Friday, May 31, 2013

The Streisand effect

Do you know Barbra Streisand? If you're 40 years old and above, the answer is most certainly "yes" and you've listen to some of her songs. If you're between the age of 30 and 40, then you might have just heard your parents mentioning her name during the age of the cassette tape or the vinyl disc. But to people under 30 years old, Barbra Streisand is famous for something that has nothing to do (except money and being a bad person) with her career: the Streisand effect.



Barbra Streisand made a fortune during her career. Good for her! But in 2003, as some photos of her gigantic Malibu house were circulated on the Internet, Streisand engaged in a loathsome censorship and intimidation (you can call it "threat" or "bullying") campaign. The Internet being what it is... a dwelling place for naughty technology-savvy people with a defiance of authority and a sharp tongue... Barbra Streisand received something she did not expect: a full-force backlash of several Internet communities united against censorship. And instead of succeeding in her censorship attempt, Streisand saw the exact opposite phenomenon happening. The more she was trying to make the photos disappear, the more they were reproduced and circulated. This phenomenon is since that time known as the Streisand effect.

Today LinuxFR (warning: website in French language), one of the most highly regarded French websites about Linux (you know? the operating system that can replace Windows on a PC and costs nothing) published a letter they received from a lawyer. That lawyer represents Linkeo, a company that sells websites to small and medium companies. Linkeo recently published on LinuxFR, free of charge, an ad for recruiting developers but the only comment they received was a critique of how poorly Linkeo's website is coded (which seems justified from my peeking at their code) and how that reflects poorly on a company who is supposed to be expert at coding websites. So they took it personally and instead of improving the situation through gentle talk behind the scenes, they unleashed their lawyer... who also happened to go over the top in his cease-and-desist letter, including false claims. In a mere half day, some of the most prominent bloggers and social media communities have relayed the information and Linkeo is now facing broad scale hatred from the French Internet at large. Their WOT rating was "yellow" (dubious website) moments ago and it is now "red" (suspicious, malicious, or unethical website). That's a typical school case of the Streisand effect and Linkeo is gonna learn about it the hard way.

Addendum

Within a single day, the Streisand effect has taken off like crazy for Linkeo. Yesterday afternoon, Linkeo issued a message on Facebook to apologize for their aggressive way of solving things... A message which also whined about "still, what we were trying to censor felt hurtful to us". The comments on this Facebook post were of 2 nature:

  • a provocative "poop" icon
  • messages saying "You might have felt hurt, but that says nothing of how true the criticism was. So if you are doing something wrong and somebody tells you that you're doing it wrong, just suck it up and start doing it right! and don't you blame people for being mean to you or don't you use bullying methods to make the criticism go away!"

Linkeo's homepage is still poorly coded to date (fails miserably the w3c's html validation test). But it seems like they're calling off their lawyer.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Why TheAmazingAtheist matters

Terroja (TJ) Lee Kincaid, also known as TheAmazingAtheist (TAA) is a youtube contributor with a 414,000 subscribers base (as of May 26th 2013).

While starting his channels with topics centered on religious topics, notably defending Atheism versus the fundamentalist Christianity that makes up about half of the USA's population, he broadened the scope of his interventions to politics, media, and whatever he may find interesting in his readings of the news.

Though this is not the central topic of this article, it must be noted that in some aspects, Atheists are one of the most distrusted and discriminated minorities in the USA. Forget Muslims! Forget homosexuals! Forget racial minorities! Forget gender discrimination! A Gallup poll in 2007 showed that being an Atheist disqualifies you entirely for being elected into office. And this was reinforced in 2011 by a poll from the University of Minnesota about the least desirable son/daughter in law.

If you look him up on Google, you might end up on a page like the Encyclopedia Dramatica's page dedicated to him. Some of its claims are most certainly true about TJ's donation campaigns that ended up directly in his pocket for pure profit. However, some of the quotes regarding TJ's inflammatory discourses are given out of context and are pure manipulation, like TJ's expression on Amanda Todd's suicide. Which brings me to the core reason of why TAA matters.

The great quality of TAA is his fantastic ability to unlearn the prejudice that all of us have learned when growing up. Some things we respect and some things we take for granted are entirely built on an irrational transmission from our parents who themselves were taught the same irrational ideas by their parents, who themselves etc. In this heap of irrational ideas are good ideas but also bad ones. And whenever we dare speak out against the irrational establishment of ideas, even against the bad ones, our speaking out is often considered obnoxious by people who are still sold on the irrational nonsense.

On the example of Amanda Todd's suicide, TJ had the guts to denounce not the suicide itself (though his words were rough) but the outrageous imbalance of airtime that news broadcasts dedicated to that incident of 1 single person taking her life after being bullied, while the same news broadcasts offered little to no coverage at all about other topics that the public is little informed about and which are far more significant in terms of victims.

