Apr 212016
 

Her Majesty, Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada (and a bunch of other countries that I care a great deal less about as I don’t happen to live there) was born 90 years ago today.

She is my favoritest Queen. May she enjoy many more happy birthdays in good health.

 Posted by at 10:23 am
Jan 272016
 

I was never a fan of conspiracy theories. Most popular conspiracies are highly improbable: maintaining complete secrecy would require thousands of people to cooperate for many years.

But just how improbably are conspiracies, really? Well, now there is a quantitative estimate, thanks a paper by David Robert Grimes. Grimes used several specific, high-profile cases of actual conspiracies to estimate the likelihood that a conspiracy is revealed by a participant. He found that while the probability that any individual participant betrays the conspiracy may be quite small, the likelihood that the conspiracy is revealed over time nonetheless approaches unity over the years, as demonstrated by the following diagram:

The parameter p in these curves represents the probability that any given participant will break his silence in a given year.

So then, this is it… by Grimes’s calculations, if the Moon landing had been a hoax or if similarly, vaccination or climate change were both just vast conspiracies, these would all have been revealed with a very high likelihood in the span of no more than a few years.

None of this will deter conspiracy theorists, I am sure. If all other arguments fail, they’ll just declare Grimes himself to be a member of the conspiracy, too. Well, for all you know, I may also be an agent of the secret cabal, using my blog to lure the unsuspecting into believing that man walked on the Moon, that vaccines save lives or that anthropogenic climate change is actually happening…

 Posted by at 5:28 pm
Jan 202016
 

One of the blessings of being self-employed is that I don’t need to read IT job advertisements on a regular basis.

But for those friends of mine who do, I just came across this gem that helps translate the common buzzwords and catch phrases that appear in these ads:

Don’t let any of this deter you from going after that position… just tamper your expectations.

 Posted by at 6:22 pm
Oct 142015
 

Short answer to the question in the title: No.

Refugee_crisis_in_Europe_Q1_and_Q2_2015.svg

It is eminently possible to discuss issues concerning immigration and refugees without resorting to racist, dehumanizing language. What are the problems that the refugees are facing? Where are they coming from? Where are they really coming from (in light of news about widespread forgery of Syrian passports)? Are they genuine refugees? What about the transit and host countries? How can they handle a flood of migrants Europe has not seen since the end of WW2? Was it wise for Angela Merkel to suggest that Germany will accept all refugees with open arms? Are European citizens really evicted from their homes or lose other forms of assistance as local governments rush to help refugees? Are EU nations that have no external borders hypocritical in their condemnation of countries on the front line, like Hungary?

All legitimate questions, which can be discussed using facts and rational arguments.

But that is something I rarely see.

Instead, I see photographs that show the refugees in the worst possible light, with accompanying language that implies that these pictures are representative. That this is a “horde” coming to “occupy Europe” as they yell “Allahu Akhbar”. That they are phony refugees because a real refugee does not want a better life. That they will destroy Christian civilization or European culture. That they are, simply put, dirty, smelly subhumans. Untermenschen.

To all my friends and family: If you use such language about your fellow human beings, I will not leave it unchallenged. I will not be a silent accomplice. If this means risking our friendship, so be it. There are times when decent human beings must speak up; not speaking up is not an option.

Meanwhile, I thank those friends of mine who have not abandoned their core values during this crisis from the bottom of my heart. Simply knowing you is a privilege.

 Posted by at 12:50 pm
Sep 272015
 

There is an unforgettable line in one of my favorite movies, Cloud Atlas: “You have to do whatever it is you can’t not do.” Or another quote from the same movie, same character: “Just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes… over and over.”

I am reminded of these lines regularly these days as I feel compelled to respond to the occasional (but sadly, ever more frequent) hateful, xenophobic memes, videos or articles shared by friends or family online, mainly on Facebook. Shares that perpetuate the message that the current (truly unprecedented) wave of immigrants in Europe represents an existential threat to European civilization; that the migrants themselves are frauds, uncultured, unruly, uncivilized subhumans. Untermenschen.

No, my dear friends and family members, it is not my intent to insult anybody but when I am confronted with such propaganda, I just cannot stay silent anymore. I will not be a silent accomplice. I can’t not speak up. I do not wish to anger you, but these thoughts must be challenged.

