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
Jan 162013

mancardI dislike stereotypes, regardless of the target. I especially dislike stereotyping people or ideas with which I disagree. Stereotypes do not promote understanding; they promote hatred and miscomprehension, the inability see the real nature of the other side, obscuring it with a meaningless caricature.

The idea that “gun nuts buy guns to compensate for their unmanliness” is one such stupid stereotype.

Or so I thought until today. Until I learned that the famed Bushmaster rifle, the one that was used to mow down children in Newtown, was in fact advertised with the concept of a “Man Card”, which can be revoked if you like, say, a kitten better than a gun, but can be reclaimed if you buy a Bushmaster semi-automatic rifle.

No, I didn’t make this up and I don’t think CNN did either.

The Constitution of the United States of America contains a Second Amendment that guarantees the right to bear arms, in the context of forming a well-regulated militia. Some argue that this is part of America’s spectacularly successful system of political checks and balances, a “last resort” if you wish. Some argue that it is an obsolete leftover from revolutionary times, or worse yet, a relic of slavery when state militias were used to round up escaped slaves and states about to join a freshly minted Union were concerned that the right to maintain such militias will be taken away. Whatever the reason, I am pretty damn sure that none of the Founding Fathers, be they slaveholders or abolitionists, peaceful hunters or revolutionaries, ever conceived the idea that one day the Second Amendment will be used to issue “Man Cards”.


 Posted by at 10:54 pm
Jan 132013

66399_194687350675153_1540890334_nI have seen a number of memes recently suggesting that when it comes to sexual violence, the victim is not to blame.

They are absolutely right. I could not agree more. But…

If I tell you not to walk down a dark alley in a bad part of town late at night wearing expensive jewellery, I am not suggesting that it’s your fault if you get robbed. I am simply advocating common sense.

If I tell you not to leave your house’s front door wide open when you go on a vacation, I am not suggesting that it’s your fault if your house is burglarized. I am simply advocating common sense.

Yes, it is sad that there are parts of town where you should not feel safe. Yes, it is sad that you cannot leave your front door wide open and trust strangers not to loot your home. And yes, it is especially sad that if you are attractive, dress accordingly, and find yourself in the wrong company, you are more likely to get sexually assaulted. You are absolutely right: These things simply should not happen in a civilized society.

But they do happen. And smart people make note of this fact and act accordingly. Not because the victim is to blame, but because smart people don’t like becoming victims in the first place. This does not mean taking the side of common criminals or sexual predators. It does not mean that this situation is normal or acceptable. And to reiterate, it does not mean that the victim is to blame.

It simply means not confusing the world in which we hope to live with the world in which we actually live. Yes, we should all do our part to ensure that the hoped-for world one day becomes reality. In the meantime, though, smart people plan their present-day actions according to their knowledge of the real, imperfect world of today. So… you are right, the victim is not to blame. But that’s no reason not to be smart.

 Posted by at 6:33 pm
Jan 012013

I was reading about Kim Jong Un’s unusual New Year’s message when I came across this video, a documentary by Dutch filmmaker Pieter Fleury, titled North Korea: A day in the life:

Even though it’s a few years old (it was made in 2004) and despite the fact that it was obviously made under the watchful eyes of North Korea’s censors, it still speaks volumes about the world’s last Stalinist state.

 Posted by at 5:52 pm
Dec 312012

google-indiaFor a while today, Google India had a solitary candle on its start page. It was in memory of the “Delhi braveheart”, also called Damini (lightning in Hindi) by some. She was the 23-year old woman who was brutally raped and sodomized on a bus in New Delhi. Her identity remains undisclosed for now for legal reasons; some argue that she should be named in order to properly honor her in death, others suggest that the power of her legacy is amplified by the fact that her identity is not known.

Either way… what happened to her is sickening and unconscionable. The details are too brutal even to think about. It is difficult to comprehend that there are males on this planet who think of women not as soulmates, companions for life or mothers of their children, but as objects to be brutally abused and then discarded, left to die in a ditch.

I am opposed to the death penalty on principle but I will not shed a single tear if these six animals are executed. In fact, I am ashamed to admit that I’d probably torture them to death if it were up to me. But then… two wrongs do not make a right. Nothing will bring Damini back to life. So perhaps instead of thinking about retribution, we should think about preventing future attacks of this nature. Communicating the idea that there is nothing “macho” about treating a woman like a used blow-up doll might be a good beginning.

 Posted by at 8:15 pm
Dec 302012

Haunting letter from ChinaHere is a reason why I prefer not to buy goods made in China. Some of the goods from that country may have been made in “re-education through labor” camps.

