I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Books: Faster, by James Gleick

I have decided that sometimes I should also recommend books, not just criticise the books I don't like.  Here is the first one.  Let's see how it goes.

The book is Faster, by James Gleick, the well known author of Chaos.

I picked up a copy of the book in a reminders' bookshop and it was a very good buy.

Gleick analyses the roots of the frenetic and ever faster modern life.  The book was first published fifteen years ago, but it hasn't aged at all.  What follows is my interpretation of the essence of the book and my reflections on its content.

The world has become very competitive.  As a result, everybody keeps looking for "an edge".  That is, for something that will give them a bit of an advantage over their competitors.  This applies to every organisation and individual living in a modern society, and especially in western-style capitalistic societies.

An edge could consist of working a little bit longer, employing a new technique or tool, optimising your time, exploiting other people's work, focussing on what counts most, or (and), effectively, anything that will increase our output, either in terms of quality or (more often) in terms of quantity.

How we use/spend/employ/waste/enjoy our time, according to Gleick (and I agree), is of paramount importance.  That's why we keep looking at our watch; that's why we are so impatient; that's why we hate queues; that's why we plan and prioritise our days.

Unfortunately, every edge we develop has already been developed by others, or soon will be.  In our attempt to emerge from the masses and be successful, we keep struggling up a downward escalator, whereby failure to become more productive means going backward.  And, to push the metaphor further, the downward escalator doesn't move at uniform speed.  It accelerates.

This is an intrinsically unstable system, in which a positive feedback leads to explosive conclusions: we work harder and faster to emerge but, as everybody else does it as well, we need to work even faster.  This has made possible incredible achievements, but we are paying those achievements with our health and wellbeing.

It wasn't always like this.  Before the industrial revolution or even just before the introduction of production lines, time was not money.  But for the past good one hundred years everything is money, including time.  Even if, contrary to money and despite colloquialisms, time cannot be gained or saved: every second spent is lost forever and cannot ever been recovered.

H.G. Wells, in his "A Modern Utopia" of 1905, described a future in which we would work five hours a week.  Modern technology might allow to do so, but the increase in efficiency and productivity generated by technology, instead of automatically resulting in a reduction of working hours, is used to a large extent to fuel growth.  The average number of weekly working hours has been steadily falling in developed countries, but we are still very far from the Utopian levels predicted by Wells.

During my working life in Italy, Germany, Australia, Switzerland, and France, I was steadily under pressure to work longer hours.  Australia was the worst offender, and I often had to work 60 h/week or more.  You might think that it was because I was slow or not good enough, but that was not the case.  Everybody around me struggled.  When I worked at Prime R&D in Canberra, we had a HR person to take care of only thirty developers.  Such a very high ratio (1/30) was deemed necessary to enable us to survive the pressure we had to endure and the resulting conflicts.  Perhaps I enjoyed reading Faster because it resonated with what I had experienced.

The book is also full of snippets of time-related information that I found very interesting.

For example, at MacDonald's, in 1997 its marketers tried to speed up [...] by offering refunds to any customer not served within fifty-five seconds (p.245).  That's what I would call a pressure-cooker environment, even if at MacDonald's everything is fried!  ;-)

Star Trek DTI: Watching the Clock - How disappointing!

In 1997 I discovered the existence of Star Trek novels.  Since then, I bought and read 146 novels, mostly in The Next Generation series.  To be precise: 97 TNG, 4 OS, 3 DS9, 26 Voyager, 5 Enterprise, and 11 New Frontier.  Very recently, I discovered that Pocket Books had started publishing a new series, centred on the Department of Temporal Investigation (DTI).  As I have always liked stories involving time travel and time paradoxes, I immediately bought the two DTI novels published so far, and started reading the first one, Watching the Clock.

At the time of writing this post, I have read 287 of its 488 pages.  I will finish it, but it has been a disappointment.  Before saying what I don't like in it, I will reproduce for you the index of major sections, chapters, and subsections of the first 100 pages:

PRESENT TIME - STARDATE 58188.4 TO 58193.8
    1  March 10, 2381 Common Era, Gregorian Calendar - A Tuesday
        DTI Branch Office - San Francisco, North Am, Earth - 18:32 UTC
        U.S.S. Everett NCC-72392 - March 12, 2381 CE (A Thursday) - 03:14 UTC
        03:21 UTC
        05:47 UTC
        06:11 UTC
        08:27 UTC
        Regulus Passenger Lines Transport Verity - 10:36 UTC
        U.S.S. Everett - 11:02 UTC
        11:37 UTC
        18:02 UTC
        18:27 UTC
DOWNTIME - STARDATE 41697.9 TO 41906.7
    2  Kartika 13, 2286 Saka Era, Indian National Calendar - A Wednesday
        Dulmur Residence - Motilal City, Nehru Colony - 05:46 UTC
        Indira City - 13:27 UTC
        Dulmur Residence - 17:54 UTC
        Vandor IV - Agrahayana 7, 2286 SE (A Friday) - 20:43 UTC
        20:52 UTC
    3  Julian Day 2590805 - A Monday
        DTI Headquarters - Greenwich, European Alliance, Earth - 14:11 UTC
        Julian Days 2590812 to 2590823
        Julian Days 2590825 to 2590833
        Julian Days 2590834 to 2590838
        Julian Days 2590841 to 2590849
DOWNTIME - STARDATE 42692.8 TO 42704.5
    4  Day 18 of et'Khior, Year of ShiKahr 9051 - A Saturday
        Lucsly Residence - San Francisco - 14:54 UTC
        DTI Branch Office - San Francisco - 16:14 UTC
        Shuttlecraft Deutsch - Traversing Sector 006 - 21:16 UTC
        Warlock Station - 19 et'Khior, YS 9051 (A Sunday) - 19:59 UTC
        20 et'Khior, YS 9051 (A Monday) - 07:06 UTC

What is immediately apparent from the titles of the major sections is the alternance of events in the present and downtime (i.e., in the past).

