How often does my birthday fall on Thanksgiving?

Posted July 7th, 2010 in Uncategorized by Scott Forbes

Like many people born between in late November, my birthday occasionally falls on Thanksgiving Day – on average it happens once every seven years, but the pattern is complicated by the subtleties of the Gregorian calendar. Out of idle curiosity I went looking online to find out which years I’d be having turkey and cranberries on my birthday, but the search engines came up empty. (I was sort of hoping Wolfram Alpha could pull an answer out of its knowledge engine, but to no avail.)

So, for posterity’s sake: Thanksgiving is always on the fourth Thursday in November, which means the holiday always falls between November 22nd and 28th. The simple formula for calculating the date of Thanksgiving is to take last year’s date and subtract a day, and then add seven days if you’ve ended up on the 21st… so if Thanksgiving 2009 was on the 26th (which it was), then Thanksgiving 2010 is on the 25th, and in 2011 it’ll be on the 24th.

But then things start getting complicated, because 2012 is a leap year. Thanksgiving 2012 is on the 22nd, not the 23rd – that extra day in February pushes us back two days instead of just one. And then, in 2013, we wrap around: One day earlier than the 22nd would be the 21st, but now we’re looking at the third Thursday of the month, so we add seven days to get Thanksgiving on the 28th.

All this adds up to a pattern that takes 2800 years to go through a full cycle, thanks to our calendar’s quirky rules for determining whether it’s a leap year or not. In the short term (that is, from 1901 to 2100) there’s a leap year every four years, and your birthday will be on Thanksgiving four times out of every 28: If your birthday falls on Thanksgiving in a given year, then it falls on Thanksgiving again exactly 28 years later, and three other times in between at intervals of six years, five years, six years, and then eleven years.

And so, to answer my own question (and with the help of a handy spreadsheet), here’s a list of the years between now and 2100 when Thanksgiving falls on a particular date. Plan your birthdays accordingly.

November 22nd 2012, 2018, 2029, 2035, 2040, 2046, 2057, 2063, 2068, 2074, 2085, 2091, 2096
November 23rd 2017, 2023, 2028, 2034, 2045, 2051, 2056, 2062, 2073, 2079, 2084, 2090
November 24th 2016, 2022, 2033, 2039, 2044, 2050, 2061, 2067, 2072, 2078, 2089, 2095
November 25th 2021, 2027, 2032, 2038, 2049, 2055, 2060, 2066, 2077, 2083, 2088, 2094, 2100
November 26th 2015, 2020, 2026, 2037, 2043, 2048, 2054, 2065, 2071, 2076, 2082, 2093, 2099
November 27th 2014, 2025, 2031, 2036, 2042, 2053, 2059, 2064, 2070, 2081, 2087, 2092, 2098
November 28th 2013, 2019, 2024, 2030, 2041, 2047, 2052, 2058, 2069, 2075, 2080, 2086, 2097

This post is probably a sign that I have too much free time, but it’s one of those nagging little questions that I’d wondered about occasionally for years and never got around to finding out… and then discovered that the vast storehouse of information on the Web didn’t actually have the answer yet. So here it is.

Update: Edited my table to include the year 2036, which somehow disappeared when I was doing my calculating.  Thanks to commenter “rancheria” – who’ll be turning 88 on November 27, 2036, and happy birthday in advance – for catching the lost year.

Update: Edited to correct a few inaccuracies for the November 23rd birthdays, as pointed out by alert reader Mike Boyd. This time for sure, Rocky!

Government as the Solution

Posted March 22nd, 2010 in Politics by Scott Forbes

For almost thirty years the conservative movement was on the rise in America, led by a Republican Party whose mantra is that Government Is The Problem: Within the GOP it’s an article of faith that every issue can be solved with either tax cuts, deregulation, or preferably both. And, for many years, this rallying cry gave the GOP a workable coalition. The liberal movement in American politics peaked with civil rights and Roe v. Wade; the conservatives rode the backlash into power, and stayed there with little interruption from 1980 to 2008. Even when Bill Clinton was in office, Newt Gingrich and the Republicans were calling the tune.

