it has a much higher chance of being novel (and also a much higher chance of being wrong of course)! Another way this can happen is the approach looks discouraging in some way.

Sometimes all of these combine. For example, I think the core design of Hypothesis is a very simple, elegant, idea, that just doesn’t seem to have been implemented before (I’ve had a few people dismissively tell me they’ve encountered the concept before, but they never could point me to a working implementation).

I think there are a couple reasons for this:

  1. Property-based testing just doesn’t have that many people working on it. The number might top 100, but I’d be surprised if if topped 200 (Other random testing approaches could benefit from this approach, but not nearly as much. Property-based testing implements lots of tiny generators and thus feels many of the problems more acutely).
  2. Depending on how you count, there’s maybe been 20 years during which this design could have been invented.
  3. Simple attempts at this approach work very badly indeed (In a forthcoming paper I have a hilarious experiment in which I show that something only slightly simpler than what we do completely and totally fails to work on the simplest possible benchmark).

So there aren’t that many people working on this, they haven’t had that much time to work on it, and if they’d tried it it probably would have looked extremely discouraging.

In contrast I have spent a surprising amount of time on it (largely because I wanted to and didn’t care about money or academic publishing incentives), and I came at it the long way around so I was starting from a system I knew worked, so it’s not that surprising that I was able to find it when nobody else had (and does not require any “I’m so clever” explanations).

In general there is of course no reason that there has to be a good explanation of why something hasn’t been discovered before. There’s no hard cut off line where something goes from “logically must have been discovered” to “it’s completely plausible that you’re the first” (discontinuous functions don’t exist!), it’s just a matter of probabilities. Maybe it’s very likely that somebody hasn’t discovered it before, but maybe you just got lucky. There are enough novel things out there that somebody is going to get lucky on a fairly regular basis, it’s probably just best not to count on it being you.

PS. I think it very unlikely this point is novel, and I probably even explicitly got it from somewhere else and forgot where. Not everything has to be novel to be worthwhile.

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Irenes
4 days ago
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acdha
5 days ago
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Washington, DC
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mareino
4 days ago
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Great P.S.!
Washington, District of Columbia

Cabinet of Secret Documents from Australia

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This story of leaked Australian government secrets is unlike any other I've heard:

It begins at a second-hand shop in Canberra, where ex-government furniture is sold off cheaply.

The deals can be even cheaper when the items in question are two heavy filing cabinets to which no-one can find the keys.

They were purchased for small change and sat unopened for some months until the locks were attacked with a drill.

Inside was the trove of documents now known as The Cabinet Files.

The thousands of pages reveal the inner workings of five separate governments and span nearly a decade.

Nearly all the files are classified, some as "top secret" or "AUSTEO", which means they are to be seen by Australian eyes only.

Yes, that really happened. The person who bought and opened the file cabinets contacted the Australian Broadcasting Corp, who is now publishing a bunch of it.

There's lots of interesting (and embarassing) stuff in the documents, although most of it is local politics. I am more interested in the government's reaction to the incident: they're pushing for a law making it illegal for the press to publish government secrets it received through unofficial channels.

"The one thing I would point out about the legislation that does concern me particularly is that classified information is an element of the offence," he said.

"That is to say, if you've got a filing cabinet that is full of classified information ... that means all the Crown has to prove if they're prosecuting you is that it is classified ­ nothing else.

"They don't have to prove that you knew it was classified, so knowledge is beside the point."

[...]

Many groups have raised concerns, including media organisations who say they unfairly target journalists trying to do their job.

But really anyone could be prosecuted just for possessing classified information, regardless of whether they know about it.

That might include, for instance, if you stumbled across a folder of secret files in a regular skip bin while walking home and handed it over to a journalist.

This illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the threat. The Australian Broadcasting Corp gets their funding from the government, and was very restrained in what they published. They waited months before publishing as they coordinated with the Australian government. They allowed the government to secure the files, and then returned them. From the government's perspective, they were the best possible media outlet to receive this information. If the government makes it illegal for the Australian press to publish this sort of material, the next time it will be sent to the BBC, the Guardian, the New York Times, or Wikileaks. And since people no longer read their news from newspapers sold in stores but on the Internet, the result will be just as many people reading the stories with far fewer redactions.

The proposed law is older than this leak, but the leak is giving it new life. The Australian opposition party is being cagey on whether they will support the law. They don't want to appear weak on national security, so I'm not optimistic.

EDITED TO ADD (2/8): The Australian government backed down on that new security law.

