Monday, July 29, 2013

The Signal (2007) ★★★★★



Plot:

Mya, a married young woman, and her lover Ben, are awoken by the television as it switched itself on, displaying psychedelic images. Mya then rushes back to the apartment she shares with Lewis, her overly possessive and violent husband. While 2 friends of Lewis are there, trying to fix the TV which displays the same unfathomable images as Mya saw earlier, Lewis beats one of them to death with a baseball bat. Soon, it's clear that all of the city has fallen into a murderous psychosis.

My verdict:

The 2 strongest points of The Signal are the dive into madness and the metaphor of the story. Why a dive into madness? Because it puts the spectator inside the head of one of the psycho killers. As for the metaphor, it is quite reminiscent of the metaphor embodied in the movie "The ring" (the brilliant original Japanese movie, not the inept bland American remake!). This is a parable about our submission to the madness and emotions evoked in ourselves by the media. Undoubtedly, the metaphor is less subtle in The Signal than it is in The Ring, but it is then more readable, more accessible to a wider audience. The tension rises very quickly and never goes down, keeping us hooked from beginning to end. The point of view of the psycho killer is truly original and while events themselves are not credible, the state of mind of the main character is coherent and we buy into it. Though the grain of the image looks kinda cheap, kinda like many modest English productions, I award a full 5 stars to The Signal. You don't often get decent narrative and suspense together like you do with this film.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The square-cube law


Image by Jonathunder, under CC-BY-SA 3.0 licence


Here be dragons giants

The myths, folklore and literature of humanity account for many giants:

  • Giants of the Greek mythology who were the children of Gaia (Earth)
  • Christianity's Nephilims who were the children of angels/demons and women
  • Norse J├Âtnar, who were a mythological race of big fellows
  • Giants in Gulliver's travels
  • Giants in Francois Rabelais's novels of Gargantua and Pantagruel


Have you ever wondered whether giants are even possible? The Guinness book of records surely accounts for tall people. But my question is not on the actual existence of giants, but on the possibility of the existence of giants. So think about it for a few seconds! Could giants exist at all?

Care to take a few more seconds?

OK. I'll assume you're done thinking and I'll move to the answer. The answer is "No. They could not exist and their existence is impossible". Sorry! This article is intended to explain why.


So what about that square-cube law?

It is a description of how some body characteristics scale with the size of creatures. Imagine a standard person or object! Scale it up by a factor of 2! You get double the height, double the width, and double the depth (or thickness, however you call it). These measures scale linearly. The surface on the ground, or the section is multiplied by 4, because it is the product of 2 dimensions (let's say width and depth). Had we multiplied the scale by 3, the section would have been multiplied by 9. This is a square scale. As for the body's volume, you understand it increases as a cubic function since it scales with all 3 dimensions.

All things being equal in our object, weight scales like volume, as a cube function.

Before putting this data together, we also need a quick reminder of physics class:
Pressure = Weight / Surface

If you need an illustration to remind of this, think of snowshoes! they distribute your weight over a greater surface and thus reduce the pressure on snow and prevent you from getting knee-deep in the snow.


Why this matters is because weight scales as a cube function. Our skeleton, our bones, is what keeps us standing. Bone density being more or less constant, what matters is the section of bone on which the pressure of our weight will apply. More precisely, what matters are the bones in our legs since they are at the bottom of our body and support the greater weight. The section of our bones scales as a square of our height while our weight scales as a cube. So when we scale up in body size, the pressure endured by bones will scale as a cube divided by a square... which makes the pressure scale linearly.

If we double the size, the pressure endured by bone will be multiplied by (2³ /2²) = 2. As you can imagine, bone will break if too much pressure is applied on it. Due to evolutionary considerations (economy of calcium within the body)  we cannot consider denser bones. Instead, it is observed that the limbs of taller animals (e.g. elephants) have larger bones proportionally to the size of their legs in order to support their gigantic weight. But the downside of this is that it leaves less room for muscles.

And that's why giants are impossible. Because scaling with their size, the square-cube law explains that the pressure on their bones would force them to have deformities compared to a human body, like massive legs. And even these massive legs would account for extra weight, thereby creating a limit to what is possible.

Conclusion


  • You learned a cool scientific law.
  • You learned that giants are impossible.
  • Movies and myths featuring giants anatomically similar to humans are wrong.
  • Same rule applies to robots, unless more resistant materials are available.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Electricity outage

Today my electricity (and therefore computer) was down from 10AM to 5PM. Therefore I won't write the kind of article that would be "normal" for this blog. Instead, I'll only recommend you to think about how you would be affected and how you would react if your electricity was down for several (up to 72) hours.

In the middle of the day, you can read. The kettle can't work so you have to boil water in a pan. And you need matches in order to ignite the gas of your cooker. The computer doesn't work so... no internet. Or maybe some internet by using your phone. But how long will the phone's battery last? Do you have a solar device like GoalZero's Nomad7 that can refill your phone and tablet's battery using solar energy? Do you have camping lamps (on gas, batteries, hand-powered, or even a gravity light) that will allow you to do something during your evening rather than just go to sleep?

Fridge is down. Lamps are down. Heaters (if electric) and Aircon are down. TV is down. Radio is down, unless you have a battery-powered or hand-powered radio. In such circumstances, maybe your best option is to call a friend or a relative who could host you during this outage.

That's it for today. I'm not fully satisfied with this article but problems happen. Enjoy the comfort of your electricity!

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Agency




I chose the subject and title of today's article because it's a word that is very common and still I have a feeling that we never hear about its deep meaning.

What's that?