But, as we’ve seen many times in the past decade, there are many problems that can’t be solved with tax cuts and deregulation – indeed, we now have several problems that were caused by tax cuts and deregulation, including our “stop me before I bet the house on derivatives again” financial sector.

We essentially have a thirty-year backlog of issues where the most effective solution is for the government to step up – and a Republican Party whose core belief is that government cannot solve problems. For thirty years they’ve preached that taxes are always a poor use of money, regulations simply get in the way of business, government assistance is always debilitating, and government programs to “promote the general welfare” are the worst of all sins. When your core belief is that Government Is The Problem, a government that actively tries to solve problems – with a social program that raises taxes, regulates industry, and helps the poor – is your apocalypse.

So when Obama proposed government action to fix a broken health care system, today’s Republicans had nothing to offer but opposition: Their core belief has led them to a dead end. All they have left is a rabidly partisan base that thinks health care reform is a first step toward taking their guns and confiscating their property. (And if you think the tea partiers went off the deep end during the health care debate, wait until we get started on immigration!)

There’s still a possibility that the GOP will make short-term gains in November 2010, although with the passage of health care reform they may face a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario: Instead of plying their base with tall tales about how they prevented death panels, they’ll be accountable to voters who can see the actual law. But any way you look at it, the GOP is now dancing to a tune Obama called two years ago: They’re running on the slogan “no you can’t” – and yesterday the Democrats proved that yes, they could.

AppleTV: How to force a Factory Restore via SSH

Posted February 27th, 2010 in Tech by Scott Forbes

Allegedly it’s now super easy to install Boxee on your AppleTV — I say “allegedly” because I spent a couple of hours yesterday recovering from a failed install, which left my AppleTV with no video, no menus, and no Boxee. The box just looped through displaying the Apple logo, followed by a blank screen, followed by “No Signal,” followed by a blank screen, indefinitely.

I tried holding down Menu and Minus on the remote, to reboot the AppleTV and bring up the diagnostic menu, to no avail: Nothing would come up on the screen. (I also tried blindly pressing “Down, Down, OK” on the remote, in the hopes that I just couldn’t see the diagnostic menu, but that didn’t work either.) I could SSH into the AppleTV, so at least that part of the Boxee install succeeded — and the AppleTV was showing up and syncing in iTunes, so I wasn’t stuck in a loop of rebooting over and over.

I wasted a lot of time Googling for solutions — which, to be fair, provided some useful information about the AppleTV’s disk partitions, how it does a Factory Restore, etc., but also provided a lot of outdated info. Several pages began with “first, download this disk image from mesu.apple.com” and then linked to an image that’s no longer there; others provided useful instructions on how to backup your AppleTV disk, which would have been good advice to follow before trying to install Boxee, but didn’t help with recovery.

So, for posterity, here’s how I forced my AppleTV to re-load its factory settings when all I had was the ability to SSH into the box. (I should emphasize here: There are much, much easier ways to restore factory defaults on an AppleTV if you can navigate the menus, or if holding down Menu and Minus on the remote successfully reboots the box into diagnostic mode. What I’m about to describe here is a process for deliberately breaking the operating system on the AppleTV’s OSBoot partition, which forces the box into recovery mode; this is not for the faint of heart, I’m not responsible for what happens to your AppleTV if you try it, and heaven help you if you run these commands on your Mac.)

The AppleTV’s hard drive is partitioned into four volumes: EFI, Recovery, OSBoot and Media. The AppleTV boots to the EFI partition first, which in turn tries to mount OSBoot and launch the operating system. In my scenario OSBoot is mounting and booting successfully, but something has corrupted the AppleTV Finder (or some other mission-critical app) and so we can’t get to the menus.

The solution here is to render the OSBoot partition unbootable, which causes the EFI partition to go into recovery mode and offer up the Factory Restore option from its own menus. While there are many exciting ways to render an operating system unbootable, I went with a simple one: Renaming mach.sym (and, for good measure, mach_kernel.prelink) so the OS couldn’t find its kernel.

So, here’s what I did to achieve a factory restore of my AppleTV from the Terminal prompt. Text that I typed is in italics.