More recently, he spoke against a blog post that was gaining media attention as an advocacy for feminism. He actually refuted point-by-point the 33 arguments made in the article, and I have to agree with almost everything he said, especially some of the later comments (at 26 minutes 25 seconds in the video) : almost all the arguments revolved around 3 core reasons for being a feminist:

  • magazines, comic books, movies and TV shows are sexist
  • rape happens
  • domestic violence happens


...And while the 3 statements are correct, no strong connection (or logical demonstration) is offered between people becoming feminists and an improvement of those facts.

For plenty of other topics, TJ dares speaking against a certain establishment of prejudice and for this reason, his reflections and musings remind me strongly of Friedrich Nietzsche's questioning of the moral establishment from the religious authority.

Conclusion:

When we feel a sense of outrage, when someone says something shocking, we should start by questioning our own reasons for being shocked. Is the shocking claim deeply in the wrong? if so, why? Why are we more justified of holding our own position than the other person making a claim that disturbs us? For this reason, I find TAA's rants precious. They're not always mature. They're not always interesting. I don't always agree with them. But they offer a precious questioning that we lack in everyday life. That, too me, is quality philosophy in a modern form.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Debate is essential

Debate is the confrontation of points of view between 2 persons (or more) whose opinions differ. Their knowledge will also certainly differ, and the discussion will allow for the sharing of knowledge-based information, as opposed to mere belief-based opinions. If the debate is carried out honestly, which is necessary, the debaters can have their points of view enriched by the additional knowledge their debater brought to the table.

Each debater can surrender totally his opinion to adopt that of their opposition or he can simply amend details of his initial opinion. And this way, both debaters can turn mere beliefs into knowledge and certainties.

I find the following picture (which might find its origin in the following article) to be an incredibly powerful illustration of the various levels on which debates are often taking place on Internet forums, and this picture has been a game-changer for me in the way I participate to debates online, as it often reminds me that I should strive for a discussion of high quality.



The lower levels of this pyramid are certainly the easiest to achieve. They're also the ones that deserve the least pride. If you have read my previous article about the Bayart scale, these lower levels reflect the attitudes of "grumblers": Internet users who are starting to share their opinions but focus on complaining with very little consideration for the answers addressed to them by other Internet users.

Reciprocally, the higher levels of this pyramid correspond to the kind of answers provided by "Commentators": the more seasoned debaters who actually care about what they say and what is replied to them, and who also care about finding out the truth, the sources of information, the reasonings behind their own or their opposition's arguments.

Achieving the highest level in the pyramid is very hard and often requires very thorough knowledge and understanding of a topic discussed. It may also require a good sense of what makes a sound, scientific, logic argument. From time to time, I have also observed that producing a comment or an article of that level requires some mathematical sense for creating models where figures and numbers will be understandable to other people.

Conclusion:

This article may be a little short or somewhat clumsy. But I felt it was important for future reference to create such an article, embedding the picture of the pyramid. It may also be useful to discuss about epistemology or about the Theory of Knowledge and the differences between knowledge and belief. I think these will be better discussed in their very own, dedicated article.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Evolution 01

One of my favorite subjects and the source of constant wonder is evolution. It is also a subject so rich and complex that it cannot possibly be encompassed altogether in a single article... hence the "01" in the title of today's article.

It is also a subject that triggers a lot of angst from the fundamentalist religious, mostly American Protestants and Muslims from any country, because their religious dogma, their narrative of humanity's emergence, does not stand compared to the powerful explanation that derived from Charles Darwin's findings.

This post, however, only aims at explaining the core mechanisms of evolution through natural selection (ETNS). There are 3 central elements to ETNS:
  1. mutation
  2. competition
  3. heredity

Mutation:

The code that defines much of what we are and how we develop is DNA. A metaphor for DNA is a book. A book is made of chapters, which are made of sentences, which are made of words, which are made of letters. Without going into the details here, a mutation is generally the addition, deletion, or replacement of one letter by another. Sometimes, the change is benign. Sometimes it makes things very wrong. Look at the following example (largely borrowed from Robert Sapolsky's course of Human Behavioral Biology available on Youtube):
Original phrase: I will now give you your money back
Benign mutation: I will naw give you your money back
Severe mutation: I will not give you your money back

It happens for a variety of reasons. Sometimes because of cosmic radiation (we are traversed by neutrinos and other energetic particles/waves all the time) that alters the DNA of sperms and eggs. There's also a high suspicion that keeping a mobile phone in a man's pocket is bad news for sperms as these cells are particularly sensible to radiation.

Sometimes it happens because of exposure to chemical compounds. For instance "agent orange" (warning: graphic photos), DDT, and depleted uranium (used in Iraq wars) are causes of stillbirths and babies malformations.

Sometimes, it happens a simple accident of cell division/replication during the mechanisms that generate sperms and eggs.


Competition:

Competition happens through a variety of ways. The general idea though, is to survive and reproduce.

When an organism is alive, it is subjected to environmental pressure in many forms: hot or cold weather, scarce food, wet or dry environment (maybe changing with seasons), presence of predators, acidity, violence from other members of the same specie, etc. If one individual of a species has received a mutation, it might translate to a slight advantage or hindrance to the chances of survival... or in a more realistic way, it might simply be a slight advantage to reproduce before his competitors (the members of his own species) or to reproduce more. Because more offspring means your family becomes a larger part of the total population and your DNA has gained some "market shares".