In other words, forced labor.

And last year, a camp inmate had the courage to smuggle a letter into the packaging of a Halloween decoration kit. The package sat unopened by its purchaser for a year, when she finally decided to put up some Halloween decorations.

Note to retailers: I am more than happy to pay a premium for goods made in Canada or the US, by free people earning decent wages. And, while I may be in a minority for the time being, I am pretty sure I am not alone.

 Posted by at 8:36 am
Dec 232012

A Facebook friend shared this image, a cartoon about conservative vs. liberal views on equality:


Looking at the image, I realize that deep in my soul, I am in fact a conservative. That’s because I see another variation of the same picture (and it’s not the crudeness of my art to which I am referring):


Then again, if I am a conservative, so was Kurt Vonnegut. Why else would he have written a story like Harrison Bergeron, in which a totalitarian state uses a form of mind control to create equality between intellectually gifted and less talented people?

Or perhaps I am neither a conservative nor a liberal (and the same goes for Kurt Vonnegut). Instead, I am trying to use rational thinking to decide what’s best in a given situation, without resorting to ideology or dogma.

 Posted by at 1:54 pm
Dec 192012

77091_576677162357799_2885561_nGenerally, I am sympathetic towards the American concept of gun rights. The basic idea, as I understand it, is sound: a constitution that explicitly forbids government from claiming a monopoly on organized violence, in contrast with European countries where government has that monopoly. It is part of a well thought out system of checks and balances that characterizes America’s quarter millennia old stable democracy.

What I don’t really understand is how this, the notion of a “well regulated militia” that citizens can freely form and, if needed, rely on to fight government oppression, is related to the concept of granting every imbecile the “God-given” right to have a military grade assault rifle. I honestly don’t think that America’s founding fathers had concealed carry permits and assault rifles in mind when they formulated the Second Amendment.

But where the “gun nuts” really lost credibility in my view is when they began advocating that teachers be allowed, or even required, to carry a gun. Have you guys gone completely bonkers? Do you really think that the solution to tragedies like the Newtown massacre is to turn schools into battlegrounds? Do you actually listen to yourselves when you utter such a blatant idiocy?

I told a pro-gun friend of mine that if gun advocates continue on this course, it will only accomplish one thing in the end: we may yet see the Second Amendment repealed within our lifetime. And if that happens, the “gun nuts” will only have themselves to blame.

 Posted by at 1:44 pm
Dec 162012

Predictably and understandably, a lot of people are questioning America’s gun laws in the wake of the Newtown, CT massacre.

What I would like to know is this: exactly when did “a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state” turn into the right for every clown and idiot to own assault weapons or to walk around in crowded places with a concealed handgun? Is this really what the Founding Fathers wanted?

To me, the meaning of the Second Amendment is clear: it is about not granting government a monopoly on violence. It is about the citizenry’s right to arm themselves and if necessary, protect themselves from oppression. But this meaning seems to have been forgotten. Last time I checked, American citizens long ago lost the right (if they ever had it in the first place) to operate private well-regulated militias that own, never mind aircraft carriers or ballistic missiles, how about tanks and fighter aircraft, the kinds of weapons necessary for protection against an oppressive state, as the civil war in Syria amply demonstrates.

So the original meaning of the Second Amendment is long lost; should the US Federal Government turn into an oppressive dictatorship, concealed handguns or semi-automatic assault rifles are not going to do much good against tanks, drones, or smart missiles.

But then, why is it necessary to let every idiot purchase a high-power handgun that serves only one purpose: to kill people, lots of people, at a high rate of efficiency?

Just wondering.

 Posted by at 10:47 pm
Dec 092012

Fareed Zakaria on CNN commented on a recent ranking by The Economist that they called “the lottery of life“. It measured the quality of life in some eighty countries. The United States, number 1 on similar lists in decades past, is now in a tie with Germany for position 16. (Canada is 9th.) Following Switzerland and Australia, the top of the list is dominated by the usual Scandinavian suspects: Norway, Sweden, Denmark are 3rd, 4th and 5th, respectively.

So, can’t we all be more like Scandinavians? This is more than just a rhetorical question. As a matter of fact, this is the title of a recent study by Acemoglu et al. (MIT Department of Economics Working Paper No. 12-22, 2012.) In it, the authors argue that more “cutthroat” versions of capitalism, such as that practiced in the United States, while leading to greater inequality, also lead to more innovation. Meanwhile, countries choosing a more “cuddly” form of capitalism are in fact enjoying a free ride, as they take advantage of the innovations produced by cutthroat capitalists.