YourMac:~ you$ ssh frontrow@appletv.local
frontrow@appletv.local's password: frontrow
Last login: Fri Feb 26 22:55:22 2010
-bash-2.05b$ sudo mv /mach.sym /bad.mach.sym
Password: frontrow
-bash-2.05b$ sudo mv /mach_kernel.prelink /bad.mach_kernel.prelink
-bash-2.05b$ sudo shutdown -r now

The shutdown command reboots the AppleTV and logs you out; when the box comes back up you won’t be able to SSH into it anymore, but (at least in my case) it came up with the “select your language” menu, followed by a menu that contained the factory restore option. (For what it’s worth, I also had to unplug and re-plug the HDMI cable to get my AppleTV fully working again.) After the factory restore I had to do the usual steps to get the AppleTV back on my wireless network, connected to iTunes, etc., but once all was said and done my AppleTV is back to normal.

I might have another run at installing Boxee, but I think I’ll give it a week or two; honestly, if Viacom got their act together and allowed me to subscribe to Comedy Central via iTunes — or even just allowed me to buy a season of The Daily Show for less than the cost of basic cable — I wouldn’t bother. Anyhow, if I do try again I’ll at least have these last-ditch instructions for doing a factory restore written down.

The Goldilocks Device

Posted January 30th, 2010 in Tech by Scott Forbes

safari_20100127.jpgIt’s been a few days since the iPad announcement, and for the most part reactions have been predictable: The people who drool over Apple products are drooling, and the people who sneer are sneering. Some of the naysayers have declared the iPad is “just a bigger iPhone,” with the same user interface and features.

I think that observation is true, but it misses the point: The iPhone has a user interface and UI metaphor that Apple designed, from day one, to work with hand-held touchscreen devices, and to provide a subset of general-purpose computing functions. (A very large subset, as the App Store illustrates, but a subset.) The iPhone UI throws out the “desktop metaphor” of files and folders, changes familiar UI elements (scrollbars, etc.) to fit the smaller screen, and introduces a new vocabulary of gestures — the “pinch” to zoom in or out, for instance — that replace the cursor and mouse with your fingers.

Adapting this UI for a device with a larger touchscreen doesn’t actually require any changes: Apple may roll out some minor UI flourishes with the iPad — three-finger swipes that wouldn’t fit on the iPhone’s screen, perhaps — but the core user interface will remain the same. Every gesture you’ve used on the iPhone will work exactly as you’d expect on the iPad.

Other devices in this category have struggled to scale down a too-complex UI designed for desktop computers, or to scale up too-simple interfaces that were made for special-purpose devices. Apple did neither, and the iPod Touch has already shown that the secret of iPhone’s success isn’t the phone. Apple has rolled out the first major UI advance since the original Macintosh in 1984, and that’s the not-so-secret ingredient that makes the iPad a different animal from netbooks, tablet PCs, thin clients, tablet computers and every other attempt on the long list of failures to simplify the desktop metaphor.1

The personal computer has, by far, the most complex interface that the average user encounters on a given day; the automobile is a distant second, and for that you need a license. And, as Fraser Speirs noted, the majority of computer users don’t want that complexity. They don’t need the overhead of maintaining a hierarchy of files and folders, and they’re happy to delegate the grunt work of managing files to an app like iTunes or iPhoto.

NewWindowsMobile.jpgAnd, even if the user embraces the desktop metaphor, bringing that UI to a pocket-sized device is difficult: UI elements and mouse gestures that made sense a million pixels ago are now too small to use. Either we keep our icons and toolbars above a minimum size threshold, which means they dominate the pocket-sized screen, or we equip the user with a stylus — a special tool for tweezing tiny buttons and scrollbars — which changes how we interact with the device. (And this is assuming that, aside from the screen size, we can fully replicate all the expected functions of a desktop PC in our handheld device.) A device that implements part of a familiar, well-known UI metaphor, and then substitutes new behaviors elsewhere, violates the principle of least surprise in every case where it deviates.

