Larry Hosken. Technical writer. Puzzlehunt enthusiast.
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Photos: Venta Maersk’s Passage of the Northern Sea Route

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On 22 August 2018, the Maersk Line feeder ship Venta Maersk departed from the port of Vladivostok in Russia for its maiden voyage to northern Europe, where it will enter service in the North and Baltic Seas.  However, instead of taking the usual route through the Suez Canal, the Venta Maersk headed north to the […]
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lahosken
5 days ago
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Rats

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I wrote this set of puzzles, “Rats”, for Puzzled Pint.  It ran in September 2016, and you can view and play it at puzzledpint.com.  This post doesn’t have any huge spoilers, so read it first if you like.  Also, if you like rats, enjoy this additional puzzle that I couldn’t use in the published set because its answer had the wrong number of letters.

2016_09_polaroid

I came up with the concept for this set in summer 2015 while hanging out with high school buddy and DASH roaming reporter Larry Hosken.  That afternoon discussion gave me the meta (Sewer Rats) and two of the puzzles, Lab Rats and Missing Rats.  To put in the effort to carry a set through, you’ve got to have some compelling reason it needs to be made.  Sewer Rats and Lab Rats were those two puzzles that had to happen, and in particular the answer to the meta was so perfectly tied to the puzzle mechanic that I couldn’t let it go.  All told, this set took almost a year to create.

Lab Rats was easy to make, and done quickly.  It’s perfect for the theme, not super hard, looks good, and it’s completely unlike any puzzle I’ve seen before.  Good job, me.  Missing Rats was also fairly quick to put together, thought the design of the page wasn’t easy.  When working on this set, I discovered that a very similar idea appeared in the April 7, 2010 NYT crossword puzzle by Richard Silvestri.

The location puzzle, Star Rats was finished next.  Clean, simple idea, and the only real challenge in construction was the lack of famous rats that people might recognize.  Not making the cut: Roscuro from Tale of Despereaux, Roland from the British show TV-am, the R.O.U.S. from Princess Bride, and Socrates from Willard.  Those are some D-list rats.

The concept for Rat King was stolen from Sam Lloyd’s “Get off the Earth” puzzle (steal from the best).  Most of the work was in learning to draw rats.  I drew around a hundred rats to practice before I made the picture in the puzzle.  The mechanic is really cool, it has a good story, and if you don’t know what a Rat King is, you’re in for a treat.  But I never got the decoding of the message where I wanted it.  The numbers are awkward.

Rat Genetics was quite hard to bring off.  First, designing it required writing a 250-line Python program to help me find words that fit the grid and led to some kind of reasonable answer.  Second, I used another 100-line Python program and some mathematical modeling to lay out the circles along the path on the page.  Those curves were not laid out by hand!

Finally, the meta, Sewer Rats, which I had as a concept from the beginning but couldn’t work on seriously until the main four were done.  This puzzle went through a ton of work to get it to happen – the mechanic is just barely flexible enough to work with some answers, but not others, so the main four puzzles had some hard constraints.  I had to go back and forth between the meta and re-designing the mains until I had four answers I could work with.

The bonus, Illiterats, required a lot of reading.  In particular, I read Camus’ “The Plague” when getting it together.  Great book, very disturbing.  One key feature here is that this puzzle references Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.  That’s also a terrific book (but lousy movie).  It’s one I read as a child, and read to my children.  The story of this puzzle set is basically that of the Rats of NIMH, except my rats end up drunk in the sewers.

Design note for Illiterats: I got the look I wanted by printing out the quotes (in a variety of fonts), carefully tearing them out, wrinkling them, and scanning the wrinkled paper.

All of these puzzles were done with LaTeX and TikZ.  There’s some painful aspects to LaTeX, but it’s worth it for the ability to have consistent design, algorithmic layout, and automated builds for international versions and solutions.

Since writing this set, I’ve decided that my signature as a puzzle designer is the rat.  Keep an eye out for cameos from rats in all my puzzles!



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lahosken
14 days ago
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notes on creating the "Rats" set of puzzles for Puzzled Pint a while back
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Forget Details. Politics Today Are All About Big Ideas.

