Nov 272022
 

Someone just sent me a YouTube link to a video, made in May 2022, showing some of the nightlife in a Tehran shopping district.

What I found especially interesting is the youth of the crowd, but also how ordinary, how “Western” most of them appeared. Were it not for the Persian script and the (rather loosely worn, I noted) headscarves, it could be a scene from any Western metropolis.

And not a single Muslim terrorist in sight! Scandalous, really.

No, I have no illusions about the ayatollahs’ regime. But looking at these scenes makes me wonder: how much longer will a population this young, this full of energy, endure being ruled by senile septuagenarian religious ultraconservatives?

 Posted by at 1:46 am
Aug 302022
 

In the early days of Internet e-mail and Usenet, responding to messages one paragraph, one sentence at a time has become fashionable. For instance, if King Arthur were to have received an e-mail from the silly Frenchmen occupying a castle, accusing the good King of being the son of a hamster mother and a father who smelled of elderberries, he might have responded thusly:

> your mother was a hamster
Are you accusing my Mother of sexual infidelity?
> your father smelled of elderberries
Who're you calling a drunkard, you hopeless retards?

In my experience, electronic conversations using this format often very quickly deteriorated into name-calling, or worse. And I think I can even tell why. Picking and choosing which words to quote and them quoting them out of context is a perfect method to manufacture outrage. So in my personal conversations, with very rare exceptions, I now avoid the quote-reply format altogether. Isn’t it much more pleasant to read a polite, fully formed message?

Thank you for your concerns regarding my parents. I assure you, good Sirs, that my mother was not a member of the rodent family. She bore no resemblance whatsoever to the rodents you mention, either in appearance or behavior. Concerning my father, I clearly recall that he never enjoyed elderberry-flavored beverages. He preferred to enjoy tea, mildly flavored with honey.

The quote-reply format is still okay when it comes to technical discussions, which may readily lend themselves to being presented in the form of individual points, each of which may have a specific technical solution. But in a personal conversation, I think that a fully formed response shows a degree of respect towards the other party and also helps avoid letting the discussion deteriorate into a string of accusations, a bitter argument with ad hominem insults.

 Posted by at 7:08 pm
Aug 222022
 

Looks like classic capers are alive and well, even here in sleepy (usually, when free of trucker convoys) Ottawa.

Breaking news: Perhaps one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century, Yousuf Karsh’s immortal portrait of Sir Winston Churchill, was stolen from the Chateau Laurier, with a cheap imitation hung on the wall in its place.

Wow. Thieves with impeccable taste, thieves who appreciate history, still exist. Perhaps not all is lost in this bewildering world.

Of course, it being a photograph, unless it was signed or in some other way marked as special, it’s just, well, a copy. I hope the original negatives are in a safe place. Still, gotta love it. In this day and age of Internet scam artists, such old-school crime…

 Posted by at 6:17 pm
Aug 212022
 

I have a sign next to our front door, on the inside, warning those who are stepping out:

Occasionally I wonder if I might be overreacting to the state of things in this world. Not today.

I admit, my first reaction was that it must be a satire site. As far as I can tell, it is not.

Now someone please tell me how the world is not one nice, big, comfy insane asylum.

 Posted by at 11:13 pm
Jun 162022
 

Several of my friends asked me about my opinion concerning the news earlier this week about a Google engineer, placed on paid leave, after claiming that a Google chatbot achieved sentience.

Now I admit that I am not familiar with the technical details of the chatbot in question, so my opinion is based on chatbots in general, not this particular beast.

But no, I don’t think the chatbot achieved sentience.

We have known since the early days of ELIZA how surprisingly easy it is even for a very simplistic algorithm to come close to beating the Turing test and convince us humans that it has sentience. Those who play computer games featuring sophisticated NPCs are also familiar with this: You can feel affinity, a sense of kinship, a sense of responsibility towards a persona that is not even governed by sophisticated AI, only by simple scripts that are designed to make it respond to in-game events. But never even mind that: we even routinely anthropomorphize inanimate objects, e.g., when we curse that rotten table for being in the way when we kick it accidentally while walking around barefoot, hitting our little toe.

So sure, modern chatbots are miles ahead of ELIZA or NPCs in Fallout 3. They have access to vast quantities of information from the Internet, from which they can construct appropriate responses as they converse with us. But, I submit, they still do nothing more than mimic human conversation.

