Sep 292015

In Douglas Adams’s immortal Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, someone builds a device called the Total Perspective Vortex. This device invariably drives people insane by simply showing them exactly how insignificant they are with respect to this humongous universe.

The Total Perspective Vortex may not exist in reality, but here is the next best thing: A model of the solar system, drawn to scale.


The scale of this page is set so that the Moon occupies one screen pixel. As a result, we have an image that is almost a thousand times wider than my HD computer monitor. It takes a while to scroll through it.

Thankfully, there is an animation option that not only scrolls through the image automatically, but does so at the fastest speed possible, the speed of light.

Oh, did I mention that it still takes well over five hours to scroll all the way to Pluto?

By the way, the nearest star, our closest stellar neighbor is roughly 2,000 times as far from us as Pluto.

Or, once again in the words of Douglas Adams, “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.”

 Posted by at 12:41 pm
Sep 272015

There is an unforgettable line in one of my favorite movies, Cloud Atlas: “You have to do whatever it is you can’t not do.” Or another quote from the same movie, same character: “Just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes… over and over.”

I am reminded of these lines regularly these days as I feel compelled to respond to the occasional (but sadly, ever more frequent) hateful, xenophobic memes, videos or articles shared by friends or family online, mainly on Facebook. Shares that perpetuate the message that the current (truly unprecedented) wave of immigrants in Europe represents an existential threat to European civilization; that the migrants themselves are frauds, uncultured, unruly, uncivilized subhumans. Untermenschen.

No, my dear friends and family members, it is not my intent to insult anybody but when I am confronted with such propaganda, I just cannot stay silent anymore. I will not be a silent accomplice. I can’t not speak up. I do not wish to anger you, but these thoughts must be challenged.

These propaganda pieces are becoming ever more sophisticated. Whether they ridicule the immigrants’ religion (let them it pork cracklings!) or their mysery and exhaustion (they are dirty! They leave trash everywhere!) the basic message remains the same: these people are somehow lesser human beings, who should be feared, despised and shunned but better yet, turned back to wherever they came from.

The memes and videos are reminiscent of the Nazi-era propaganda masterpiece, Der Ewige Jude, a full-length “documentary” movie from 1940 that similarly dehumanized Jews, presenting them as a threat to Western civilization. The message must have had some traction: after all, it was enlightened Western nations who turned away ships carrying Jewish refugees, ultimately sending them back into the arms of the Nazis.

I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind, no matter how carefully I craft my words. But I cannot stay silent. I hope I am not losing any friends, but if it happens, happens: I reached the point where staying silent is no longer an option.

Another friend (one I haven’t lost yet!) told me a while back that unless I am ready to welcome refugees into my own house, I should keep my mouth shut. Well… nope. That’s like saying that back in the 1930s, the only Germans who earned the right to speak up against the regime were the ones who were sheltering Jews. This is an obviously phoney argument. I will not keep my mouth shut.

Yet another friend suggested that this is all the Hungarian government’s fault, that their propaganda is indeed far-reaching if it can jeopardize friendships on another continent. If only… but no, xenophobia and hate propaganda are not a uniquely Hungarian thing. Long before the present migrant crisis, I was already engaging in lengthy arguments, e.g., with American friends who told me that any apparent racism I see is the blacks’ own doing, they’re the ones who perpetuate racial conflict for whatever nefarious reasons. Or that Islamophobia is justified as Muslims would oppress us with Sharia law if only they were given the chance. Needless to say, I could not possibly agree.

Go ahead, think what you want. Conclude if you wish that I am just being naive, blinded by political correctness or confused by drinking too much from the jar of liberal kool-aid. That is your prerogative. Still… I can’t not speak up.

Again, forgive me. I am not trying to be a contrarian. It is not confrontation that I seek. It is my conscience that compels me to react: some thoughts just cannot go unchallenged, even if I have no real hope of achieving anything.