One thing that is often misunderstood about ETNS is that, even though you have to compete with your predators, the main competition is about competing with other members of your own species. There's a joke reminding us of that (and it exists with various animals):
2 campers are surprised at their camp by a grizzly bear. They start running and the bear runs after them. Holding their shoes in their hands, one of the campers stops to put his shoes on. So his friend says: "This is useless, we can never outrun the bear". But our camper, now wearing shoes replies: "I'm not trying to outrun him. I'm trying to outrun you".

Reproduction is exactly what the name implies. If you (or a plant) reproduce earlier than others, if you have more offspring... then you become the majority and you are more successful from an ETNS point of view.

A note of caution: the notion of "success" from the point of view of ETNS is distinct from the notion of success within human society and one should be very careful when using these notions. If you have plenty of children, this may have implications on your financial situation, your schedule, your relationship with your spouse and friends... you might as well be a rapist who impregnated many of your victims. This is undoubtedly bad from any human society's point of view, while this is successful evolutionarily.

Heredity:

Heredity is the conservation of DNA characteristics (including new mutations) through reproduction. If you have blue eyes and so does your partner, then this characteristic will be passed on to your children. If you are a red rose, then your pollen will give birth to red roses, not yellow ones.

This mechanism is like the validation of the previous step of competition. Successful individuals with more offspring see their success validated by the transmission of their characteristics to their little ones. A famous example of this was with Darwin Finches. After a rigorous winter, the individuals with shorter beaks, less able to dig for food had died while finches with longer beaks had survived. Their babies had (in average) longer beaks than the previous generations.

The same thing is observed with insects' resistance to pesticides. The individuals able to survive the pesticides are those which (by chance of a mutation) have a resistance plus a few lucky ones. When these resistant individuals reproduce, the new generation of that species will have a resistant gene in greater proportion than the previous generation. That's why using pesticides is either a lost cause or a never-ending battle between the insects ability to evolve a resistance and our ability to create new products that insects are not yet resistant to.


Conclusion:

One of the frequent mistakes about ETNS is the presumption that it is a random mechanism. It is not. The random aspect of it is the apparition of random mutations. But once individuals are born with certain mutations, it is hardly a matter of randomness anymore. The fitter individuals (to one specific environment) will have an edge on the others and over several generations, their mutation that makes them fitter will become more and more common as they are more able to feed themselves, more able to fight, more able to outrun the others, more able to reproduce early... That's how, in a polluted England where the bark of trees turned from white to black due to particles in the air, some rare black individuals of a butterfly species became the majority while the white majority of butterflies was easily spotted and targeted by birds. This spreading (and reciprocally disappearance) of genes is what we call genetic drift.

If you're interested in the subject and have questions, feel free to ask. But in any case, there will be more articles coming down the line about evolution and natural selection.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The men's guide for women

Today, I encountered a funny list of rules for women to cope with men. It is in French language and it would be hard to trace copyrights back to the original author as this is lost in the history of the Internet, but I'll propose a translated version below. While I personally disagree with many of these, I think I agree with about half of these, which I'll highlight in blue.

---

So, girls, you want to keep your boyfriend? Here's how we function so take note and maybe you'll succeed in keeping your man by your side without him going to see if the grass is greener on the other side of the fence:

The Man's rules
At last a man took the time to lay these rules on paper. Because we always hear you talking about YOUR rules. HERE's OURS!

And if all our rules are numbered as "1", this is no accident!
1) Men can't read thoughts
1) Learn to tip the toilet seat. You're big girls now. If it's up, you put it down. We need to lift it. You need to lower it. Did you ever hear us complain that the seat is down? No? QED!
1) crying is blackmailing
1) Communicate clearly! Let us explain it one time for all: subtle hints DO NOT WORK. Less subtle hints DO NOT WORK. Clear allusions DO NOT WORK. So JUST SAY IT!
1) "Yes" and "no" are absolutely acceptable answers to most questions.

1) Come see us when you have a problem but only if you want us to find a solution. If you only need someone to hear you complaining, you have girlfriends for that.
1) Anything we might have said 6 months ago or more is not legit to use when having an argument. What we say is valid for 7 days only and obsolete beyond that.
1) If you think you're fat, you probably are. So don't ask!
1) If we said something that can be understood in 2 different ways and one of these makes you sad or angry... we meant the other way.