These propaganda pieces are becoming ever more sophisticated. Whether they ridicule the immigrants’ religion (let them it pork cracklings!) or their mysery and exhaustion (they are dirty! They leave trash everywhere!) the basic message remains the same: these people are somehow lesser human beings, who should be feared, despised and shunned but better yet, turned back to wherever they came from.

The memes and videos are reminiscent of the Nazi-era propaganda masterpiece, Der Ewige Jude, a full-length “documentary” movie from 1940 that similarly dehumanized Jews, presenting them as a threat to Western civilization. The message must have had some traction: after all, it was enlightened Western nations who turned away ships carrying Jewish refugees, ultimately sending them back into the arms of the Nazis.

I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind, no matter how carefully I craft my words. But I cannot stay silent. I hope I am not losing any friends, but if it happens, happens: I reached the point where staying silent is no longer an option.

Another friend (one I haven’t lost yet!) told me a while back that unless I am ready to welcome refugees into my own house, I should keep my mouth shut. Well… nope. That’s like saying that back in the 1930s, the only Germans who earned the right to speak up against the regime were the ones who were sheltering Jews. This is an obviously phoney argument. I will not keep my mouth shut.

Yet another friend suggested that this is all the Hungarian government’s fault, that their propaganda is indeed far-reaching if it can jeopardize friendships on another continent. If only… but no, xenophobia and hate propaganda are not a uniquely Hungarian thing. Long before the present migrant crisis, I was already engaging in lengthy arguments, e.g., with American friends who told me that any apparent racism I see is the blacks’ own doing, they’re the ones who perpetuate racial conflict for whatever nefarious reasons. Or that Islamophobia is justified as Muslims would oppress us with Sharia law if only they were given the chance. Needless to say, I could not possibly agree.

Go ahead, think what you want. Conclude if you wish that I am just being naive, blinded by political correctness or confused by drinking too much from the jar of liberal kool-aid. That is your prerogative. Still… I can’t not speak up.

Again, forgive me. I am not trying to be a contrarian. It is not confrontation that I seek. It is my conscience that compels me to react: some thoughts just cannot go unchallenged, even if I have no real hope of achieving anything.

 Posted by at 11:55 pm
May 242015
 

John Forbes Nash Jr. is dead, along with his wife Alicia. They were killed on the New Jersey Turnpike when the taxi, taking them home from the airport, crashed into a guardrail and another vehicle after the driver lost control while trying to pass.

Nash and his wife were returning from Norway, where Nash was one of the recipients of the 2015 Abel prize.

News of this accident made me shudder for another reason. Less than two weeks ago, when I was returning from Dubai, my taxi driver not only answered a call on his cell phone, he even responded to a text while driving. I was too tired to say anything at first and then thankfully he came to his senses… but his behavior made me feel decidedly uncomfortable in his vehicle. Next time, I will not hesitate to tell the taxi driver to stop immediately or call another taxi for me.

 Posted by at 1:38 pm
May 232015
 

The Irish have voted. Yes, once arch-conservative, Catholic Ireland where abortion remains illegal and where homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1993 became the first country in the world where same-sex marriage is legalized through a public referendum. Wow.

 Posted by at 10:24 am
Apr 272014
 

Someone called it “thinly veiled racism” but I think it is blatant and overt racism, this flyer that was circulated in Brampton, Ontario in the past few days.

immflyer

Many prominent Canadians spoke up against this flyer, and I agree with them wholeheartedly. As Justin Trudeau observed, Canada is stronger not despite the country’s diversity but because of it.

That said, some are calling for prosecution, alluding to Canada’s hate speech laws. To these people, I say, back off. You cannot suppress hatred with oppression. Or to put it in other words, we must prevail on the basis of the strength of our ideas, not the strength of our police force.

 Posted by at 8:30 am
Mar 112014
 

So there was this whimsical invention in Futurama, the Smelloscope, created by the eccentric Professor Farnsworth.

Who’d have thought that something like this would ever enter the realm of reality.

But it did.

Apparently, police are now using smelloscopes, pardon me, nose telescopes, er, I mean, olfactometers (sounds more respectable, doesn’t it?) to sniff out cannabis. Or, to be more precise, to measure the pungency of the smell of cannabis plantations, as it has apparently become a nuisance to residents of Denver and other cities.

smelloscope

Life imitating fiction, I guess.