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I came of political age during the debate over the Iraq War. The soundtrack to my sophomore year of high school was Nelly and incessant chatter about weapons of mass destruction. The fate of countries and reputations hung on facts — or the administration’s reasonable facsimiles of them, anyhow — and what counted as proof (like, for instance, whether those little ole WMDs existed). By the time I headed to college, the countries and reputations were well on their way to being destroyed. Bad policy and poor reasoning were slowly killing a presidency, so I watched as the self-serious young men of politics’ next generation tried to correct for those mistakes. They read The New Republic and joined the campus Federalist Society, where they debated abstract topics and drank whiskey out of cut-glass tumblers their mothers bought them at Bed Bath & Beyond. Bush’s failures suggested that you had to have a detailed game plan for the country if you ran for office. The triumph of Barack Obama, meticulous professor, seemed to prove this.

At least until the 2016 primaries. On the Republican side, Donald Trump’s grasp of policy details seemed limited, yet he blew his competition out of the water. His big ideas about changing trade dynamics, banning Muslims and building a wall — and the bombastic, broad-strokes style in which he delivered them — swayed Republican voters primed for action after eight years of Obama. The Democratic contest was more policy-conscious, but Bernie Sanders caught flak from Hillary Clinton and her supporters for plans they thought were implausible, like free college and single-payer healthcare.

Thus far, the politics of the 2018 midterms and the looming 2020 presidential primary are filled with some of the same big ideas. The hang-up that many Democrats had about a lack of detail — “Anytime someone tells you it’s free, read the fine print,” Clinton said of Sanders’s free college plan in 2016 — has fallen somewhat by the wayside. Sanders introduced a free college bill last year that was supported by Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, two likely 2020 presidential contenders, while a federal jobs guarantee has now been embraced by Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, other likely 2020 candidates.

The universe of the politically possible seems to be expanding. The shift is happening on the right and the left, each end of the spectrum opening their windows wider, though on opposite ends of the house. Some people are waiting for a cross breeze that might never come, but there’s an unmistakable joy just to have the house aired out.

Voters’ increasing tribalism might be fueling this era of big ideas. According to Pew data from March, Americans increasingly prefer politicians who won’t compromise on their positions. In 2018, 53 percent preferred politicians who stuck to their guns, a radical change from 2017, when only 39 percent said they felt the same. Republican respondents to the Pew survey have long displayed this aversion to compromise, but 2018 seemed to mark a transition point for Democrats: In July 2017, 69 percent said they liked politicians who compromised, but in 2018, only 46 percent said the same. That data might indicate that politicians need to worry more about upholding ideological purity — promoting those big ideas — than they have in the past. That may mean that the accountability pressure has changed from the practical to the ideological, though it’s not clear how voters will feel if a lack of compromise also leads to a lack of, well, actually getting things done.

Most of the Republican Party’s shift appears to be related to what’s seen as acceptable in public life and leadership. A recent Pew survey showed that most of the president’s supporters prefer his approach to the job of the presidency over his actual policies.

Democratic voters have become a disillusioned bunch; 68 percent say that significant changes are needed to the design and structure of government itself. The party, meanwhile, has struggled to solidify its fundamental identity in the post-2016 universe. In this uncertain climate, rising Democratic stars have trafficked in the new currency of institution-shifting proposals.

First there was the Sanders single-payer health care bill of 2017, which most of the probable 2020 presidential primary contenders signed onto. It promises more generous coverage than nearly any other country with a single-payer system — Canada and the Netherlands included — but health care policy expert Sarah Kliff at left-leaning site Vox wrote that the Sanders bill “provides no information on how it would finance such a generous health care system. … This is a crucial part of any health care plan, and in the Sanders proposal, it is notably absent.” (A recent study found that the plan would cost the government $33 trillion, though Sanders said the same study showed that his proposal would actually save $2 trillion in overall health care spending.) The cost details here could be crucial to winning over Americans who are not a part of the Democratic base, but for now the push is to show a glimpse of a possible future to those already ideologically inclined to seek a change.

Perhaps the most galvanizing issue of the last few months for Democrats has been the movement to eliminate the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a reaction in large part to the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the underdog winner of a Democratic congressional primary, picked up the “abolish ICE” mantle as she rocketed to political stardom. Just days after Ocasio-Cortez’s win, Gillibrand said that she too would get rid of ICE, and Warren soon hopped on the bandwagon. Harris stopped short of calling for the agency’s demise, but said, “We need to probably think about starting from scratch.”

