My Squirrel Phase

Young naive folks are likely to do things which in retrospect are pretty stupid. I was a child once and I was naive too. So I did stupid things. It gets even stupider when said child is trying to say things in a language he does not master. There was an ethnic insult against Anglophones which was current in Québec when I was a kid: “square head.” (The Urban Dictionary states that the insult is always expressed in French but this is false.) I heard the insult without the benefit of knowing English or getting a full explanation as to what it meant. An untrained ear is treacherous. Soon I started calling the Anglos “squirrels.” You can imagine the surprise when someone addressing me in English would get the evil eye accompanied with the exclamation “DAMNED SQUIRREL!!!”

Auditory stink

As I was riding on the bus recently, another passenger a few rows behind me was listening to music.  He or she had headphones on but the music was loud enough to leak out of the headphones.   When there is leakage, it does not matter whether the music is actually Mozart or Britney Spears: it always sounds like someone rhythmically shaking the utensils drawer in the kitchen while a buddy remodels the bathroom with a jackhammer. And then whatever singing there may be sounds like someone screaming in a pillow.

While listening to the other passenger’s utensil music, it occurred to me that I was experiencing the auditory equivalent of having to smell someone’s stink.  That is, someone oozing jackhammer music all over the place is not unlike someone smelling like rotten garbage.

It is remarkable that the same people who would not dream of going out of the house smelling like garbage would think nothing of stinking up the air with sound. Well, I guess the answer here is that body odor is commonly associated with bad hygiene. This is where social pressure comes in. It does not really matter what the real story is: if someone smells bad, then the automatic presumption is that that person has bad hygiene. If we were to ask, then maybe the story would be that a baby just pooped on that poor individual and that they are rushing home to change their clothes because they do know that everybody in the world will assume they can’t be bothered to wipe their own asses, etc. When it comes to auditory stink, no presumption of bad hygiene exists. So there is no potential for embarrassment here.

Maybe through social engineering there would be a way to make “auditory stink” socially unacceptable. I don’t know where I would start though…

Sugar, sugar everywhere!

Yes, I’ve heard before about how food manufacturers put sugar in everything but it is only last weekend that the issue became real for me.  (Call me “slow” if you will… or call me “Susan” if it rocks your boat.)  Debbie wanted to buy canned soup.  (Useful to have in a pinch.)   She started looking at this and that can saying “can’t have this, can’t have that.”   I asked why and she told me the carbs were too high.  (Not due to a  fad diet, if you are wondering.)  So I started looking too.  I was flipping cans left and right like a real grocery store ninja but none of the soups had an adequate level of carbs.  I noticed that a soup which had pasta in it had as much carbs as a vegetable soup without pasta.  This was counterintuitive so I looked closely at both lists of ingredients and quickly found the problem: the vegetable soup, the one without pasta, had high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) listed as the second ingredient.   I checked a few other soups which did not advertise any high-carb ingredient in their name or in the picture on the front of the can but they also had HFCS or sugar listed early in the ingredient list.

We’ll have to start looking at alternatives because this is ridiculous.

A note about security in the cloud

People who know me well know that I do not easily entrust my data to the cloud. I find that even with the best of intentions, the risk of accidental data leakage is just to great. There has been a recent case proving that my fears are founded.

A bug in Gmail allowed students at some schools to read each other’s emails. I don’t know about you but I’d rather not have other people read my emails. (Yes, I know the vast majority of emails are transfered in plain text. I does not entail that it is okay for my colleagues to be able to access my mail folders.)

False Inconsistency

An AP piece, titled “STIMULUS WATCH: GOP opposes plan then seeks money“, implies that some Republicans politicians are inconsistent because they opposed Obama’s stimulus bill and yet petitioned to get some of the stimulus money to their constituents. The article implies that the mere action of opposing the stimulus bill combined with the mere action of advocating that some of the stimulus money be spent on certain projects (rather than others) is inconsistent. I could see how the rhetoric surrounding both actions could be inconsistent but the article does not go into that direction. Let me repeat myself, the implication is that if a politician opposed the bill but wanted the stimulus money to be spent in a certain way, then this is sufficient to show that the politician is inconsistent.

Well I guess it would sound convincing to someone who never had to manage anything substantial in their life. I think it is perfectly natural and wise to plan for contingencies. A politician could sincerely oppose the bill and yet at the same time sincerely plan for the money to be spent wisely if it so happens that the bill passes. It would actually be irresponsible to do otherwise. A politician’s constituents are not isolated from the effects of a bill because the politician who represents them opposed this bill. The politician should actually make representations so that if the bill passes, his constituents are served.