Out brain recognizes an element of our environment as an "agent" when this element does not just endures gravity. If you put a rock on a slope it will simply obey gravity, slide, roll, fall. If instead, you put a beetle, the beetle will walk around. And even if it slides, its attempts to counter the fall will make it follow a trajectory that is not only the subject of gravity. And that is what our brain recognizes as an "agent".

And why do I care?

Because agents are not just a piece of our environment, they are more than that. We project part of our human attribute on agents. And because we do that, we also sanction morally our interactions with agents. Why is it cruel to tear off the legs from a fly? Why isn't it cruel to tear off the leaves from a tree? Because a fly is an agent!

While we recognize a sense of agency in animals, in robots, etc. we may also lose our own sense of agency. When we feel powerless, when we are crushed by the system, be it administration, our manager, etc. we may feel like our actions have no effect on our environment. And ensues a sense of powerlessness, loss, even self-hatred.

This feeling, the feeling of agency, is essential to everyday life but also more specifically to the development of children. Children who feel that their choices matter perform better in their studies and attaining the career they desire than children who don't. Which suggests that part of a good education or part of the games we play with children should include mechanisms to reward their efforts and build in them this sense of agency.

Aside topic

It is a personal perception, therefore I might be wrong just as I might be right : among adults, I feel that society has dis-empowered people in the recent years. Unforgiving hierarchies, promotion rewarding backstabbers rather than performers, they contribute to dissolving our sense of agency. And that's where video games may feel a void, with the risk of addiction... or more precisely compulsive behavior. Because in games, the rules are clear: you get rewarded for performing and sanctioned for underperforming. And the rules always apply. You can't tell a game that despite the rules, somebody's getting a promotion because he's a nice well-connected fellow, and that is a reason for beating all the other people who were inline for a promotion and who were abiding by the rules.

Conclusion


  • We learned about agents and agency. Neat!
  • We learned that agency must be cultivated in children. Important stuff!
  • We learned that society is not fair. Shocker!
  • We learned that agency also matters for adults. If you feel like you lack some agency, I recommend you do something with visible effects on short term. Growing a plant, maybe? Green beans and peas grow quickly enough and fit in an apartment. Mint, too! If you have a garden or a growing bed go big with tomatoes, potatoes, chilies...

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Questions about telecoms?



I was too busy today to complete an article. So instead, since I'm kinda sorta working on a king-size article about telecoms, I'll just ask:
Do you have any questions, anything you're curious about, regarding mobile telecommunications?

Monday, July 22, 2013

Choosing antivirus software



Yesterday, I published an article about steps to take in order to re-install Windows. One of these steps includes the choice of an antivirus.

If you want the best protection and if you're ready to spend money for a good protection, perfect! In this case, my personal choice would be Kaspersky Internet Security (KIS) which is more complete than the basic protection offered by Kaspersky Anti Virus (KAV). The cost for protecting a single computer is crazy high ~35€. But if you know 2 other people who need an antivirus, you can find packages of 3 licences for ~50€, which halves the cost of each individual licence. The reasons I would go for KIS are as follows

  • Kaspersky has been the most consistent in reaching the top 3 antivirus programs for many years
  • It includes a virtual keyboard to make online transactions safer from keyloggers
  • It includes a sandbox mode, which isolates a program from Windows. In other words, it lets you visit  dangerous websites without the risk of compromising your system.
But I'm cheap and I don't have 2 buddies at hand for sharing the licence cost, so I'm going for a free antivirus.


One thing you have to keep in mind before reading further, is that the quality of antivirus software evolves every year as threats evolve and as antivirus editors make choices in how they create their software. So, what is true today will likely not be true anymore next year.


In order to determine which antivirus is the best for you, I recommend you to check websites dedicated to testing and comparing these programs. Here's a selection of such websites for you:

  •  AV Test: choose "home user" and then your version of windows. The latest tests provide a ranking of many antivirus programs.
  • Virus Bulletin displays a graph on which antiviruses are rated against known threats (vertically) and unknown threats (horizontally).

Currently, the leading 3 free antivirus programs are (in alphabetical order):
  • Avast
  • AVG
  • Avira

Microsoft's antivirus (Microsoft Security Essentials) is not recommended due to a lesser efficiency.

One final note

When you opt for a particular antivirus program, you should keep in mind what it does and what it doesn't do. Most if not all of the free antivirus programs DO NOT scan the attachments you receive via email, while the paid-for antiviruses do. So whatever you do, whatever you receive, whatever you download:
always...
Always...
ALWAYS...
scan every single file before you open it!

With computers, if you don't act as if you were paranoid, then you're being careless.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Re-installing Windows

Installing or re-installing Windows and all the software that goes with it can be painfully long. This article is intended to help by providing a clear and thorough checklist of things you should do, and in which order. Depending on your situation, you may want to print this article before proceeding.


BEFORE re-installing a system

#1. You need a plan B.

In case that a critical problem happens to your installation (bad luck happens), you may want to have an alternative to boot your computer and go online for being able to download new programs and/or get advice. This plan B is called Linux Live DVD. So you should download it, burn it to a blank DVD, then reboot your PC to test that you know how to boot on the Live DVD

#2. Save your data.

Find all the data files that you don't want to trash, and save them to an external drive. Delete the stuff you don't need!

Don't forget to export your browser's bookmarks so you can restore them after your re-install.

#3. Choose and download an antivirus

Decide now which antivirus you will be using after your re-install. Download in advance the installer and save it to your external drive. The reason is simple: this is one of the first things you'll install when Windows is re-installed. You want to install an antivirus BEFORE surfing the internet. You even want to install an antivirus before connecting to the internet, because a few years ago, a virus on the internet was finding connected computers all by itself and your computer could be infected without you ever surfing the internet... just being connected was enough.

