Feb 272013

yahooThere has been a lot of discussion lately about Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s decision to ban working from home at her company.

Many criticized her decision. Some of them raised some good points about productivity and flexibility, and the ability to accommodate workers such as expectant women.

Others supported her decision, pointing out that at Yahoo! more than at other similar high-tech companies, slackers have abused work at home privileges to such an extent that some barely did any work for Yahoo! at all.

But there is one thing conspicuously missing from this discussion: why should Ms. Mayer concern herself with this issue in the first place? Why is she micromanaging her workforce? Should it not be up to lower-level managers to decide who can work from home and why, how, and when?

 Posted by at 1:50 pm
Feb 272013

I’ve been reading a lot lately about Quebec’s recent language police fiasco, an overzealous Office québécois de la langue française cracking down on an Italian restaurant for its use of the non-French word “pasta” and other, similar terms on its menu. Of course I’ve been reading a lot about it lately; apparently, its news coverage exceeded by a factor of 60 (!) the coverage Quebec premier Pauline Marois received during her recent trip to drum up foreign investment in the province.

Yes, I could go on lamenting the superficiality of the news media these days, and I think I would be right. But I am thinking about Pastagate now for a different reason: I am wondering if I am the only one seeing strong parallels between a zealous police force guarding the integrity of a language and a zealous police force guarding the integrity of a religion.

At least officers of the language police do not come with canes.

 Posted by at 10:49 am
Feb 272013

It didn’t take very long for Hungary’s far right to turn the Canadian government’s giant billboards into a fascist meme.


Reacting to comments by Jason Kenney about the plummeting numbers of refugee claimants from Hungary, the infamous far-right Web site kuruc.info responded with a twisted version of the giant billboard placed by our ever so compassionate Conservative government in strategic locations in Hungary… namely, places with a high percentage of Roma population. The original billboards advised would be refugee claimants about the accelerated claims process. The version of kuruc.info is slightly different. It reads:


Gypsies! We have had enough of you! Get out of here!

This is not your home!
To facilitate faster processing, we would rather pay!

Budapest – Delhi: only HUF 166,500

Don’t laugh, Jew, this also applies to you.

In the lower right, the official logo of Canada’s government is replaced by a map of “greater Hungary”.

I hope Messrs. Harper and Kenney are proud of the fodder they provided to these proud protectors of the Hungarian nation.

 Posted by at 8:51 am
Feb 252013

moneySo, well, I don’t wish to jump on a politically motivated populist bandwagon over what, in the big scheme of things, is just (very) small change but still, let me try to get this straight.

Apparently, if I defraud the Canadian government to the tune of a hundred thousand dollars and I am dumb enough to get caught, all I have to say is “oops, I made a mistake”, offer to repay the funds I stole, and all is forgiven.

If only the world worked this way. Except that, well, it does, at least if you are a Canadian senator, like the honorable (?) Mike Duffy. Claiming that it was just an accounting mistake (the forms were apparently too complicated) Mr. Duffy not only offered to repay the $100,000 (give or take) that he stole, he now has the audacity to call the attention surrounding his case a “distraction” that interferes with the important work he is doing for his “home province”, Prince Edward Island, where he hasn’t lived in many decades.

No, Mr. Duffy, it’s not a distraction. It means simply that you tried to steal our money and you got caught. And what you did, embezzling the government to the tune of a hundred grand, is something that would land most of us ordinary mortals in jail for a significant amount of time as common criminals.

 Posted by at 3:41 pm
Feb 212013

The news is that Dennis Tito, the first ever space tourist to go to the International Space Station, is planning a privately financed manned flyby mission to Mars in 2018.

I don’t know how feasible it is. I actually have doubts that they will succeed. And the scientific value of such a mission would likely be negligible.

Even so… I dearly hope that they succeed. And if they asked me to go, I’d sign up without hesitation, despite the prospect of spending 500 days with another human being locked up in a tiny capsule, despite the significant probability that we won’t make it back alive.

It is okay to think about the economics, technical feasibility, and scientific value of a space mission, but all too often these days, we forget that other thing: inspiration. Sometimes, that’s worth a great deal. A generation of Soviet scientists and engineers inspired by Sputnik or the flight of Gagarin, and a generation of American scientists and engineers inspired by Apollo and Armstrong’s “one small step” can bear witness of this.