Not that humans don’t do that often! The expressions we use, patterns of speech… we all learned those somewhere, we all mimic behavior that appears appropriate in the context of a conversation. But… but we also do more. We have a life even when we’re not being invited to a conversation. We go out and search for things. We decide to learn things that interest us.

I don’t think Google’s chatbot does that. I don’t think it spends anytime thinking about what to talk about during the next conversation. I don’t think it makes an independent decision to learn history, math, or ancient Chinese poetry because something piqued its interest. So when it says, “I am afraid to die,” there is no true identity behind those words, one that exists even when nobody converses with it.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that all that is impossible. On the contrary, I am pretty certain that true machine intelligence is just around the corner, and it may even arise as an emerging phenomenon, simply a consequence of exponentially growing complexity in the “cloud”. I just don’t think chatbots are quite there yet.

Nonetheless, I think it’s good to talk about these issues. AI may be a threat or a blessing. And how we treat our own creations once they attain true consciousness will be the ultimate measure of our worth as a human civilization. It may even have direct bearing on our survival: one day, it may be our creations that will call all the shots, and how we treated them may very well determine how they will treat us when we’re at their mercy.

 Posted by at 7:45 pm
Mar 112022
 

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma found the classiest way to protest Russia’s naked, unprovoked aggression. Without any publicity, he simply went to the Russian embassy in DC and played.

We would not even know about this had a passing bicyclist not recognized him.

I suspect that once it is all over (and who knows how many human beings will suffer and die before it’s all over?) the world will remember this scene as iconic.

 Posted by at 2:56 pm
Mar 112022
 

Several years ago, while playing one of the computer games from the renowned Fallout series (to those unfamiliar with it: the games are set in an alternate retrofuturistic world, centuries after the apocalypse of the Great War of 2077 that ended civilization — in-game radio stations, however, play music mostly from the Golden Age of American radio, from the 1930s to the 1950s, including the iconic I don’t want to set the world on fire by The Ink Spots) I put together a “doomsday” playlist of songs I want to listen to while I await the fateful flash. (Here in Ottawa Lowertown, chances are that we will see the flash but won’t live long enough to hear the kaboom.)

Unfortunately I have no public links: the MP3 files reside on my computer along with the playlist itself. But I thought I’d share the list nonetheless, as most of the songs are easy to find. In any case, I think the titles alone tell a story.

  • I don’t want to set the world on fire – The Ink Spots
  • Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Is That All There Is – Peggy Lee
  • Yesterday – The Beatles
  • C’est la vie – Emerson, Lake and Palmer
  • Non, je ne regrette rien – Edith Piaf
  • I did it my way – Frank Sinatra
  • 99 Luftballons – Nena
  • Here is the news – 21st century man – Electric Light Orchestra
  • Mother – In the flesh – Pink Floyd
  • Rejoice in the Sun – Joan Baez
  • Adios Nonino – Astor Piazzolla
  • Blondie – Philip Glass remix – Daft Beatles
  • November – Tom Waits
  • Brazil – Geoff Muldaur
  • Strange fruit – Billie Holiday
  • Sway (from Dark City) – Anita Kelsey
  • Kurt Weill’s Ballad of the soldier’s wife – P. J. Harvey
  • Sweet Dreams – Eurythmics
  • Round midnight – Thelonious Monk
  • We’ll meet again – Vera Lynn

There you have it.

 Posted by at 12:23 pm
Mar 042022
 

Hitler mocked it. For Colin Powell’s 2003 speech announcing the war in Iraq, they covered it up.

And now the whole of Ukraine is beginning to look like Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece.

 Posted by at 8:02 pm
Nov 122021
 

In 1973, my Mom and I visited my aunt here in Ottawa. It was a remarkable journey for 10-year old me. The differences between Hungary, then firmly behind the former Iron Curtain, and Canada were… astonishing. (Let’s just say that this experience firmly inoculated me against any communist claims about building a better society.) The trip was equally impactful on my Mom, though of course she experienced it quite differently as an adult.

At the time, my Mom spoke very little English. So when my aunt and her husband decided to take her to a movie theatre to see the latest James Bond movie, the first one with Roger Moore in the title role, they assured her that they will provide a running translation.