 Posted by at 4:51 pm
Oct 112013
 

Reader’s Digest recently conducted an interesting experiment: they “lost” 12 wallets, filled with about $50 worth of cash and sufficient documentation to locate the owner, in 16 cities around the world. The result: Finns in Helsinki are the most honest with 11 of the 12 wallets returned, whereas in Lisbon, Portugal, the sole wallet that was returned was, in fact, found by a visiting Dutch couple. Finns needless to say, are rejoicing: “we don’t even run red lights,” boasted a Helsinki resident.

So what can we conclude from this interesting experiment? Perhaps shockingly, almost nothing.

This becomes evident if I plot a histogram with the number of wallets returned, and overlay on it a binomial distribution for a probability of 46.875% (which corresponds to the total number of wallets returned, 90 out of 192), I get a curve that is matched very closely by the histogram. Unsurprisingly, there will be a certain probability that in a given city, 1, 2, 3, etc. wallets are returned; and the results of Reader’s Digest match this prediction closely.

So there is no reason for Finns to rejoice or for the Portuguese to feel shame. It’s all just blind luck, after all. And the only valid conclusion we can draw from this experiment is that people are just as likely to be decent folks in Lisbon as in Helsinki.

But how do you explain this to a lay audience? More importantly, how do you prevent a political demagogue from drawing false or unwarranted conclusions from the data?

 Posted by at 9:40 pm
Aug 302013
 

I just watched a news item on CBC Ottawa about a Montreal woman who spent significant amounts of time and money to help raise a lion cub in what she thought was a lion sanctuary in South Africa, only to find out that her cub was being raised to be killed in a canned hunt.

Her lion may yet be saved thanks to her efforts and the donations she’s receiving, but countless other animals will not be as lucky, and not just in far-off third world lands like South Africa.

Apparently, many prominent supporters of the Second Amendment in the United States are also fans of this oh-so-macho practice. Never mind that the Second Amendment once codified a right of the people to deny the state a monopoly on forming an army, as a last resort guarantee of hard-earned freedoms in the American Revolution (against just the kind of decadent morons, I should add, who might be enjoying a canned hunt.) Apparently, the Second Amendment today is about the right to shoot a bird freshly released from a cage, perhaps learning for the first time in its life how to fly, just for the thrill of it, and then leaving the animal to die.

I find it hard to believe that even a I write this, there are people—not just any people, but all too often rich and wealthy people from enlightened first world societies, our “cream of the crop” if you wish—who get a hard-on from shooting a docile animal in an enclosed area. Now I don’t care if you happen to be a former president, vice president, head of the joint chiefs, or some other politician or celebrity. If you are a trophy hunter who shoots canned animals, you are a sick asshole.

Just to be clear, I am not a PETA freak. I may feel disturbed by how some farm animals are treated, but it has not yet made me stop eating meat. I still enjoy a fine filet mignon at a reputable steak house, or even the occasional cheeseburger. But let me repeat: if you are a trophy hunter who shoots canned animals, you are a sick asshole.

I know this is not a polite thing to say. I chose my words carefully and I thought about it long and hard before writing them down. I decided to do so when after I asked myself: would I say the same thing in person?

Yes, I would. People who shoot canned animals for fun are sick assholes and I do not want to have anything to do with them. I don’t want to socialize with them. I don’t want to do business with them and I don’t want their money, even if I happen to be badly in need of money. They may not be as bad as rapists or child molesters, but they come pretty darn close. Civilized society in 2013 should reject them regardless of their wealth or power. I know I do.

 Posted by at 6:35 pm
Aug 272013
 

Marissa_Mayer,_World_Economic_Forum_2013_IIIIn the last few days, I’ve been reading about some powerful businesswomen and the stories of their success.

First, I read a somewhat long but rather intriguing biography of Yahoo! boss Marissa Mayer.

Like many, I also wrote off Yahoo! in my mind as one of the has-beens, destined to the scrap heap of Internet history along with other former giants like Altavista of Lycos. But, it appears, Ms. Mayer may be able to turn Yahoo! around, defying the odds. I hope she is successful.

Then on Sunday, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria interviewed Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, a company with an innovative line of female undergarments.

Ms. Blakey is described as the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. Hers is the story of a door-to-door fax machine salesman turned entrepreneur who just never took no for an answer. Yet she seemed genuinely down-to-Earth, humble even, when she was interviewed.