#4. Download PC-Decrapifier or an equivalent software

The Windows installer that comes with laptops is more often than not riddled with junk pre-installed software that is mostly useless, which consumes computer resources, and which can cause problems. You'll want to have software like PC Decrapifier at hand for cleaning your PC. You can skip this step if your computer is NOT a laptop.

#5. Download a Ninite installer.

Ninite takes care of installing and updating software on your behalf. So, you only need to check the checkboxes on http://ninite.com/ and click "Get Installer". This will download a file to your PC which can take care of installing and updating all the software you've chosen. Save this file to your external drive. Here's my personal recommendation of boxes to check:

  • Firefox: the most safe, versatile, free (as in freedom) web browser
  • Skype
  • Thunderbird: email client. Free-software equivalent of Microsoft Outlook
  • VLC: lightweight music and video player with the broadest compatibility
  • GOM: excellent video player. its interface is more user-friendly than VLC's
  • CCCP: a pack of codecs, which lets your computer recognize more video formats
  • Notepad++: a good text editor for reading/writing simple text files and source code
  • ImgBurn: a CD/DVD burning program
  • WinDirStat: one of the best programs ever to manage space on your hard drive
  • 7-zip: free (as in freedom) equivalent of Winzip and Winrar.


#6. Write down some information

Make sure that you have the following information at hand:

  • licence number for your copy of Windows
  • password to connect to your wi-fi



While re-installing the system

Turn off your internet connection. Turn off your modem or unplug the cable.


After Windows is re-installed

#1. Run PC Decrapifier.

Remove the stuffs that shouldn't be there. Generally, you can identify them because they have corresponding icons already littering the desktop of Windows. The most frequent junk software includes but is not limited to:

  • Symantec Norton antivirus (trial version, 90 days only, not very efficient and consumes tons of resources)
  • Microsoft Office (trial version, also limited in time)
You may have to reboot the machine after this step.

#2. Install the antivirus

Install the antivirus software you've chosen then reboot your PC so that your PC runs with the antivirus activated.

#3. Update your antivirus and run it

Now you can finally reconnect your modem and connect to the internet. As soon as your computer can access the internet, update your antivirus then run a quick scan.

#4. Update Windows

Run Windows Update. Unless you have an excellent internet connection, this could be the longest part of your re-installation. You must also expect to reboot your computer several times (my guess is 3-4 times) during this step.

#5. Create a restore point

At this point, it is considered that you have a fresh, complete, clean install of Windows. If problems appear later, you want to be able (or at least a chance) to revert your computer back to THIS clean setup. So, create a restore point!

#6. Optimizing the system (optional)

This step is reserved for power-users and will be edited later or will be the subject of a separate article. This step should include

  • disabling unnecessary services
  • configuration tweaks (playing with the registry)
  • updating drivers


#7. Install software

Run the Ninite installer. It will download and install the software you have chosen.

At the end of this step, you might want to copy the Ninite installer to your desktop (or wherever), because it can be used again in the future to update all the software that it installed. This is much easier than checking yourself what has been updated or not, and doing the update manually.

#8 Go crazy

Your computer is fully ready. Back to business as usual!


Conclusion:

Remarks are welcome.

I don't know if this will be helpful to anybody. As far as I'm concerned, this article will serve as a reminder.

Undoubtedly, this article will be edited in the future if anything new comes to mind.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Security



When you work in a domain (e.g. programming) you often face and get to understand things that laypeople don't understand. One of these topics is "security". Security is a broad subject but some of its core aspects are very simple and very important, and they apply to all domains where security is needed: computers, houses, hospitals, jewelries, etc.

The 2 core rules of security:

  • Security is not binary with the only possibilities of secure and insecure. Security is a measure.
  • Security is like a chain: it's only as good as its weakest link

A 3rd rule, which I separate because it is more difficult to assess
  • A system is secure when the requirements to compromise it are disproportionately expensive compared to the benefits gained by compromising it.



The 1st rule: 

Security is not binary with the only possibilities of secure and insecure. Security is a measure.
If you're not a computer expert, it might be easier to understand based on real-world examples like a burglar getting into a house. No house is perfectly secure. Think of a house with a very poor lock! Picking the lock will take only a few seconds. Plenty of videos on Youtube actually teach how to pick locks and demonstrate how easily it's done.

If the lock of our house is of high quality, then maybe the windows are easily broken? Single-pane windows, without a roller-shutter or without metal bars are a no-brainer for thieves.

So let's assume you have a strong lock and well-protected windows! Is it possible to gain access through the roof? Or to smash the door? Do you have an alarm system? Do you have security cameras or a webcam sensible to movement, which can record a break-in? are these cameras hidden, with the hope of recovering the footage after a robbery? or can they transfer (as long as they're not broken) the data stream in real time through the internet to a remote storage unit? because your computer is likely to be the 1st item stolen.

You get the idea! Security is a measure. For computers, security works the same way. You have a choice of several antivirus programs, all of which have different levels of efficiency. How you use the internet also exposes you to more or less threats. 15 years ago, you shouldn't have visited websites dedicated to hacking. 10 years ago, the prime danger were adult websites. 5 years ago, you should have been careful about websites proposing phone ringtones. And today, the top threat is on religion-related websites. Once again, it's not binary. Also, you probably use a password with some services like Gmail or Facebook. How strong your password is and how much effort will bad people need to invest in order to break it? That's a measure.