At the other end of the scale we have handheld devices with special-purpose interfaces. The original iPod has a click-wheel, which works very well for selecting and playing music — but using that interface for a task like word processing would be impossible. nano-green.jpgA typical cell phone has a twelve-button keypad for dialing numbers; in a pinch this keypad can be used for thumbing out text messages (five button-pushes to get an “S”), but trying to browse the web with it results in a very sub-par experience.2

These interfaces are too small and too limited; they can’t scale up to a general-purpose device. “Smartphones” are a vaguely defined category, but one telling feature of these devices is that they used a non-phone UI as their starting point: The Palm Treo was originally a PDA, the BlackBerry was a two-way pager, and Windows Mobile was a desktop OS. The Treo failed because Palm was unable to push the UI any further; the original BlackBerries were barely usable as phones, much less day-timers or anything else beyond email (they’ve gotten better since, but nonetheless); and Windows Mobile is squarely in the “scaling down the desktop UI” camp. The closest we’ve seen to a device that started with the telephone UI and scaled up was the Motorola ROKR, Moto’s 2005 attempt to bring iTunes to the cell phone… which flopped, in part due to the interface.

macintosh-128k.jpg

So if scaling up a simple UI isn’t possible, scaling down the desktop UI isn’t effective, and adapting a UI meant for some other device yields mixed results, then we’re left with the direction Apple has taken: Designing a new user interface for general-purpose computing, from scratch. Apple’s touchscreen UI solves a problem that has bedeviled the industry since the days of Microsoft Bob: How to reduce the complexity of the desktop metaphor without trading off all the power and features. In fact, the desktop metaphor itself was Apple’s baby 26 years ago, when they replaced the command line interface with a graphical UI — and I seem to recall people at the time saying the Mac was “just a toy,” much like the naysayers are dismissing the iPad now.

The iPhone wasn’t dismissed as a toy when it came out, because its competitors were clearly struggling to build a device that combined power and simplicity — and Apple leapfrogged them all with a phone that contained a first-tier web browser, a first-tier music player, and an all-new user interface that made those functions easy to access and use. Adding over 100,000 third-party apps, as Apple did in subsequent years, has just been insult to injury: The iPhone is a blatantly disruptive technology. Blazingly, screamingly disruptive, forcing AT&T and Verizon and Microsoft and Nokia and Palm and multiple entire industries to scramble and react; there have been trendy cell phones before, like the RAZR or the BlackBerry, but we really are going back 26 years to the original Macintosh to find a single product rollout that turned this large of an industry on its ear so badly.

So, yeah, the iPad is a bigger iPhone — if by bigger you mean more disruptive. The newspaper industry is already in a death spiral, and here Apple’s rolling out a device that wants to be the iPod of print media: What do you think is going to happen? Never mind that it’s a sub-$500 device that does most of what people want from a computer, without hassling them with malware or driver conflicts, and never mind that book publishers are practically salivating at the thing: The question is where the iPad stops being a disruptive technology. Computers have been getting smaller and faster for decades, following the steady curve of Moore’s Law — but making computers easier to use has been more of an incremental process, and mostly a side effect of “faster.” Not many people saw the Mac in ’84 and promptly predicted it would turn the publishing industry on its ear, and most prognosticators dismissed the idea that we’d all be using a GUI ten years later. But both things happened, and the UI improvement is what made them possible.

  1. Arguably netbooks don’t belong on a list of efforts to simplify the computing experience: They’re just making it cheaper, trading off power and screen size for a lower price point. And there’s a market for that, but it’s more a sub-category of laptop than a new type of device. []
  2. And yet the cell phone industry spent years working to deliver that sub-par experience, designing a protocol called WAP and building cut-down web sites that you could navigate using a telephone keypad, before the iPhone arrived and blew them out of the water. []

Minority rule

Posted November 13th, 2009 in Politics by Scott Forbes
filibusterchart.jpg

I’m not categorically opposed to the filibuster. I didn’t object when Democrats used it to block some of Dubya’s more blatantly incompetent appointments (coughJohn Boltoncough), or to prevent the modern GOP’s borrow-and-spend policies from permanently mortgaging our future. In fact, in general, I like the idea of a safety valve that prevents a temporary majority from making radical changes.