The glass ceiling may not be a thing of the past just yet, but these ladies are certainly hastening its demise.

 Posted by at 11:43 am
Aug 222013
 

In recent days, the Kremlin-funded 24-hour news network, Russia Today, spent a fair amount of their airtime discussing the case of Bradley Manning, the US soldier who leaked large chunks of information to Wikileaks a few years ago and was recently sentenced to 35 years in prison.

The breaking news this morning is that Bradley Manning expressed his desire to begin hormone therapy, eventually undergo a gender reassignment operation, and live his, or rather, her life as a woman named Chelsea Manning.

I wonder how Russia Today will deal with this in the wake of Russia’s recently enacted, Draconian anti-gay legislation.

[Correction: In the first version of this blog entry, I referred to the network as “Russia Times”. Its name is actually Russia Today, or more precisely, just RT.]

 Posted by at 8:36 am
Jul 212013
 

dementia-villageI was watching a report this morning by Sanjay Gupta on CNN about a unique Dutch facility caring for dementia patients.

Unofficially dubbed “dementia village“, the facility aims to provide a life for its residents that is as close to “normal” as possible.

Yet there is something creepy about a place that only has one way in and one way out, and it is locked and under surveillance. A place where freedom is illusory. Even Gupta could not resist making a comparison with The Truman Show: that the normalcy in “dementia village” is a fake, a deception.

True, it’s a deception that serves a noble purpose. Yet it reminded me of another fictitious facility: The Unit, as depicted in the eponymous novel by Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist, where people live out the last days of their lives while waiting to become organ donors.

 Posted by at 9:25 am
Jun 202013
 

OK, so gay-curing is officially off the table. Exodus International, the Christian ministry that was dedicated to “curing” homosexuals is shutting its doors. (Whether or not it will be resurrected under some other name, now that’s another question.)

I think they failed, in part, because they started with an irrational premise. Homosexuality is no more an illness than, say, pedophilia. (No, I am absolutely not trying to draw some moral equivalence between the two. But I am planning to make a point, which will be clear shortly.) Nor is it a matter of choice: people do not intentionally choose their personal preferences.

So in what way, exactly, are pedophilia and homosexuality different? No, it’s not because one is “abhorring” or “criminal”; in many societies (including our very own Western societies in the not too distant past) both are considered abhorring and criminal.

There is a crucial difference, though. Homosexuality is between consenting adults. Pedophilia involves children who are brutalized and victimized.

Our enlightened society basically came to the conclusion that what consenting adults do with one another in the bedroom is nobody else’s business. On the other hand, we certainly do not condone the abuse of children for sexual gratification.

So here is an argument religious folks who are opposed to homosexuality could have made: that in their view, while it may be a victimless crime, homosexuality is just as immoral as pedophilia. We expect people to restrain themselves and not commit immoral acts, even if they are unfortunate enough to have been born with desires and preferences that would otherwise compel them to act immorally.

Of course the problem is that enlightened societies have, in recent decades, moved in the opposite direction: we stopped labeling homosexual acts immoral and became more accepting of the fact that homosexual people can be just as loving and caring for each other as heterosexuals.

But it does leave open a difficult question. If there is something that you consider deeply immoral, which is increasingly tolerated by the society in which you live, what do you do? What should you do? Should you simply accept the will of the majority? Obviously that’s not the right answer, as illustrated by plenty of historical examples when the support of the majority made horrendous atrocities possible.

But if people with a deep moral opposition to homosexuality feel compelled to act in what they believe to be is their good conscience, how can we convince them not to?

I don’t think “gay pride”, especially in its most visible forms, helps; in-your-face activism is much more likely to alienate people.

I came to accept homosexuals when, still in my teenage years, I learned that a teacher I knew has been living in a harmonious, deeply loving relationship with his homosexual partner for many years. I realized that their “marriage” (though it was not yet called as such; homosexual marriages were still decades away) was a healthier and more loving one than many heterosexual relationships (indeed, many decades later, they are still together, a lovely elderly couple). This teacher also loaned me his copy of Stefan Zweig’s Confusion of Feelings, a collection of short stories that contained, among other things, the eponymous novella.