1) You can EITHER ask us to do something OR tell us how you intend to do it yourself. Not both. If you already know the best way to do it, then do it!
1) As far as possible, say what you have to say during the commercials.
1) Christopher Columbus didn't need someone to show him the way. Neither do we.
1) All men see 16 colors only, like the default parameters of Windows. For instance, "peach" is a fruit, not a color. Same goes for apple and lemon. And we have no idea what "fuschia" is.
1) If we ask you what's wrong and you answer "nothing", we will act as if everything's actually alright. We know you're lying
but we don't give a rat's ass.
1) farting and burping are normal behaviors.
1) If you ask us a question that you don't want us to answer, then get ready for an answer you don't want to hear.
1) When we go out, whatever you're already wearing is already suitable. Really.
1) Don't ask us what we're thinking about unless you're ready for a talk about football, cars, or video games.
1) You have ENOUGH clothes.
1) You have TOO MANY shoes.
1) I'm in good shape. Round is a shape and it's a good one.



Sunday, May 26, 2013

Donnie Darko (2001) ★★★★★



Plot:

On October 2nd 1988, Donnie Darko, a teenager with psychiatric problems is woken up and drawn into his garden by a man wearing a rabbit suit with an eerie demonic air. While Donnie is in the garden, and while no plane has flown over the area, a plane engine of unknown origin crashes on the family house and through Donnie's room. Frank, the man in a rabbit suit, tells Donnie that the end of the world will take place in 28 days, 6 hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds and incites the teenager into committing crimes.


My verdict:

This is an excellent movie of which fantastic aspects do not appear from the get-go. Donnie's character is tortured enough by his psychiatric troubles and his teenage hormones to appear as having a complex and dark personality, and still he remains endearing and one can partially identify to him. The cast is brilliant: Jake Gyllenhaal, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze, Mary McDonnell, Seth Rogen, Noah Wyle. The acting and the directing of this movie are closely related as most of the movie is about the things going on in Donnie's head and both are of high standards. The music reflects adequately the ambiance of the scenes. This movie is part of many top 10's of science-fiction and fantasy and deservedly so. It deserves a 5 stars rating.


Friday, May 24, 2013

Journey to Mars

There is a project called "Mars One". This project aims at sending people to the planet Mars. The only, but sizable, caveat: you're not coming back ever. If you're selected and trained as an astronaut for the mission to Mars, you are to stay there, live there, and die there. No more coming back to Earth... unless by chance new technology makes it possible before you die, but that's not likely and that's not part of the plan.

This project is appealing as humanity's first beyond-Earth settlement. It is as thrilling as the migration of settlers towards the New World (without the "killing the local population" aspect). It is also a definite step forward towards what Michio Kaku describes as a Type 1 civilization, using the Kardashev scale, even though Mars' colonization is more about expanding the geographical boundaries of humanity's settlements than about increasing our harness and consumption of energy.

It is also frightening in the social aspects of the chosen ones' lives. Sharing dinner and birthday parties with the family and close friends becomes an absolute impossibility. Getting married and having a family of your own also becomes an impossibility... unless members of both genders are sent within a narrow timeframe to Mars, but that poses new questions like jealousy, sexism, and health for a pregnant woman on Mars and for a Mars-born youngster. So if you're sent to Mars, you'd better enjoy the company of the other select few, because there won't be a lot of others to turn to, and you're going to spend a hell of a lot of time together.

What will life be like every day on the red planet? It's hard to tell. Certainly, there will be quite a lot of construction involved at the beginning. There will be some gardening too, because the Martians will need to reach self-sufficiency. There will be work related to the production of liquid water and the production of an atmosphere. There will also certainly be some work dedicated to biology and the artificial selection of strains of micro (and not so micro) organisms. If we can bring life forms that will do the work for us, to produce an atmosphere, or life forms that can thrive on Mars and become food, then it's a big victory. The only problem is... so far, the only lifeforms that are likely to survive the trip might not be super friendly: tardigrades and the likes.

If insects like grasshoppers could make it, that would be neat... because grasshoppers are good food. The shell is a problem because it bursts into small shard that try to get between your gums and your teeth, a bit like the remains of corn in pop-corn... but grasshoppers are tasty (if you ever travel to Thailand, give it a try!). But for the foreseeable future, Martians will have to make do as vegetarians.

Oh yes... I was about to forget: the astronauts will have to accept being filmed most of the time, like in reality shows, because part of the project's financing will come from broadcasting deals with a 24/7 broadcast, including certainly both outdoors and indoors activities. And of course, these first settlers won't get huge villas with lush gardens and swimming pools. Instead, they'll have to settle for small, totally closed and air-conditioned, units. Because of this and because of the tight space shared by the astronauts during the several-months journey, the astronauts will be required some out-of-the-norm qualities of keeping calm and respectful of each other even in stressful situations.

Conclusion:

It's one of the most ambitious projects in a long long time for all of humanity. It's also a project that requires significant sacrifices (and qualities). Am I gonna apply? I am not sure yet. Not sure of my chances. Not sure of my willingness to make these sacrifices. But it's damn interesting. That's what you call a real dilemma.

Further reflexion:

Supposing that the mission is a success and that true cities end up emerging on Mars, I feel there will be a need for Mars to live by its own rules, its own codes, and to establish political independence. How would that work? And how would Earth react? And what kind of society would emerge on Mars? A society dedicated to science? Unburdened by the ethical nonsense of Earth societies like stem cells? Would the Martians be able to devise constitutions and laws that are better than all of those currently in effect on our blue planet? Time will tell... maybe.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

How do you pronounce "GIF image"?

