May 092022
 

It’s now Monday, May 9, 2022. And it is an anniversary of sorts.

No I am not talking about Putin and his planned “victory” parade, as he is busy desecrating the legacy of the Soviet Union’s heroic fight in the Great Patriotic War against a genocidal enemy.

I am referring to something much more personal. This sentence:

I watched The Matrix, for the first time. I’ve seen Dark City, and I loved it. I have heard all sorts of bad things about The Matrix, so I had low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe not as well done as Dark City, it was nevertheless a surprisingly intelligent movie for a blockbuster.

Not very profound or insightful, is it.

But it happens to be my first ever blog entry, written when I still refused to call a blog a “blog”, calling it instead my “Day Book”, in the tradition of the late Jerry Pournelle.

So there. Will I be around twenty years from now? Perhaps more pertinently, will the world as we know it still be around?

What can I say? I am looking forward to marking the 40th anniversary of my blog on May 9, 2042, with another blog entry, hopefully celebrating a decent, prosperous, safe, mostly peaceful world.

 Posted by at 3:01 am
Mar 162022
 

Time for me to rant a little.

Agile software development. Artificial intelligence. SCRUM. Machine learning. Not a day goes by in our profession without the cognoscenti dropping these and similar buzzwords, hoping to dazzle their audience.

Give me a break, please. You think you are dazzling me but all I see is someone who just rediscovered the wheel.

Let me present two books from my bookshelf. Both were published in Hungary, long before the Iron Curtain came down, back when the country was still part of the technologically backward, relatively underdeveloped “second world” of the socialist bloc.

First, Systems Analysis and Operations Research, by Géza Jándy, published in 1980.

In this book, among other things, Jándy writes (emphasis mine): “Both in systems analysis and in design the […] steps are of an iterative nature […]. Several steps can be done contemporaneously, and if we recognize opportunities for improvement in implementing the plan, some steps may be retraced.”

Sounds familiar, Agile folks?

And then, here’s a 1973 (!!!) Hungarian translation of East German author Manfred Peschel’s book, Cybernetic Systems.

A small, unassuming paperback. But right there, the subtitles tell the story: “Automata, optimization, learning and thinking.”

Yes, it’s all there. Machine learning, neural networks, the whole nine yards. What wasn’t available in 1973 of course was Big Data, the vast repositories of human knowledge that is now present on the Internet, and which machine learning algorithms can rely on for training. And of course hardware is a lot faster, a lot more capable than half a century ago. Nor am I suggesting that we haven’t learned anything in the intervening decades, or that we cannot do things better today than back in the 1970s or 1980s.

But please, try not to sell these ideas as new. Iterative project management has been around long before computers. The conceptual foundations of machine learning date back to the 1950s. Just because it’s not on the Interwebs doesn’t mean the knowledge doesn’t exist. Go visit a library before you reinvent the wheel.

 Posted by at 1:54 pm
Feb 202022
 

Engineers sometimes have to deal with unexpected challenges. This is especially true for systems that have to operate in a natural environment, subject to the elements, unpredictable weather, and, well, wildlife.

Take these beautiful Starlink satellite dishes. Little technological marvels that bring Internet service to rural users through Musk’s Starlink satellite constellation. Key to the system is a steerable small satellite dish that can be set up, e.g., in the backyard of the Starlink customer.

Unfortunately electronics ultimately converts electrical energy into waste heat, and the Starlink dish is no exception. The dish actually has a “snow melt” mode that is supposed to keep it free of snow and ice for uninterrupted operation. And it certainly has a comfy shape… especially when you are a feral cat in the middle of winter.

I doubt this issue was ever considered by Starlink engineers who designed the customer equipment. On the other hand, I would not be surprised if, in the future, engineering courses end up using this as an example of the unexpected, facing engineers.

 Posted by at 5:31 pm
Dec 242021
 

For the record: The Viktor Toth who has recently become quite popular on YouTube by placing his pet rat into a virtual reality harness and letting him play Doom is not me.

Even if I were inclined to do such an experiment with a live animal (I am not) it would be one of my cats, and the retro game of choice would be Duke Nukem.

You see, I was never really a fan of Doom.