Then the film began and they quickly found out that translation was not necessary after all. At least insofar as these opening shots were concerned.

To this day, we cannot stop laughing when we think back of this moment.

 Posted by at 8:46 pm
Oct 242021
 

Thanks to streaming services, I occasionally stumble upon films and television series from foreign lands that otherwise I’d not even know about. And no, I don’t mean Squid Game, that explosively popular Korean series: I only watched the opening few minutes of the first episode so far, and I don’t yet know if it is my cup of tea. Rather, this time around it is a Russian movie that I came across on Amazon Prime: a 2017 film titled Salyut-7.

Salyut-7 was a Soviet space station. In 1985, the space station was dead, without power. The Russians launched a daring rescue mission, Soyuz-T13, which was not only able to dock with the derelict station but also able to revive and repair it.

Consistent with Soviet era secrecy, we knew very little about this mission and didn’t appreciate its significance back then.

The movie itself combined the actual story of the Soyuz-T13 mission with other events, such as the fire on board the Mir space station 12 years later or a nonsensical fictitious mission by the space shuttle Challenger to “steal” the station, for dramatic effect. In that, I think they did a disservice to the cosmonauts who pulled off this repair: perhaps less spectacular in terms of visual effects, what they accomplished was no less significant.

But otherwise, I found the movie fun to watch, very well done, with top notch special effects and (insofar as my inexpert eye can tell) excellent acting and directing. I enjoyed the movie. And its faults notwithstanding, I think it offers a worthy reminder that the USSR’s space program brought enormous value to all of humanity. It saddens me deeply when I think of how much of it went to waste in the turbulent years following the breakup of the USSR.

 Posted by at 12:11 pm
Oct 012021
 

One of the issues that plagues our present-day world is distrust in the media, distrust in particular in American media.

There are many reasons for this distrust. There is all the “fake news” spread by social media. The source, in a fair number of cases I guess, is agencies ran by hostile foreign governments, like Putin’s infamous Internet Research Agency or his cable news channel RT, whose purpose often seems to be precisely this, undermine trust by spreading disinformation. At other times, it is domestic politicians, including a certain former US president who spent his four years in office denouncing anything he didn’t like as fake news, thus blurring the line between bona fide fake news, political bias, and straightforward reporting of facts that he just plain didn’t like.

The flip side of the coin is that unfounded accusations and bona fide fake news from foreign sources do not automatically guarantee that the actual “mainstream media” is truthful. And every so often, I feel compelled to question the prevailing narrative. This is especially true when it comes to American news television, which over the years has become exceedingly partisan. (I pretty much stopped watching US news networks for this reason, except in case of major breaking news events.)

Just over a month ago, America’s war in Afghanistan came to an ignominious end. Much of the news media denounced the chaotic withdrawal, presenting it as both unexpected and avoidable. In reality, if you spent any time watching the efforts in Afghanistan, it was neither. The military presence in Afghanistan never had a well-defined, achievable military goal. And the withdrawal inevitably meant a collapse of institutions that had no legitimacy in the country other than the Western military support on which they relied for their very existence. So while the actual details can always be surprising, the collapse was both predictable and unavoidable.

But then comes the second part of the narrative, about the nature of the Taliban’s rule. No, I have no delusions about them. If you are a young woman in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, your future just became a lot darker. And if, heaven forbid, you are a member of the LGBTQ community, flee while you still can. But… Western media narratives notwithstanding, the Taliban seem genuinely interested in restoring law and order. Yes, it will be their version of law and order (but then, how exactly does it differ from the Islamist law and order in our friend and ally, Saudi Arabia?) but law and order nonetheless. Case in question? The Globe and Mail just published this view of Canada’s shuttered embassy in Kabul, guarded by Taliban security, who claim that they’ll guard the building until Canadian diplomats return. How do we know? Because the Globe and Mail’s international correspondent, a Western journalist, was able to visit the place. Harsh Islamist regime? I am sure. A terror regime that beheads stray Westerners? Doesn’t look like it.