This is one of the most useless yet most dividing topics that has seen friends turning against friends since the early days of the web: how to pronounce the name of those animated images:
Jif?
or Gif?

The inventor of the image format finally put an end to the GIF debates and now it's official: it's pronounced JIF.


Wednesday, May 22, 2013

iPhone's fingerprint reader

Everybody's already talking about it: the iPhone 5S, planned to be released this year, will have a fingerprint reader.

For the average user, ignorant of privacy issues, this will be great. With only 1 swipe of the finger, their phone will be unlocked. No need to remember 1 more password or PIN code.

The only problem is: Apple doesn't care about privacy at all. It doesn't care about protecting people's rights. Quite the contrary in fact: it makes money by selling people's freedoms away. If anything, the best bet is that Apple will make copies of people's fingerprints. This is not a rant from an Apple-hater, though I confess willfully my dislike for the policies of Apple. No, this is just a rather rational speculation based on what Apple's done so far: keeping track of its users' every move and recording their voice and voice print when they used SIRI.

Biometrics can be used for security as long as one's biomedical data remains at least partly confidential. With Apple, you can simply consider that the American government will have your prints. If they want to make copies of your prints, they can. Therefore, all security related to your prints is void. You could say that anyone resourceful could obtain your prints anyway. That's true: anyone following you to a restaurant or a pub could obtain a glass that you've touched and use tape. But with Apple, it's millions of people who will surrender their prints willfully without the need for Apple to spend any effort. How'd you like your Big Brother?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Departures (2009) ★★★★★



































Plot:

Daigo had just been hired in an orchestra but the orchestra is being dismantled because its debts are piling up. Having invested a lot of money in his cello, Daigo decides with his wife to move to the countryside in the house of Daigo's deceased mother. After he applies for a mysterious job advertised in the newspaper, Daigo realizes the job is about giving funeral rites and preparing the bodies of the dead for the departure ceremony. His wife does not see eye to eye to this job.


My verdict:

Amazing movie. It is full of beauty, poetry and dignity. This is the journey of an average man who discovers, learns, acts and gives. It is also the story of death and paying the last respects to the departed. The acting is done right and so is the directing. Music is so present that it is almost a character in itself. This film has received the 2009 Oscar of the best movie in a foreign language. Having seen only the French-dubbed version, it is not possible to judge how it is in English version, but despite the poor lip-sync in the French version, the dialogues were brilliant and the story itself was strong enough to make the viewer forget about the lip-sync imperfections. This is an absolute must-see that will draw tears from everybody. I give it 5 stars.



Monday, May 20, 2013

Astrology and Astronomy

When you're a child and you hear about astrology, you find it weird. But then you see your mother checking it everyday in the newspaper so it becomes commonplace... almost. Because your mother says it's rubbish but there's still a 5 minutes segment on the radio every morning and in every single newspaper.

But then you hear that it's not just about your astrological sign. In fact, you're supposed to also receive influence from another astrological constellation in order to define you: the ascendant. And that's something that was unavailable to me: when you're born overseas and the time of your birth corresponds to a different day in your home country, astrology is wasted on you. There's simply no way you can figure out an ascendant.

And even later, you learn that the Chinese have another system that works per year.

There's a word for this sort of situation: nonsense!

So, from an early age, I've known astrology is nonsense. And as the years passed, I received extra confirmation by reading scientific accounts of this discipline which confirmed that it is based on representations that are false or totally out of sync with the real position of the stars.

But something good came out of astrology: astronomy. The science of the motion of celestial bodies triumphed thanks to Johannes Kepler in the early 16th century. Of course, the religious establishment of the time did not appreciate Kepler putting the sun at the center of the universe, while the Earth would be only one among several planets orbiting the sun. But Kepler's laws were unmistakably correct and explained the movement of celestial bodies, even taking into account the most difficult problem of the time: Mars' apparent backwards motions.

This story is recounted in the 3rd episode of Carl Sagan's  series  "Cosmos: a personal voyage". Despite aging, that series is still very modern to teach oneself or children about the universe.





Sunday, May 19, 2013

Ninite: (re)installing or updating software

It happens to everybody: you've just bought a computer or you've just reinstalled Windows on your computer and you're fearing the many hours it will take to get back all the software you often want to use on your computer.

Ninite solves that problem. It gives you a wide list of common software for which you:
  • check the appropriate checkboxes
  • download the installer
  • run the installer
...and ninite will download and install (or update) all of the softwares you chose easily.

Depending on your Internet's speed and the softs you chose, it could take a while, but it cuts enormously on the hassle of reinstalling everything manually. Definitely one of the most life-changing websites.



Saturday, May 18, 2013

Conspiracies and theories

Conspiracies have existed, exist and will always exist. They are part of politics or geopolitics and they make great background for movies. One of the most famous conspiracies was the attack on the Bay of Pigs by JFK's men. Sadly for JFK, the Internet would describe it today as #FAIL.