The 2nd rule:

Security is like a chain: it's only as good as its weakest link.
Let's continue with the previous example of a house and let's suppose you have invested tremendous efforts into making your house safe. Have you entrusted anyone with a copy of your keys and with the alarm code? oops! weakest link detected! If not, then maybe you're a single person and maybe you will want to go on dates. Are you taking every precaution to prevent your date from spiking your drink? Maybe so... then let's suppose your date is going well, and your date will accompany you to your house, exchange kisses with you and more: your date might have put some (invisible) drug on her skin which you will get to lick and which will paralyze you while that person will be able to rob the house.

No need to elaborate further: for the security of your computer and your data, you should be able to identify in your software and in your practices what puts you the most at risk. If you have a good antivirus and yet you spend all your time on adult and religious websites, then you can probably tell that your practices put you at risk. But rule #1 still applies and your security is a trade-off between what efforts you invested in security and how much comfort or freedom you desire when surfing adult or religious websites.



The 3rd rule:

A system is secure when the requirements to compromise it are disproportionately expensive compared to the benefits gained by compromising it.
As stated earlier in this article, this 3rd rule is more difficult to assess. It is not difficult to understand this rule. If all the belongings inside your house amount to $100, then robbers won't waste plenty of time and efforts worth more than this into trying to break inside your house.

The real difficulty of this 3rd rule is the practical assessment of what a computer is worth and the assessment of the cost for would-be robbers. The raw cost of breaking into your computer must actually be divided by the total number of computers similar to yours and which can be broken in, using the same technique. With hundreds of millions of computers connected to the internet at all times, it is worth for criminals to invest vast sums of money into creating malicious software.

And the value of breaking into your computer is hard difficult to evaluate because there are many options for criminals to make money with it. Someone who gained full control of your computer could (without your knowledge) use your hard drive to store data for them and stream videos from your computer to other people. Also, they could record everything that happens on your screen and everything you type on your keyboard in order to intercept your credit card details. Or in some cases, they can lock all your data away from you and demand a ransom for the code that will let you have your data back.


Conclusion


  • I hope this is a good introduction to security.
  • Having read this article is a good start for future articles discussing cryptography or recommendations of which software to use on your computer, good practices, and configuration tips.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Take that, mosquito!

A mosquito just flew around, promising to gun for me in my sleep. But after missing the mosquito a few times, I finally got him!

IN - YOUR - FACE - MOSQUITO!



I know! This does not qualify as a decent article but... well... sometimes emotions overwhelm intelligence. OK, so here's just a bit of intelligence to make amend. I live on an island and we have problems with both mosquitoes and sharks. And by the way a teenager lost her life to a shark this week. But mosquitoes are a whooping 80,000 times more deadly than sharks with an approximate 800,000 victims every year as compared with less than 10.

In the meantime, we, the human specie, kill about 100 million sharks every year. This is an absolute massacre, largely driven by Asia's consumption of shark fin soup. The head count of some species has dropped by 90%. The great white shark is now considered "vulnerable", which is 1 step short of being an endangered specie. While we may not empathize with sharks, we should be concerned because they're the garbage removal service of the oceans. And we don't want to live in a place where garbage accumulates.

Conclusion:

gotcha, mosquito!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The psychopath test



Psychopaths are not (necessarily) serial killers, unlike what we're used to hearing in the news. Psychopathy is the personality trait of someone who lacks empathy. This can translate in the present as a disregard for other individuals and what happens to them. But it can also translate in the future as a lack of guilt and remorse for acting in a way that is hurtful, abusive or damaging to others.

Being a psychopath is not a purely bad thing. Well, it is with respect to interacting with other humans, and establishing a balanced relationship in which everyone treats others as they would want to be treated. But the sheer disregard for other people's hurt is beneficial in some situations like doing what's needed to reach a goal or firing an employee or any kind of situation where someone else could be overwhelmed and paralyzed by emotions. When you compare corporations with people (but I'm not discussing Citizens United today), they display all the traits of a psychopath. And real psychopaths are rewarded for being cold-hearted and/or throwing other people under the bus to promote themselves.

One very basic test to evaluate if you might be a psychopath yourself, is the following question. In a hospital, there are 5 patients, all of whom have 1 failing organ (different organ from patient to patient) that will lead them to death if they don't get a transplantation. Would you think it a good idea to take 1 healthy man and sacrifice this healthy man's life in order to save the life of the 5 patients? This is a conflicting question and that's all the difficulty of this test: making a difficult choice, trying our gut feeling against a dilemma where there's no good outcome... or rather where the right choice is the one with the worst outcome. If your choice was to sacrifice the healthy man's life, you very well might be a psychopath.

But there are various degrees to psychopathy. And I found the Levenson test interesting because it is quick but still probably rich enough to derive a somewhat accurate evaluation. And it will will tell you how your results compare to the rest of the population.
My score was on the bottom-right edge of the green area, so: i'm your average Joe



Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Another Earth (2011) ★★★★☆




Plot

Rhoda Williams is a 17 year-old who long dreamt about space and who was just accepted at MIT. When the car radio announced the apparition of a planet with an atmosphere in our sky, she lifted her eyes to have a look and lost control of her vehicle killing the passengers of another car. 4 years later, after being released from jail, she participates into a radio contest to win a seat as an astronaut on board the rocket headed for Earth2.