The calls to get rid of the agency have proved compelling to many Americans horrified by the administration’s brutal approach to asylum-seekers, but the root causes of the deportations have been little addressed. Immigrants continue to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law under an executive order issued by Trump, and if the agency were dismantled, it’s unclear what would replace it, if anything, or whether redistributing its duties would result in any change in policy. Democrats like Cecilia Muñoz, who was the head of Obama’s White House Domestic Policy council, are concerned by the lack of nuance in these calls. She told Slate, “I think we need to be willing to address how do we think immigration enforcement should be conducted, what’s a way to do that, that actually values people’s lives and their civil rights. The abolish ICE argument doesn’t touch those questions, and I think that’s a mistake.”

Muñoz’s warning echoes Clinton in her post-campaign memoir, “What Happened.” “I’ve always believed that it’s dangerous to make big promises if you have no idea how you’re going to keep them. When you don’t deliver, it will make people even more cynical about government,” she wrote. Clinton was unsparing in her critique of Sanders’s primary platform — he “didn’t seem to mind if his math didn’t add up or if his plans had no prayer of passing Congress and becoming law” — and yet she seemed a little wistful that she didn’t go further in deviating from the slate of policies she thought were possible. “I have a new appreciation for the galvanizing power of big, simple ideas. I still think my health care and college plans were more achievable than Bernie’s and that his were fraught with problems, but they were easier to explain and understand, and that counts for a lot.” (When Sanders dropped out, Clinton adopted a version of a free college plan that the head of education policy at New America, a left-leaning think tank, said would be “a financial disaster.”)

Details, it turns out, are tiresome — they slow things down and draw you into the weeds, in part to discover how things might work in the realm of the actual, not the theoretical. And it’s hard to say whether the big ideas of today will eventually win over much of the country or drive a wedge deeper into it. It’s a thrilling gamble that the Democrats in particular are taking, one that has the potential to pay huge political dividends.

It’s also a rare moment in American history we’re living though. “I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States,” Alexander de Tocqueville wrote in 1835. Perhaps that sentiment is dated, but it’s also true that we don’t have a reputation for being particularly contemplative. The historical success of the American experiment has made us ideologically complacent at times. Perhaps justifiably so, perhaps not.

But as the nation grasps onto audacious new ideas that say something is radically wrong with our present system, it makes a person wonder what the next political moment will be like, 10 or 15 years down the road. We might be hurtling towards a comedown, a wise-up or an actual paradigm shift, one that Baby Boomers, clutching at their Woodstock photos, will turn green with envy over. In the end, today’s policy details might be inconsequential compared to the real project of democratizing ideas in America. Perhaps what’s happening now proves that the direction of the country isn’t just in the hands of the boys of the Federalist Society and The New Republic. Its course might be more broadly determined.

Or we might learn that not very much has changed at all.

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lahosken
36 days ago
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Securing the Vote — National Academies report

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In this November’s election, could a computer hacker, foreign or domestic, alter votes (in the voting machine) or prevent people from voting (by altering voter registrations)?  What should we do to protect ourselves?

The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine have released a report,  Securing the Vote: Protecting American Democracy about the cybervulnerabilities in U.S. election systems and how to defend them.  The committee was chaired by the presidents of Indiana University and Columbia University, and the members included 5 computer scientists, a mathematician, two social scientists, a law professor, and three state and local election administrators.  I served on this committee, and I am confident that the report presents the clear consensus of the scientific community, as represented not only by the members of the committee but also the 14 external reviewers—election officials, computer scientists, experts on elections—that were part of the National Academies’ process.

The 124-page report, available for free download, lays out the scientific basis for our conclusions and our 55 recommendations.  We studied primarily the voting process; we did not address voter-ID laws, gerrymandering, social-media disinformation, or campaign financing.

There is no national election system in the U.S.; each state or county runs its own elections.  But in the 21st century, state and local election administrators face new kinds of threats.  In the 19th and 20th centuries elections did not face the threat of vote manipulation (and voter-registration tampering) from highly sophisticated adversaries anywhere in the world.  Most state and local election administrators know they must improve their cybersecurity and adopt best practices, and the federal government can (and should) offer assistance.  But it’s impossible to completely prevent all attacks; we must be able to run elections even if the computers might be hacked; we must be able to detect and correct errors in the computer tabulation.