 Posted by at 1:44 am
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 282021
 

I began to see this recently. Web sites of dubious lineage, making you wait a few seconds before popping up a request to confirm that you are not a robot, by clicking “Allow”:

Please don’t.

By clicking “allow”, you are simply confirming that you are a gullible, innocent victim who just allowed a scamster to spam you with bogus notifications (and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of those notifications were designed to entice you to install software you shouldn’t have or otherwise do something to get yourself scammed.)

Bloody crooks. Yes, I stand by my observation that the overwhelming majority of human beings are decent. But those who aren’t are no longer separated from the rest of us by physical distance. Thanks to the Internet, all the world’s crooks are at your virtual doorstep, aided by their tireless ‘bots.

 Posted by at 2:59 pm
Aug 242021
 

I value StackExchange. I often come across technical answers that I could not find elsewhere. Yet I contribute only rarely, and I am always hesitant. StackExchange’s quick-to-punish culture does not encourage contributions.

Case in question: I recently searched for a particular solution in SQL. A Google search led me to a StackExchange page with a closely related question and some good answers. Also a bad one.

Except that this bad answer was nonetheless marked as the “accepted” answer by the question author.

And as a result, it garnered as many as 41 (!!!) downvotes. I’m sure there are some, but I’ve never before seen a StackExchange answer with this many downvotes.

Of course there are bad answers, which sometimes end up in negative territory (that alone is a huge turnoff for many potential contributors.) Usually they end up at the bottom of the page, often not even shown.

Not in this case. Because the answer was marked as “accepted”, it remains on top and continues to garner downvotes. Presumably, folks react to it being the accepted answer, but the one they’re punishing is the person who offered the answer in the first place.

It’s sad, really. The answer is technically incorrect but it is not nonsense, and was obviously offered in good faith. To no avail; when StackExchange punishes you, your intentions matter little.

Oh, but you can vote for moderators…

 Posted by at 8:23 pm
Apr 282021
 

So the other day, I made a foolish decision: I objected to a self-described progressive activist’s recurring, disparaging use of the expression, “white people”, on Twitter.

In response, I learned the following, thanks to helpful strangers:

  1. I am suffering from white fragility;
  2. As I am a man, I am suffering from male fragility;
  3. I am wallowing in prejudices;
  4. Even if I am not from the US, there are issues in Canada, too, so…
  5. I am a racist;
  6. I am afraid of being called a racist;
  7. I benefit from systemic racism and need to be educated about it;
  8. And finally, this gem: I should shut up and listen.

OK, just to be clear, I am no more concerned about being called a racist than I am about being called a bicycle, on account of being neither. However, this reaction speaks volumes. In this new, progressive world, virtue signaling is key if you want progressives to like you. Saying disparaging things about white people gets you credit. Extra credit if you yourself happen to be white and practice a little self-loathing in public.

I used to have zero patience for my conservative-leaning white friends and acquaintances who were complaining about “anti-white racism” as they marched off to vote, or otherwise express support, for that stable genius, the Orange Person. But in light of this little Twitter exchange, I am somewhat less incredulous and more sympathetic.

No, I am still not rooting for Trumpists and their fellow travelers in other countries. But I do have a point to make, not that I expect the most vocally self-righteous progressives to listen: If you manage to turn someone like me (I am not exactly a stereotypical raging white supremacist) into a skeptic, do not be surprised if you lose by a landslide in future election cycles. Tone it down please. There is no need to turn into enemies people who dare to criticize excessive rhetoric, who see nuances where you only see black-and-white, who present inconvenient facts even when those being inconvenienced by them are not from the conservative camp. Listen to their criticism, don’t automatically reject their thoughtful objections in self-righteous indignation, in the name of ideological purity.

As for the Twitter exchange, I ended up doing something I do extremely rarely, unfollowing, even blocking some people when the conversation began to veer towards personal insults. (Because, you know, if you run out of thoughtful arguments, name-calling always works. Right.)

 Posted by at 10:58 am
Apr 172021
 

Yesterday it was hardware, today it was software.

An e-mail that I sent to a bell.ca address was rejected.