My verdict

There is a little bit of science-fiction in the apparition of Earth2 but that's just it. Another Earth is a psychological drama. The shooting with handheld cameras only, reminds me of Lars Von Trier's "dogme 95" which brings a very personal and credible ambiance. The performance and the actors' body movements truly make the story believable. The music contributes as it should to the ambiance of each scene. This is a good movie where science-fiction is but a pretext for creating a story about people's feelings. Worth 4 stars.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The right to read



Do you remember 1997? How old you were? What you were doing back then? And how familiar or unfamiliar you were with the Internet? At that time, I had finished high-school and I was in my first year of college. I had had a few contacts with the internet before, but since it really started taking off in France only in 1995-1996, there were still few people who could claim to be familiar with it. Internet Explorer was competing with Netscape Navigator and the most popular search engines were Yahoo and Altavista while Google was still unheard of. This was the time of "web portals", where a search engine would also propose you a truckload of hyperlinks to various services including for creating your own web site. Blogs were not quite there yet either. And even Napster, the illegal service for sharing mp3 music was not yet making the headlines.

Why am I talking about the internet in 1997? That's because it's the time Richard Matthew Stallman (RMS) published a short anticipation novel, as short as a blog article. Back in 1997, the idea of ebooks was foreseeable even though ebooks themselves did not exist yet. Of course, text documents were exchanged in Microsoft Word format. And despite ebooks being a thing of the future at the time, RMS's novel, entitled "the right to read" was certainly an accurate prediction of the bad things that did happen and that are still about to happen. Even though electronic content costs nothing to reproduce, copyright owners have organized digital locks that deprive people of the ownership of their electronic books. These digital locks also act as spywares, reporting how fast we read and how far we've read to their masters. And they even prevent us from lending the content we possess to our friends and family. It is but a normal thing to lend a good book to a friend, isn't it? The copyright owners say it is not and that it must be made illegal by lawmakers. Thus, the access to knowledge is controlled and some people are forbidden to access knowledge. That's what the novel is about, and that's an interesting topic to think about.

You can read the novel there: the right to read

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Jokes = terrorism



Foreword

The title of this article contains the word "terrorism", which will certainly cause some flag to be raised at Google and at the NSA (since Google stuff gets relayed to NSA via PRISM). That means this article will be copied and emailed to some guys or gals in charge of checking whether I discuss the subject or whether I incite conspiracies. Well, hello to you Google and NSA people! Welcome to this blog and have a nice day!


Introduction

If you travel frequently by plane and if you're curious about news and politics, you probably know that telling jokes in an airport is a bad idea. When officials ask you what's in your luggage, you'd better answer seriously and any allusions to "hot" topics could land you in a small room for a face-to-face discussion with a couple security officials with a humor disability, for a handful of hours. Of course you did not plan to buy those overpriced souvenirs from the duty-free shops, but still... the contemplation of outrageously priced items is certainly more fun than sitting in poor company, watching the clock tick and wondering if the abusive oversight is gonna make you lose your flight.


The story

The rather incredible story that I want to mention today is the same kind of story, but applied to chat within a video game. Justin Carter, a 19 year-old, was playing online game League of Legends (LoL) and at some point, another player made a remark about him being crazy. In a sarcastic reply, he retorted that yes, he was crazy and was gonna grab a gun and make a mass shooting in a school... to which he added "lol, jk" standing for "laughing out loud, just kidding". But the person on the other side of the internet did not get the joke and contacted the authorities, and soon the FBI raided Justin's parents' house and locked Justin in jail, charging him for "terrorist threat". The raid of the house resulted, of course, in no weapon and nothing serious possibly related to the farce charges he's accused of.

This story took place in February of this year, and Justin has spent 5 months in prison. The news about his ordeal surfaced in mainstream online media a few days ago. Justin's family being poor, they were unable to pay for the $500,000 bail. According to reports, Justin did not adapt well to the life in jail. He's been beaten a few times, has suffered black eyes, and has even been moved to the suicidal ward for his protection. Only minutes ago, I have stumbled upon an article saying that his bail had been paid by an anonymous benefactor. I wouldn't be surprised to discover someone like Notch might be such a benefactor. And at last, Justin Carter is able to get out of jail back to his parents.


Conclusion

The system we live in is drifting at a rapid pace towards a system where "Might is Right". It is inconceivable, yet factual, that one mere joke (regardless of its taste) can bring a 19 year old kid to jail for 5 months without any judge being able to realize that this is a gross overreach of law enforcement power.

After the 9-11 attacks happened, the American society was shaken (not stirred) and when to great lengths sacrificing freedoms to let George Bush pass the Patriot Act and reinforce the security forces. And at the time, it did seem abusive but the expiry date on the package made people grudgingly accept this sacrifice. With Obama's extension of the law, and with the years passing, what were exceptional laws became commonplace in the landscape and people got desensitized to these. The sense of outrage evaporated and law enforcement forces grew careless in the repercussion of their increased freedom of breaking people's doors and throwing people in jail for arbitrary reasons. I think people should regain their sense of outrage and demand that the Patriot Act finally expires and demand a prosecution of law enforcement forces for their abuses.

Do I believe that people will demand it? Not really. A few will. But not enough to make the Obama administration cave. But because something has few chances to succeed doesn't mean it shouldn't be undertaken.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Tokyo Gore Police (2008) ★★★★☆




Warning

Not only is this the first and most violent film that I have reviewed so far. This is also the most violent and bloody that I have ever seen. It even beats "Dead Alive" and "Spartacus: blood and sand" by a long shot. The scenes are graphic to a grotesque degree and intended to shock the audience. Not for the faint of heart. Not for the faint of stomach.