The study was reportedly criticized for using patents as a proxy to measure innovation, but I don’t think that this criticism truly undermines their main conclusions. Conclusions that seem to be supported by solid mathematics (at least that’s the impression I got after quickly scanning through the pages of the actual paper). What I find interesting among the study’s conclusions is that the configuration of a technology leader practicing “cutthroat” capitalism and followers who practice “cuddly” capitalism is actually a stable, albeit asymmetric, equilibrium.

I cannot help but wonder though… where does China fit into this picture?

 Posted by at 1:17 pm
Nov 292012

OK, so there was hurricane Sandy, the “fiscal cliff”, the European debt crisis, Iranian nukes, the Gaza strip, Syria, and then of course the infamous Mayan calendar… and no, I was not the least bit worried that the world would come to an end in 2012.

But now I am reading that on Monday night, in New York City, there was no violent crime. No murders. No stabbings. No shootings. No slashings.

I feel scared.

 Posted by at 8:18 am
Nov 252012

The other day, I read about an interesting experiment: The Guardian solicited readers’ ideas to resolve the nuclear crisis at Fukushima. Predictably, the majority of the submitted ideas were dangerous nonsense.

Today, I ran across something on Facebook: an attempt to promote the Robin Hood tax, a tax on financial (e.g., Wall Street) transactions. The suggestion is that a tax of a mere 0.5% on Wall Street transactions would not only generate billions in revenue but also slow down algorithmic trading that can cause so much runaway damage. Wikipedia tells me that EU citizens overwhelmingly support such a tax.

The trouble is that Wikipedia also tells me the reasons why such a tax may not be a great idea after all, as well as past lessons from attempts to implement such taxes, e.g., in Sweden. These are the consequences that are left out of the populist rhetoric, and are usually only discussed by experts.

Should this mean that we should leave political and economic decision-making to experts? It has been tried before. It is called totalitarianism. So once again, I am reminded of Churchill’s words: “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

Which is why the often quixotic fight of those who try to educate the public is both noble and essential.

 Posted by at 3:53 pm
Oct 162012

The news today is that hackers associated with the Anonymous group have found the identity of the pedophile who blackmailed BC teenager Amanda Todd into suicide. My immediate reaction was probably not unusual: Good, I thought, I hope the creep gets what he deserves.

But then… how do we know that Anonymous is right? What if they made a mistake? Isn’t this why we have a system of courts and judges instead of vigilante justice?

Indeed, it turns out that the same YouTube account that was used to post details on the alleged pedophile today posted another video yesterday in which they suggested that Amanda Todd isn’t even real. Their “proof”? A Facebook group dedicated to Amanda Todd that was created weeks before her death. One YouTube commenter used rather direct language to indicate his disapproval: “Are you a fucking idiot? The title of a Facebook page can be changed by the admin at ANY TIME. This means that a page made in June with an unrelated title like ‘Anonymous is fucking gay’ can be changed after Amanda Todd’s death to say ‘R.I.P Amanda’. ”

The wheels of the justice system grind frustratingly slowly at times, but if this YouTube video represents the quality of the investigation conducted by Anonymous, then I still prefer to wait for the courts rather than see a raging mob go after the wrong person.

 Posted by at 10:15 am
Oct 022012

For the past several minutes, I have been staring at a Smithsonian Institution photograph, showing a younger version of Grace Hopper at a UNIVAC console, presumably working on an early version of the COBOL compiler.

No, it’s not Grace Hopper that I was staring at, nor the vintage equipment, not even the prominent ashtraysmagnetic tape protection rings. It was the three gentlemen surrounding Admiral Hopper (okay, she wasn’t an admiral yet back then): remarkably, one of them is African-American while another is apparently of Asian descent. Such a picture would not be particularly unusual today, but more than 50 years ago? It’s astonishing. Pity the photo credits do not tell us who these gentlemen were whose talent and perseverance allowed them to overcome racist prejudice. Just as Grace Hopper herself overcame sexist prejudice and went on to become the oldest commissioned officer in the US Navy at the time of her final retirement, a few months shy of her 80th birthday.

 Posted by at 10:58 am
Sep 212012

Two years ago I attended a conference in Mexico City. We had many pleasant conversations with our hosts, who sadly told us that these days, Mexico City may be the safest part of the country… not because it is any safer than it was 20 years ago (when it qualified as the least safe) but because the rest of the country went downhill as a result of a perpetual drug war.

This is why I find these latest news so disturbing: it seems that the drug war may have reached a suburb of Mexico City. It appears that not even the capital is immune anymore.

 Posted by at 5:24 pm