Another conspiracy was the one for JFK's murder. Who did it and why, the public doesn't have certainties. But it is certain that he was not murdered by a single man who, from his own initiative, committed the act.

Martin Luther King committing suicide... it didn't happen but it nearly did. This was a conspiracy from Edgar Hoover who thought civil rights were not a good idea and who framed MLK in every way possible and blackmailed MLK so he would end his life.

When you read about the detailed history of the 20th century, you'll find a tremendous amount of conspiracies that were real.

But now, what is fun and crazy is the conspiracies that are "completely out there" and which don't even bother with scientific evidence.


Flat-Earth Society: these guys (fortunately, there's not too many of them) refuse the idea that the Earth is round. So they think we're living on a disc with the North Pole at the center and the Antarctic being an ice wall at the limit of the disc... which conveniently prevents our oceans from pouring into space. It's loony but if you think it has potential for some fun, you may be interested in reading the comedic novels "Discworld" by Terry Pratchett.


Hollow Earth: Remember Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth? Some people take it very seriously. And they even considered the existence of one or more "ground" layers inside our planet, with some air, while an inner star would be lighting things up inside our Earth.

Reptilians: it's one version of the old "they're among us" conspiracy theory. In this version, there are alien creatures disguised as humans and preparing the future for us to be their food. Their original appearance is that of reptile humanoids, but since they can change their appearance at will (convenient!) they can pass as humans and plot our demise.

Predictive Programming: According to this one, what we see in movies conditions us to accept without question some later events which are totally staged. Like the words "Sandy Hook" that appeared in a few frames (and still you needed a microscope to see it) of the 2012 Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises... So I guess the whole hurricane was fake, huh?


Conclusion:

We established that conspiracies exist and named a few.
We discussed conspiracy theories without mentioning 9/11.
We went over a few of the very crazy conspiracy theories.

If something looks crazy and incompatible with the established science... it probably is crazy indeed.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Secret (2007) ★★★★☆



















Plot

Ben and Hannah are a perfect couple and a normal family together with their rebellious 16 year old daughter, Samantha. After a car accident, the mother and daughter are transported to the hospital in a critical condition and the mother dies. However, when Samantha comes to, it's her mother's consciousness that inhabits her 16 year old body.


My verdict

The scenario is somewhat original though not totally. The topics of interest are discussed as they should. There is a true conflict between the mother's identity and the impossible love with the father since she's in their daughter's body. There's all the discovery of Samantha's life by Hannah, the friends Hannah did not know about. Almost everything in the movie is top notch. Therefore it gets a 4 stars rating.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Wikipedia









Today, we take Wikipedia (WP) for granted and to many of us it has become a reflex. You don't know about something or someone mentioned in a news article? Look it up in WP! it's so easy.

It really is a great achievement for humanity and it must be recognized as such. Everybody with an Internet access can use this encyclopedia free of charge, and it is likely the most complete encyclopedia.

Its reputation has been criticized often for inaccuracies, but guess what: other encyclopedias also do have inaccuracies. In 2005, the magazine "Nature" organized a comparison of WP with Encyclopedia Britannica based on 42 articles. This is of course too few to be considered a representative sample, but it's worth what it's worth... Nature concluded that WP came close behind EB. At that time, WP was only 4 years old and its budget was small.

Since that time, WP has developed tools to detect suspicious edits and improving the quality of articles. One might have objections, but to me Wikipedia really is a fantastic thing.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Siesta

Siesta is that early afternoon nap. Often seen as a symbol of laziness in our modern society where companies want us to work continuously while only taking a short break for lunch, siesta is all the opposite of laziness. In fact, science has shown that we are biologically hardwired for siesta and that this rest makes us far more productive and vigilant in the afternoon.

Due to the different phases of sleep involved, a siesta should not exceed 30 minutes. Otherwise, it would take you a long time to get to your senses again. As it happens, 30 minutes is also the time it takes for coffee to take effect. So, you can optimize your siestas by having a cup of coffee just before you take your rest.

Science in action!

Monday, May 13, 2013

What if the mailman was opening your letters?

In the title, I mention (metaphorically) a mailman because this will later be useful as an analogy for Internet communications being recorded. But for today, I'm only interested in phone conversations.

You may or may not know that Americans are very sensible to what is done to them. They disregard largely whatever can be done (even by themselves) to foreigners as was apparent during the renewal of NDAA by Barack Obama which allows the kidnapping and indefinite detention without charges of anyone anywhere in the world. But they care a lot about what's done to to Americans on American ground.

Glenn Greenwald (one of the rare journalists still doing real journalism), in an article for the Guardian discussed something that happened on CNN. The show host Erin Burnett was interviewing Tim Clemente, a former counter-terrorism FBI agent about the bombings at the Boston Marathon by Tamerlan Tsarnaev. And Clemente revealed that the FBI could access previous phone calls from Tsarnaev to his wife even though they were under surveillance.