Plot

When she was a little girl, Ruka admired her father who was working as a policeman. And after his murder, she too engaged in the police, though it has become a private force making use of unrestrained violence. There has been an outbreak of mutants in Tokyo, who are able to modify their bodies at will to turn limbs into weapons. As part of the police, Ruka tracks them, but it seems that she and Key-Man, the leader of the mutants, are connected to each other through their past.


My verdict

As mentioned in the warning, this is THE most graphic movie I have seen so far and it seems impossible to overstate this fact. If you feel hardened enough, you may already peek at the film's trailer, but you have been warned! TGP also contains some sexual depictions but no pornography. The first 20 minutes are boring, B-movie style, but things get better. Much better. The visuals are highly stylized up to the point of fetishism. The body mutations are surreal and original. The story is very sound (provided you're OK with the idea of mutations). It treats of serious societal topics like privatization, unions, and how to keep a democratic control over the abuses of power that a police force may drift towards. For the hardened viewer who can stomach this level of violence and cope with the subpar special effects, TGP is really a good movie which deserves 4 stars.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Happy birthday handwashing



When you go to the toilets you wash your hands. At least it is expected. Mythbusters recently conducted an experiment in which they compared the bacteria residue of toilet users in which they compared 3 cases:

  • not washing hands
  • washing hands with water only
  • washing hands with soap
The results were exactly what you would expect. If you don't wash your hands, then you will host plenty of bacteria. If you wash only with water, you'll still carry a lot of bacteria, but if you wash with soap, it's ALL gone.

But if you want to wash your hands properly with soap, it's advised to dedicate a full 30 seconds to washing.  That's where Happy Birthday comes into the story. You may not have a watch since we live in the age of the mobile phone or your watch might be under your shirt's sleeve, out of sight while washing your hands. In this case, singing the song Happy Birthday (HB) twice will do the trick. Really, it does!

Something surprising about HB is that no matter if you're singing it properly, or a bit fast, or a bit slow... it always lasts ~15 seconds. Try it! Grab a watch or bring up the clock on your computer, check the time (in seconds), close your eyes, sing HB, open your eyes and check the new time! You can try it again, singing fast or slow. It feels almost magic.

There's a rational reason for this, of course. When you decompose the song, you find mostly 3 types of sound components:
  • short sounds: the very first word, "happy", is composed of 2 such short sounds
  • long sounds: the "you" of the 1st verse is such a long sound
  • pauses: respiration between verses and cuts, however short, that separate each word
When you sing fast, you only really modify mostly just the short sounds. While it does compress the song's duration, you are still singing the long sounds and pauses at a normal speed, and these account for most of the song's duration. 

Conclusion

  • Who would have thought that you can mix together toilets, happy birthday, and science in a single article?
  • Now you know the proper way to wash your hands.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Open-Space and productivity: a workaround

These cubicles are infinitely humane and intimate compared to places I've worked

Open space is bad

It is notorious that open-space environments kill productivity, but executives insist on implementing this kind of work environment. On a CEO's accounting sheet, it looks as if office space is used more efficiently this way. Everybody knows it is counterproductive but if productivity goes down, workers will be blamed and the CEO's choice is above suspicion. Go figure!

It is estimated that it takes about 15 minutes for an average office worker to get back to full efficiency after his attention has been brought to any kind of interfering signal: a colleague speaking too loud, the sound of a door opening or closing, etc. and still we get distracted over 150 times in an average work day.


But we can reduce its impact

I have found a solution that works for me. It is not perfect -no solution is, except getting rid of open spaces- but it is pretty darn good. This solution is about listening to white noise. I'll get to that in a second, but first a word of moderation: if you're going to wear earphones for several hours a day at the office, you'd better have comfortable earphones. I personally dislike ear buds and I much prefer "closed headphones" aka "circumaural headphones", that cover the ears entirely and have large pads to spread the pressure over a large surface. Be careful also, if you wear glasses! closed headphones will press the branches of your glasses against your head and become painful at times. Thin ultra-light glasses are therefore better than thick ones. Or maybe it could decide you to use contact lenses or get eye surgery.

So what does white noise sound like? You can play it from the wikipedia page linked above, but you can also think of old TVs where channels were not synced with a TV station. Instead you had a black & white image of random patterns, like heavy snow, and the sound was something like "kssshhhhhhhhhhh". That sound is white noise.

The magic of white noise is that it covers equally ALL the audible frequencies and it therefore covers every other noise coming from your surrounding environment. This is the prime interest of white noise. A side-effect is also due to the way the human brain works. Even when we're not conscious of it, our brain still identifies patterns in non-random noises of our environment. This task expends energy and is the cause of extra tiredness when working in a busy open-space, even when we don't feel like we've been interrupted at any time. Because white noise is random, it interrupts the brain from using its pattern recognition functions and prevents the extra exhaustion. Neat, huh?

The only difficulty associated to white noise is getting used to it and surmounting the first hour of having it filling your ears. It can be very natural to feel uncomfortable or a bit spooked at the beginning because it is so different from our usual experiences. Personally, it probably took me 1-2 hours to adjust to it the first time. But after that, I got incredible benefits from keeping my focus on my work.


How do I get that white noise?

Mostly, there are 2 ways. First method is to obtain a mp3 audio file containing white noise from someone or from the internet. I therefore propose here a download link to a 15-minutes audio file of white noise. Its size (if you're concerned about bandwidth) is 5.5MB.

The second method, which I used to create this file, is to generate white noise by yourself with a computer program. It is very easy to do as you'll see. Download Audacity Portable and run it on your computer! It does not require an installation. Then use the following menus: Generate => Noise and you can play it directly, using Audacity, or export it (menu File => Export) to a mp3 format.



