Aug 302012

To those friends of mine who think I am nuts when I express my concerns about the inevitable coming of Skynet (from the Terminator movies)… say hello to TaserDrone.


Yes I know, it’s just a proof-of-concept prototype and not a very efficient one at that, but still…

 Posted by at 7:06 pm
Aug 292012

Rapper Curtis James Jackson III, aka. 50 Cent, was apparently in Hungary a few days ago. While in the country, he must have visited a grocery store, where he took a picture of something that, to him, obviously looked horrendously offensive: a product carrying the name “Negro”, with what appears to be the stylized image of a hanged black man on the plastic bag.

Except that it isn’t. While racism and the rise of the far right are increasingly troubling issues in Hungary, in this case there is a completely innocent explanation. The packaging in question contains candy, throat drops to be precise, made using a nearly century-old secret recipe. And while Negro lozenges are traditionally black in color, the name has nothing to do with the candy’s appearance either: reportedly it is named after its inventor, Italian confectioner Pietro Negro.

And what about the image of a hanged black man? Not exactly. The classic Negro advertising slogan calls the throat drops “the chimney sweep of the throat”. And what may appear as the silhouette of a black man in a noose is, in fact, a chimney sweep doing what chimney sweeps usually do: sweeping a chimney!

In any case, it’s not like it’s hard to find truly offensive product names in Hungary. Like this one:

The Hungarian-language label reads “Negro kiss, vanilla flavored”. But although in this case, the word unambiguously refers to black people, there is again no offensive intent: this is a traditional product name that has been in existence for decades.

 Posted by at 1:42 pm
Aug 232012

Ray Bradbury would have turned 92 yesterday. Were he still alive, perhaps he would have appreciated this birthday gift: the landing site of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars was just named in his honor.

And Curiosity is now leaving tracks in the Martian dirt at Bradbury Landing.

 Posted by at 10:35 am
Aug 222012

Warning: the language of this post is offensive. I find ordinary words insufficient to express how I feel about Iran’s latest, a broad ban on female attendance at Iran’s universities.

When my wife asked the obvious question, “why?” I could only offer a very crude answer: because the ayatollahs had trouble jerking off last night and needed to find another way to get a hard-on. There really is no sensible way to describe this medieval theocracy that has been Iran’s curse for the past several decades.

There is a silver lining though: by depriving themselves of a capable, educated work force (quite capable, in fact, as women routinely outperformed men), perhaps they are hastening their moronic regime’s imminent demise. Cannot happen too soon, if you ask me.

 Posted by at 12:05 am
Aug 202012

I tend to sympathize with Julian Assange and Wikileaks. That said, the facts may not necessarily be on Mr. Assange’s side, according to an excellent New Statesman article. In particular, the article asserts that he is less likely to be extradited to the United States from Sweden than from the United Kingdom. The author also makes a very good point about Ecuador’s presumed commitment to freedom of the press: the country is about to extradite a blogger who sought asylum there in 2008, Alexander Barankov to, of all places, Belarus, where he may face the death penalty. I also wonder if we are going to see Wikileaks publish Ecuadorian secret documents now. My guess is… not anytime soon.

 Posted by at 11:14 pm
Aug 182012

It has been two decades since the collapse of the Soviet empire but Russia still has political prisoners.

The names of the latest three are Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Yekaterina Samutsevitch, members of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot. Their crime? Singing a punk rock anti-Putin song in an orthodox church. This earned them a two-year sentence for “crudely undermining the social order”.

Needless to say, I am thoroughly disgusted by this deplorable show trial. But I am also left wondering: is Mr. Putin’s regime really so insecure that they feel threatened by these young women? (The irony, of course, is the the decision to jail them and put them on trial probably harmed Mr. Putin’s regime a great deal more than their songs ever could. But then again, according to statistics quoted by Wikipedia, most Russians seem to think that the trial was fair and impartial. So perhaps Putin’s thugs know what they are doing.)

 Posted by at 9:59 am
Aug 162012

In the fall of 1956, after Soviet forces crushed Hungary’s anti-Communist revolution, cardinal József Mindszenty sought refuge inside the American embassy in Budapest, where he remained for the next 15 years.

Not even the Communists claimed the right to withdraw the diplomatic status of those embassy grounds or threatened to storm the embassy to arrest Mindszenty.