Perhaps I am mistaken but I believe that these Bell/Sympatico mailboxes are managed, handled by Yahoo!. And Yahoo! occasionally made my life difficult by either rejecting mail from my server or dropping it in the recipient’s spam folder. I tried to contact them once, but it was hopeless. Never mind that my domain, vttoth.com, is actually a few months older (July 1, 1994 as opposed to January 18, 1995) than Yahoo!’s and has been continuously owned by a single owner. Never mind that my domain was never used to send spam. Never mind that I get plenty of spam from Yahoo! accounts.

Of course you can’t fight city hall. One thing I can do, instead, is to implement one of the protocols Yahoo wants, the DKIM protocol, to authenticate outgoing e-mail, improving its chances of getting accepted.

But setting it up was a bloody nuisance. So many little traps! In the end, I succeeded, but not before resorting to some rather colorful language.

This little tutorial proved immensely helpful, so helpful in fact that I am going to save its contents, just in case:

https://www.web-workers.ch/index.php/2019/10/21/how-to-configure-dkim-spf-dmarc-on-sendmail-for-multiple-domains-on-centos-7/

Very well. It is time to return to more glamorous activities. It’s not like I don’t have things to do.

 Posted by at 2:57 pm
Apr 042021
 

You know, I am beginning to sympathize with all those Trumpists, Fake News afficionados, anti-vaxxers, flat Earthers and the like.

The other day, I commented on a post concerning the 34 Ottawa area pharmacies that are designated as AstraZeneca vaccination sites by Doug Ford’s government.

I disagreed that this was a political decision, despite the fact that I didn’t vote for Mr. Ford, and that, in fact, I voted for the MPP in question who raised this issue in the first place. I suggested that we should leave such hyperpartisan politicking to our American friends. Last but not least, I was able to find some mapping data from StatCan and from a Twitter post (which I can no longer find — thanks for nothing, Facebook!) that, when overlaid, showed that the vaccination sites roughly correspond to the population density map of the Ottawa region.

Facebook, unfortunately, concluded that my post goes against their community guidelines as spam, despite the fact that (I swear!) I was not trying to sell any Russian brides, fake PPE, dubious cryptocurrency investment schemes, or steal anyone’s social insurance number.

None of it ever stopped Facebook from delivering Trumpist garbage, genuine Fake News, anti-vaxxer nonsense, even flat Earth propaganda to my account.

So dear Facebook… You played an instrumental part in turning America into a lunatic asylum, you played an instrumental part in helping the January 6 insurrection happen, you continue to play an instrumental part in radicalizing America and the world, you continue to let Putin’s trolls and China’s agents provocateurs own you, not to mention losing the personal data of more than 500 million of us… but you censor my post as spam because of your broken algorithms? Forgive the strong language but please, just fuck off.

I wonder if this blog post survives on Facebook or gets censored as well…

 Posted by at 8:15 pm
Mar 262021
 

Courtesy of The New Yorker, we now know the history of Lawyer Cat, otherwise known (as we now know) as Eldest Mouse.

 Posted by at 2:49 pm
Jan 242021
 

Let me begin with a simple statement: I am not a parler.com fan.

But free speech is not about the freedom to publish things we all like. It is about the freedom to publish things we hate. Things that we find disgusting, revolting, reprehensible.

Of course, there has to be a line drawn somewhere. It is one thing to publish a racist rant about the inferiority of some human beings. It is another thing to call for genocide. Somewhere between these two is (or should be) a clear bright line: criminal “hate speech” is speech that calls for violence, speech that instructs readers to commit a crime.

Arguably, parler.com crossed this line multiple times when it failed to remove posts calling for violence against lawfully elected or appointed public officials, when it called for a violent uprising against the lawful government of the United States.

So what is my problem, then? Simple: I am alarmed by the idea that we are outsourcing the (legitimate, necessary) policing of the boundaries between free speech and criminal speech to corporations. Not just social media corporations like Facebook and Twitter, but also to corporations that provide fundamental Internet infrastructure, such as Amazon’s AWS.

As private corporations, these companies are of course well within their rights to deny their platforms to anyone, for whatever reason. But is this the world in which we wish to live? Where private corporations manage our fundamental communication infrastructure and decide who can or cannot communicate with the public?

This does not bode well for the future.

