My Kind of Book

“In 1855, when Jose da Fonseca and Pedro Carolino wrote an English phrasebook for Portuguese students, they faced just one problem: they didn’t know any English. Even worse, they didn’t own an English-to-Portuguese dictionary. What they did have, though, was a Portuguese-to-French dictionary, and a French-to-English dictionary. The linguistic train wreck that ensued is a classic of unintentional humor, now revived in the first newly selected edition in a century.”

The original — well into the public domain by now — seems to be archived online, for those hesitant to pay for a book in broken English. (Or for those who love the typography in old books.)


I’ve always loved watching Cops. Tonight’s episode reminded of two things I’m quite certain about, though.

The first is that most criminals are astonishingly dumb. The first thing to happen in the show was a routine traffic stop that turned into a pursuit in which the driver crashed in the woods and fled until he was tackled. He stated that he ran because his license was suspended, which no one believed in the slightest. Highly suspicious, they searched his car, and happened to notice the interior of the passenger’s door was loose; they peeled it back and found a bunch of drugs, and he ended up with a long list of charges. It looked like a chance discovery, though — even when you run from the cops and they suspect there’s more going on than you tell them, I don’t think it’s routine for them to start ripping parts off your car in search of drugs. Had he stopped, the odds of anyone finding his drugs seem like they’d be slim — even if they decided they had cause to search the car, they probably wouldn’t have had a half-dozen officers all going through it, and the slightly-loose door panel may well have gone unnoticed.

As much as I love GTA, it really doesn’t make sense to me to run from the police, unless you’re in a stolen car and are an excellent driver. They’ve already called in your license plate long before you started to run. My experience is admittedly limited to that which I’ve seen on TV, but it seems that the vast majority of pursuits end up with a catastrophic crash and the driver being arrested. If you get away, odds are decent that you’re going to come home to a police car or two in your driveway.

The second thing I came to realize, though, is that the war on drugs is really out of control. I do think drugs are a problem and that people selling heroin to school children are evil. But there was a whole series of stings, in which undercover agents sold dime bags of cocaine to people. A half-dozen police cars would then converge and a dozen cops with guns drawn would pull the people out of their cars, throw them to the ground, and arrest them. They mentioned that they seized the cars of everyone involved. Every single person they showed being arrested looked like a well-dressed professional who was harmless and maybe even nice. Crack cocaine is terrible, I’m sure, but I can’t help but find the sheer brutality over something the size of a kernel of corn to be appalling. Besides being pulled from their cars at gunpoint and roughed up in the course of their arrest, these people had their cars seized (not impounded, but seized). I think I have pretty a pretty understanding employer, but I’m pretty sure that if I didn’t show up for work one day and explained a few days later that I’d been arrested for buying cocaine, I’d be fired. I can only imagine that many of these peoples had their lives ruined. (And if you’re now branded as a criminal, lost your job, and do drugs, what do you do? The answer, 95% of the time, appears to be, “Start selling drugs.”)

One more thing I’d like to call out, though, is the reason I gave for finding the “innocent-ish people buying $10 worth of cocaine” drug sting so objectionable. I said that they “looked like a well-dressed professional.” For me, that made them a little more like me and my peers. It’s not some random drugged-out lowlife; it’s people like me. (Well, minus the whole “buying cocaine” thing.) And on some level I’d defend myself here: it’s easier for me to see myself in these people. But on the other hand, something kind of scares me about my comments. This sort of treatment of people buying drugs has gone on for decades, but I didn’t really care until the people looked like me. When the people were homeless, badly-dressed, or of a different skin color, I never thought, “Wow, that’s really unreasonably brutal.” I should perhaps take solace in the fact that countless others think the same way as me, but, in actuality, that’s precisely what scares me so much.

Changing a Cookie’s Domain in Rails

This is one of those things that should be really easy, and that a lot of people probably already know… But in the hopes of saving someone 30 minutes of frustrated searching, here’s what you should know.

If you want to change your session cookie’s path globally, there’s a documented setting. But what if you want to set some one-off cookie to be from something other than your FQDN?

