Jun 202013

I have read about this before and I didn’t want to believe it then. I still don’t believe it, to be honest, but it is apparently happening.

Yahoo will recycle inactive user IDs. That is, if you don’t log on to Yahoo for a period of 12 months, your old user ID will be up for grabs by whoever happens to be interested.

Like your friendly neighborhood identity thief.

Yahoo claims that they are going to extraordinary lengths to prevent identity theft. But that is an insanely stupid thing to say. How can Yahoo prevent, say, a financial institution from sending a password confirmation e-mail to a hapless user’s old Yahoo ID if said user happened to use that ID to establish the account years ago?

That is just one of many scenarios that I can think about for Yahoo’s bone-headed decision to backfire.

And I can’t think of a single sensible reason as to why Yahoo wants to do this in the first place. They will piss off a great many users and likely please no one.

I hope they will change their mind before it’s too late. I hope that if they don’t change their mind, something nasty happens soon and someone sues their pants off.

 Posted by at 11:00 pm
Jun 202013

OK, so gay-curing is officially off the table. Exodus International, the Christian ministry that was dedicated to “curing” homosexuals is shutting its doors. (Whether or not it will be resurrected under some other name, now that’s another question.)

I think they failed, in part, because they started with an irrational premise. Homosexuality is no more an illness than, say, pedophilia. (No, I am absolutely not trying to draw some moral equivalence between the two. But I am planning to make a point, which will be clear shortly.) Nor is it a matter of choice: people do not intentionally choose their personal preferences.

So in what way, exactly, are pedophilia and homosexuality different? No, it’s not because one is “abhorring” or “criminal”; in many societies (including our very own Western societies in the not too distant past) both are considered abhorring and criminal.

There is a crucial difference, though. Homosexuality is between consenting adults. Pedophilia involves children who are brutalized and victimized.

Our enlightened society basically came to the conclusion that what consenting adults do with one another in the bedroom is nobody else’s business. On the other hand, we certainly do not condone the abuse of children for sexual gratification.

So here is an argument religious folks who are opposed to homosexuality could have made: that in their view, while it may be a victimless crime, homosexuality is just as immoral as pedophilia. We expect people to restrain themselves and not commit immoral acts, even if they are unfortunate enough to have been born with desires and preferences that would otherwise compel them to act immorally.

Of course the problem is that enlightened societies have, in recent decades, moved in the opposite direction: we stopped labeling homosexual acts immoral and became more accepting of the fact that homosexual people can be just as loving and caring for each other as heterosexuals.

But it does leave open a difficult question. If there is something that you consider deeply immoral, which is increasingly tolerated by the society in which you live, what do you do? What should you do? Should you simply accept the will of the majority? Obviously that’s not the right answer, as illustrated by plenty of historical examples when the support of the majority made horrendous atrocities possible.

But if people with a deep moral opposition to homosexuality feel compelled to act in what they believe to be is their good conscience, how can we convince them not to?

I don’t think “gay pride”, especially in its most visible forms, helps; in-your-face activism is much more likely to alienate people.

I came to accept homosexuals when, still in my teenage years, I learned that a teacher I knew has been living in a harmonious, deeply loving relationship with his homosexual partner for many years. I realized that their “marriage” (though it was not yet called as such; homosexual marriages were still decades away) was a healthier and more loving one than many heterosexual relationships (indeed, many decades later, they are still together, a lovely elderly couple). This teacher also loaned me his copy of Stefan Zweig’s Confusion of Feelings, a collection of short stories that contained, among other things, the eponymous novella.

Making people understand how deeply homosexual people care for their partners, how strong and long lasting their relationships can be… that might help. At the very least, it will make it harder for people to defend their homophobia by arguing that they are acting in the name of a loving God.

 Posted by at 8:59 pm
Jun 172013

The presumed yottabyte capacity of the new Utah Center of the NSA, about which I commented a few days ago, is still making the rounds on news channels and news cites. Someone calculated that a yottabyte is equivalent to 500 quintillion printed pages. CNN helpfully added that a stack of paper with this many pages could reach all the way to the Moon and back 66 million times.

What they ought to have calculated is the size and volume of 250 billion 4 TB hard drives.

A lighter hard drive weighs about 0.4 kg. 250 billion of them? That would be 100 billion kilograms. Or 100 million metric tons. Or roughly 1000 of the largest cargo ships, each the size of a small city, filled to capacity with hard drives.

A hard drive is about 15/16″ tall. That’s 2.38 centimeters. 250 billion of them? Why, it’s a stack tall enough to reach all the way to the Moon and back 8 times.

The volume of a standard hard drive is about 342 cubic centimeters. 250 billion? That would be just a tad under 0.1 cubic kilometers (8.56 × 107 cubic meters, to be a bit more precise). That would be a field that is a kilometer square, filled with hard drives to the height of a small-ish skyscraper, about 25-30 stories high. Large as the Utah facility is, it’s by no means large enough.