When the commercial Internet emerged, Internet Service Providers asked to be viewed by the law much like telephone companies: common carriers, that is, who are responsible for providing an infrastructure, but are not responsible for the content. (The telephone company does not become an accomplice by providing the service through which criminals arrange a crime.) But social media blurs this line, since these companies become the curators of user-supplied content, which they prioritize, filter, and use for advertising. And companies like AWS must be mindful of the content supplied through their infrastructure, since there are repercussions: letting an AWS VM spit out spam, for instance, can cause other service providers to block a range of AWS IP numbers affecting a large number of well-behaved AWS users.

But now, we have service providers that police political content. Even attaching labels like “the factual accuracy of this item is disputed” is questionable: Who disputes it? How can I trust the objectivity of the fact checkers who attach such labels? But things get much worse when Facebook or Twitter altogether ban someone like Trump from their respective platforms, or when AWS kicks out parler.com.

I am not questioning the judgment behind these individual cases. I am not questioning the necessity behind the decisions. Rather, I am questioning the haphazard, arbitrary, opaque process that lead to these actions. How can the same process that, say, led to Trump’s lifetime ban on Twitter still permit religious extremists, dictators and worse to spread hate or promote acts far more criminal than anything Trump has done?

There has to be a better way.

And I think there is a better way. Now is the time, I think, for this industry to create a nonprofit council that establishes and manages standards, adjusted if necessary to take into account applicable law in different jurisdictions. The institution should be arms-length, with secure funding, so that its decisions would not be swayed by undue influences or funding concerns. The process should be entirely transparent. And companies, especially social media and cloud computing infrastructure companies, should abide by the standards set by this council.

The alternative is just unacceptable. I don’t care how well-intentioned Facebook or Twitter or Amazon are, I do not wish our freedom of expression in our digital future to be opaquely managed by for-profit corporations.

 Posted by at 1:47 pm
Dec 202020
 

In the last several days, until I asked Google not to show it anymore, this ad appeared on just about every other Web page that I visited:

As near as I can tell, it is inviting me to visit a clickbait site with some brainless list of “amazing inventions”. (Yes, I blurred out the address on purpose, because I have no desire to offer them free publicity.)

But what’s with this picture? It is… horrifying to be honest. If it is supposed to be an amazing invention, I wonder if it is an unusually gross sex toy or perhaps some quack medicine device.

Well, whatever it is… Google, please stop. This thing is… gross. (The machine-generated human face that seems to hit the bullseye in the middle of the uncanny valley doesn’t help either.)

 Posted by at 12:26 pm
Sep 222020
 

My favorite Twitter accounts: @PossumEveryHour, @RaccoonEveryHr, @RatsEveryHour,@ekichoTAMA, @evilbmcats, @giantcat9. I also love the Facebook Bird Misidentification Page. I think I should limit my social media consumption to these groups. For mental health, you know.

 Posted by at 8:13 pm
Sep 102020
 

In the last few days, I was:

  1. scolded in one Facebook group, when I commented on a post and made a mention of other personalities (who are not directly connected to the topic of the group), intended to serve as examples showing that the issue being discussed was a much broader one;
  2. had a repost of mine of a funny image to a humor group unceremoniously deleted, for supposedly reposting “ad nauseam” something that I have not yet seen in that group since I became a member a few months ago.

Yes, I know, discussion group moderation is a thankless task. Been there, done that.

But, as I often reminded all-powerful witches and wizards in our favorite MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) games, there is no point overdoing the policing. It sucks away the fun for everyone. By all means, step in and police blatant violations… but also be wise and know when it is more appropriate not to notice things, even when they technically qualify as infractions. The goal, simply put, is to make things fun for everyone, not to enforce rules at all costs. In short, rules exist for our convenience, not the other way around.

If only people were this conscientious when it comes to pandemic-related rules for social distancing and wearing masks… Rules that are there, you know, because they actually save lives?

Oh well. Done ranting for the day.

 Posted by at 1:13 pm
Aug 302020
 

One thing follows another…

I’m listening to old MP3 files on my computer, one of which contains this once popular song by Paper Lace, The Night Chicago Died.

I once read that the band knew nothing about Chicago’s geography; I checked again on the Wikipedia page dedicated to this song.

The page mentions, among other things, how then Chicago mayor Daley hated the song. Daley? The same Daley who demolished Meigs Field airport, the island airport serving downtown Chicago that was the starting location of Microsoft Flight Simulator for many years?