First of all, according to Wikipedia, Star Trek The Next Generation Writer's/Director's Guide of March 23, 1987 (p. 13) defines stardate as follows:
A stardate is a five-digit number followed by a decimal point and one more digit. Example: "41254.7." The first two digits of the stardate are always "41." The 4 stands for 24th century, the 1 indicates first season. The additional three leading digits will progress unevenly during the course of the season from 000 to 999. The digit following the decimal point is generally regarded as a day counter.
As the DTI series is contemporary to TNG and Voyager, stardates beginning with 58 are wrong.  Another mistake: the differences in stardates of the major sections are clearly too large.  For example, 5.4 in the first section, while everything happens between a Tuesday and a Thusday, which would imply a stardate change of 0.3.

But there is a more substantial problem: headings are meant to help the reader understand what's going on, but things like "Kartika 13, 2286 Saka Era" and "Day 18 of et'Khior" are at best irrelevant and at worst confusing.  Furthermore, and somewhat ridiculously, although the dates are given in a cryptic way, the hours are always given in UTC and there is always the day of the week.  Does Bennett expects us to believe that Greenwich time is used on a planet that follows an "et'Khior" calendar (whatever that is)?  Or that they have seven-day weeks?  I find it pathetic.

Before I forget, the Julian Day of January 1, 2000, was 2,451,545.  How can it suddenly be back to 2590805 in 2381?

I hate useless/wrong/confusing things only done for show!

The bottom line is that you should only look at the distinction between PRESENT TIME and DOWNTIME, consider the UTC time (which is sometimes marginally useful), and ignore the rest.

Besides the detail I have just talked about, there are two further (and, in my opinion, more serious) issues: the first one concerns the use of references to events described in the TV series, and the second one has to do with how the story flows (or doesn't).

Bennett seems to have gone out of his way to cram into the novel as many references as possible to timeflow-related incidents that occurred to Kirk, Picard, and Janeway.  For a fan, it is nice to find references, but Bennett does it excessively.  As far as I can see, he refers to all time-inversions and time-loops that occurred in the TV series, with descriptions and stardates.  After the first couple, I started thinking: Oh no...  not another one!  I'm curious to see what he will refer to in his second novel...

But I have left last the biggest criticism I have about this novel: it is full of irrelevant facts, which only contribute to interrupt the flow of the narrative.  I'm pretty confident that if we removed all Downtime sections, the main story would come out better.  Flashbacks have been used in fiction for centuries.  Some novels have even been written as single flashbacks.  But these Downtime stories are like self-contained short stories, with little or no connection to the main story.  He didn't need so many flashbacks to introduce the characters and provide context.

In general, I find the main story fragmentary and unfocussed.  It might be due to the presence of so many distracting flashbacks, but I am not sure.  Perhaps Bennett thought that the silly dates, the many references to past events, and the plethora of races new and old would keep ST fans happy.  But it is nothing more than a heap of clutter.  There is no substitute for a good plot presented in a clean, uncluttered way.  Especially when talking about time travel.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Authors' Mistakes #29 - P.Warren & M.Streeter

I recently completed reading cyber alert, by Peter Warren & Michael Streeter.  Not uninteresting and, in general, easy to read.  But several mistakes crept in.

# Page Description
1 5 "How can she allowed".  A "be" between "she" and "allowed" is missing.
2 27 "would come under attack from sustained attack from determined criminals".  One "attack" and one "from" would be enough.  The two words "attack from" between "under" and "sustained" should go.
3 28 "a person who no real proven desire".  A "had" between "who" and "no" is missing.
4 31 "take the view that - as I did - that Parliament".  It is in a quote, but it would surprise me if the first "that" was in the original text.
5 43 "the attack on the twin towers of 9 September 2001".  If the Americans did what the rest of the world does and write the day before the month, such confusions would never take place.  They could also go metric and forget gallons, inches, feet, yards, miles, ounces and pounds, but that's another story.  Then, perhaps, when they get going, they could also switch from Fahrenheit to Centigrade.  After all, Star Trek was metric!
6 57 "The work carried out at such sites as Symantec in Hampshire is just a part of the massive security effort aimed at keeping computers and the internet from being attacked by criminal and terrorists".  It sounds good, but it is impossible to prevent attacks.  All you can do is prevent the attacks from having damaging or catastrophic results.
7 61 "in spite of the avowal of government units [...] that part of their remit".  There should be an "it is" between "that" and "part".
8 95 "Such is the speed with which criminals role out new technology".  Replace "role" with "roll".
9 125 "the source's impeccable credentials [...] least raise at the very least some intriguing questions".  Replace "least raise at the very least" with "at the very least raise".
10 146 "not to reply on operating systems that worked on just once basic code".  Two mistakes in one sentence: replace "reply" with "rely" and "once" with "one".
11 152 "The Philippines did not that at the time have".  Remove "that".
12 225 "trend is beginning to merge".  With what?  Replace "merge" with "emerge".

OK.  I concede that none of the mistakes I detected are conceptual.  It is already something.  But they are still annoying, though.  For the record, I do read books in which I don't detect any mistake at all!