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Irenes
12 days ago
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deliamelodyofficial: fuck-customers: Funny story from the other night: A dad came into my cafe...

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deliamelodyofficial:

fuck-customers:

Funny story from the other night:

A dad came into my cafe with his 3 year old daughter.  He bought her a cookie and himself a coffee.  They sit down, and I go back to my pre-closing cleaning.  Three minutes later the dad walks up to the counter again, so I stop cleaning and walk over to greet him again.

As I’m in the middle of saying “hi” he cuts me off and says “Water.”

Not “Can I get a glass of water, please?” not “Where can I get water?” not even a confused “water?” like he’s not sure how to get water in this cafe.  Just a single word demand.

I work in silicon valley, so I’m kind of used to techies talking to me like I’m Siri or Alexa, but it still always drives me crazy when they do this.  Like, I don’t even care about the “please” anymore, I just want people to talk to me in complete sentences.  So I get the guy a cup of water, and he sits back down. 

As I’m about to go back to cleaning I hear his daughter go “Daddy, you did that WRONG.  You have to say ’CAN I have a glass of water PLEASE’”

My jaw hit the ground.  The dad suddenly became flustered and tried coming up with excuses “I-I said please…” “No you didn’t!” “Well she was busy…. I didn’t want to bother her…..” “You still got to be polite!”

When they were done eating the dad brought the dishes back to the counter and said “Thank you so much!” It’s amazing how fast someone’s manners can improve when a 3 year old calls them out.

Shout out to whoever is teaching that little girl manners, because you know it’s not her dad.  I hope she never stops calling rude people out.

Here, something positive to brighten your day.

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Irenes
34 days ago
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Shitholes around the world

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Donald the Trump has yet again opened his cakehole and gifted us – and especially lexicographers – with another citable instance of vulgarity. Naturally, his ass-mouth made headlines around the world when he said “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” And naturally, this shit has to be reported on in other languages. So what do you do when you’re writing in another language and trying to translate shithole countries effectively?

The problem that journalists in other languages face, on top of how to deal with vulgarity, is that this use of shithole is non-literal. The word shithole (originally and still sometimes shit-hole) has been with us since the 1600s to refer to the hole shit comes out of (that’s your anus, Pluto), but only since the 1930s to refer to a godforsaken hole-in-the-ground, an undesirable place. Why is a place a hole? We’ve been using hole-in-the-wall since the early 1800s to refer to insignificant and low-grade stores and similar locations, and hole-in-the-ground since around the same time to refer to an outhouse (you know, an outdoor toilet without plumbing). I haven’t found proof of influence from those to the use of shithole to refer to an exceptionally undesirable and insignificant place, but taken holus bolus they at least establish hole as potentially referring to a place, not just an actual aperture.

Some who have undertaken explications of shithole for speakers of other languages have focused on the ‘outhouse’ sense, as for instance this rundown from the national broadcaster of Canada: “Terme très vulgaire, « shithole » se réfère aux latrines extérieures pour designer un endroit particulièrement repoussant” (‘A very vulgar term, shithole refers to outdoor toilets to designate a particularly repulsive place’ – a bit of an excessive focus on the shit, from my view as someone who’s used the term since childhood). Others… well, let’s dive in. So to speak.

Vera Bergengruen alerted Strong Languagers that in Norway, cited by Trump as a more desirable source of immigrants, the translation preferred by the two major newspapers is drittland, which means ‘shit country’. A little looking around the rest of Scandinavia finds Sweden’s Aftonbladet using “shithole countries” in the headline and translating that as skitländer, which again means ‘shit countries’. In Denmark, DR and Ekstra Bladet render it as lortehul (plural lortehuller), ‘shitty hole’, while BT makes it lorteland, ‘shitty country’. In Iceland, Morgunblaðið uses skítalönd, ‘shitty countries’. The words used are perhaps not as shocking in their languages as shit is in English, but they have the same tone. But they mostly skip the whole ‘hole’ part.

Meanwhile, in Finland, where they speak a completely unrelated language but are still part of the Scandinavian sphere, Helsingin Sanomat gives it to Finns as persläpimaat, which means ‘asshole countries’ (if you click the link you’ll see persläpimaista – that’s an inflected form meaning ‘from asshole countries’; if you want to know what part of all that means ‘asshole’, it’s persläpi – from perse ‘ass’ + läpi ‘hole’).