But, hey, Republicans — you can’t filibuster everything. I’m okay with the filibuster if it’s kept behind glass and used in emergencies, and I’ll even allow that opinions of “emergency” may differ… but if you’re going to pull the fire alarm every single day Barack Obama is in office, then it’s time for some thicker glass.

Rule XXII of the Standing Rules of the Senate is the rule that enables the filibuster (emphasis mine):

2. Notwithstanding the provisions of rule II or rule IV or any other rule of the Senate, at any time a motion signed by sixteen Senators, to bring to a close the debate upon any measure, motion, other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, is presented to the Senate, the Presiding Officer, or clerk at the direction of the Presiding Officer, shall at once state the motion to the Senate, and one hour after the Senate meets on the following calendar day but one, he shall lay the motion before the Senate and direct that the clerk call the roll, and upon the ascertainment that a quorum is present, the Presiding Officer shall, without debate, submit to the Senate by a yea-and-nay vote the question:

“Is it the sense of the Senate that the debate shall be brought to a close?”

And if that question shall be decided in the affirmative by three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn — except on a measure or motion to amend the Senate rules, in which case the necessary affirmative vote shall be two-thirds of the Senators present and voting — then said measure, motion, or other matter pending before the Senate, or the unfinished business, shall be the unfinished business to the exclusion of all other business until disposed of.

…and the reform I’d suggest is:

And if that question shall be decided in the negative by two-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn…

This change would shift the burden of carrying out a filibuster: Instead of forcing the majority party to round up 60 “aye” votes to stop a filibuster, the obstructionists would need 40 “nay” votes to start one — and, if called on it, 40 senators would have to actually camp out on the Senate floor and take turns reading the phone book. (…which is how everyone thinks the filibuster works anyway. In practice the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-style filibuster appears to have died out sometime after the Civil Rights Act; in modern times you just announce your intent to filibuster, and there’s no further effort required.)

Unfortunately, changing the Senate rules is even harder than breaking a filibuster. From the same sentence of Rule XXII:

And if that question shall be decided in the affirmative by three-fifths of the Senators duly chosen and sworn — except on a measure or motion to amend the Senate rules, in which case the necessary affirmative vote shall be two-thirds of the Senators present and voting — then…

So in practical terms it would take 67 votes to amend Senate rules and make it harder to filibuster. (And, before you ask, there’s no “organizing resolution” or other measure where a new Congress votes to adopt these rules: The only way to change them is to amend them.) And that, frankly, makes reforming the filibuster a pipe dream: It’d take a 70-seat majority to even consider it, because you can bet on the 59th, 60th and 61st members of the caucus fighting like crazed weasels to keep the balance of power right where it is.

Of course it’s also worth noting that Democrats have 60 votes in the Senate, which is enough to end debate and break filibusters — and as a reader observed at Talking Points Memo, Harry Reid is not Lyndon Johnson. But then again, there are other ways 2009 is not like 1961: Back then, two dozen GOP senators joined a Democratic majority to break the filibuster of the Civil Rights Act.

And then there’s the “nuclear option” — a parliamentary maneuver that would allow 51 senators to simply declare that the filibuster is unconstitutional, and the Senate must decide matters by majority vote unless the Constitution says otherwise. The argument here is that the Constitution specifies when a vote requires a supermajority (e.g., for ratifying a treaty), so in all other causes majority rule must apply and the Senate can’t legally impose a 60-vote requirement for passing legislation — which, in the hands of today’s GOP, is what the filibuster has become.

The danger here is that the GOP will someday come back into power, and without the filibuster there’ll be nothing to stop the next George W. Bush from putting wingnuts into judge’s robes and looting what’s left of the Treasury. But, really, the only way Democrats can prevent that scenario is by delivering results — and the GOP’s filibuster abuse is making that more difficult. For the next decade at least, watering down good legislation to get that 60th vote on board is going to hurt the Democrats more than it helps.

So my preference would be that we have the filibuster, but make filibustering require some actual effort from the minority party: If the minority party can impose a 60-vote requirement on every bill just by saying so, we’re not doing it right. But if the only available choices are between today’s version of the filibuster and none at all, then I’d rather we took the “nuclear option,” and let both parties put their ideas into full effect when they’re in power. It’d make matters worse when the GOP is enacting bad ideas and cratering the economy — but the solution to that problem is to defeat them at the ballot box.