Some might want to point out that if the NSA used flash memory instead, the volume (and also the power consumption) would go way down. True. But the price would go up. Flash memory is still roughly an order of magnitude more expensive than hard drives. So if the NSA wanted to build a yottabyte facility using flash memory, instead of spending 1.5 times the GDP of the entire United States, they’d be spending 15 times that amount. Or roughly three times the “gross world product”, estimated at 83 trillion US dollars.

Perhaps CNN and friends should do a little more math, not just to impress their readers but also to fact check the stuff that they report. Would be nice.

For illustration, I chose a Hungarian bank note from 1946, reportedly the highest denomination ever printed anywhere: it is a 100 quintillion pengő note. It is still far short of a yottapengő: you would need 10,000 of these banknotes. Then again, by the time hyperinflation ended and a new currency (the Hungarian forint, still in circulation) was introduced, the exchange rate was 400 octillion pengős to the forint; that would be 400,000 yottapengős.

 Posted by at 11:39 am
Jun 162013

tLast month, I was in Europe. It was fun (apart from a stomach bug that crippled me for two days.)

While in Europe, I used my smartphone. My phone is unlocked. I originally planned to purchase SIM cards in Hungary and the UK, to minimize costs. In the meantime though, I found out that Telus had fairly decent international data roaming packages. I already have a Telus SIM card, in a data stick that I use as a backup Internet connection. So instead of wasting my time hunting for local SIM cards with the right features, I put the Telus SIM card into my phone for the duration of this trip.

I used 191 megabytes of data, 51 minutes of voice, and 1 text message during this trip. The first 100 megabytes were covered by a $65 data package, after which data was charged at $1/megabyte. Here is the breakdown of my final bill:

Package $65.00
Data $90.72
Voice $76.50
Text $0.60
TOTAL $232.82

As it turns out, the plan I chose was not optimal: a slightly different plan that combined voice and data would have saved me an additional 17 dollars or so. But it is hard to anticipate in advance how you would use your phone (I expected to rely more on Skype, but Skype was often not working very well). On the other hand, without a plan, I would have paid through my nose:

Package $0.00
Data $953.60
Voice $76.50
Text $0.60
TOTAL $1,030.70

Even this is nothing though compared to what Rogers would have charged me. Without a plan, the amount is almost astronomical:

Package $0.00
Data $1,907.20
Voice $102.00
Text $0.75
TOTAL $2,009.95

Even with the best plan available at the time (purchasing three times 75 megabytes plus 40 minutes of international voice roaming) I would have paid more than three times as much as I paid Telus:

Package $725.00
Data $0.00
Voice $14.85
Text $0.00
TOTAL $739.85

Rogers has since introduced new prices and new roaming packages, so it is only fair to check what I would have paid under the new scheme. After purchasing 100 megabytes of data and 40 minutes in advance, the total would have come to:

Package $160.00
Data $91.00
Voice $14.85
Text $0.00
TOTAL $265.85

So the new Rogers plan is still beaten by the old plan of Telus to the tune of over 30 dollars (or more like 50 dollars, had I purchased the optimal Telus plan).

No wonder Rogers doesn’t want you to unlock your phone.

 Posted by at 10:45 am
Jun 112013

In reaction to the news about large scale NSA surveillance, the new NSA data storage facility currently under construction in Utah has been mentioned frequently. Along with the factoid that this facility will supposedly be able to store a yottabyte of data.

Yottabyte? That is a lot of data. And when I say a lot, I mean A LOT. An incredibly large amount of data. And in this case, I mean “incredible” in the literal sense of the word, as in not credible. Despite the fact that this tidbit even appears on Wikipedia.

A yottabyte is a trillion trillion bytes. A trillion terabytes, in other words.

The largest commercially available hard drives currently hold about 4 terabytes of data. To store a yottabyte, you would need a quarter trillion, or 250 billion 4TB hard drives. That would amount to about 35 hard drives for each living person on the planet.

A 4 TB hard drive consumes about 3-6 W of power. Say, 4 W on average. 250 billion drives would therefore consume a trillion watts of power. Which is roughly the peak electrical power generation capacity of the entire United States. We know that the Utah facility will consume a lot of power, but the figure I’ve seen mentioned in one article was a much more modest 75 megawatts. Which is about one ten thousandths the amount of power I just calculated.

Then there is the price. The retail price of a 4TB drive is a tad under $200 these days. Presumably, they would cost a lot less if purchased in bulk; say, $100 per drive, including power supplies, interface circuits, whatever. So 250 billion 4TB hard drives would only cost 25 trillion US dollars.

That is, more than one and a half times the United States GDP.