What this means, and which Clemente made clearer and repeated in another interview the next day, is that all the phone conversations of everybody in the USA are being recorded and archived.

If you're not in the USA, you might feel safe, but the reality is: more and more countries (even democracies) are putting in place equipment to do the same sort of surveillance of phone calls and Internet communications.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Citizen Dog (2004) ★★★★★

Normally, I would use movies as a filler when I don't have the time to write more elaborate blog entries. But after seeing this movie last night, I just can't wait to praise it.






















Plot

Pod is a young man without dreams moving from the countryside to Bangkok. There he meets Jin, a young woman who chases a dream at the cost of not being in touch with reality. While Pod makes efforts to get nearer to Jin, she is absorbed by her dream and her heart doesn't have enough room for Pod.

My verdict

The colors are bright and highly contrasted, and the love story is naive and pure, which reminds a lot of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie. The costumes and special effects complement the colors very well. The scenario while simple, goes through countless events and encounters that make the film rich of many improbable characters, and unpredictable. Finally, you get treated to Thai humor continuously and some absurd jokes get pushed further than you would suspect. If you like romantic comedies, absurd humor, and if you want a smile illuminating your face by the end of the movie, Citizen Dog is a no-brainer: 5 stars!
























Friday, May 10, 2013

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) ★★★★★




























Plot

One fine morning, Joe has a sudden impulse to dodge work so he jumps in a train that takes him to the seaside. On the train, he meets Clementine and we discover their story: an intense but also destructive passion... until one day, when Clementine doesn't recognize Joe anymore. Joe then discovers she underwent a (science-fictional) surgery to extract Joe from her memory.

My verdict

Amazing acting from Jim Carrey and very good one from Kate Winslet. The scenario is more convoluted than first appears. The special effects are thrilling and immersive. The music supports very well the gigantic flow of emotions. This is a masterpiece worthy of 5 stars. Grab your loved one (if you have one), grab a cup of hot chocolate, grab a blanket and enjoy this must-see!


Thursday, May 9, 2013

Robot and Frank (2012) ★★★★☆



Plot

In the near future, Frank is an elderly man with memory losses and minor symptoms of dementia. His son Hunter is already busy with a family of his own and cannot make time anymore to visit Frank every week, so he brings his old man a robot so the robot can help Frank with menial tasks and supervise daily exercises to maintain Frank's memory. Having a past record as a burglar, Frank enrolls the robot in a heist for robbing a rare edition of a book (destined to destruction in the new computerized world) so he can offer it to Jennifer, the librarian he is attracted to.

My verdict

The scenario is original and smart with twists. Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon play their respective roles with excellence. Liv Tyler, on the other hand, overdoes it, and while her looks are appealing to the viewer, her voice is an unbearable concerto of whining. The musical pieces are discrete and support aptly the moods conveyed in most scenes. The ending is proper, and what's really good in a science-fiction story: it is a story about people and the "science" element is not the focus. My only complaint with the direction is a feeling of slowness halfway through the film. But all in all, I highly recommend it and rate it 4 stars.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Solace

Solace is an independent video game from a team of developers at the Digipen Institute of Technology.


As a vertical shoot-em-up, Solace embarks you on the metaphorical journey of a person going through the 5 stages of grief:
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

The game is very short and you can breeze through it in 10 to 15 minutes. What's admirable beyond the clean graphics and crisp colors is the musical ambiance that fits every stage.


With a weight of only about 100 MB and being free of charge, this is well worth the while of every video game enthusiast. You can download it from the official website.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Terminal Invasion (2002) ★★★★☆

























Plot

On a blizzard night, 15 people from different walks of life find themselves stranded in an airport with no hope of getting their flight nor driving away. As is soon revealed, some of these people are ill-intentioned aliens convincingly disguised as humans. Who's who? Who will survive and who won't?

My verdict

Opinions on this film diverge greatly but I am of the mind that it is a rare gem. Yes it is cheap and yes it is cheesy. But everything in Terminal Invasion screams "I am a play, not a movie". Like plays, you find a unit of place and a unit of time for each scene. And even though characters may move from one room to another, the overall airport is reminiscent of a no-exit sort of play. If you can look beyond the B-movie looks of this film and embrace it as the play it really is, you'll enjoy one of the rare plays including aliens and be rewarded with the smiles it invokes and the thrill of always wondering who's an alien and who's not. An original movie, however cheap, worthy of 4 stars.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Excel tutorial 01: basics

This tutorial is intended as a first contact with Microsoft Excel. The prerequisites are as low as a high-school level of mathematics (functions) and a simple familiarity with computers, in particular MS Windows and knowledge of the keyboard (Tab, Enter, Ctrl, Alt).

Excel is a spreadsheet program. Spreadsheets are tables or arrays divided in rows and columns, in which you can enter text and numerical values. As we'll see, spreadsheets can also include functions or formulas which transform automatically text or numerical values, like counting the number of words or the number of letters present somewhere else in the sheet. The data can also be represented as charts or can be further processed with cross-tables or macros, but these aspects are beyond the scope of this first tutorial. They will likely be covered in a later article.