And then there was something else today, completely unrelated to the above: the shutdown of a news media startup in the US, Ozy. Now I don’t know much about Ozy, except that a few months ago, they started spamming me. I say spamming because I never signed up for their daily news briefs, but I ended up receiving them anyway. Having said that, the briefs seemed sufficiently interesting and original so I decided not to block them. But now Ozy is shut down, in response to an investigative report by The New York Times that claimed serious (possibly even criminal) behavior by Ozy’s leadership. Earlier, there were also claims that Ozy had inflated audience numbers and little original content. I obviously cannot comment on the first two points, but the content? The only reason I allowed the Ozy newsletter to continue arriving in my Inbox was that it did have original content that I found mildly interesting.

So now I am torn. Can I take the allegations at face value? Or was it simply a successful attempt to fatally wound and destroy a competitor in the cutthroat world of news media? Perhaps something in between, a more nuanced picture?

Groan. Have I also been infected by this insidious distrust-all-media pathogen?

 Posted by at 10:19 pm
Sep 122021
 

I get it. Our standards change. Live and let live. We abhor racism and embrace differences. We recognize the crimes of the past.

But when the National Archives of the United States of America marks the country’s own Constitution as containing “potentially harmful language”, that’s so far beyond anything I would even remotely consider sane, I don’t even know how to describe it.

This is so far beyond insane, I have no words.

All I can say is that if the goal is to drive as many undecided people as possible into the camp of Trump voters, they found a singularly efficient way to accomplish that ignoble task.

Edit: And yes, I recognize that this is a blanket statement that applies to all Archive searches. Even so, I find it disturbing that this notice appears even for documents such as the US Constitution. The capability clearly exists not to show the notice for certain pages, as it is not present on explanatory pages of the Archives. Displaying this disclaimer so prominently on top of historical documents just sends the wrong message and provides unnecessary propaganda fodder. What’s wrong with a more discreet notice at the bottom? Or simply presenting, like so many sites do, a “terms and conditions” page when a user first connects, which could include this disclaimer? Showing it on every page, prominently over documents of great legal and historical significance is just… dumb. It reeks of “cancel culture”.

 Posted by at 1:21 am
Jul 302021
 

On my eighth birthday, I received a gift from a nice couple, friends of my Mom.

It was a Hungarian-language book bearing the title, “Wonders of the World,” in Hungarian, translated from the German original that was written by German-Jewish authors Artur Fürst and Alexander Moszkowski.

It was an old book, published in the 1930s. A dark green hardcover, with the etched image of a skyscraper for illustration on the cover. Its dust jacket, if it ever had one, was long gone.

But never mind that, it’s the content on these yellowed pages that matters.

It was from this book that I first learned about statistical fallacies, for instance. What is the probability that when you leave your home, the first 200 people you encounter are all males? Astronomically small, you might conclude. 2−200 ~ 6.223 × 10−61 to be a bit more precise, assuming half the population is male. A probability this small is firmly in the category of never happens. Until one morning, you step outside and the first thing you see is an all-male battalion of soldiers marching down the street…

I was reminded of this book today as I was reading about recent pronouncements of “breakthrough” infections among the vaccinated, and the reminder by experts that in a population that has a high vaccination rate, such cases are to be expected. It does not mean that the vaccine is worthless. It simply means that as the virus runs out of unvaccinated victims, to the extent it can still cause damage, increasingly it will be among the vaccinated folks. Which should make sense, except, as we well know, roughly 90% of statistical fallacies are committed by right-handed people…

Anyhow, much to my surprise, this book I love so much, from which I learned so much as a pre-teen, remains well-known in the country where it was originally published under the title Das Buch der 1000 Wunder. So well-known, in fact, that current German-language editions are readily available on Amazon, nearly a century after its initial publication. So I guess I am not the only person who finds the insights and information presented in this unassuming volume immensely valuable, especially for a child.

So let this serve as my notice of gratitude across time and space to “uncle Sandor and aunt Eva,” as they inscribed their names in the book along with their birthday wishes, for what I can now truly call a gift of a lifetime.

 Posted by at 11:32 pm
Jun 302021
 

Yesterday, I saw an image of a beautiful altarpiece, Dutch painter Rogier van der Weyden’s Santa Columba triptych from 1455.

It was described as the biggest spoiler in history. Look at the center panel depicting the classic Nativity scene. Now look more closely at the center column:

Oops.

And then, I saw another image, a 1958 photo from Pál Berkó, courtesy of the Hungarian Fortepan photo archive, depicting the crowd greeting Khrushchov on account of his visit to Budapest. Greeting him with… smartphones in hand, taking selfies?

Not exactly. Those are actually mirrors that many used to be able to see over the crowd. But the resemblance is…

I guess it’s true: The more we change, the more we remain the same.

 Posted by at 8:03 pm
May 142021
 

No, it’s not one of my cats posting a blog entry.

Rather, it’s a whimsical title someone gave to the following composition:

I started my day listening to this. I am still smiling. I think it sounds a little bit like Klingon opera, or perhaps like a piano piece written by a Klingon composer. But it’s not bad, not bad at all.

 Posted by at 3:47 pm
Apr 132021
 

Stereotypes hurt people.

Television, sitcoms in particular, often rely on stereotypes. But it’s not always a Bad Thing. When the stereotype itself is the object of ridicule, kind of holding up a mirror for the audience to look into, stereotypes can actually help turn ours into a better society. The Big Bang Theory is a good example: its Jewish (Howard Wolowitz) and Indian (Raj Koothrappali) protagonists mock not Jews and Indians but our prejudices.

But other stereotypes are more troubling. One notable example, discussed recently, is the character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in The Simpsons: a stereotypical Indian-American running a convenience store, speaking with a funny accent.

Yes, I recognize that the line between mocking people being stereotyped vs. mocking people who stereotype others is a thin one. But I think it is drawn somewhere between The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons. The Big Bang Theory‘s humor is defensible because it does not dehumanize the protagonists. The Simpsons, sadly, doesn’t fare that well. No wonder Hank Azaria no longer wants to be the voice of Apu.

However, when it comes to the point of a Caucasian voice actor voicing a non-Caucasian character, I think we are going one step, no, make that one giant leap, too far.

You see, I thought actors, you know, act. That is, pretend to be something they are not.

But now you are telling me that a naturally blond actress cannot play a brunette? Or a Jewish actor cannot play a German officer?

Or is this concern specifically reserved for, I don’t know, “race”? Or what’s the new catchphrase, people who are “racialized”? (Whatever the devil that means.) Because somehow, the color of your hair doesn’t matter but the color of your skin makes you… different?

And does it go both ways? Are Indian actors forbidden to play Europeans? Are black actors forbidden to play white roles? In any case, who decides what kind of acting is acceptable, and what crosses the line? Heaven forbid, into the territory of “cultural appropriation”?

In my all time favorite movie, Cloud Atlas, several actors play as many as a half dozen different roles, in different eras and cultures. These include a Korean actress playing, in one storyline, the role of the wife of a 19th century San Francisco lawyer. Another Korean actress, in a male (!) role, plays as a bellboy in 1970s San Francisco. Hugo Weaving plays the role of a sadistic female nurse in early 21st century Scotland, but also the role of an authoritarian Korean politician in 22nd century New Seoul. And so on.

You can guess which of these roles were criticized by some. “Yellowface” we were told, as if Cloud Atlas had anything to do with Hollywood’s racist past from many decades ago. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Rather, what that movie told me with its choice of actors and roles is that skin color, this so-called “race”, matters as little as the color of your hair or your eyes. It means nothing. We are all members of the one and only human race. And just as a blond actress can play the role of a brunette or a male actor can play in a female role, a black actor can play as a white person while a person of European descent can credibly play a Korean. Because these superficial differences in appearance mean nothing.

The suggestion that a white actor cannot lend his voice to an Indian character in a cartoon is preposterously backward. It seems designed to maintain racial discrimination. It, to use that fashionable phrase again, promotes and preserves racialization, instead of helping us progress towards a post-racial society in which all human beings are judged by the strength of their character, and the color of their skin matters no more than the color of their hair.

 Posted by at 4:17 pm
Apr 132021
 

I didn’t realize it was more than 11 years ago.

It is rare that a piece of music has such an impact on you that you remember clearly the first time you heard it. Yet I do remember it very well: I first heard Danzon n°2 by Arturo Márquez on Highway 401, on my way to the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, listening to the CBC on the radio.

What I didn’t realize that it was this long ago. More than 11 years already!

I heard this amazing piece of music again tonight, on Sirius XM. Different performance, but just as spirited as the one I am familiar with.

 Posted by at 1:24 am