For your reference, here are the links to all past “Authors’ Mistakes” articles:
Lee Child: Die Trying
Colin Forbes: Double Jeopardy
Akiva Goldsman: Lost in Space
Vince Flynn: Extreme Measures
Máire Messenger Davies & Nick Mosdell: Practical Research Methods for Media and Cultural Studies
Michael Crichton & Richard Preston: Micro
Lee Child: The Visitor
Graham Tattersall: Geekspeak
Graham Tattersall: Geekspeak (addendum)
Donna Leon: A Noble Radiance
007 Tomorrow Never Dies
Vince Flynn: American Assassin
Brian Green: The Fabric of the Cosmos
John Stack: Master of Rome
Dean Crawford: Apocalypse
Daniel Silva: The Fallen Angel
Tom Clancy: Locked On
Peter David: After Earth
Douglas Preston: Impact
Brian Christian: The Most Human Human
Donna Leon: Fatal Remedies
Sidney Sheldon: Tell Me Your Dreams
David Baldacci: Zero Day
Sidney Sheldon: The Doomsday Conspiracy
CSI Miami
Christopher L. Bennett: Make Hub, Not War
CSI Miami #2 (Robert Hornak)
Jack Greene & Alessandro Massignani
Peter James

Authors' Mistakes #28 - Peter James

The blurb on the back cover of Peter James's Perfect People defines it the perfect thriller.  But I found out, as I almost always do, that a reasonably interesting story was marred by editing errors.  Not too many, but enough to annoy me (but then, I am very easily annoyed...)

# Page Description
1 2 "The deck drops away beneath him, then moment later is rising, pressing up on his feet like an elevator floor, heaving his stomach up against his rib cage".  It seems that neither James nor the book's editors have any notion of Physics.  And they have never taken a fast elevator either.  When an elevator quickly accelerates upwards or quickly stops its descent, its floor needs to exercise an increased upward pressure on the sole of your feet, which, in turn, transfer that pressure to the rest of your body.  When your pelvis pushes upwards against your internal organs in order to make it go faster upwards or slower downwards, you actually feel as if your stomach were pushed down!  It is when you quickly stop an upward movement or quickly start a downward movement that your stomach, so to speak, hits your throat.  But in that case, your feet, rather than being pushed up, might actually come off the floor.
2 16/17 The first page of a document is marked "Page 1 of 16", but after showing it to Naomi, Dr Dettore states that the document contains "another sixteen pages".  Well, are they 16 or 17?
3 140 "Just as silently as they had surfaced and struck, the Disciple of the Third Millenium seem to have faded back into ether".  Grammar mistake: "seemed" should replace "seem".
4 242 John reads and sends emails from his computer and plays chess with Gus in Brisbane, but, according to James, "he didn't leave the computer online either here or at the office".  James must know that computers can communicate with the rest of the world only when they are online.  He probably meant to say that John switched off the computer or disconnected it from the network when he wasn't there.  But it is an example of very sloppy writing.
5 263 "John, she was accusing you and I of being responsible".  Please!  Is this how we are supposed to talk nowadays?  Do we also say "she will kill I" and "she saw I?"
6 283 Phoebe was writing a Word document on her computer.  Her mother, to stop her, "walked over to the wall and yanked the plug out".  Yeah.  The problem is that Phoebe's computer was a laptop.  Laptops have batteries, don't they?
7 290 "Was this her way telling them".  The "of" between "way" and "telling" is missing.  Or do people speak like that?
8 415 While in Rome, "He walked over to the window.  It was a huge, heavy old sash, double-glazed".  Well, I lived in Rome for longer than 30 years and then visited it several times, staying in several hotels.  I can testify that sash windows, new or old, do not exist in Rome.  Actually, I never saw one in Italy.  Perhaps some Americans or British living there import them to feel at home, but I doubt it.  And in Rome I never saw a double-glazed window either.
9 416 "You have a reservation on Alitalia flight 1050 to Dubai".  But Alitalia flies (and has always flown) to Abu Dhabi, not Dubai.
10 426 "...into another elevator.  John's stomach dropped [this is right].  Then, moments later, the floor pressed up against his feet".  Again the feet pressed up?  James and the editor seem convinced than this is what happens when an upward elevator stops...

To top it off, the prose was not fluid at all.  It was quirky and dry.  It was not a pleasure to read it.

For your reference, here are the links to all past “Authors’ Mistakes” articles:
Lee Child: Die Trying
Colin Forbes: Double Jeopardy
Akiva Goldsman: Lost in Space
Vince Flynn: Extreme Measures
Máire Messenger Davies & Nick Mosdell: Practical Research Methods for Media and Cultural Studies
Michael Crichton & Richard Preston: Micro
Lee Child: The Visitor
Graham Tattersall: Geekspeak
Graham Tattersall: Geekspeak (addendum)
Donna Leon: A Noble Radiance
007 Tomorrow Never Dies
Vince Flynn: American Assassin
Brian Green: The Fabric of the Cosmos
John Stack: Master of Rome
Dean Crawford: Apocalypse
Daniel Silva: The Fallen Angel
Tom Clancy: Locked On
Peter David: After Earth
Douglas Preston: Impact
Brian Christian: The Most Human Human
Donna Leon: Fatal Remedies
Sidney Sheldon: Tell Me Your Dreams
David Baldacci: Zero Day
Sidney Sheldon: The Doomsday Conspiracy
CSI Miami
Christopher L. Bennett: Make Hub, Not War
CSI Miami #2 (Robert Hornak)
Jack Greene & Alessandro Massignani

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Blind Cut

Earlier this evening, I saw on ABC News an interview with a boy who has problems in identifying the value of banknotes.  His mother has just presented to the federal government a petition with more than 50,000 signatures to do something about it.  With so many people who have problems with eye sight, it makes a lot of sense that money bills should be easily recognisable by touch.

Canada has adopted bills that have bumps, but the concern is that, with prolonged use, the bumps might flatten out and become useless.

I have a solution that would be easy to implement and wouldn't even require to print new bills.  Here it is:

That is, cut a corner from the $10, two corners from the $20, three corners from the $50, and all four corners from the $100.  The $5 bills can remain as they are:

Nobody would confuse the bills anymore, and the current bills could be cut by the Reserve Bank precisely to spec.  The alternative of leaving the $100 unchanged and cut more corners as the value of the bill decreases wouldn't be as good because:
  • The smallest bills probably are the most widely used, while few people handle the $100 bills.  Therefore, it makes sense to apply the most severe "mutilation" to the least used denomination.
  • "More cuts, more value" is easier to remember.
Unfortunately,  the system could still be abused, and somebody might cut a corner of a small denomination and give it to a non-seeing person to get away with a smaller payment than due.  But this wouldn't be worse than what is happening now...

Saturday, February 8, 2014

CSI Miami got its Physics wrong

In the episode titled Sinner Takes All of the 10th and final season of CSI Miami, the CGI people got an animation wrong and nobody noticed.

They showed a bullet in slow motion.  The grooves caused by the rifling impression of the barrel were left-handed, but the bullet was spinning in the opposite direction, as shown in the following sketch:

That was clearly wrong.  To convince yourself of the mistake, imagine to look at the inside of the barrel, as shown in this classic image from Sean Connery's Bond films (actually, I flipped it horizontally because the rifling in the original image was right-handed):

The bullet, forced to go through the barrel, would spin in the same direction of the rifling, not in the opposite one as shown in Miami CSI.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Aborigines and the Australian Constitution

Australian Aborigines request recognition in the Constitution.  Tony Abbott, the Prime Minister, stated last August (see theguardian.com) that such a recognition would complete our constitution.  This is obviously nonsense, as our constitution is not incomplete, and any addition to it would be an amendment.

All politicians make favourable noises concerning such an amendment.  Therefore, it is almost certain that we will arrive to a referendum, so that all Australians will have their say about it.

As I don't care a little bit about political correctness, I will state straight away that I will vote against such an amendment.

I am not racist (I know: most racists would state exactly that, and you are free to think that I am one of them if it pleases you; I know I am not), but I cannot see what the presence for 40,000 years of Aborigines on this continent has to do with the Australian Constitution.  A constitution is the basic law of the country and, as such, there is no need for it to state that somebody was present before the modern state was formed.

The Aborigines were mistreated, abused, and killed.  Still today, they clearly represent a disadvantaged minority and are often discriminated against.  I consider it a moral duty of all Australians to work towards redressing centuries of injustice and to make possible for Aborigines to have the same opportunities that most Australians take for granted.  And it is not only an altruistic attitude, because there would be great benefits for the whole society.

We should also be prepared to support the Aboriginal communities for as long as necessary, but the constitution shouldn't mention any particular section of the Australian nation.  It should be equally valid for all of us.  I would rather create an Australian Bill of Rights and then focus on ensuring that all Australians, Aboriginal or not, enjoy them.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Authors' Mistakes #27 - Jack Greene & Alessandro Massignani

This time I want to report a case of appalling copyediting (and proofreading).   When I read The Naval War in the Mediterranean 1940-1943 by Jack Greene & Alessandro Massignani I couldn't believe my eyes.  An otherwise interesting and obviously well researched book was spoiled by so many mistakes that I almost gave up marking them.  But I didn't, and you will find their list below the cover image.

"then vice-versa" should be "than vice-versa"
"Britian" should be "Britain"
"Baleri" should be "Baleari"
"ot" should be "of"
"Pri-colo" should be "Pricolo"
"hangers" should be "hangars" (we are taking about airplanes, not wardrobes!
"Albatross" should be "Albatros", because it refers to the name of an Italian ship.  This mistake occurs twice.
"lead" shoul be "led"
"diffrence" should be "difference"
"would named" should be "was named"
"from in Sicily" should be "from Sicily"
"Boliano" should be "Bolzano"
"a air" should be "an air"
"decided inside" should be "decided instead"
"maiali was" should be "maiale was", because "maiali" is plural
"the two of" should be "two of"
"mading" should be "making"
"crusiers" should be "cruisers"
"While touring the port large crowds had turned out" should be "while he was touring the port large crouds had turned out", because it was Cunningham who was touring the port, not the crowds.  I would have also inserted a comma after "the port", but let's not be too picky...
"withdrawl" should be "withdrawal"
Very bad grammar.  It could be fixed for example by replacing  "and they promised the Italian" with "and their failed promise to the Italians to provide"
"Marinkommando" should be "Marinekommando"
"It has always taken" should be "It has always been taken"
"commision" should be "commission"
"approachs" should "approaches"
"Calcutta, Calcutta and Carlisle" should be "Calcutta and Carlisle"
"Guilia" should be "Giulia".  This is an example of the common mistake made by English speakers when they write "Guiseppe" instead of "Giuseppe" and "Guilio" instead of "Giulio" (my name...  sigh...)
"They was" should be "They were"
Bad, bad grammar: "Four freighters were at sea, three in a convoy escorted by six destroyers that had left Taranto on the afternoon of the 16th, and the other by a destroyer and a torpedo-boat."  Grammatically, this sentence means that the six destroyers escorting three of the freighters had left Taranto, leaving unclear where the three escorted freighters were coming from.  But I believe that the intention was to say that the three freighters had left Taranto together with their escort of six destroyers.  At the very least, the sentence is tortuous and ambiguous.  I would have said: "Four freighters were at sea.  Three had left Taranto on the afternoon of the 16th with an escort of six destroyers, and the fourth freighter was escorted by a destroyer and a torpedo-boat."  Or something like that.
"nearly being colliding" should be "nearly colliding"
"such just an attemp" shoud be "such an attempt"
There are two consecutive "that"s, one before a quotation and one at the beginning of it.  One of the two should not be there.  I'm not sure whether the quoted text contained the opening "that", but I would have removed it anyway.  it doesn't seem nice to start a quotation with "... that".
The authors inserted a "[sic]" within a quotation after the word "neutralising".  They should have not, because they were quoting admiral Cunningham, and in British English "neutralise" is correct.  It is only in American English that the word would have been spelled as "neutralize".  They were not quoting Nimitz, were they?
"try and convince" should be "try to convince".  To use "and" after "try" is a colloquialism and should have no place in a History book.
"Ricarrdi" should be "Riccardi"
"shipbuilding capacity was not sufficient to replace losses of warships and particularly merchant ships which were being sunk by the Allies in increasing numbers".  First of all, "particularly" is out of place, because "merchant ships" are not a subset of "warships".  Secondly, which should be preceded by a comma.  I would have said: "shipbuilding capacity was not sufficient to replace losses of warships and of merchant ships, which were being sunk by the Allies in increasing numbers".  It would still remain a somewhat awkward sentence, but at least it would be correct.
"liaision" should be "liaison"
"the supply situation to North Africa" should be "the supply situation in North Africa"
"the need to chose" should be "the need to choose"
"took place at Bremen" should be "took place in Bremen"
"(known as Ra.Ri from Radiodetectortelemetri)".  First of all "Radiodetectortelemetri" is not Italian.  This term refers to rangefinders that Ugo Tiberio developed for the Regia Marina, but it was written "Radio-Detector Telemetri", or "RDT".  The abbreviation "RaRi" (without any period in between) was used to abbreviate the word "Radiotelemetri", which was introduced later.  Unfortunately, I have not been able to determine the meaning of "Ri", although I suspect that it might refer to "Ritorno", which means "return".  "Radio Ritorno" would make sense, as a radiotelemetro measures the distance of an object by determining how long it takes for a radio wave to come back to the generating antenna after being reflected by the object in question.
"would be pass" should be "would be passed"
"Ammirglio" should be "Ammiraglio"
"less agricultural land then" should be "less agricultural land than"
"Stormos" should be "Stormi".  The authors built the plural of the Italian "stormo" as if it were an English word.
"Gioherti" should be "Gioberti"
A "pearl" of grammatical beauty: "The German 3rd Motor Torpedo Boat Flottilla under Lieutenant-Commander Kemnade operating against the retreating British fleeing Tobruk and sank the South African minesweeper Parktown and some small craft."  MMmmm... "operating and sank"?
"'Fingerspitzengefühl' ('gut feeling')".  Here there are two mistakes.  First of all, Fingerspitzengefühl literally means "feeling with the tips of the fingers" and is used in German to indicate an attention to a finely tuned intuition.  I would translate it as something like "finely tuned intuition".  The translation ("good feeling") would be in German the simpler "Gutes gefühl".  Secondly, "gut" is not English, is it?
"on other hand" should be "on the other hand"
"Of these, 10,932 of them" should be either "Of these, 10,932" or "10,932 of them"
"'Soldatis'" should be "'Soldati'".  "Soldati" means "soldiers" and is already plural ("soldato" being the singular form).  In any case, the plural in Italian is not done by appending an 's' to the singular.  "Soldati" was the name of a class of destroyers.
"had to taken" should be "had to be taken"
"took nearer 60 seconds" should be "took close to 60 seconds", or perhaps "approximately 60 seconds"
"also played apart" should be "also played a part"
"they was" should be "they were"
"but they along with Vichy were fooled".  OK.  Commas are out of fashion, but if they didn't want to write "but they, along with Vichy, were fooled", they could have said "but they were fooled along with Vichy".  Or not?
"MFP of 200 tons (there were three types, A, B, and C)".  they should have said that MFP stands for Marinefährprahm (naval ferry barge).  Also, there were several types of MFPs, not just three.  And, in any case, why write a comma after "types" instead of a colon?
"losees" should be "losses"
"were the PT boats which" should be "were the PT boats that"
"attack transports which" should be "attack transports, which"
"Pantellaria" shoul be "Pantelleria"
"partol" should be "patrol"
" the where" should be ", where"
"afetr" should be "after"
On the same line: "oi" should be "of"
Again, a few lines below: "oi" should be "of".  How can it be?  'I' and 'F' are not even close on the keybord...
"as these" should be "these"
"south of the Appenines".  Two problems here.  Firsly, "Apennines" is the correct spelling in English.  Secondly, the Apennines are a mountain chain that stretches from the Ligurian Alps in northern Italy to Reggio Calabria, at the tip of the Italian peninsula.  Therefore, "south of the Apennines" is close to meaningless.
"disagreeded" should be "disagreed"
"Abdeil" should be "Abdiel".  The Royal Navy had over the years three ships named Abdiel.
"Guilio" should be "Giulio".  Again...
"It flys" should be "It flies".
"the Germans had effectively air superiority" is preceded by a comma.  It should be preceded by a full stop or, at least, a semicolon.
"and were often had not been" ???
Another "try and" that should be "try to"
"which was within their means" should be ", although it was within their means"

To top it off, there are even two mistakes in the captions of the images inserted in the middle of the book: Another occurrence of the infamous "Guilio" instead "Giulio" and a wrong date (they wrote 1950 instead 1940).

Almost a mistake every four pages of text.  Even MS Word would have detected many of them.  And what I have is the 2011 edition, not the original edition of 2002.  There has also been a US edition...

Now, I have probably made mistakes in this article.  But this is just bloody me, not the Frontline Books in London.

This is a real shame.  I'm seriously considering sending the list of mistakes to the publisher...

For your reference, here are the links to all past “Authors’ Mistakes” articles:
Lee Child: Die Trying
Colin Forbes: Double Jeopardy
Akiva Goldsman: Lost in Space
Vince Flynn: Extreme Measures
Máire Messenger Davies & Nick Mosdell: Practical Research Methods for Media and Cultural Studies
Michael Crichton & Richard Preston: Micro
Lee Child: The Visitor
Graham Tattersall: Geekspeak
Graham Tattersall: Geekspeak (addendum)
Donna Leon: A Noble Radiance
007 Tomorrow Never Dies
Vince Flynn: American Assassin
Brian Green: The Fabric of the Cosmos
John Stack: Master of Rome
Dean Crawford: Apocalypse
Daniel Silva: The Fallen Angel
Tom Clancy: Locked On
Peter David: After Earth
Douglas Preston: Impact
Brian Christian: The Most Human Human
Donna Leon: Fatal Remedies
Sidney Sheldon: Tell Me Your Dreams
David Baldacci: Zero Day
Sidney Sheldon: The Doomsday Conspiracy
CSI Miami
Christopher L. Bennett: Make Hub, Not War
CSI Miami #2 (Robert Hornak)

Friday, January 17, 2014

Yet another (stupid) email scam

A fourth article about Internet scams.  This time, I want to show you how stupid an email scam can be and, once more, how easy it is to recognise it.  Here is a snapshot of the email I received a couple of days ago:

It is a scam in Italian because it was sent to an Italian email address of mine (which you can actually see at the bottom of the image).  It says that I have exceeded the PayPal limit (never heard of such a thing; have you?) and that, according to a new Italian law (?!?), unless I update my profile information, the account will be suspended.  To update my account, I should click on the link.

When I took the snapshot, I hovered with the cursor over the link, so that the actual link could be captured at the bottom of the email client's window.  The text of the link indicates a secure link to paypal.com, but the page it is pointing to actually is on davidserra.es.  Either this David Serra from Barcelona is so stupid that he shows his real domain name, or somebody has highjacked it.  In any case, it is clear that the email has nothing to do with PayPal.

Furthermore, why should PayPal send an email from admin@webbergrp.com?

In any case, any Italian with a minimum of brain would have dismissed the scam even without checking the link, because the text is not grammatically correct.  You cannot possibly believe that PayPal would send emails with grammar mistakes, would you?

The worst mistake is that the email addresses the customer in three different ways: with "voi" (a plural "you" also used in the past as a form of respect), "lei" (a singular "you" with people you don't know), and "tu" (an informal singular "you").  There are also at least four adjectives that do not match gender and/or number of the corresponding nouns.

I wonder whether this David Serra (or whoever the scammer is) has managed to obtain with this email credit card or banking information.  If he did, I am almost inclined to say that those "customers" deserved to be scammed because of their stupidity!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Earlobes? Go figure!

A couple of days ago, I checked which ones of the more than 200 articles in this blog had attracted most page views.  Here is what I discovered:

OO - UML Behavior Diagrams (Sep 6, 2010) Computer Science 391898
Fortran and Eclipse on the Mac (Jan 4, 2011) Computer Science 331992
OO - UML Structure Diagrams (Sep 5, 2010) Computer Science 328082
Earlobes (Mar 19, 2012) Science, Me 3000140
Sudoku - A Handsome Samurai (Jan 19, 2011) Computer Science, Games & Puzzles 107530
Board Games (Feb 26, 2012) Games & Puzzles 49322
GLUT in C with Eclipse on the Mac (Feb 6, 2011) Computer Science 47413
KenKen Strategies (Mar 5, 2011) Games & Puzzles 46814
Homo Novus (Jul 24, 2010) Computer Science, AI 42010
Dismissive people, power, and all that (Jun 4, 2012) Society 32816

Computer Science, which actually includes everything concerning programming and software development, seems to be the clear winning subject, with six presences and the first three positions, followed by Games & Puzzles.

But, the longer an article is online, the more opportunities it has to attract viewers.  I have no fun to go through all the articles and divide each number of page views by the corresponding time since publication, but I did it for the top 10.  The column Freq is the approximate result when time is measured in months.

Again, Computer Science, at least in the limited scope of the sample, comes out as the winning subject, but look at Earlobes!

To be completely sure, one should check that there are no very recent articles with proportionately many views.  For example, a two-month-old article with 300 page views would not appear in the top 10 but would still rate 150 page views per month, higher than Earlobes.  Well, I checked out all articles with at least 100 page views, and they were all older than a few weeks.

It could still be that a very recent article will shot to the top, but to determine that we will have to wait.  For example, the article before this one, published two days ago, has been viewed so far 12 times.  Six views per day correspond to 180 views per month, but it is too soon to tell.

In conclusion, for the time being, my most viewed article is a 300-word article on different types of earlobes and how I need sometimes to flatten them up when I lay in bed.   MMmmm...

I know...  You might be thinking "What do I care about what a handful of people like to read in Giulio's blog?"  You are right.  But then, why have you read till here?   :-)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Scary AFP Scam

This is my third article about Internet scams.  The previous two (on 2011-09-12 and on 2012-03-07) were about email scams.  This time, I want to talk about a web scam.  Somebody must have highjacked a URL.  As a result, while attempting to access a web site, I was confronted with the following page (if you cannot read the text, right-click it and select View Image):

Scary, isn't it?

  1. The Australian Federal Police would never issue a fine via a web page.  And, if they wanted to seize your computer[s], they would come to your place in force and without notice, wake you up early in the morning, and take your computers to their labs.

  2. The domain name, although it starts with "aft.gov.au", is in fact the domain k318843.com, which was registered in China through http://www.bizcn.com/.  No way that the AFP would operate via a Chinese registrar.

  3. If any part of the Australian Government wanted to fine you, you would receive a letter through the mail, and they would not ask you to pay via Ucash within 12 hours!
My advice is therefore always the same: even if the graphic presentation is impressive and at first sight convincing, before taking any request seriously, regardless of whether it is for money or for personal information, check the originating email address or web domain very carefully.  Then, if you are still unsure, seek confirmation from the requesting organisation via a contact number or address that you have obtained via a public and independent source (e.g., telephone directory or their public web site).

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Reflections on Faith and Science

I haven't written a single article during this month of December.  It is today or never.

I am an atheist.  No doubt about it.  I don't believe that some all-powerful, self-conscious entity is interested in our lives or even that it exists.  There are no reasons for believing that a God exists, but neither are there reasons for not believing that it exists.  Therefore, the most logical position is to be an agnostic, not an atheist.  I should be able to say: I neither believe nor disbelieve.  And yet, I don't believe.  For somebody like me, who has a scientific formation, this is not completely satisfying, because I am asserting something that can be neither proven nor disproven.

In any case, the existence or non-existence of God doesn't affect my life in any way.  At least not directly, as what believers manage to impose on everybody else does have an influence on me.  Religious fervour has resulted in laws prohibiting abortion (like in Malta and Chile), traditions keeping girls out of school (like in Afghanistan), and regulations forcing restrictive dress codes on women (like in the Orthodox Jewish quarter of Tel Aviv, where women must cover their arms).  Obviously, I will never need an abortion, I have been able to attend school, and I am allowed to wear short-sleeved shirts wherever I want.  Nevertheless, these rules, often directed at women, are deeply annoying.

This distinction between atheism and agnosticism is just another way of placing people in boxes.  A more important distinction is whether people have doubts or not.  Certainties are dangerous.  Certainties make possible for fanatics to strap around their waists belts full of explosive and blow themselves up in public places.  Certainties have caused over the whole recorded history of Humanity persecutions of entire ethnics groups and tortures of millions.

In fact, I believe that certainties are responsible for most of the problems we have today.  There are too many faithfuls and not enough scientists.

What many non-scientists have difficulties in grasping is that no scientific statement can ever be proven to be absolutely true.  For example, Newton's theory of gravitation worked flawlessly for a long time and is still used every day.  But it was discovered that it couldn't fully explain the orbit of the planet Mercury.  Einstein's theory of gravitation solved that problem and has been confirmed by countless measurements.  Does it mean that Newton was wrong?  Not at all.  It only means that Newton's theory is an approximation of general relativity or, if you prefer, that Einstein's theory can explain a wider class of phenomena and with more accuracy.  Does it mean that Einstein's theory will always be right?  Again, not at all.  It only means that, so far, it has never been proven to be at fault (although, truth be told, general relativity has not been successfully integrated with quantum mechanics; but that's another story).

Scientific statements, therefore, are a never-ending work-in-progress.  They can be proven wrong in some cases, but the proof of their correctness never ends.  Despite of their intrinsic uncertainties, all these temporary laws of Physics can still be used to discover further laws that explain our universe.  It is a bit like crossing an infinitely wide mountain creek on wobbling stones: scientists keep stepping on the same wobbly theories and, as they progress, the older theories become more and more trustworthy; more stable paths are identified.

People who insist that Intelligent Design (ID) should be taught at school in Science classes as an alternative to Evolution by Natural Selection (ENS) can only do so because most people don't know what I have explained in the previous two paragraphs.  The ID people state that ENS is an unproven theory.  But there is no scientific theory completely proven.  It is impossible.  The key issue is that ENS can be disproven, while ID cannot.  That is why ENS is a scientific theory and ID is not!

The same problem pops up with the hoopla about climate change, levels of CO2, and whether the changes are anthropic or not.  People ignorant in Science would like to have clear, unambiguous, and final answers, and confuse scientific results with beliefs.  But certainty has no place in Science.

My attitude towards God is scientific: if, after asking me whether I believe that a God exists (to which, as I said, I would reply no), you asked me whether I'm sure, I would have to answer with another no.  Of course I'm not sure.  How could I?  But I don't need to introduce an "ad hock" entity that explains everything Science cannot [yet] understand.  For centuries, the Catholic Church was a drag on Science because it wanted to cling to what its revealed truth (actually, it still is).  It was (is) a problem caused by certainties (not "misplaced certainties", because all certainties are misplaced).

All so-called proofs of the existence of God that come to mind rely on negatives: all this beauty of nature cannot be the result of random events; we don't know how our universe came into existence; it cannot be that our existence has no purpose; etc.  But how can one claim to prove anything on the basis of what one doesn't know?  It is baffling.

I know little about Judaism and Islam (of which I am somewhat ashamed), but I was taught the Catholic catechism.  I strongly encourage you to have a look at it, especially if you have never done it before.  It is an amazing construction of cross-linked concepts.  I have to wonder how many so-called faithfuls actually believe much of what is in there...

As Alain de Botton convincingly explained in his book Religion for Atheists, religion has its functions and its usefulness in society.  But it should be kept in check and not overpower everything else.

Christianity might have shaped morality and laws of the western world, but I don't need a priest to tell me that to contribute to a harmonious society I should behave with others as I would like them to behave with me.  Luke's do to others as you would have them do to you (verse 6:31) is only an expression of a Golden Rule that has been recognised and applied everywhere since antiquity.

I believe that ENS has resulted in the collaborative attitude of human beings.  A typical example of such a "social" attitude is shown by how people behave when confronted with the game called "the prisoner's dilemma".  From Wikipedia (look in particular to the last sentence):

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of speaking to or exchanging messages with the other. The police admit they don't have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They plan to sentence both to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the police offer each prisoner a Faustian bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to betray the other, by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. Here's how it goes:

  • If A and B both betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison
  • If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)
  • If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)
It's implied that the prisoners will have no opportunity to reward or punish their partner other than the prison sentences they get, and that their decision won't affect their reputation in future. Because betraying a partner offers a greater reward than cooperating with them, all purely rational self-interested prisoners would betray the other, and so the only possible outcome for two purely rational prisoners is for them to betray each other. The interesting part of this result is that pursuing individual reward logically leads both of the prisoners to betray, when they would get a better reward if they both cooperated. In reality, humans display a systematic bias towards cooperative behavior in this and similar games, much more so than predicted by simple models of "rational" self-interested action.

It makes sense to speak of rules of ethics applicable to everyone, but, except for predispositions resulting from ENS, they ought to be based on rationality, with the aim of maximising our collective well-being, not allegedly inspired by a God invented to comfort us.  There is no need for a God to explain the validity of moral codes.

For millennia, religions played an important role in constraining some of human emotions that, if uncontrolled, would have resulted in chaos.  But, at the same time, religions also exploited those same emotions for their own purposes of expansion and control.  I say: let's get rid of them!

We must invest as much as possible in education, so that a secular, conscious morality will eventually replace the rules imposed by superstition, regardless of whether it is called witchcraft or religion.  One day, with the help of Science, we will be able to control our destructive emotions rationally, while still enjoying the positive ones.  Only then, we will have left behind the caves of our ancestors and be ready to explore the universe.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

My custom tiles for Carcassonne

I have played so far 94 games of Carcassonne, of which 89 where with The River extension, and 86 with the additional extension Inns and Cathedrals.  Additionally, I also played 17 times Carcassonne's Winter Edition, which is almost identical to the standard game.


I have a couple of other extensions, but I like best the combination of the basic game plus The River and Inns and Cathedrals.

That said, I started thinking that a couple of tiles where missing, and decided to make them myself.  Note that I always play Carcassone by taking the tiles from a canvas bag (rather than from piles as recommended in the rules).  Therefore, it doesn't really matter to me whether the back of the tiles I make looks identical to that of the original set.  That is, to be playable, my tiles only need to feel like the standard ones.

I used PaintShop Pro to edit scanned images of existing tiles, printed them on matt self-adhesive paper, and stuck them onto the right type of cardboard.

The first tiles I added where two each of the following ones:

Then, I decided to extend Inns and Cathedrals by adding the following two:

And finally, I extended The River by adding a river branch, (which required an additional river end) and a straight section of river:

But there was a problem with The River: I usually play the 10 tiles (now 12) by simply turning them face down on the table.  To be able to keep doing that, I made my own source and both ends.  This allowed me to stick the new river branch and the new river section to the front of the original source and end.  This worked because the additional thickness of the tiles due to the adhesive paper is not enough to make the tiles distinguishable when they are face down.

If you want to reproduce the tiles, download the images in this articles and print them with the scale of 100%.  As they have a resolution of 600dpi, they look as good as the originals!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Everybody spies on everyone

The relationship between the two governments of Australia and Indonesia is currently strained because the Australian Signal Directorate (which corresponds to the American NSA) has been caught spying on the telephone calls of the Indonesian president, his wife, and more than half a dozen senior officials.  I allowed myself to copy from the ABC-Australia web site the following slide, which was part of a presentation disclosed by Edward Snowden.  I'm confident that the ABC will not mind, as it has been shown in other web sites.

The release of the list has caused an uproar in Indonesia, with Australian flags being burned and demonstrations being held before the Australian embassy.  But everybody always spies on everybody else.  President Obama has reassured Bundeskanzlerin Merkel that the NSA will not spy again on her phone, but who believes it?  I certainly don't.

So, now Mr. Yudohoyono, the Indonesian president, to save face with his constituents, demands explanations and reassurances from Mr. Abbott, the Australian Prime Minister.  And to excercise pressure, he has also recalled the Ambassador and suspended a series of bilateral agreements.

As everything happened on the public scene, the Indonesian president had to react, and our Prime Minister has shown to be wet behind the ears by not satisfying his friend's Susilo Bambang's demands.  How silly is that?  Come on, mate.  Tell Susilo that you will not spy on him and his entourage anymore, and make peace, like two good boys!