One last advice

In some offices, you also receive extra noise from the Air Conditioning System or servers running 24/7. This noise is very specific and can be further reduced by using headphones capable of "Active Noise Cancelling". Undoubtedly it adds up to the price of your headphones and it consumes batteries. But you might consider it worth, since the benefit is very real for your well-being and your level of tiredness. My personal choice of headphones is a Philips SHN9500, which has so many qualities that it deserves an article of its own. The usual retail price is around €90 ($115) but you might get lucky and find it like I did, in a shopping mall sale for as low as €65 ($83).

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Basic income guarantee


Introduction:

In western societies where capitalism has won the war of ideologies 25 years ago, the notion of giving everybody a salary in exchange of nothing seems outlandish, unfair even for people who have the impression that they're giving away some of their life doing their daily job and who look down on the jobless.

But this reaction is deeply modeled by the social norms and the public discourse that we have learnt through television and through the prejudice of our parents. These norms have also been built or influenced by the society of 25-50 years ago, when full employment guaranteed everybody a job and a salary, with the prospect of never worrying that they wouldn't be able to pay the bill. Also, this was a time when countries had not yet buried their economies in impossible debts owed to private banks, creating extra tax burden for the workers. In short, we are highly prejudiced and we must unlearn our prejudices in order to judge new models of society based on their true merits.



Seriously?

Serious economists have studied the Basic Income Guarantee (BIG). While I won't be able to mention any native English speaker among them, I suppose it might be possible to find translations or English versions of works by Bernard Friot and Etienne Chouard. Their interviews and lectures (in French language, sadly) are numerous on Youtube.

Among the preconceived ideas for opposing BIG is the idea that if people get money for nothing, then they will never want to work and that either the system will reward bad behavior or that the system will crumble economically. Some people indeed will chose not to work. But what truly matters is not if some people chose not to work... The meaningful question is rather if "too many" people make this choice. Also, once again we must unlearn our prejudices... BIG is not about showering mobile phones, huge TV screens and Mercedes cars on parasites of society. BIG is about offering the bare minimum, a roof over head and food (not caviar!) in the stomach. No more, no less. So if some people decided not to work, they would be only guaranteed survival. For people to access comfort through consumption of comfort goods, they would still need to work and earn a salary.

A couple of questions which are central to the BIG model are:
 - if you were guaranteed a roof and food (nothing more) without working, would you still want to work?
 - if other people were guaranteed a roof and food (nothing more) without working, do you think they would still want to work?
Of course, there is a strong divergence between how we think we will react and how we think that other people will react. We are cynics. 60% of people say they would still want to work and 80% think that other people will not want to work.


OK. Got it! But does it really work?

By giving people a guarantee that their life will not crumble because of leaving their job, BIG frees employees from the dependence relationship towards their employer. Nowadays, this relationship is being abused by employers who took money away from employees in order to offer outrageous rewards to shareholders. This is illustrated by the economic situation in France between 1981 and 2006. Let me recall some essentials of economy: GDP represents the added value. In 1981, salaries represented 60% of GDP. In 2006, salaries represented only 50% of GDP. That means that 10% of GDP was diverted from paying people who create value towards other costs. It happens that these other costs are mostly dividends. Shareholders were already getting a profit back in 1981. Otherwise, why invest? But now, their bank accounts are growing like crazy despite the Subprimes Crisis. Let's be concrete: 10% of GDP for France represents €200 Bn. This is 2x bigger than the government's budget deficit (cash in: 200 Bn, cash out: 300 Bn, deficit: 100 Bn). But this is not a typically French thing. It's everywhere in the world and even the Bank for International Settlements (aka. "the Central Bank of Central Banks") expressed concern over this imbalance which will drive countless workers into poverty and as a consequence will slow down the economy.

So, BIG has the capability of freeing workers and offering them a safety net and a shot at stopping a job that they don't like in favor of other activities. Either another more fulfilling job or personal activities. As BIG was experimented in a few places, villages of thousands of people, it showed positive results with a growth of activity and an improvement of the economy. The only people who get hurt by BIG are the people who make their profit from abusing workers.


Downsides ?

It seems too good to be true, so what's the catch? There are 2 main reasons why BIG will probably never be implemented in our lifetime in Western countries... The first problem is about unpleasant jobs. There are jobs that are not desirable. For instance: garbage collection. If nobody wants to do these jobs, a system needs to be put in place. Either create a financial incentive to attract workers, or create a sanction for NOT doing it, or yet again organize turns of duty service tending to these jobs. If you're philosophy-literate, this brings us directly back to Plato's The Republic. Another problem is: the current political systems are locked by rich and powerful people who would get no benefit from giving away this dream world where they get to exploit others and reap the benefits.


Conclusion

BIG is a dramatic change of paradigm and it will probably never come into effect despite its humanist dimension. Still, it is a very useful intellectual tool to compare the world we live in with the world we (by consensus) desire. We all want for people to have food and shelter guaranteed. We all want to have the freedom of leaving an unsatisfactory job without the threat of what will happen. We all want for people to have the opportunity of doing what they like (or what they're content with) rather than being locked in a terrible job just so they can pay the bills. Seeing the divide between the ideal and the actual world, and the political reasons keeping us away from the ideal one is a useful function of the Basic Income Guarantee. Finally, it also opens our minds to realize how our way of thinking is biased towards what we know and how hard it is to unlearn our biases.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Recruiters... *sigh*

Rant intro

In any type of job, it is difficult to be paid what you're worth. They say you need to "advertise yourself". Wow! Advertising myself? I'm a technical expert, not an advertiser. If I had been an advertiser, I would probably be snorting cocaine and getting drunk on champagne with a couple of ladies in the Jacuzzi of a penthouse. But since I'm no advertiser, I only spend time on the internet with my oversize laptop following the latest IT & Telecom news, discovering the latest products, strategies, programming tips, communication failures of Microsoft, and the latest scandals about self-proclaimed democracies that spy wholesale on all of their citizens.