How about the countries maligned by Trump – El Salvador, Haiti, and countries in Africa? In El Salvador, La Prensa Gráfica renders it as agujeros de mierda, ‘holes of shit’ (or ‘shit holes’), but in the headline made it agujeros de mier…, which is like putting shi…holes. I’m sure their consideration for the delicate eyes of their readers was appreciated; they could all pretend he said Wednesday holes (agujeros de miércoles) and imagine the accent on the e. (There’s really no other Spanish word that mier… could stand for.) Elsewhere, the Spanish-speaking world is divided: Spain, El Mundo renders it that same way, while El País makes it países de mierda, ‘countries of shit’ or ‘shit countries’. Mexico’s La Jornada goes with países, but Argentina’s Clarín goes with agujeros. None of them bother with ellipses on mierda, though.

In Haiti, if you look in Le Nouvelliste, you will find it rendered as trou de merde, which is literal. But the French word trou is a more all-purpose word than Spanish agujero; it can also mean ‘pit’, ‘grave’, ‘mouth’, and – yes – ‘insignificant town’. (As it happens, though, trou de merde can be found in French literature – all the way back in Rabelais – meaning ‘asshole’.) Nonetheless, the hole is empty in other parts of the French-speaking world: Le Monde and Le Figaro make it pays de merde, ‘shit countries’ or ‘countries of shit’, and so do Quebec’s Le Devoir and Le Journal de Montréal.

But how about Africa? Well, there are rather a lot (hundreds) of languages in Africa, and I’m not even conversant in most of them, alas. Some African countries speak French (Journal du Cameroun and Benin’s La Nouvelle Tribune translate Trump’s epithet as pays de merde); many have their greatest online media presence in English, which obviates the translation issue but isn’t much fun for us here now. Interestingly, news sites in Swahili, Amharic, and Zulu that I looked at didn’t seem to have coverage of the story – or much of any interest in Donald Trump, which seems a healthy and very non-shitty attitude. I checked out a few news sites in Afrikaans, which (as you may know) is a Dutch-based creolized language of South Africa and might present a different perspective, and of the two that had a story I could find on it, one quoted shit hole in English and the other had a paywall.

One plus of newspapers that aren’t in English is that they’re not always so embarrassed to quote English vulgarities. We saw this above with Aftonbladet; in the Netherlands, De Volkskrant screams, “VS, VN, Afrika, Cariben, Midden-Amerika: iedereen is boos op Trump om zijn uitspraken over ‘shitholes’.” (‘US, UN, Africa, Caribbean, Central America: everyone is mad at Trump for his remarks about “shitholes”’.) In the body of the article, they translate it as achterlijke landen, which is insulting but not vulgar: achterlijk means ‘backwards, benighted, retarded’. (Another paper in the same language, Belgium’s Het Nieuwsblad, treats us to klotenlanden, which refers to testicles and might be translated as ‘screwed-up countries’.)

Newspapers in Portugal also quote the English word freely but are more varied in translation. CM explains it as “retrete de m*, numa tradução mais benevolente” (‘toilet of s*, in the most gracious translation’); Público glosses it more frankly as “qualquer coisa entre ‘latrinas’ e ‘merdosos’” (‘something between “latrines” and “shitty”’).

German news has hewed towards the idiomatic but less vulgar. As SistaRay tweeted to Strong Language, they give us Drecksloch-Länder or Dreckslöcher, ‘garbage dump countries’, using Dreck ‘dirt’ in place of, say, Scheisse ‘shit’, which is idiomatic but, as SistaRay says, “this means it’s a little unclear why the language is so bad.”

Italy’s Corriere della Sera joins the ‘countries of shit’ club, the put-“shithole”-in-the-hed club, and the ellipsis club with the headline “«Shithole»: Trump, bufera sull’ultimo insulto. «Basta immigrati da Paesi di m…»” (“‘Shithole’: Trump, storm over latest insult. ‘Enough with immigrants from Countries of sh…’”) But La Repubblica goes a different route, not quoting the English and not even hinting at a vulgar word in Italian. Instead, we get cesso di Paesicesso, which is related to English cess (as in pit or pool), is used for ‘toilet’ in Italian as Americans use john and Brits use bog, but it can also translate to ‘dump’ as a characterization of a place. Which makes it reasonably accurate – except, however, for the vulgarity, which is kinda important.

Tweeters have been helpful in extending this study around the world. Aaron Mc Nicholas let us know that in Taiwan, CNA translated it as 鳥不生蛋國家, which can be translated as ‘countries where birds don’t lay eggs’, which is an idiom meaning ‘godforsaken countries’; James Palmer pointed out that that’s the short form of the idiom, the longer form being 鳥不生蛋狗不拉屎, ‘birds don’t lay eggs and dogs don’t shit’ – and since the idiom is a familiar one, the readers can fill in the blanks.