Now, this does not mean that there are not other opportunities for these politicians to be inconsistent, or to dissemble. If a congressman opposed the stimulus bill and then while campaigning for reelection later claims that a project which benefited from stimulus money owes this benefit to him, without further qualification, then this claim is a misrepresentation. Because then he would be hiding the fact that he initially opposed the bill. However, this scenario is absent from the AP article.

It troubles me to see this kind of sensationalist journalism published. It troubles me even more when people believe it. It fuels a kind of knee-jerk mentality. This is a mentality which divides the world in well delimited and static polar opposites: us vs them, good vs bad. This is a mentality which seeks reassurance of its own worth. This is a mentality which can never be surprised but has already decided the outcome of all situations.

Let’s keep in touch!

Recently, I’ve stumbled upon this little piece of wisdom: “stop pretending that you are going to keep in touch with someone if you don’t really mean it.” The context of this advice was when you run into old schoolmates or workmates, chat for 2 minutes and then exclaim: “let’s keep in touch.”

I find myself in agreement with this advice.  When someone tells me “let’s keep in touch”, I take the statement at face value: that person really intends to keep in touch.   Now, I realize that people often say things they do not mean.   They say things like “Wow! I love your new hairdo.” while thinking “Who’s your hairdresser?  A ferret?”  So it is quite likely that “let’s keep in touch” is a socially appropriate thing to say but that there is no real intent behind it.  As likely as it may be, that’s not the way I take it.  I take it as an expression of real intent.

I’m not the kind of guy who readily keeps in touch with people. So I’d find it dishonest on my part to let the person who says “let’s keep in touch” believe that there’s any substantial probability that we will, in fact, keep in touch.  So my reply to “let’s keep in touch” is usually to point out how in actuality it is unlikely to happen.  And then the reaction I get is similar to the one I’d get if I had just said “away from me, you leper!”

Unscrupulous people stealing financial information

When it comes to securing the data I have on my computers, I take the task seriously. I use Ubuntu and Windows on my laptop.  The Ubuntu installation is fully encrypted.  There’s a performance hit but I feel pretty sure that if my laptop is ever stolen or lost or needs service by a third party, I won’t be at risk of getting sensitive information stolen.  The Windows side is not (yet) encrypted but I do not use Windows intensively or for sensitive tasks so I’m not very worried about that.

Now, when I talk to other people about this, I’m told that I’m paranoid.  If I’m not keeping porn on my laptop, I have nothing to worry about.  If my laptop is stolen, no one will take time to look for banking information.  The techs who perform service are interested searching for porn, not financial details.  Basically, I’m told I’m worrying for nothing. (Now, logically-minded readers will have figured out that the flip side of this bad reasoning is that if I do worry about people snooping through my hard disk, then it means I must have porn on there.)

Well, well, it turns out that a Sky News undercover investigation that technicians do indeed look for financial information on the laptop they service and they try to use it to break into banking accounts.  OMG!  Who would have thunk?

The solution against unscrupulous technicians is to give them a clean drive: a drive which contains no sensitive information.  My point here is not that encryption is the solution but that unscrupulous people are indeed after your financial information.  Encryption is part of the arsenal of tools to protect against that.

Pride is strange

I do feel angry about things, happy about things, annoyed about things, sad about things. Pride, however, is not natural for me.  It is not that there is nothing I could point at and express pride about.  I can conceive that someone might feel pride if their hard work is fruitful. I can also conceive that someone could feel pride in someone else’s accomplishment to some extent.  I mean insofar as one can be instrumental in someone else’s success.  I can conceive of these kinds of pride even if I don’t usually feel pride. But some kinds of pride just plain seem silly.

“I am the proud owner of [brand name gizmo].”

Say what now? You walked into a store and bought your gizmo. Is this some sort of achievement to feel proud of? Are you also proud of being able to walk without drooling all over yourself? How about “I am the proud owner of a banana.”

“I am proud to be [ethnic group or nationality].”

Bravo! Luck made it so that you were born with that ethnicity and nationality. Now, if you want to feel even more pride, grab a coin, flip it, and scream to everybody nearby that you are proud that you got head or tail. For more variety, grab a die instead of a coin and wear some sexy lace.

Sometimes national pride is expressed as:

“I am proud to be [nationality] because [my nation] did [something awesome].”

Now the funny thing is that the same person who asserts the above won’t usually want to admit “I feel ashamed to be [nationality] because [my nation] did [something terrible].” In this case, pride is axiomatic. It has been drilled into the individual from a young age. No amount of disconfirming evidence is able to overturn this pride. It is especially bizarre when the “something awesome” part of the formula consists of some event which happened before the prideful person was even born. Pride for something you contributed to? Ok. Pride for something you cannot possibly have been contributing to? Say what? You might as well feel pride for your neighbor’s doings then.  Or you might as well feel pride for the imaginary achievements of imaginary persons: “I’m proud that Luke Skywalker was able to blow up the Death Star.”