I am not particularly impressed by Julian Assange’s narcissism, nor by the latest shenanigans of Wikileaks, including the production of a fake newspaper editorial. But the notion that the United Kingdom might use force to remove Mr. Assange from Ecuadorian embassy grounds is just unthinkable. If this threat was meant to impress and intimidate, well, it didn’t seem to work very well, did it? If they were serious about it, I think Mr. Cameron might need to have his head examined.

 Posted by at 8:34 am
Aug 122012

© 2007 Larry D. Moore

Today, I was waiting for Fareed Zakaria’s GPS on CNN in vain. I had no idea at first why the program was preempted, but then on Reliable Sources, Howard Kurtz explained: Zakaria was was suspended by both Time and CNN for plagiarism.

Zakaria was caught by the conservative news watchdog site Newsbusters, for writing the following:

Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed: Indiana in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia in 1838, Alabama in 1839 and Ohio in 1859. Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

This was supposedly plagiarized from a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore, who wrote this:

As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

Zakaria admitted making a “terrible mistake” and apologized. But wait a cotton-picking minute. What exactly happened here?

Lepore found some relevant data in a book by Adam Winkler. Most of the paragraph in question is just a summary of facts obtained from Winkler’s book, and a direct quote. Zakaria presumably found out about this book from Lepore’s article, and reprinted the same facts. But plagiarism? It’s not like the Lepore paragraph was full of original thoughts. Indeed, if I take the list of states and dates and the direct quotes out, very little original text remains:

Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight […]. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893 […]

Zakaria’s version:

As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight” […], firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, […]

Perhaps it might have been wise for Zakaria to mention that this paragraph was based on Lepore’s article. But then, unlike papers written for scientific journals, newspaper articles are rarely sourced.

In any case, I just don’t see how this warrants a suspension and a public humiliation of a journalist who is respected around the world. Not to mention giving an undeserved opportunity for right-wing nuts who find even Zakaria’s centrist views much too liberal for their taste to rant again about the “liberal bias” of the “mainstream media”. A prime example comes from the blog site American Thinker: “wouldn’t it be prudent to cut him and let him paste away elsewhere? I mean, I know you have a Muslim quota to fill, but I’m sure there’s an acceptable replacement you could poach from Al Jazeera.” Huh? Yes, I know Zakaria was born a Muslim, but he is no more a practicing Muslim than I am a practicing Catholic. I guess these are the same “American thinkers” who cannot tell the difference between a Muslim and a Sikh when going on a murderous rampage. But then, who cares about such nuances when you can spew hate?

 Posted by at 2:51 pm
Aug 102012

It was over thirty years ago, back in 1979-1980, that I first earned money from a software development contract. My first assignment? Aircraft simulation, specifically tabulating the minimum safe take-off distance of TU-154 aircraft at Budapest airport under various loads and weather conditions.

Alas, the Hungarian national airline, MALÉV, is no more. But as of today, I became the proud owner of a MALÉV TU-154 B-2, with the original MALÉV markings.

No, not the real thing, I’m not that rich (and even if I were that rich, I’d not be spending my money on obsolete Russian aircraft), just a beautiful diecast model. Still, it’s a nice reminder.

 Posted by at 6:15 pm
Aug 082012

I am reading with astonishment an article in IEEE Spectrum on the origins of DOS. The author, a self-proclaimed expert on software intellectual property analysis, describes his attempt at a forensic comparison of early versions of MS-DOS and CP/M, to prove or disprove once and for all the allegation that MS-DOS was a result of theft.

But I find the article poorly researched, and also a thinly veiled attempt to plug the author’s company and analysis tools. Childish comparisons of identifier names and code fragments… really? The issue was never verbatim copying but the extent to which QDOS (which is the operating system Microsoft purchased and renamed) was derived from CP/M. It is clear that it was heavily influenced by CP/M, just as CP/M was heavily influenced by its predecessors, including operating systems written for the PDP-11. Does this constitute infringement? I certainly do not believe so. Indeed, something very similar (albeit more formal) occurred a little later, when the first IBM-compatible “clones” hit the market, and companies like American Megatrends, Award and Phoenix created binary-compatible versions of the IBM PC BIOS using “clean room” reverse engineering.

