Sep 302012

Yikes! I am still getting used to Slackware 13.37 and all of a sudden, a new version, 14.0 is available! Same for Joomla… looks like Joomla 3.0 is out.

Neither updates are trivial. For Slackware 14.0, at the very least I must be mindful of properly updating the multilib packages to ensure that all 32-bit programs on my 64-bit server continue to run. As for Joomla, the update may be straightforward but will it break my customized templates? Perhaps I’ll stick to 2.5.x versions for now; they will remain supported until sometime in 2014, so I have plenty of time to test things. This is why I have test systems I guess…

Slackware, incidentally, is not only the oldest surviving Linux distribution still in active maintenance, but the second oldest of all distributions. It was a direct replacement of its predecessor, SLS, and I have been using Slackware ever since the demise of SLS. In other words, for about 18 years. In fact, I switched to Slackware not long before I established my domain name and first permanent Internet connection in 1994. My server back then? Why, an old 386SX desktop computer with 4 megabytes (yes, mega) of RAM and two MFM hard drives: one, a 70 MB drive, the other, a 40 MB one.

 Posted by at 6:44 pm
Sep 302012

There is a beautiful love poem by the 19th century Hungarian revolutionary poet Sandor Petofi about the end of September. Unfortunately it is, well, in Hungarian. I am sure there are English translations out there, but I am also certain that they aren’t quite the same as the original.

But there is an equally beautiful song by the immortal Kurt Weill. It is his September Song, best sung by his wife Lotte Lenya:

In a mere few months, I’ll be older than Kurt Weill was on the day of his death. A sobering thought on a cloudy, gloomy September 30.

 Posted by at 9:09 am
Sep 302012

There is, apparently, a call for a world-wide ban on anti-Islam “hate speech”: essentially, any speech that criticizes Islam or its prophet.

My immediate reaction was a flat out Cold War Soviet-style “Nyet”. Or simply to tell them to bugger off. Seriously bugger off.

But it was a friend of mine whose views on Islam are generally far less restrained who offered the most eloquent way to respond to these calls. It was a quotation supposedly from Voltaire:

“To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”

 Posted by at 8:27 am
Sep 272012

Earlier this morning, I came across the following headline on Google News: “Fewer crashes when docs report bad drivers, study finds“.

The headline almost made sense. Yes, bad drivers cause crashes, indeed the main reason why modern operating systems crash these days is bad third-party drivers. So being able to identify and report a bad driver kind of makes sense, but how would you do that? And what does it have to do with your docs? Did the author mean perhaps that a document, say, an HTML page, could display a warning about a bad driver instead of invoking the driver (e.g., to display video) and risk crashing the browser or the computer?

Then, about three tenths of a second later, I realized that the headline was about road accidents and medical doctors.

 Posted by at 5:40 pm
Sep 272012

Once again, I was doing something dangerous: despite being a programmer, I chose to carry not just a screwdriver but also some power tools.

Two weeks ago, I had a plumbing crew remove our old bathtub. It was way overdue:

It took them no more than a couple of hours to reduce the bathtub to this:

And by mid-afternoon, they were done. The new bathtub was installed. Actually, let me emphasize: ONLY the new bathtub was installed:

From this point on, I was on my own. It was by choice: I dislike having workmen in my house and in any case, these are skills that, I think, are well worth learning.

Having never done tiles (or for that matter, sheet rock) before, I was taking things slowly. (Hey, I am also just a few months shy of fifty, somewhat overweight, and I usually spend my days in an armchair sitting in front of a computer.) Even so, a few days later, I was done with all the preliminary work: notably, the installation of tile backer drywall:

The plastic sheets were put in there so that we could use the bathroom even while it was still under construction.

Next came the tiles. The tricky bit (for me anyway) was to cut tiles around the faucet and other fixtures. I was able to cut pretty decent holes using a tile cutter bit in my “Roto-ZIP” tool:

And thus it came to be that a little less than two weeks after the plumbers left, the tiling was done:

There was, of course, still more work to do. First, I had to wait a few days for the adhesive to set before grouting the tiles. Once I completed the grouting successfully, I had to wait another few days before I could spray the new grout with sealant. It was only at this point, namely today, that I sealed the edges of the tile using silicone. Finally, once the fixtures were reattached, the job was at last done:

Needless to say, I am mighty proud of myself. In fact, I’ll probably be insufferably proud for the next few days (that is, unless the tiles start popping off, in which case my insufferable pride will rapidly turn into an overwhelming sense of embarrassment.) There is still a little bit of cleaning up to do, and eventually, repaired bits of wall around the tiles will need to be repainted. I may apply a bit of paint for protection, but the real paintjob will have to wait; I am considering replacing the vanity (the sink definitely needs to be replaced) and I am also considering replacing the floor tiles, which are old and have developed a few minor cracks over the years.

But not this year. For now, I prefer to return to my regularly scheduled programming job and put down my screwdriver.


 Posted by at 5:32 pm
Sep 252012

How do you operate a streetcar line that is not electrified? Why, you can always have the streetcar pull its own generator.

This is how the streetcar line in Whitehorse seems to operate. Something I stumbled across as I was reading about the sad history of Ottawa’s long defunct streetcar service.

Curiously, the color scheme of this former Lisbon streetcar happens to be nearly identical to the traditional color scheme used for streetcars in the city of my birth, Budapest. Another city with a streetcar network that, while not completely destroyed, has been much diminished over the years by misguided urban planners.

 Posted by at 5:46 pm
Sep 232012

Protesters at the US Consulate in Toronto yesterday demanded that American authorities do something about the infamous anti-Islam video, the Innocence of Muslims. They held up signs claiming that “free speech does not mean disrespecting any prophet”, among other things.

But, my friends, that is EXACTLY what free speech is. It is precisely the right to disrespect, even insult if I wish, God, Yahweh, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Ra, Moses, and every other living or imaginary prophet, deity, political or religious leader. Even using crude or obscene language and bad humor, if that happens to suit my fancy.

Do you want to know what hate speech is? Why, it’s easy: holding up (not to mention handing to 4-year olds to hold up) signs that demand the beheading of people as it happened the other day in Australia:

No, I am not ready to join the ranks of Islamophobes worried about the coming Caliphate, but I still categorically reject these Islamist attempts to limit the right to free speech in Western societies and the implied or, in this case, explicit threats. As an immigrant myself, I think I have the right to say something that might appear a tad more distasteful if uttered by persons born here in Canada: if you don’t like it here, you are free to leave.

Perhaps go to Pakistan. After all, that fine country’s Minister of Railways thinks that offering a $100,000 bounty for the head of the filmmaker is the right thing to do. How enlightened and civilized. I am sure people who think about free speech like these protesters do would fit right in.

 Posted by at 8:44 am
Sep 212012

I am reading about a new boson.

No, not the (presumed) Higgs boson with a mass of about 126 GeV.

I am reading about a lightweight boson, with a mass of only about 38 MeV, supposedly found at the onetime pride of Soviet science, the Dubna accelerator.

Now Dubna may not have the raw power of the LHC, but the good folks at Dubna are no fools. So if they announce what appears to be a 5-sigma result, one can’t just not pay attention.

The PHOTON-2 setup. S1 and S2 are scintillation counters. From arXiv:1208.3829.

But a 38 MeV boson? That’s not light, that’s almost featherweight. It’s only about 75 times the mass of the electron, for crying out loud. Less than 4% of the weight of the proton.

The discovery of such a lightweight boson would be truly momentous. It would certainly turn the Standard Model upside down. Whether it is a new elementary particle or some kind of bound state, it is not something that can be fit easily (if at all) within the confines of the Standard Model.

Which is one reason why many are skeptical. This discover is, after all, not unlike that of the presumed Higgs boson, is really just the discovery of a small bump on top of a powerful background of essentially random noise. The statistical significance (or lack thereof) of the bump depends fundamentally on our understanding and accurate modeling of that background.

And it is on the modeling of the background that this recent Dubna announcement has been most severely criticized.

Indeed, in his blog Tommaso Dorigo makes a very strong point of this; he also suggests that the authors’ decision to include far too many decimal digits in error terms is a disturbing sign. Who in his right mind writes 38.4935 ± 1.02639 as opposed to, say, 38.49 ± 1.03?

To this criticism, I would like to offer my own. I am strongly disturbed by the notion of a statistical analysis described by an expression of the type model = data − background. What we should be modeling is not data minus some theoretical background, but the data, period. So the right thing to do is to create a revised model that also includes the background and fit that to the data: model’ = model + background = data. When we do things this way, it is quite possible that the fits are a lot less tight than anticipated, and the apparent statistical significance of a result just vanishes. This is a point I raised a while back in a completely different context: in a paper with John Moffat about the statistical analysis of host vs. satellite galaxies in a large galactic sample.

 Posted by at 7:58 pm
Sep 212012

It is not nice to laugh at the misfortune of others, but I found the weird maps of the new Apple mapping app in iOS6 quite hilarious. Once I was done laughing at misplaced or missing landmarks, a flattened Eiffel tower, roller-coaster freeways, flattened and extruded cityscapes, I came across two of the best images yet.

One uses the new Internet meme, the unfortunate attempt of a Spanish lady to touch up a deteriorating fresco, to illustrate the point.


The other? Why, it’s just a photograph of a sign at a British railyway (?) station somewhere, informing hapless iOS6 customers about the availability of old-fashioned paper maps at the ticket office…

 Posted by at 5:53 pm
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
Sep 192012

Sometimes, there is justice.

It has been widely reported that a Pakistani man died the other day… as a result of breathing in the fumes of an American flag that they set on fire.

It does not happen that often, but sometimes, the world actually works the way it is supposed to.

(Part of me is wondering, though, exactly what material was that flag made of, in whatever Chinese sweatshop American flags are made in these days?)

 Posted by at 12:44 am
Sep 182012

The other day, I purchased a 32 GB USB stick for fifteen dollars. 32 GB? That is four DVDs. Some 50 or so CD-ROMs. Almost 500 times the hard disk space that I had in my first IBM compatible PC. More than 22,000 3.5″ floppy disks. More than 200,000 single density 5.25″ floppy disks that I used to use with my Commodore 64. More than half a million times the RAM of that Commodore 64. More than 30 million times the memory of a Sinclair ZX-80 from 1980. For less than one tenth the price, I might add, even before adjusting for inflation.

Some people, when they contemplate these numbers, conclude that such leaps could not have just happened; surely, there is alien technology involved. The government knows.

Then again… if we had access to alien supertechnology, don’t you think that the capacity of electric storage batteries would have advanced more than the pitiful factor of 5 or so that distinguishes a modern Li-ion battery from its 150-year old lead-acid cousin?

 Posted by at 11:19 pm
Sep 132012

So an American (or not; the identity, ethnicity and nationality of the filmmaker(s) are not entirely clear) filmmaker creates a rather amateurish production bearing the title, The Innocence of Muslims, screened originally to an audience of less than 10 when it was first shown in a theater earlier this summer. To say that the movie is obscure is an understatement… It doesn’t even appear to have an entry in the Internet Movie Database (though chances are this will change soon.)

So what’s the best way to defend the honor of your Prophet? Why, how about launching a world-wide publicity campaign for this film, attacking embassies and consulates, burning American flags, and generally making sure that every news media talks about the film and its availability on YouTube. The trailer has now been seen by more than 1.2 million people.

So, dear protesters, if your goal was to promote this hack job on your religion, give the filmmaker worldwide fame (and no doubt help him earn a few dollars in the process) and, incidentally, by murdering America’s ambassador to Libya, produce evidence that perhaps the movie’s point is not entirely to be dismissed, you succeeded beyond your wildest dreams. Mohammed must be proud.

 Posted by at 8:36 am
Sep 132012

Busy celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary yesterday, I forgot that there was another important anniversary on September 12: it was fifty years ago yesterday that a certain John F. Kennedy uttered the words, “We choose to go to the Moon. We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” And with those words, an astonishing sequence of events took place, and before the 1960s came to an end, two Americans indeed landed on the Moon… a technological feat the like of which the world has not seen since 1972, when the last of the Apollo Moon shots took place.

 Posted by at 7:52 am
Sep 122012

My wife and I have been married for exactly twenty years today. I hope the next twenty years will be at least as much fun for both of us as the first.

 Posted by at 9:49 pm
Sep 122012

Seen on a Hungarian auction site, here is a used but functioning Whirlpool microwave oven, for the modest price of HUF 8,500 (about 40 bucks):

The picture looked a little weird, but I wasn’t paying it much attention until I read the first few buyers’ questions and the answers:

  • Dear Gaborka460! Do you happen to have a full-size mirror? Greetings, – Marci502
  • Dear Marci502! I don’t understand exactly, what do a full-size mirror and a microwave have in common? – Gaborka460
  • Dear Gaborka460! :D:D Full-size mirror – the front of the microwave served as a mirror! :) – Police198
  • Dear Police198! I am really sorry, you are right, the reflection was a mistake by the person who took the picture. – Gaborka460

Person? Wait a cotton-picking minute, let’s look at it a bit more closely:

Yikes. That’s not some freakish, malformed turkey. It is a human alright. Once seen, it cannot be unseen.

And the comments continued relentlessly. Here are some of the best questions and answers:

  • Dear Gaborka460! Your microwave is now famous! :) – Police198
  • Dear Police198! Weeell, I really didn’t mean it. – Gaborka460
  • Dear Gaborka460! Is the person squatting inside just an illustration or does he come with the microwave? Thanks in advance for your answer. Greetings, – Setfly
  • Dear Setfly! The squattttting person is just an unfortunate, accidental image confusion. – Gaborka460
  • Dear Gaborka460! Can we have this with a front panel depicting a female??? If so, does that change the price? – cukormeister
  • Dear cukormeister! Unfortunately not! Is this really important? – And then the darkness. – Gaborka460
  • Dear Gaborka460! Would you please provide exact measurements as it is difficult to decide just by the picture alone if the male figure is hiding inside the microwave or just a reflection? And does the male thong come with the winning bid? Thanks: – retrobudai
  • Dear retrobudai! Is this really important? – Gaborka460
  • Dear Gaborka460! A gym pass in exchange for the microwave. – gyuribacsi87
  • Dear Gaborka460! How much for the briefs+slippers, I offer a razor in exchange! – gyuribacsi87
  • Dear gyuribacsi87! I really don’t want to be vulgar! – Gaborka460
  • Dear Gaborka460! Forgive me, but do I see this right, is it really a broiled chicken in clogs sitting in the microwave? – NVShop
  • Dear NVShop! The picture is really bad, the question, dumb! – Gaborka460
  • Dear Gaborka460! No, of course it’s not a bad picture, quite the contrary. It made many people smile today. It’s my heartfelt wish that this famous microwave soon be sold. – BudaiBrigi
  • Dear Gaborka460! 50,000 is my last offer. – seftelo1
  • Dear seftelo1! I don’t really understand?! My asking price is 8,500 for the microwave. – Gaborka460
  • Dear Gaborka460! Sorry, you’re right. My mistake. Forgive my miserliness. I’ll give you 100,000 if we can hire you as a product photographer. – seftelo1
  • Dear Gaborka460! Nearly 150,000 views, that’s something:-) – Sikiferrari
  • Dear Sikiferrari! Weeeell; This is how to advertise! And it’s not even my expertise, and I didn’t mean to. – Gaborka460
  • Dear Gaborka460! Now that the microwave has sold, I’d like to know what you ask for the garden gnome in the swimming trunks that was inside? – RGgabor
  • Dear RGgabor! Asshole – Gaborka460

Even with this last comment, one has to admire the remarkable restraint of the seller, Gaborka460, and the overall civility of the discussion. Some of it may be due to’s commenting system or their moderators, of course. Still… it gave me a good laugh today. And the broiled chicken in clogs is well on its way towards becoming the newest Hungarian Internet meme.

 Posted by at 6:25 pm
Sep 122012

That the main function of the post office is to deliver letters may be obvious to many, but apparently it wasn’t obvious to a postal employee today when my wife tried to mail an oversize letter to Hungary. It would be about $30 surface, or $60 air mail, said the young employee to my wife who was so surprised at first, she was unable to respond. Thankfully, a senior clerk overheard the conversation and eventually came to her colleague’s rescue, explaining to her that a letter is not a parcel. Actual cost? $4.20, for a letter weighing between 50 and 100 grams. Though I am seriously beginning to wonder if at least half that price is due to the inefficiencies of inept postal employees…

 Posted by at 5:26 pm
Sep 112012

At this moment, there are protesters ripping down US flags at the American embassy in Cairo, upset over some film (no idea which one, just repeating what I heard on CNN) that in their mind insults the prophet Mohammed (many Muslims like to add the phrase, “peace be upon him” to his name, but there is nothing peaceful about the name of a prophet in whose name suicide bombers kill innocents, even if most followers of Islam do not subscribe to such violence. No, I don’t think Christ represents peace either.)

I think it’s about high time we tell something to violent Islamists who believe it is alright to intimidate others who, in their view, offend their religion. You, Islamists, offend us. You offend one of our most sacred beliefs, our belief in the right to free speech and freedom of expression. And yes, if necessary, we are willing to resort to violence if that’s what it takes to protect these rights. And don’t think for one moment that our beliefs are less important to us than your beliefs are to you. So what shall it be? Shall we go on and murder each other in the name of our mutually incompatible beliefs? (Don’t forget, there is a good chance that we might win. Westerners have become rather good at this war business after two world wars and countless smaller ones, and we are armed to the teeth. We also invented industrialized murder, you know, Auschwitz and all that.) Or shall we just let each other be?

I suggest the latter. And if you believe that there is a veiled threat behind this suggestion, you might not be wrong.

So next time you hear about a film that you don’t like, here is an easy solution: don’t watch it. Then we can just happily leave each other alone.

 Posted by at 2:20 pm
Sep 082012

Here is a scary story: after a university professor referred jokingly to two absentee students as “spooks”, he became the subject of allegations of racism despite being well-known for his previous work on civil rights and racial equality. It so happened that the two missing students were African American, a fact of which the professor was unaware.

This Kafkaesque nightmare was the inspiration of a novel, “The Human Stain”, by author Philip Roth. Yet the novel itself became part of a Kafkaesque story on Wikipedia recently. That is because the Wikipedia entry falsely stated that the novel’s inspiration was a New York writer. When Roth asked for the article to be corrected, he was told by a Wikipedia administrator that “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work, but we require secondary sources.”

Wikipedia’s goals to have facts backed by sources and to not contain original research are laudable. But sometimes, they go a tad too far (to say the least), a situation I ran into myself when contributing minor edits to entries about certain television series. Original research is one thing, but when prima facie evidence that is available for all to check contradicts a “secondary source”, shouldn’t it be obvious that the secondary source is simply wrong?

The story does have a happy ending, though. Now that Roth published an open letter in The New Yorker, the letter itself qualifies as a “secondary source”, and the Wikipedia entry is now updated. But if anything, this resolution just adds to the Kafkaesque surrealism of the story.

 Posted by at 6:06 pm
Sep 082012

Some interesting plots from Nobel laureate economist Paul Krugman, courtesy of The New York Times. Compare Obama’s and Bush’s record for private sector employment in the first 40+ months of their respective presidencies (yes, this would mean Bush’s first term, in 2001):

And compare their public sector employment statistics:

So which one, exactly, is the “big government socialist”?

 Posted by at 5:49 pm