Therefore, our key recommendations are,

4.11.  Elections should be conducted with human-readable paper ballots.  These may be marked by hand or by machine (using a ballot-marking device); they may be counted by hand or by machine (using an optical scanner).  Recounts and audits should be conducted by human inspection of the human-readable portion of the paper ballots.  Voting machines that do not provide the capacity for independent auditing (e.g., machines that do not produce a voter-verifiable paper audit trail) should be removed from service as soon as possible.

In our report, we explain why:  voting machines can never be completely hack-proof, but with paper ballots we can–if we have to–count the votes independent of possibly hacked computers.

4.12.  Every effort should be made to use human-readable paper ballots in the 2018 federal election.  All local, state, and federal elections should be conducted using human-readable paper ballots by the 2020 presidential election.

5.8.  States should mandate risk-limiting audits prior to the certification of election results.  With current technology, this requires the use of paper ballots.  States and local jurisdictions should implement risk-limiting audits within a decade.  They should begin with pilot programs and work toward full implementation.  Risk-limiting audits should be conducted for all federal and state election contests, and for local contests where feasible. 

In our report, we explain why:  examining a small random sample of the paper ballots, and comparing with the results claimed by the computers, can assure with high confidence that the computers haven’t been hacked to produce an incorrect outcome–or else, can provide clear evidence that a recount is needed.

5.11.  At the present time, the Internet (or any network connected to the Internet)  should not be used for the return of marked ballots.  Further, Internet voting should not be used in the future until and unless very robust guarantees of security and verifiability are developed and in place, as no known technology guarantees the secrecy, security, and verifiability of a marked ballot transmitted over the Internet.

4.1.  Election administrators should routinely assess the integrity of voter registration databases and the integrity of voter registration databases connected to other applications.  They should develop plans that detail security procedures for assessing voter registration database integrity and put in place systems that detect efforts to probe, tamper with, or interfere with voter registration systems.  States should require election administrators to report any detected compromises or vulnerabilities in voter registration systems to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, and state officials.

Many of these recommendations are not controversial, in most states.  Almost all the states use paper ballots, counted by machine;  the few remaining states that use paperless touchscreens are taking steps to move to paper ballots; the states have not adopted internet voting (except for scattered ill-advised experiments); and many, many election administrators nationwide are professionals who are working hard to come up to speed on cybersecurity.

But many election administrators are not sure about risk-limiting audits (RLAs).  They ask, “can’t we just audit the digital ballot images that the machines provide?”  No, that won’t work:  if the machine is hacked to lie about the vote totals, it can easily be hacked to provide fake digital pictures of the ballots themselves.  The good news is, well designed risk-limiting audits, added to well-designed administrative processes for keeping track of batches of ballots, can be efficient and practical.  But it will take some time and effort to get things going: the design of those processes, the design of the audits themselves, training of staff, state legislation where necessary.  And it can’t be a one-size-fits-all design:  different states vote in different ways, and the risk-limiting audit must be designed to fit the state’s election systems and methods.  That’s why we recommend pilots of RLAs as soon as possible, but a 10-year period for full adoption.

Many other findings and recommendations are in the report itself.  For example, Congress should fully fund the Election Assistance Commission to perform its mission, authorize the EAC to set standards for voter-registration systems and e-pollbooks (not just voting machines); the President should nominate and Congress should confirm EAC commissioners.

But the real bottom line is:  there are specific things we can do, at the state level and at the national level; and we must do these things to secure our elections so that we are confident that they reflect the will of the voters.

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lahosken
36 days ago
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Black-tailed Prairie Dog

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Black-tailed Prairie Dog

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lahosken
40 days ago
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mareino
40 days ago
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My dog liked this one.
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Driver Shortage in Japan Speeds Up Commercial Use of Self-Driving Tech

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In Tokyo, self-driving taxis that transport passengers for a fee are being trialed. A serious shortage of taxi drivers lies behind the move, but the development of laws and regulations to deal with accidents and other issues still is lacking.
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lahosken
50 days ago
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"The two companies are conducting the test in an area between Tokyo’s Otemachi and Roppongi districts, where the use of taxis by businesspeople and foreigners is high. In 2020, when the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will be held, a large number of foreigners are likely to visit the area. Under such circumstances, many people are expected to have trouble hailing taxis."
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