They also say that you need to know what you're worth. Well, ok! I know what I'm worth. But there's just a couple of problems with that. First problem: recruiters do not care anymore about what people are worth. They only care about how much they're paying for freelance meatbags to sit on a chair. And the amount they're ready to pay has dropped by an insane 40% in the past 5 years. Were they overpaying contractors before? No! All costs included, 5 years ago, contractors used to cost (in Europe) 15% more than a permanent employee. Plus the recruiter benefited from not taking risks with paying a person during pregnancy or medical interruption of work, extra flexibility to interrupt one's contract without compensation, no participation of the contractor in workers' unions, etc. So that's it for the first problem. The second problem is: it's useless for me to know what I'm worth if the recruiter doesn't know what I'm worth. Unless I'm a natural-born advertiser in which case I can let him understand how formidable I am and how lucky that recruiter is to ever have met me... but in which case I would be working in the advertising sector anyway.

The real rant

It probably exists in many industries though I don't know about other industries. But in the telecom sector, you frequently see recruitment ads where they're looking for Superman and they promise little (if anything) as a reward. So today, I found an ad, which I'm not going to link, since it's not nice to point the finger. They're looking to recruit a Superman. And by this, I mean the candidates need:

  • to have worked on one vendor's 3G for 7+ years: let me translate this for you. The candidate needs to have worked on some of the first networks in the world that introduced 3G, either Europe or Japan.
  • to have "advanced knowledge" in some protocols and the 3GPP standards. In other words: not just your usual senior engineer but a true expert who does read tons of technical documentation at home
  • to have knowledge in IP and managing IUB/IUR/IUCS parameters. Alright, so at this point you expect the job to be about transmission.
  • to have "extensive" knowledge of software OSS. Hmmm... not fishy yet, but they're looking for someone with experience in more than 1 type of activities. So ok... looking for a kinda rare sort of person.
  • knowledge of using some software that matches previous requirements. OK.
  • "Extensive" (again) knowledge in applying parameters to small, medium and large scale of the RAN. Alriiiight. So now we're talking about datafill for the Radio part of the network. At this point, they're already looking for a super-rare bird who is an expert (not just a casual engineer but someone with "extensive" knowledge) in 3 domains: transmission, OSS (from the "usage" side of the OSS though), and datafill.
  • More specific requirements on the domains mentioned above. So be it.
  • Knowledge of Radio optimization. That's it ladies and gentlemen! 1 requirement is a professional. 2 requirements is a seasoned professional. 3 requirements is a jack-of-all-trades. 4 requirements is a Superman.
  • More specific requirements on Radio optimization in terms of theoretical and practical knowledge
  • Traces analysis... not an entirely new domain but definitely a rare specialization among radio optimizers
  • Indoor planning and optimization. Here comes our 5th domain of experience. At this point, Superman should not even bother applying. A SUPER-Superman is needed.

And guess what? In front of the word "salary" of that recruiter's form, there is no indication at all. Of course this is a RANT and this is a blog. So my opinions are strongly in the way of objectivity and my interpretation of what this means for salary is subject to caution and YOU SHOULD NOT TAKE ANY OF THIS TOO SERIOUSLY... so here it comes: When there is no indication of a salary range or value, this is what you can expect:
  • if you are currently between jobs, you can be pressured to accept less salary. Because you're in a weak position so you can be taken advantage of.
  • if you are currently on a mission, you can be offered more salary. Somehow, you get rewarded for ditching your project, your colleagues and your manager in the middle of something. So if you have no consideration for other people or for being loyal to your commitment on a mission, congratulations! recruiters think you deserve more money, and they don't seem to realize that you'll backstab them as soon as a recruiter from another agency (or maybe even from the same agency) will hire you for yet another mission, which will reflect poorly on their agency from the point of view of the client.
  • if you are coming from a poor country, you'll be offered less money. That's the way it has been since the dawn of telecoms. You don't get paid according to your skill... anyway, serious technical interviews are rare nowadays... it's all about the budget, regardless of actual proficiency. True stories: I have already met a consultant who didn't know how to insert a picture in a Microsoft Word document, and a member of another team didn't even know how to power on/off a PC and I'm not even talking about copying a file from one directory to another. So if you're coming from a developing country, you could be an actual Superman but you'll still get a 15-20% discount on the salary you're offered, compared to someone of equal skill holding a first-world passport.

Conclusion


So OK, recruiters! you receive requirements from the operators or vendors and you're very busy. But if you took the time to read the ads you put online, you might want to modify them a bit to look more serious. When I see the ad described in this article, I feel that this recruiter is a clown. The title of this ad is "senior 3G Radio Optim", so a really professional recruiter should instead emphasize strong requirements on optim and mention all the rest as being advantageous. But the SUPER-Superman does not exist and it will encourage people to lie on their CV, in order to match the position advertised. Oops! I broke the story: a lot of people lie on their CV. I don't, even though I often thought that I should, just so I was not disadvantaged compared to most of the others who do. Encouraging people to lie and recruiting liars is not good for you, it is not good for your client, and it is not good for contractors (except maybe the liar who got a job he didn't deserve).
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