Jun 102018
 

The other day, I came across a wonderfully false analogy from a conservative writer. In an attempt to explain why conservatives despise Planned Parenthood in the United States, he asked how people on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum would feel if gay conversion therapy was offered in publicly financed clinics throughout the country.

I felt compelled to respond. Because if “gay conversion therapy” actually worked, I personally would have absolutely no objections to such clinics being offered to any gay person wishing to change their sexual orientation, even funded by government.

As things stand, however, “gay conversion therapy” is bogus, junk science, as nonsensical as creationism or belief in a flat Earth, almost as harmful as anti-vaxxers. Its real purpose is not to “cure” gays (which it cannot do) but to perpetuate bigotry and the marginalization of homosexuals in certain religious communities.

For this false analogy to work, abortions would have to be junk science, too, with clinics not actually being able to terminate unwanted pregnancies, but successfully perpetuating bigotry and hatred towards women with such pregnancies. But that is not what abortion clinics do. Rather, for better or for worse, they deliver exactly what they promise: ending unwanted pregnancies. This may be found objectionable on moral or religious grounds, but again, to draw the proposed analogy you would have to show how folks opposed to “gay conversion therapy” actually want gays to remain gay against their will on moral or religious grounds.

Because that’s what abortion opponents want: They want pregnant women to remain pregnant against their will.

 Posted by at 3:19 pm
Apr 172018
 

This stunning young lady is none other than future First Lady of the United States, Barbara Bush, back in 1943.

Alas, Barbara Bush is no more. She passed away today after a prolonged illness.

She was genuine, she was funny, and she was noble. Her husband for more than 70 years, George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush were clearly a loving couple until the very end.

And she even appeared on The Simpsons.

May she rest in peace.

 Posted by at 8:10 pm
Mar 242018
 

I just read that Elon Musk nixed Tesla’s and SpaceX’s Facebook pages.

Much as I admire Musk, I will not follow his example. I am not planning to delete my Facebook account.

Facebook is not the problem. It is a symptom.

The actual problem is much broader. The Internet that brought us together is also responsible for creating fragmented communities, echo chambers if you wish. When our primary source of news is like-minded people, memes and links we exchange with each other, often uncritically, without checking their veracity, there is a problem. It makes no difference if the content delivery vehicle is Facebook, Twitter, plain old e-mail or anything else.

I am not going to give up the opportunity offered by Facebook to stay in touch with old friends, with classmates I have not seen in years if not decades, with other people I would not even know were it not for the Internet. This is priceless.

But when I want to get informed about the world, I do not turn to Facebook. I do not forward memes. I might give a perfunctory “Like” to something that appears in my feed, but I do not believe it without checking first. And most importantly, I use other sources to keep myself informed.

Yet I fear the problem is even greater than this, and once again, ditching Facebook may be precisely the wrong answer. I recall what it was like when I was growing up in Hungary in the 1960s, 1970s. We had one national television channel. (OK, make that one-and-a-half, because there was a Channel 2, but with only a very short broadcast day in the evenings, initially, only a few days a week. And on Mondays, both channels were off the air.) This means that we all watched the same things. No matter which part of the country, which walk of life you came from, you knew the same television personalities I knew, you heard the same jokes, you watched the same drama.

It was probably never quite like this in North America, where there were always a multitude of channels since the dawn of television. Still, back in the old days, “multitude” meant maybe a half dozen choices if you were in a major metro area. So the shared cultural experience was still there. Not anymore. And never mind television, with hundreds of cable and satellite channels and numerous online alternatives. On top of that comes social media, with its propensity to create microcommunities.

Again, the problem is not that you stay in touch with your circle of friends. That’s great! The problem is that your circle of friends becomes your primary source of news and views about the world. You reinforce each other’s beliefs, making it harder and harder to contemplate alternative viewpoints.

So keep Facebook. Do stay in touch with old friends or distant family members. But for heaven’s sake, don’t use Facebook to inform yourself. Ditch the memes. Stop sharing anything other than cute cat pictures. And be the most suspicious when you see something that you are inclined to believe. It’s not the lies and deceptions you hate that are the most dangerous; it is the lies and deceptions that you are most likely to believe that will fool you. This is something state-sponsored Russian trolls know all too well.

 Posted by at 8:54 am
Mar 112018
 

Very well, having grown up in a police state of sorts myself, I know I should not take these things lightly. There are plenty of political prisoners in China, and now that Xi declared himself president for life, I expect things to get worse, not better.

Still… I could not help myself, I was laughing out loud as I read the story of an elderly Chinese woman who took revenge of a fortune teller because contrary to his predictions, she did live to see 2018 after all.

According to the South China Morning Post, Mrs. Wang ran into the fortune teller in a park and in her anger, she started vandalizing his stall. But then, “[a] police officer intervened and asked the fortune-teller to apologise to Wang for causing mental suffering.”

Thank you, Mr. anonymous Chinese police officer, for doing exactly what a sensible person should have done. Good to know that common sense is still alive and well in some parts of the world.

 Posted by at 5:33 pm
Sep 082017
 

Jerry Pournelle, the noted science-fiction writer, political pundit and early computer enthusiast, is dead at the age of 84.

Pournelle was a long-time collaborator of science-fiction giant Larry Niven, with whom they co-wrote some amazing science-fiction novels, like The Mote in God’s Eye or Oath of Fealty, not to mention their take on Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno, and its sequel, Escape from Hell. Novels he published under his own name included the memorable Janissaries or West of Honor.

Pournelle was well known to readers of the once legendary BYTE magazine. His Chaos Manor column, in which he reviewed software, hardware, new technologies, was very popular.

Pournelle was a political conservative, one of the intellectuals behind Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (aka. “Star Wars”) space defense program. He was a thinking conservative, not blinded by ideology; his views were based on facts and reason.

I corresponded with Pournelle a few times, going back to the late 1980s, when I exchanged e-mails with him on BYTE’s long-defunct dial-up bulletin board, BIX (the Byte Information Exchange). Later, I was an on-and-off subscriber to his Web site and blog. I wasn’t a regular reader, and certainly didn’t always agree with him, but I liked to read his views.

Pournelle suffered a stroke in 2014 and it certainly slowed him down. Even so, he never stopped writing. His passing is not exactly a surprise, but it still came a little too soon. May he rest in peace.

 Posted by at 9:43 pm
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