 Posted by at 11:55 pm
Sep 212015

Today, I spent a couple of hours trying to sort out why a Joomla! Web site, which worked perfectly on my Slackware Linux server, was misbehaving on CentOS 7.

The reason was simple yet complicated. Simple because it was a result of a secure CentOS 7 installation with SELinux (Security Enhanced Linux) fully enabled. Complicated because…

Well, I tried to comprehend some weird behavior. The Apache Web server, for instance, was able to read some files but not others; even when the files in question were identical in content and had (seemingly) identical permissions.

Of course part of it was my inexperience: I do not usually manage SELinux hosts. So I was searching for answers online. But this is where the experience turned really alarming.

You see, almost all the “solutions” that I came across advocated severely weakening SELinux or disabling it altogether.

Since I was really not inclined to do either on a host that I do not own, I did not give up until I found the proper solution. Nonetheless, it made me wonder about the usefulness of overly complicated security models like SELinux or the advanced ACLs of Windows.

These security solutions were designed by experts and expert committees. I have no reason to believe that they are not technically excellent. But security has two sides: it’s as much about technology as it is about people. People that include impatient users and inadequately trained or simply overworked system administrators.

System administrators who often “solve” a problem by disabling security altogether, rather than act as I have, research the problem, and not do anything until they fully understand the issue and the most appropriate solution.

The simple user/group/world security model of UNIX systems may lack flexibility but it is easy to conceptualize and for which it is easy to develop a good intuition. Few competent administrators would ever consider solving an access control problem by suggesting the use of 0777 as the default permission for all affected files and folders. (OK, I have seen a few who advocated just that, but I would not call these folks “competent.”)

A complex security model like SELinux, however, is difficult to learn and comprehend fully. Cryptic error messages only confound users and administrators alike. So we should not be surprised when administrators take the easy way out. Which, in a situation similar to mine, often means disabling the enhanced security features altogether. Unless their managers are themselves well trained and security conscious, they will even praise the administrator who comes up with such a quick “solution”. After all, security never helps anyone solve their problems; by its nature, it becomes visible only for its absence, and only when your systems are under attack. By then, it’s obviously too late of course.

So the next time you set up a system with proper security, think about the consequences of implementing a security model that is too complex and non-intuitive. And keep in mind that what you are securing is not merely a bunch of networked computers; people are very much part of the system, too. The security technology that is used must be compatible with both the hardware and the humans operating the hardware. A technically inferior solution that is more likely to be used and implemented properly by users and administrators beats a technically superior solution that users and administrators routinely work around to accomplish their daily tasks.

In short… sometimes, less is more indeed.

 Posted by at 7:17 pm
Sep 212015

Back in my misguided youth, I spent a couple of years developing game programs for the Commodore 64.

It all started in 1982, when a friend of mine and I dropped by at the office of a newly formed company, Novotrade. We heard somewhere that these folks have a new personal computer in their possession, one with a whopping 64 kilobytes of random access memory (an almost unheard-of amount at the time), and they are looking for programmers.

It was all true. The Commodore 64 was there and they were indeed looking for talented programmers. Thus we got to meet Ferenc Szatmári (a physicist-inventor who later on had a profound influence on my life) and others, who explained the deal: Novotrade was about to enter into a business relationship with a British company, the idea being that Hungarian programmers will be writing game software for Commmodore’s brand new personal computer. As part of this arrangement, a prototype Commodore 64 (of West German manufacture, with serial number 000002) was already there, available for us to study.

As it is well known, the Commodore 64 went on to become one of the most successful personal computers of all time. Our games did not fare that well; truth to tell, they weren’t that great. The games we ended up developing were “chosen by committee,” so to speak, from game ideas sent in by the public in response to a Novotrade-managed contest. Still… we were proud of introducing some rather novel programming techniques. Specifically, highly efficient graphic algorithms were developed by two of our teammates, Imre Kováts and Márton Sághegyi, which allowed us to create 3D-ish full screen animations like a moving horizon or a floating iceberg.