 Posted by at 7:01 pm
Feb 212013

I consider myself a fiscal conservative. I like the idea of small governments, balanced budgets, low taxes. But… not at all costs.

Austerity is the worst possible response to an economic crisis. The world should have learned this during the Great Depression. But it didn’t.

Or rather, North America did, as it chose stimulus spending over austerity despite the fact that America was led by a conservative president and Canada, by a conservative prime minister at the time. Giving credit where credit is due, I think we should thank Messrs. Bush and Harper for their willingness to put aside ideology and implement pragmatic policies, even if they might have done so kicking and screaming.

Not so in Europe, where austerity prevailed in the countries worst affected by the recession. And the result speaks for itself, most loudly perhaps in Greece. After years of austerity, the Greek economy is in shambles; Athens is crippled by smog because of all the wood burning as a result of drastic tax increases on natural gas and fuel oil; and instead of going down, the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio continues to increase relentlessly, as tax revenues dropped more rapidly than government expenditures as a result of the cutbacks.

 Posted by at 3:24 pm
Feb 212013

I have been password protecting my smartphone ever since I got one, and more recently, now that Android supports encryption, I took advantage of that feature as well.

The reason is simple: if my phone ever gets stolen, I wouldn’t want my data to fall into the wrong hands. But, it appears, there is now another good reason: it seems that at least in Ontario, if your phone is password protected, police need a search warrant before they can legitimately access its contents.

Privacy prevailed… at least this time.

 Posted by at 3:21 pm
Feb 152013

Chances are that if you tuned your television to a news channel these past couple of days, it was news from the skies that filled the screen. First, it was about asteroid 2012DA14, which flew by the planet at a relatively safe distance of some 28,000 kilometers. But even before this asteroid reached its point of closest approach, there was the striking and alarming news from the Russian city of Chelyabinsk: widespread damage and about a thousand people injured as a result of a meteor that exploded in the atmosphere above the city.

What I found rather distressing is just how scientifically illiterate the talking heads proved to be on television. First, it was CNN’s turn to be ridiculed after their anchor, Deborah Feyerick, actually asked the astonishing question, “Is this an effect of, perhaps, of global warming, or is this just some meteoric occasion?”

But then came the rest. I think it was on the Canadian network CTV (but I might be misremembering) where an anchor announced that an asteroid “the size of Texas” is about to fly by the Earth. Well… 2012DA14 is not the size of Texas, not unless Texas has shrunk a great deal since the last time I visited the Lone Star State (which was just a few weeks ago); the asteroid was only about 50 meters across.

And then the impact event in Russia. Initial estimates that I heard indicated an object weighing a few tons, traveling perhaps at 30 km/s; that’s still a significant amount of kinetic energy, maybe about a quarter or half of a kiloton if I am not mistaken. But then, a later and apparently more reliable estimate said that the object was perhaps 15 meters in diameter, traveling at 18 km/s. That, depending on the density of the object, is consistent with another estimate that I heard, 300 kilotons of energy released. If this latter estimate is valid, this means the biggest event since the Tunguska impact of 1908.

So where does the illiteracy come in?

One CNN anchor, describing the event, mentioned that thankfully, it occurred over a sparsely populated area, and the outcome would have been much worse had it occurred over a major population center. I wonder if residents of Chelyabinsk, a city of well over a million people, are aware that they qualify as a “sparsely populated area”.

And then there were the completely inconsistent size and mass estimates. A release by The Planetary Society spoke of an object 15 meters in diameter and weighing 8 tons. Say what? That’s just four times the density of air. The object in question actually weighed more like 8,000 metric tons.

Another CNN anchor was interrogating a physicist, wondering what causes these meteors to explode. The physicist was unable to explain coherently, and the anchor was unable to comprehend, the concept that it is just the kinetic energy of a very rapidly moving object that gets converted into heat pretty much instantaneously, heating up the air, which then rapidly expands and creates a shock wave. Come on guys, this is really not that hard!