Spreadsheets are often used by individuals, associations and organizations for accounting purposes but they offer far more possibilities like data analysis, presentation, input forms, games, etc.


 Part 1: Let's get familiar with the layout of Excel


The wide strip at the top is Excel's menu. You will find there most of the functionalities that you may desire and more. The most common tools for a beginner are found under "Home", like font sizes, font color, bold, italic, underline, and various functionalities related to presentation.

Under the menu, you can see the formula bar preceded by the label "Fx". Its use will be discussed further in this article.

Then the main area. It is divided in rows and columns which define cells. This is where most of your activities will take place. The mose common way to refer to cells is to designate them by the letter of their column and the number of their row. Thus, on the screenshot above, the text "bla bla 1" is inside of cell A1 and "bla bla 2" is inside of cell C2.

You will also notice that the focus is currently on A1, as is made clear by the thick border around that cell, and by the orange highlight of column_A's header and row_1's header. The cell with the focus is called the "Active Cell" and its content appears in the formula bar.

Last on the screenshot, you see tabs which allow the user to bring different sheets into view. As with cells, you can notice that the tab for the current sheet is highlighted. Logically, the current sheet is referred to as the "Active Sheet".


Part 2: Let's use Excel and navigate between cells

Moving between cells can be done with the arrow keys of course, but if you just want to type a series of text and data, your hands will be far from these keys. Instead, you will be using Tab and Enter.









Tab moves the Active Cell to the next column, on the same row.

Enter  moves the Active Cell to the next row. It does not stay in the same column as the current Active Cell if you previously used Tab but moves back to the initial column instead. This allows you to fill a complete table row after row.

Exercise:
Just as above, start from Cell B2 and fill the table with letters A to P, moving around with Tab and Enter.


Part 3: functions

Recall your memories from high school: functions are the transformation of 1 or more input data into an output. Some of the most basic functions that everybody studies is of the form:
f(x) = a*x + b

In this case, we see a single variable: x. And we see 2 constant factors: a and b. It is often written as y = a*x + b for commodity because we represent the results on a chart.

Later on in high school, we studied functions that combine more than 1 variable. If you want an example, think of the probability to have a health problem based on more than 1 factor. For example you can combine age and gender. If age is our "x" and gender is our "y", then you could write this probability as f(x, y).

Excel can similarly apply transformations to your data. That's what the formula bar is for. On a new sheet, reproduce the following table. I have circled the tools, which allow you to fill cells with a color and to draw borders.


We are now going to calculate the amount paid for each type of product, which is the multiplication of the quantities bought by the unitary price. We will calculate this formula in cell D2 therefore you have to make D2 the Active Cell. A formula always starts with the symbol "=". You can either type it directly in the cell or in the formula bar. When your formula is written, just type Enter to validate it.

The first thing to notice is that your formula can refer to the content of other cells simply by mentioning those cells' coordinates (column and row).

The second thing to notice is that when you refer to other cells, these references appear in color in your formula bar while these cells are highlighted by a border of the same color. In this example, "B2" is colored blue in the formula bar and cell B2 is highlighted by a blue border. Same thing for C2 except in green color.

Once you've validated the formula, cell D2 will display the result of your formula.


Repeat this operation for the next 3 rows and you should obtain this:



We will now calculate the sum of sums. As you see (and that's one beauty spreadsheet programs), Excel can reuse the results of formulas as input for other formulas.

This time, instead of calculating D2+D3+D4+D5, we will call a built-in function: SUM.

You can notice here that the full Range from D2 to D5 is considered as one input by the formula and it is highlighted by a blue border. Excel is able to handle such groups of data as if it was an array or a series of values and apply calculations to these arrays. Such a topic will be covered in another tutorial.

You may also wonder about the function SUM, which you didn't previously know about, and other such functions. As you can expect, similar functions like AVERAGE, MIN, MAX, etc. exist in Excel. You can either look for them by clicking on fx (left of the formula bar) or wait for another tutorial to cover this subject.

The result of the SUM (note that upper-case is NOT necessary) appears in the next screenshot:



Conclusion

You have discovered
  • Excel's user interface with menu, sheets, formula bar and main area
  • what the Active Cell and the Active Sheet are
  • how to move around with  Tab and Enter
  • how to edit cells' content
  • that cells can contain text or numbers or formulas
  • that cells are referred to by their column and row
  • what a formula is
  • that formulas always start with the symbol "="
  • that formulas display in color the cells it refers to
  • that formulas' results can be reused by other formulas
  • that a group of contiguous cells is called a Range
  • that a Range can be used a single input for a formula

Since this tutorial has taken a long time to produce, I don't exclude the possibility of some inaccuracies to have sneaked in. So if you see anything that strikes you, don't hesitate to let me know in the comments. You're also welcome to provide any other kind of feedback.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

traveling => no blogging

I will be traveling for a few days. That means the blog will remain without update.

You can be informed as soon as I'm back by subscribing to the Atom feed!

See you soon.
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