Black Lightning trailer

Posted October 22nd, 2009 in Media by Scott Forbes

I’m with Kung Fu Monkey on this one: Universal should just release this movie into U.S. theatres as-is.

For those keeping score

Posted October 9th, 2009 in Humor, Politics by Scott Forbes
Al Gore Barack Obama
Won the popular vote
best-selling author
spoken-word Grammy
Nobel Peace Prize
Academy Award for Best Documentary

Things we won’t miss when there’s universal healthcare

Posted September 20th, 2009 in Politics by Scott Forbes

Via Andrew Sullivan comes this report, where the question of whether a dying woman’s insurance covered liver transplants came up at the worst possible time.

The Accidental Racist

Posted July 30th, 2009 in Media, Politics by Scott Forbes

From CNN:

A Boston police officer who sent a mass e-mail referring to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. as a “banana-eating jungle monkey” has apologized, saying he’s not a racist.

Ta-Nehishi Coates over at The Atlantic has had a lot of interesting things to say about the recent incident where a Boston police officer thought it was appropriate to arrest Prof. Henry Louis Gates for “disorderly conduct” because Gates had the temerity to question the officer’s actions. (The irony, of course, was that the officer’s most questionable action was the bogus arrest for disorderly conduct.) But among his most interesting observations is that no one admits to being racist except the hard-core supremacist types.

And so we get the unintentional comedy of a man apologizing for his racist remarks while desperately denying that he’s a racist — because our society only recognizes two types of racists: The Klansman, who admits it, and the closet racist, who publicly denies it. We don’t have a category for the self-proclaimed “good person” who occasionally lapses into unthinking prejudice, or who just isn’t self-aware.

Being John McCain

Posted July 10th, 2009 in Politics by Scott Forbes

Matt Steinglass:

Sullivan writes “McCain knew full well that Palin was unqualified to be commander-in-chief.” But here’s the thing: John McCain is unqualified to be Commander-in-Chief.

Back in January 2008 I attended a “practice caucus,” hosted for fun by the fine folks at Drinking Liberally. It was held a few days after Obama won in Iowa, and a few days before Hillary won in New Hampshire, so all the Democratic candidates were still in the running — and, unlike the real caucuses later that year, the atmosphere was cozy enough that the thirty or forty attendees could genuinely talk to each other about the merits of each candidate.

So we all pretended to caucus, declared for our candidates, and then made the rounds from one group to the next, trying to peel off an Edwards supporter here, or a Kucinich fan there, so that the numbers rounded up to give Obama one more delegate. I remember making the pitch for Obama and arguing that any of the Democratic Party’s top candidates would go on to win the 2008 election: Hillary could beat Guiliani, Dodd could beat Thompson, and so on for every combination on the list.1

But one of my arguments for Barack Obama was that he would most likely draw John McCain as his opponent — and that Obama was especially well positioned to bring out John McCain’s worst qualities. 2 And he did: McCain’s legendary temper, his age, his erratic and impulsive decisions, and his visceral, personal hatred of Obama were all on display throughout the 2008 campaign.

Admittedly McCain might have self-destructed no matter who he was running against, and his choice of Sarah Palin was only one of several Hail-Mary efforts to shake up a race he was clearly losing — but it was Palin who clearly revealed how reckless and unprepared John McCain really was. As disastrous as George W. Bush was for America, McCain would have been far worse: By now we’d be in a second Great Depression and a shooting war with Iran, just for starters.

  1. In hindsight, John Edwards was the one Democratic candidate who could have blown the 2008 election and handed the White House to John McCain… which, among other reasons, is why Edwards will never, ever be forgiven or rehabilitated. []
  2. In fact I argued the GOP’s entire playbook would fail against Obama: Since 1988 the GOP has relied on what Josh Marshall calls the bitch-slap theory of electoral politics to belittle and marginalize their opponents — and Obama had repeatedly demonstrated that he could turn such attacks against the attackers, by either appealing to the public’s desire to change the tone of our politics, or by calling out the opponent and deftly mocking them. []