It’s actually simple: rather than setting the cookie to a string (with its value), you use a hash:

cookies[:logged_in_username] = {
:value => "jdoe123", :domain => ""

It’s typical to just do cookies[:logged_in_username] = “jdoe123”, but it does accept a hash. (:expires is available, too.)

It turns out this is documented exactly where it should be, but that page doesn’t seem to get much love from Google.

FYI: root@notty

I assume most people know this, but for the benefit of those who get paged at 4am and are maybe not at their mental prime, here it goes:

If you see “sshd: root@notty” in your process list and find yourself wondering what box “notty” is and assuming you’ve been hacked and it’s some malicious connection to some mysterious box named “notty”… Relax. “notty” isn’t a mysterious hostname. In keeping with all the other “sshd: root@pts/1” sort of entries you might see, it’s the TTY the connection is on, not the hostname. Or, in this case, it’s no TTY, because it’s something like scp, not an interactive session.


One thing that boggles my mind sometimes is that there are people living who witnessed racial discrimination as codified in the nation’s laws. Crazier still, when I say that “there are people living” who remember a time when the law actually required racial discrimination in many places, I’m not referring to a handful of octogenarians who grew up with horse-drawn carriages. I’m talking about people in their 40s. That’s insane to me, largely because it defies belief that a nation founded on the premise of all men being created equal would have been so shortsighted as to pass laws doing nothing but promoting hate and prejudice. I could kind of understand if it was in 1850 or something, but it was still happening in the 1960s, and was still a giant controversy a mere decade before my birth.

So it brings a smile to my face to realize that odds are pretty good that in a decade or two, I’m going to be telling people about a time when the country had laws against gay people. People are going to look at me like I’m full of crap when I tell them that we wouldn’t even let gays serve in the military, even when comparatively backwards nations did. (Russia permits “well-adjusted” homosexuals to serve, for example. What that means, or how it’s not terribly offensive, escapes me.) I’ll tell people that freedom-loving Americans¬† — and churches which also taught about God’s love for everyone — protested allowing homosexuals the same rights as heterosexuals, and people will think I’m nuts.

Way Down the Line

I was on Facebook and happened to see something from a really old friend, going back to elementary/middle school. Being fried after 12 hours of work, I poked around and looked at their friends, and found a lot of people I haven’t so much as remembered the existence of for close to a decade. And after looking at the people I knew, I looked at the people they knew, and found more people I knew.

There were a few little things I found interesting. A lot of people who were in my peer cohort are now married. That freaks me out. A lot of people I know from back then joined the military, too. Not a single person I’ve talked to in the past decade is in the military, so the discrepancy is interesting. Politics also interest me. People who had similar childhoods to me and who grew up in the same socioeconomic status as me developed wildly interesting political opinions. Some are Glenn Beck fans, some are hippies who blame Bush for 9/11. It’s interesting that having so much in common, people can still arrive at such varied political leanings.

But what really spurred me to write this isn’t the changes… It’s what hasn’t changed. With zero exceptions thus far, everyone is basically how I remember them. The people that I thought were good students now have successful careers. The people that I thought were total burnouts/losers in my youth are still that way. The people who were friendly, easygoing people have pics of them smiling with friends; the people who weren’t nice have photos of them shooting guns or looking mean.

On some level, I think this is neat. My childhood opinions of people from more than a decade ago turned out to be accurate predictors of them after college. But at the same time, this is horrifying to me. Based on superficial opinions of how studious a second-grader is, I can predict with astonishing accuracy whether they’re going to go to college, graduate at the top of their class, and land a great job, or if they’re going to become potheads with a minimum wage job. Surely, though, a person’s post-college career isn’t predestined before they turn 10, and certainly, someone can change a lot between the time they’re learning the alphabet and the time they’re studying calculus. But no one really has.

Why is this? Does it become a self-fulfilling prophecy, where those who aren’t good students in elementary school just assume they’re bad students and don’t try to advance themselves? Is it a simple question of class? And how important are the first few years of elementary school — was that just a manifestation of something else, or would forcing your 3rd grader to be an A-student mean they landed an awesome job? Surely, you’re not powerless if you have a 3rd grader who’s a bad student? It really boggles my mind that there could be such a strong correlation?