Making people understand how deeply homosexual people care for their partners, how strong and long lasting their relationships can be… that might help. At the very least, it will make it harder for people to defend their homophobia by arguing that they are acting in the name of a loving God.

 Posted by at 8:59 pm
Apr 192013
 

Minutes ago, a tweet from the Boston Police Department: “Suspect in custody. Officers sweeping the area. Stand by for further info.”

If true: if these two were indeed the clowns who committed mass murder on Monday, then congratulations are in order. They may have shut down a major metropolis for a day, but the result was worth it. This was not a shutting-the-barn-door-after-the-horses-left overreaction, but appropriate action in light of the fact that an extremely dangerous clown with explosives was on the loose. If I lived in Boston, I’d seriously consider intercepting a random off-duty police officer and inviting him for a beer.

An interesting side note, though, about how information flows (or doesn’t flow) in the 21st century: despite the massive media presence and the non-stop breathless reporting, in the end Anderson Cooper broke the news by reading the above tweet from the Boston Police Department. Not sure what it says about the freedom of the press and the authorities’ ability to control the message in this day and age.

 Posted by at 8:58 pm
Feb 272013
 

yahooThere has been a lot of discussion lately about Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to ban working from home at her company.

Many criticized her decision. Some of them raised some good points about productivity and flexibility, and the ability to accommodate workers such as expectant women.

Others supported her decision, pointing out that at Yahoo! more than at other similar high-tech companies, slackers have abused work at home privileges to such an extent that some barely did any work for Yahoo! at all.

But there is one thing conspicuously missing from this discussion: why should Ms. Mayer concern herself with this issue in the first place? Why is she micromanaging her workforce? Should it not be up to lower-level managers to decide who can work from home and why, how, and when?

 Posted by at 1:50 pm
Feb 092013
 

Kafka was a Jew. No, I am not trying to engage in anti-Semitic racial stereotypes. It’s just that this is the only way I can make sense of the Kafkaesque event that happened to an Israeli student in Tel Aviv the other day.

Namely that city workers appeared next to her legally parked vehicle, painted disabled parking signage under her car, and then had the car towed.

And when she complained, they called her a liar. Fortunately, the building across the street had security cameras that recorded everything. If only such cameras had been commonplace in Kafka’s time.

 Posted by at 7:44 pm
Jan 272013
 

In a wood frame house in which four cats roam, placing an actual burning candle in a window would be an invitation for disaster, so allow me to use this virtual candle flame to mark our remembrance of the six million Jews and countless other souls who were murdered wholesale in the Shoah, also known as The Holocaust. I wish I could say with absolute certainty that it will never happen again…

 Posted by at 9:17 pm
Jan 172013
 

signonMany years ago, I created a form where players can sign up to play MUD2. To keep things relatively uncomplicated, I just created two fields for the player’s name: one labeled “Last Name” and the other, “First Name and Initials”. To me it was self-evident that if I encountered a form like this, I’d enter “Toth” and “Viktor T.”, respectively, into these fields.

But soon I found out that I was wrong. I got one signup after another like “Doe”, “John JD”. Or “Doe”, “John, JAD” if the delinquient’s middle name happened to start with an A.

What’s wrong with my form, I asked? Perhaps it’s my English? I quickly Googled “First name and initials” and found a great many hits. It was clear from the context that none of them asked for all your initials, only the initials of any additional given names that you might have, just like I did. Yet registrations in the form of Doe, John JD kept on coming. Do these people write “John JD” on passport and other official forms, too, when they are requested to enter their “Middle name and initials”?

Just to be absolutely clear, though, I added an asterisk to the field and a note: “*In case there’s a misunderstanding, this means any EXTRA initials you might have. If you’re called John A. Doe, put John A. in this field, not John JAD. And if you’re John Doe, well, that means that you have no initials to put here next to your first name!

It didn’t help. To this date, I continue getting registrations in the form of Doe, John JD.

Nowadays, this is more amusing than annoying. I needed to know the name and country of residence of players when we charged for MUD2, for tax purposes (among other things, I was obliged to collect the Goods and Services Tax from Canadian players.) But now that the game is free, it really doesn’t matter anymore what your name is. So long as you supply a valid e-mail address, I have a means to contact you if I must (which means almost never. And no, I don’t collect and sell e-mail addresses.) But perhaps it does illustrate why I always found programming so much easier than dealing with people.

 Posted by at 9:52 am