However important it is for the United Stasi of America to keep a watchful eye over every citizen of the world, I don’t think a price tag like this is feasible. Indeed, the cost of the facility is a lot less, reportedly around 1.5 to 2 billion dollars. Let me round it up to 2.5 billion; after all, government projects are rarely completed within budget. And let me assume that all that money is spent on data storage. Well… that’s still not a yottabyte. It’s one ten thousandths of a yottabyte. Or 0.1 zettabytes. Or 100 exabytes.

Still a staggering amount, but much more modest. After all, large service providers like Google are already storing hundreds of petabytes, even exabytes of data. And the entire world may already have collected a few zettabytes.

But not yottabytes. Never mind the NSA; the world as a whole is still a long way away from a yottabyte. Probably a couple of decades, even assuming continuing exponential growth in global data storage capacity.

In any case, a yottabyte is an insane amount of data, even for an institution like the NSA. It is sufficient to store about eight years worth of broadcast quality video for each individual living on the planet. Or, if you are content with lower video quality, a complete visual record of the entire life of every living person on the planet could easily fit in a yottabyte.

Besides… is it really believable that the NSA sits on top of a technology that increases the efficiency of data storage by 4-5 orders of magnitude, a factor of 10,000 or more? There are some really smart people working for the NSA, to be sure, but they are not space aliens. Exotic storage technologies may be in the works in storage technology labs, but I suspect that when they become practical and usable, we will first see them in our next generation gadgets, not secret US government data centers.

So no, the NSA is not going to store a yottabyte of data, breathless news reports and the hype notwithstanding. Not even a zettabyte. A few exabytes, maybe.

Which is still a lot. Far too much, in fact, for my comfort.

 Posted by at 12:40 pm
Jun 092013

The other night, Curiosity was working late.

You walk around on the surface of a planet, and it is pitch dark. Suddenly, you spot a light on the horizon. It’s steady; it’s artificial. You conclude that it’s a sign of civilization.

And indeed it is. What you see is an artificial light… but it belongs not to a living creature but to a robotic explorer. One that was created by a civilization a couple of hundred million kilometers away. A civilization that only invented electric lighting just over two centuries earlier.


I find it eerily beautiful to see an artificial light bathing the rocky surface of an alien planet.

 Posted by at 10:26 pm
Jun 092013

John Feffer, writing for the Huffington Post, expresses his grave concern over political developments in Hungary in recent years. He suggests that Hungary may be symptomatic of a cancer that is spreading across Europe: a rejection of liberal values, a rise of nationalism and xenophobia, combined with a growing distrust in European institutions.

I wish I could argue that Feffer is wrong. But he isn’t. Not only is some of the political rhetoric coming from Hungary frightening, but so is the attitude of ordinary people towards the country’s Roma minority, towards Europe, towards Western values.

Yet as Feffer notes, Hungary is not alone: similar sentiments are also on the rise elsewhere in Europe. And unless the EU manages to get its economy under control, things will get worse. Indeed, I have a feeling that the worst is yet to come, and that things will get a lot worse before they’ll get any better.

 Posted by at 3:56 pm
Jun 082013

Today I realized that in the past month, my blog has once again become what blogs were meant to be originally: a write-only medium that nobody reads.

Well, almost. The few people who actually bother to look it up at spinor.info could still read it (and thank you for your interest!) The few people who follow my tweets may have seen my posts. People on Google+ may have seen them as well, but are there still people on Google+?

However, the WordPress plugin that I’ve been using for the last couple of years now to publish my posts automatically on my Facebook page has quit on me. And since I was not usually checking my own Facebook posts, I didn’t even notice that something was amiss, I merely assumed that my Facebook friends were really not that interested in what I had to say.

In reality, my posts never made it to Facebook. The culprit has been one of the stupid “migrations” of the Facebook API (Application Programming Interface), which I foolishly enabled, thus breaking the plugin.

Anyhow, thanks to a helpful hint by the plugin’s developer in a WordPress support forum, I was able to find the cause and fix the problem.

I have yet to figure out why people who develop software on which other people depend, most notably people who develop software libraries that are used by other people’s programs, are so keen on making changes that seemingly serve no useful purpose other than breaking said other people’s programs.


 Posted by at 10:31 pm
Jun 082013

Yes, it’s Orwellian, and this time around, it’s no hyperbole.

The US government apparently not only collects information (“metadata”) on all telephone calls, they also have the means collect e-mails, online chats, voice-over-IP (e.g., Skype) telephone calls, file transfers, photographs and other stored data, and who knows what else… basically, all data handled by some of the largest Internet companies, including Google, Facebook, Skype and others.

Last summer, I decided to revamp my e-mail system. The main goal was to make it compatible with mobile devices; instead of using a conventional mail client that downloads and stores messages, I set up an IMAP server.