Nick Kapur looked at the Japanese media and found Asahi rendering it as 便所のような国 ‘restroom-like countries’, Reuters making it 不潔な諸国 ‘unsanitary nations’, and Nikkei using 肥だめの国 ‘night soil storage pit countries’. Meanwhile, in Israel, we get מדינות מחורבנות ‘shitty countries’ from Haaretz and Ynet and חורי תחת ‘butt holes’ from Walla! This brings us back to the incessant focus on literal shit, which, honestly, I gotta say is not as central as all that. When you say shit a lot, most of that shit is not shit, it’s just, y’know, shit.

Some languages don’t need to do runaround translations or anal-retentive literality; they have quite suitable equivalent idiomatic terms. Poland’s Wyborcza, for example, uses zadupia (plural of zadupie), which Google Translate renders as ‘shithole’ exactly, while Wiktionary gives ‘Bumfuck’ and ‘middle of nowhere’, which I’d say are the closest English synonyms of shithole. Given that zadupie more literally means ‘up the ass’, I’d say ‘Bumfuck’ is a splendid English equivalent, and certainly close enough to ‘shithole’ for our purposes.

But no one can quite top the Croatians for this. It’s not that their best word translates exactly to shithole or Bumfuck nowhere. It almost does it better (although Google Translate does render it as ‘shithole’). It’s vukojebina, and it means ‘the place wolves fuck’ – or, if we were to make a real equivalent English place name, something like Wolffuckington or Wolf-fuck-ville. (Birds may not lay eggs there and dogs may not shit there, but the wolves? They get busy.) And Croatia’s Express features that word in its headline.

There are plenty of languages I haven’t touched on – come on, I’m only one person and my resources aren’t infinite (and it’s already sheepfuck o’clock). I’m hoping that you call can add some more in our comments – and add further insight on the languages I have covered.

Thanks to Ben Zimmer, John Kelly, Todd Snider, Stan Carey, and Nancy Friedman for their help in the research for this article.



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Irenes
40 days ago
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#01 - Phoenixes burst into flame ...

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The phoenix is a long-lived fiery bird that is present in many different mythologies from around the world. When a phoenix “dies”, it does so by combustion and is reborn of the ashes left behind. It rises from its own ashes, in the freshness of youth, to live through another cycle of years. So in a sense, it never truly dies, but regenerates itself and lives forever. Just like this weekly newsletter.

Welcome to the 2018 NixOS “Weekly” newsletter.

We are back and hope to produce more of them this year then we did last year. As always contributions are more then welcome. The more people help shape this newsletter the more accurate it will be.

News

Tooling

  • nix-diff - A small utility for comparing Nix derivations
  • nix-delegate - A command-line utility that you can use to run a subcommand with distributed builds transiently enabled.
  • nix-deploy - Deploy software or an entire NixOS system configuration to another NixOS system.
  • nix-bash-completions - Bash completion for the Nix command line tools.
  • nix-zsh-completions - ZSH completion for the Nix command line tools.
  • fc-userscan - Scans directories containing manually compiled programs and registers them with the Nix garbage collector.
  • elm2nix - Convert Elm project into Nix expressions.
  • stack2nix - Generate nix expressions for Haskell projects.
  • node2nix - New version providing initial support for NPM 5.x (that is included with Node.js 8.x)
  • node-hydra-connector - New API/tool to integrate Node.js applications with the Hydra continuous integration service and a CLI tool that can be used to control a server.
  • composer2nix - Generate Nix expressions to build PHP composer packages.
  • mkShell - For nix-shell-only scenarios, mkShell is a small convenience function in nixpkgs.

Events / Meetups

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You can help shape NixOS Weekly Newsletter too! Create or comment on the pull request for the next edition or loot at the issue tracker to add other improvements.

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Irenes
40 days ago
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Thrilled to see this relaunch.
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Fake Santa Surveillance Camera

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Reka makes a "decorative Santa cam," meaning that it's not a real camera. Instead, it just gets children used to being under constant surveillance.

Our Santa Cam has a cute Father Christmas and mistletoe design, and a red, flashing LED light which will make the most logical kids suspend their disbelief and start to believe!

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Irenes
49 days ago
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This isn't the first of its kind. It is a deeply upsetting trend which says horrible things about society and bodes poorly for humanity's ability to avoid total surveillance states.
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