Floating iceberg? Yes… one of our games was called Arctic Shipwreck, and it required the player to balance an iceberg by moving a friendly mammoth around while trying to avoid stepping on some poor survivors of a shipwreck… until rescue arrived. Oh, and there was a rather nasty bird of prey, too, that occasionally came and plucked a survivor for lunch.

Not very entertaining, to be honest. Yet for some reason, this game remains much liked by the dwindling community of Commodore 64 enthusiasts. Most recently, it was featured in a nice German-language article on; the author of that article, Boris Kretzinger, also interviewed me via e-mail for C64 Scene, an electronic magazine published in the form of Commodore 64 disk images (!).

 Posted by at 6:55 pm
Sep 082015

It is true that my country of birth, Hungary, is under unprecedented pressure as a wave of immigrants Europe has not seen since the end of WW2 is sweeping through its borders.

But the Hungarian government’s response is nothing short of despicable, and sadly, they have all too many supporters among nationalists or political opportunists.

Here are a few gems from recent days.

The Guardian decided to call prime minister Viktor Orban simply “Orban the awful“, referring specifically to the treatment of refugees at the Keleti train station in Budapest, but more generally, to Orban’s policies that have been consistently undemocratic, contrary to European values, and downright undermining a united European response, e.g., to the Ukraine crisis as he is cozying up with another dictator in the making, Vladimir Putin. To their credit, The Guardian do point out though that Orban’s policies find support among other Eastern European leaders (leading to a possibly widening rift between Eastern and Western Europe) and meanwhile, many well-meaning Hungarians decided to step in where the government wouldn’t, offering significant help to the refugees flooding the country. They did so despite the fact that sometimes, they received death threats from other “proud Hungarians”.

The Guardian also commented on the Christian duty to help the unfortunate, and how this duty is neglected by Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo. Erdo declared that helping refugees would amount to breaking the law on human trafficking. This happened two days before Pope Francis declared that it is the duty of every Catholic to help refugees… I wonder if the Pope and the Cardinal had a conversation since.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s prime minister made another astonishing statement. Referring to Western European plans to introduce a refugee quota system, he declared that: “Hungary is not requesting the relocation throughout Europe” of the country’s Roma population. Rather, “when they begin a journey to Canada, we ask them to stay.” Sadly, I have a feeling that humanity can be clearly divided into two groups: some people understand clearly that only a racist bigot says such things, whereas others feel that Orban is speaking the truth and that only brainwashed liberal retards don’t see the obvious. So while I belong firmly to the former group, I have a feeling that convincing the latter is a lost cause already. Very few racist bigots actually know that they are racist bigots… most take offense when you tell them that they are. But I feel that the time for mincing words is over.

Finally, to top off the list of events from these last few wonderful days, here is a glorious video of a reporter working for a far-right Hungarian television station, tripping a refugee father carrying a child:

Bravo. Must be a proud day for Hungary.

 Posted by at 5:53 pm
Sep 082015

I used to be sympathetic to the woes of taxi drivers in face of the semi-legal competition represented by Uber, and ambivalent about Uber’s ambitions.

This is no longer the case.

If taxi drivers really think that it is kosher to protest (not even about Uber this time, but about an airport pickup fee) by blocking the road to Ottawa airport…

I guess, it’s your way, dear taxi drivers, of telling us, citizens of Ottawa, to get screwed. Well… screw you, too. The sooner Uber kills your obsolete business model with scarce overpriced licenses, old and smelly taxis, taxi drivers with limited English or French and limited knowledge of the city who nonetheless yak or text on the phone while driving, the better. Good riddance. You just lost all my sympathy, and I guess I am not alone. From now on, it’s Uber for me.

 Posted by at 5:14 pm
Sep 012015

CTV Morning had a poll today: will higher fines deter you from texting and driving?

I answered no, without hesitation.

You see, I don’t need higher fines to deter me from texting and driving. I may be stupid at times, but I am not suicidal.

 Posted by at 9:17 am