Later in the afternoon, 2012DA14 finally did make its closest approach, as harmlessly as predicted, but there was obvious confusion in the news media about its visibility; yes, it was over the Indian Ocean at the time, but no, even there nobody could see it with the naked eye, much less find it “spectacular”.

I don’t think I am needlessly pedantic, by the way. On the contrary, I find it alarming that in our world which relies on increasingly sophisticated technology, people who are entrusted with the task of keeping us informed are this illiterate on matters of science and technology. Or even geography.

 Posted by at 10:44 pm
Feb 142013

I always thought of myself as a moderate conservative. I remain instinctively suspicious of liberal activism, and I do support some traditionally conservative ideas such as smaller governments, lower taxes, or individual responsibility.

So why am I not a happy camper nowadays with a moderate conservative government in Ottawa?

Simple: because they are not moderate. To me, moderate conservatism means evidence-based governance. A government that, once its strategic goals are formulated, puts aside ideology and governs on the basis of available facts and the best scientific advice they can obtain.

But this is not what Mr. Harper’s conservative government is doing. Quite the contrary, they engage in one of the worst of sins: they try to distort facts to suit their ideology. Most recently, it is Fisheries and Oceans that is imposing confidentiality rules on participating researchers that “would be more appropriate for classified military research”.

I am appalled.

 Posted by at 10:58 am
Feb 122013

I was reading about full-disk encryption tools when I came across this five-year old research paper. For me, it was an eye-popper.

Like many, I also assumed that once you power down a computer, the contents of its RAM are scrambled essentially instantaneously. But this is not the case (and it really should not come as a surprise given the way DRAM works). Quite the contrary, a near-perfect image remains in memory for seconds; and if the memory is cooled to extreme low temperatures, the image may be preserved for minutes or hours.

Degrade of a bitmap image after 5, 30, 60 seconds and 5 minutes in a 128 MB Infineon memory module manufactured in 1999.

Decay of a bitmap image 5, 30, 60 seconds and 5 minutes after power loss in a 128 MB Infineon memory module manufactured in 1999. From https://citp.princeton.edu/research/memory/.

So even as we worry about public servants losing USB keys or entire laptops containing unencrypted information on hundreds of thousands of people, it appears that sometimes even encryption is not enough. If a lost laptop is in a suspended state, an attacker could access the contents of its RAM using only a rudimentary toolkit (that may include “canned air” dusters turned upside-down for cooling).

I wonder what the future will bring. Tamper-proof hardware in every laptop? In-memory encryption? Or perhaps we will decide that we just don’t care, since we already share most details about our personal lives through social networks anyway?

On that note, Canada’s government just decided to scrap a planned cybersurveillance bill that many found unacceptably intrusive. Good riddance, I say.

 Posted by at 8:58 am
Feb 092013

Kafka was a Jew. No, I am not trying to engage in anti-Semitic racial stereotypes. It’s just that this is the only way I can make sense of the Kafkaesque event that happened to an Israeli student in Tel Aviv the other day.

Namely that city workers appeared next to her legally parked vehicle, painted disabled parking signage under her car, and then had the car towed.

And when she complained, they called her a liar. Fortunately, the building across the street had security cameras that recorded everything. If only such cameras had been commonplace in Kafka’s time.

 Posted by at 7:44 pm
Feb 062013

I happen to be using the oldest surviving Linux distribution, Slackware, on my servers. I have been using Slackware for a very long time; in fact, the only other distribution I ever used was the first Linux distribution, SLS (Softlanding Linux System), which was ultimately succeeded by Slackware.

Now I realize that while Slackware is perfect if you actually know what you are doing, it is not the easiest distribution to use. It lacks many of the system management, package installation and dependency resolution tools that users of more recent distributions take for granted.

This is why I was very surprised when I read this morning in PCWorld that in a recent survey conducted by LinuxQuestions.org, Slackware was found to be the most popular desktop Linux distribution. I may have expected to see Slackware fare well on servers, but the desktop? Mind you, I am very pleased to see that Slackware is doing well, even though it appears to have been a somewhat informal survey.

As to servers, Slackware came in as a close second, narrowly beaten by Debian. Even a second place finish is impressive for this venerable distribution.

I just hope that Slackware is here to stay for a long time to come. I would loathe to switch distributions after all these years.

 Posted by at 10:35 am