Indeed. (Well, almost. There were two Daleys, father and son, Richard J and Richard M.) And Wikipedia tells me that the island has indeed since been turned into a park and nature preserve. But there are few pictures, so I figured I’d check it out using Google Maps.

So I typed Chicago into Google Maps and was greeted with this message in response:

I don’t know but this seems… a tad embarrassing isn’t it. Unless of course Chicago actually did die last night, and was promptly removed from Google Maps in response.

But no, Chicago is still there. The Google Maps thing was just a glitch. As is Northerly Island, which once hosted that ill-fated airport, its future as uncertain as it has always been in the past century or so.

 Posted by at 5:21 pm
Aug 082020
 

A popular Internet meme these days is to present an arithmetic expression like, say, 6/3(4−2) and ask the poor souls who follow you to decide the right answer. Soon there will be two camps, each convinced that they know the truth and that the others are illiterate fools: According to one camp, the answer is 4, whereas the other camp will swear that it has to be 1.

In reality it is neither. Or both. Flip a coin, take your pick. There is no fundamental mathematical truth hidden here. It all boils down to human conventions. The standard convention is that multiplication and division have the same precedence and are evaluated from left to right: So 6/3×(4−2) is pretty unambiguous. But there is another, unwritten convention that when the multiplication sign is omitted, the implied multiplication is assumed to have a higher precedence.

Precisely because of these ambiguities, when you see actual professionals, mathematicians or physicists, write down an expression like this, they opt for clarity: they write, say, (6/3)(4−2) or 6/[3(4−2)] precisely so as to avoid any misunderstanding. Or better yet, they use proper math typesetting software such as LaTeX and write 2D formulas.

 Posted by at 5:46 pm
Aug 022020
 

For years now, Microsoft’s support site, answers.microsoft.com, has been annoying the hell out of me.

It’s not that they aren’t trying. Their intentions are, well… how does the saying go about the road to hell?

Take today, for instance, when Windows Update gave me an error message that I have never seen before: “We could not complete the install because an update service was shutting down”. What the bleep? Why causes this? How do I fix it?

A quick Google search led me to the aforementioned Microsoft support site. I was, of course, hoping to see a solution there.

A volunteer moderator offers a marginally useful reply: Check if the Windows Update service is set to automatic, and/or try to manually install the update in question.

An independent advisor asks what version of Windows caused the issue.

Another independent advisor, who sounds like a bot, advises several methods: 1) run the Windows Update troubleshooter, 2) download the latest service pack manually, 3) download the latest updates manually, 4) fix file corruption, or 5) in-place upgrade Windows from a DVD.

Needless to say, I wasn’t planning to run manual updates or reinstall Windows. I was simply hoping to see if perhaps there was an explanation of what might have caused this error and any specific recommendations, before taking the one obvious step that was not mentioned by any of the responders: open the Task Manager, click the Services tab, right-click the Windows Update service (wuauserv) and click Restart.

Why is it so hard to, you know, refrain from answering a question unless you actually know the bleeping answer?

Reminds me of why I never really liked unmoderated Usenet newsgroups. At least on answers.microsoft.com, you don’t get answers like “what kind of an idiot still uses Windows” or “you must be a fool, installing updates”.

 Posted by at 7:21 pm
Jun 092020
 

In 1889, a story by Jules Verne (believed to have been written actually by his son, Michel Verne) was published in the American magazine Forum under the title, “In the Year 2889“.

In it, among other things, Verne envisions video conferencing.

Verne’s story was illustrated by George Roux, who is best known for his numerous illustrations for Verne’s science-fiction novels. I suspect that this particular picture was made in 1889 or 1890 (when Verne’s story, which appeared originally in English, was republished in France.)

I find this image mind-boggling. That 130 years ago, back in the 19th century, someone was able to envision… well, something that, for all intents and purposes, looks pretty much like what many of us are doing today.

 Posted by at 12:15 pm
Mar 222020
 

Working from home is easier for some than for others.

Members of a symphony orchestra have to get a little more creative than most of us, but that didn’t stop members of the Danubia Symphony Orchestra of Óbuda, from Budapest, Hungary:

Nicely done!

 Posted by at 6:18 pm