Some online commenters went so far as to ascribe ulterior motives to the author and question his sincerity. I think that is uncalled for. However, I do believe that this article should not have been published in its present form. At the very least, the author should have been advised by competent editors to tone down the plugs; to do a little bit more research on the topic; and to shift the emphasis from meaningless code comparisons to an analysis of the functional similarities between the two operating systems, the possible origin of these similarities, and the question of whether or not they might constitute infringement (and the extent to which the law may have changed, if at all, in this regard between 1982 and 2012).

 Posted by at 5:40 pm
Aug 062012

Today, I spent an inordinate amount of time messing with IMAP.

IMAP is a protocol that allows e-mail clients to access e-mail stored on a server. Unlike the more popular POP3 (Post Office Protocol version 3), IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) allows the messages to stay on the server, and allows clients to establish a folder structure on the server.

This makes it possible, in principle, to access the same mailboxes from multiple client devices like a desktop computer, a smartphone, or a tablet.

Don’t we already have this with any Webmail provider, such as Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, or the new Well, yes, but… with all these services, your mail actually physically resides on computers that do not belong to you. I’d be less concerned about this were it not for a case that happened just the other day, a hacker using social engineering to gain access to a journalist’s iCloud account and through that account, everything else (including the journalist’s phone, laptop, and other accounts.)

If Apple can fall victim to social engineering, so can Google or Microsoft. So for this reason alone, I prefer to keep my e-mail on servers that I physically own. But I still like the convenience of accessing my e-mail from anywhere without having to copy bulky mail files or worry about synchronizing them.

This is where IMAP comes in. Except that it turned out to be a much more difficult task than I anticipated.

The basic setup is easy… enable IMAP and go. But then… the University of Washington IMAP server that is included with Slackware Linux has some quirky settings (such as showing all my folders on the server, not just my mail folders) that can only be corrected by recompiling. It took a while before I realized this, and therefore I wasted a lot of time with bugs in the various Android IMAP clients I tried, bugs that just went away once I recompiled the IMAP server. Outlook (which I plan on continuing to use on my main desktop computer) has its own quirks, not the least of which is the insanely difficult nature of seemingly trivial tasks, such as relocating built-in folders like the junk e-mail folder.

In the end, I won. There are still some quirks to be worked out, but I can now access my e-mail from Outlook, the Web (with Squirrelmail) and from my Android phone and tablet just fine. Still, it was a much harder battle than it should have been. I honestly expected this technology to be more mature in the year 2012.

 Posted by at 6:36 pm
Aug 062012

Lest we forget: the attack on Hiroshima occurred 67 years ago today. Little Boy was one of the few uranium bombs ever made (using plutonium that is produced in a nuclear reactor is a much cheaper alternative.)

I remain hopeful. Yes, it was exactly 67 years ago today an atomic bomb was first used in anger against human beings. But in three days, we will celebrate (if that is the right word) the 67th anniversary of the last use of an atomic bomb in anger against human beings.

[PS: One of these days, I’ll learn basic arithmetic. 2012 − 1945 = 67. Not 77.]

 Posted by at 6:20 pm
Aug 062012

We now have a beautiful view from space of Curiosity descending to the Martian surface.

Space exploration proceeds a lot slower than envisioned back the 1960s, but the human infrastructure around the Red Planet is slowly taking shape, as evidenced by this picture and also by the real-time relay of Curiousity signal during landing by Mars Odyssey.

 Posted by at 6:09 pm
Aug 062012

It looks like Microsoft is absolutely, positively determined to make it hard for long-time users of Windows to continue using their computers productively.

For instance, they actually went the extra mile to disable hacks that allowed Windows 8 to boot directly to the classic desktop and reinstated the Start menu.

What on Earth is going on in Redmond? What are you guys smoking?

 Posted by at 6:05 pm
Aug 052012

Julian Assange might be a weird fellow, but until now, I had no reason to distrust Wikileaks.

But that was before Wikileaks concocted up a fake New York Times article, combined with a spoofed PAYPAL official blog site to back it up.

Now I regret having sent them money once. My respect for them was based on their perceived moral authority, taking considerably risks for the sake of public transparency. But apparently, their high moral standards apply only to others, not to themselves.

 Posted by at 7:27 pm
Aug 042012

I admit I read Ayn Rand’s magnum opus from cover to cover several years ago. I may not be an adoring fan, but… I get Ayn Rand. I think I understand her and I certainly appreciate her message.

She was trying to create an intelligent ideological counterpoint to radical collectivism. Her novels always suffered from heavy-handed, preachy writing; it’s sometimes hard to decide if the author meant what she wrote or if it was a clumsy attempt at satire. Still, the message of Atlas Shrugged is not to be shrugged off (pun intended). It is a magnificent defense of free market capitalism, enlightened selfishness as the driving motor of a successful society, but dragged down by collectivism, entitlements, corrupt politics and lobbying.

One thing Atlas Shrugged doesn’t represent is populism. In fact, it is the antithesis of populism. Which is why I found it ironic that some of the support for the recent movie adaptation came from neo-conservative circles such as the Tea Party. Perhaps they don’t realize that their views are almost as contrary to Ayn Rand’s teachings as the presumed “socialism” of Barack Obama. Ayn Rand’s enlightened capitalist heroes are not ignoring facts that they find inconvenient. They aren’t advocating off-loading hidden (e.g., environmental) costs onto the rest of society. They simply do not believe that anyone has a right to demand their self-sacrifice. They do not owe anything to society. They have a right to what they own: their assets and their ideas. Okay, Ayn Rand sometimes took it a bit too far; some of her heros, after all, turn to overt terrorism in order to defend their ownership rights.

Anyhow, I just finished watching Atlas Shrugged Part I, courtesy of Netflix. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it was better than I expected. As a matter of fact, it was less preachy than Ayn Rand’s book, which certainly helped. I am not sure I approve of the idea of moving the story’s setting to the near future. Ayn Rand’s original story had a sense of timelessness. Keeping its timeframe ambiguous, but with a kind of 1950s, early 1960s atmosphere also could have helped avoid a somewhat artificial explanation behind the importance of railroads. Still, the rewrite wasn’t clumsily done, and I am actually looking forward to the sequel, if it is actually produced. (Supposedly, it is in the works.)

Yes, I am looking forward to watching Atlas Shrugged, Part 2… even as I am rooting for Obama’s re-election. Does this mean that I am delusional?

 Posted by at 10:51 pm
Aug 022012

Congratulations to Mariam Sultana, reportedly Pakistan’s first PhD in astrophysics. (Or in the subfield of extragalactic astrophysics, according to another news site. Either way, it’s a laudable achievement.)

I knew women scientists have an especially difficult time in very conservative Muslim countries.

I didn’t know astrophysicists (presumably, both male and female) had to pass an extra hurdle: apparently, illiterate Islamists don’t know the difference between astrophysics and astrology. The practice of astrology, like other forms of fortune telling, is considered haraam, a sin against Allah.

Am I ever so glad that I live in an enlightened, secular country.

One of Dr. Sultana’s (I am boldly assuming that Sultana is her last name, though I am well aware that Pakistani naming conventions do not necessarily follow Western traditions) examiners was James Binney, whose name is well known to anyone involved with galactic astrophysics; the book colloquially known as “Binney and Tremaine” (the real title is Galactic Dynamics) is considered one of the field’s “bibles”. (Darn, I hope no religious fanatic misconstrues the meaning of “bible” in the preceding sentence!)

I wish Dr. Sultana the brightest career. Who knows, maybe I’ll run into her one day somewhere, perhaps at the Perimeter Institute.

 Posted by at 4:46 pm
Aug 022012

I just finished reading a very interesting Vanity Fair article about the decline of Microsoft. It paints a devastating picture leaving one to wonder why Microsoft’s shareholders continue to tolerate Ballmer’s (mis)management.

I have been wondering the same thing for many years, for pretty much the same reasons mentioned in this article: the Vista fiasco, the squandering away of the IE lead, Windows CE and Windows Phone, the Zune misstep, and last but not least, the disaster that is yet to happen, which is called Windows 8.

Think about it: how often did you type “” into a browser lately? How about “”? Or “”? Or “”?

And how many times did you type “”?

And I actually happen to like Microsoft.

The Comments section is also interesting, but mainly because of the bias and misinformation. My all time favorite: the story about how Word became the dominant office product because of “secret APIs”. Perhaps there were secret APIs, perhaps there weren’t. But none of that had anything to do with the then market leader, WordPerfect, jumping on the Windows bandwagon several years late, and with a crappy product that crashed even more often than Microsoft Word for Windows 1.0. And by that time, Microsoft was up to version 4.x and frequent crashes were no longer considered acceptable.

 Posted by at 12:08 am