But before I did so, I seriously considered off-loading all this stuff to Google’s Gmail or perhaps, Microsoft’s outlook.com. After all, why should I bother maintaining my own server, when these fine companies offer all the services I need for free (or for a nominal fee)?

After evaluating all options, I decided against “outsourcing” my mail system. The fact that I did not want to have my mail stored on servers that fall under the jurisdiction of the US government played a significant role in my decision. Not because I have anything to hide; it’s because I value my privacy.

Little did I know back then just how extensively the US government was already keeping services such as Google under surveillance:


From the leaked slides (marked top secret, sensitive information, originator controlled, no foreign nationals; just how much more secret can stuff get?) and the accompanying newspaper articles it is not clear if this is blanket surveillance (as in the case of telephone company metadata) or targeted surveillance. Even so, the very fact that the US government has set up this capability and recruited America’s leading Internet companies (apparently not concerned about their reputation; after all, a presentation, internal as it may be, looks so much nicer if you can splatter the logos of said companies all over your slides) is disconcerting, to say the least.

True, they are doing this supposedly to keep us safe. And I am willing to believe that. But if I preferred security over liberty, I’d have joined Hungary’s communist party in 1986 instead of emigrating and starting a new life in a foreign country. Communist countries were very safe, after all. (And incidentally, they were not nearly this intrusive. Though who knows how intrusive they’d have become if they had the technical means available.)

One thing I especially liked: the assurances that the NSA does not spy on US residents or citizens. Of course… they don’t have to. This will be done for them by their British (or Canadian?) counterparts. No agency is breaking any of the laws of its own country, yet everybody is kept under surveillance. And this is not even new: I remember reading an article in the Globe and Mail some 20 years ago, detailing this “mutually beneficial” practice. I may even have kept a copy, but if so, it is probably buried somewhere in my basement.

Meanwhile, I realize that the good people at the NSA or at Canada’s Communications Security Establishment must really hate folks like me, though, running our own secure mail servers. I wonder when I will get on some suspect list for simply refusing to use free services like Gmail that can be easily monitored by our masters and overlords.

 Posted by at 7:17 pm
Jun 072013

This beautiful cat belonged to my mother-in-law. I last saw him just a few short weeks ago, when I visited her in the city of Pécs, Hungary.

Sadly, my use of the past tense is justified, as Frici (which was his name) is no more. He passed away today, from what appeared to be a severe urinary tract issue, I was told. He was only about four years old. He was a stray that ended up with my mother-in-law after she lost her previous cat.

Yes, we know that it’s just a cat. Yes, we know that cats who spent some time on the street as strays like Frici are much more likely to acquire an infection, or just suffer the consequences of prolonged malnutrition or dehydration that would eventually shorten their lives. Still… Frici was much too young to pass away, and did not deserve to pass away in pain.

Life, I guess. Cherish every day of it, who knows how many are left.

 Posted by at 2:42 pm
Jun 022013

This morning, my wife and I attended a very moving ceremony in the memory of my good friend, George Olah, who passed away earlier this year.

George’s daughters decided to dedicate a tree in a public park in Ottawa to their father. A little marble plaque at the foot of the tree bears George’s name, the dates of his birth and death, and the Hungarian word for cheers, “egészségedre”.

A violinist was also present. The sound of a solo violin during a cloudy, rainy day was especially poignant and it helped set a somber mood. At one point, when the violinist was asked to play one of George’s favorite tunes, I was able to capture a few seconds of it with my cell phone.

Yet we also had plenty of laughs. George, after all, was a very happy person and his stories were always delightful. My favorite moment: when one of George’s daughters told us that the city permit would even have allowed them to set up a trampoline, several of us exclaimed, “Why didn’t you?” That is because we all knew that George would have loved something so unconventional.

 Posted by at 5:22 pm
Jun 012013

The good citizens of Istanbul decided that they’ve had enough: they need to defend Turkish democracy against a semi-autocratic government.

I am enough of a conservative to think that street riots and settings things on fire rarely (if ever) solve problems, but I certainly understand the protesters’ concern and frustration.

From: CNN Breaking News [mailto:BreakingNews@mail.cnn.com]
Sent: Saturday, June 01, 2013 4:31 PM
To: textbreakingnews@EMA3LSV06.TURNER.COM
Subject: CNN Breaking News

Turkish authorities have detained 939 people in connection with anti-government protests across 30 provinces, Interior Minister Muammer Guler told Turkey’s semi-official Anadolu news agency on Saturday.The demonstrations began this week in protest of government plans to level a park in Istanbul. But many demonstrators say they now are protesting against authoritarian policies of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

As demonstrators clashed with police Friday in Istanbul, protests spread to several other cities, including Ankara, the capital, and the port city of Izmir.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm