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

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Authors' Mistakes #32 - Lee Child

Resistance is futile: Authors' Mistakes #32 - Lee Child I thought I would never write again about authors' mistakes. But I just finished reading a book that really annoyed me:

On page 118 of my Australian edition (ISBN 978-0-553-82554-1), Lee Child writes:
Would Susan Turner get a new Lawyer that afternoon? Answer: either yes or no. Fifty-fifty. Like heads or tails, like flipping a coin. Then: Would that new lawyer be a white male? Answer: either yes or no. Fifty-fifty. And then: Would first Major Sullivan or subsequently Captain Edmonds be in the buolding at the same time as Susan Turner's new lawyer? Assuming she got one? Answer: either yes or no. Fifty-fifty. And finally: Would all three lawyers have come in through the same gate as each other? Answer: yes or no. Fifty-fifty.
Four yes-no answers, each one of them a separate event all its own. Each one of them a perfect fifty-fifty chance in its own right. But four correct answers in a row were six-in-a-hundred improbability.

The only correct statement in these two paragraphs is that if you toss four times a coin you have a six-in-a-hundred probability of getting four heads or four tails (actually, 6.25%, but let's not be too fussy!)

All the rest is nonsense because the fact that there are two alternatives doesn't mean that they are equally probable. Child's misconception is that if you don't have enough information about two mutually-exclusive events you can assign to them equal probability.

It is a frequent misconception, but it is appalling that an author like Lee Child holds it and reinforces it in his millions of readers. When you are so famous, you have the responsibility of not stating bullshit.

And he restates the same misconception several times throughout the novel. For example, on page 465 he writes:

'It's always fifty-fifty, Pete. Like tossing a coin. Either I'm wrong, or I'm right, either you bring us back, or you don't, either Deputy Chiefs are what they say they are, or they're not. Always fifty-fifty. One thing or the other is always true.'

You can express most situations in terms of mutually exclusive alternatives, but that says nothing about the probability of either of them occurring. For example, when you go for a walk, either you are hit by a lightning or you are not. That certainly doesn't mean that the probability of being hit by a lightning is fifty-fifty!

According to Child, as Reacher says on page 480, 'Fifty-fifty, [...] like everything else in the world.'

As I said, it is appalling.

For your reference, here are the links to all past “Authors’ Mistakes” articles:
Lee Child: Personal
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: pocalypse
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 iami
Christopher L. Bennett: Make Hub, Not War
CSI Miami #2 (Robert Hornak)
Jack Greene & Alessandro Massignani
Peter James
P.Warren & M.Streeter
Nigel Cawthorne

Thursday, April 9, 2020

COVID-19 infection distribution - the government is wrong

COVID-19 infection distribution - the government is wrong The Australian government and the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Brendan Murphy, have been stating for weeks that by depressing/flattening the infection curves we will cause the infection to last longer. That is, with a low peak in the curves, the pandemic will be resolved later than if we have a high peak. They based their opinion on models shown in graphs like this (from the report Impact of COVID-19 in Australia):

Indeed, the plot presented by the government seems to show that lower curves (i.e., with fewer ICU beds at their peak) are wider (i.e., they take longer times to go down to zero). But the plot is misleading. It is an exercise in Statistic gone wild, in which the government's "scientists" have played with the numbers while losing sight of what they mean.

How can fewer cases at any given time prolong the duration of the pandemic? It is pure nonsense that results from blindly accepting the results spewed out by a computer.

For one thing, there is no reason for the curves to be symmetrical. On the contrary, there are reasons for assuming that they will have a "long tail" due to overseas arrivals and probably other channels of re-infections. This is happening in China and South Korea (see below).

In fact, the two halves of the curves are most likely going to be different. See for example what has happened in China and Korea (to prepare my plots, I relied on the data provided by the World Health Organisation in their daily situation reports on COVID-19):

Both coutries experienced a rapid increase of daily new cases, followed by declines thanks to the mitigation actions. Note how neither country has managed to completely squash the number of daily new cases.

The government's plot shows estimates of ICU beds, while my plot shows daily new cases. But, as I explain later in this article, the two numbers are linked to each other. If I had plotted the data for ICU beds in China and Korea, the shape of the curves would have not been substantially different (as long as the ICUs managed to remain below saturation, as that would have cut the top of the curves).

That in the government's plot flatter curves are shown farther away from day zero is meaningless and confusing. What has the shape of the curve to do with when a pandemic begins affecting a country? Please!

As another example of curve asymmetry, let's compare Australia and Korea:

In this plot, the curves show the numbers of new daily cases averaged over one week (three days on either side). To facilitate the comparison of the two curves, I have also removed from the plots the initial days of the infection, in which the numbers of daily new cases in each country were very few (four or less) and sporadic.

I chose Australia and Korea because they reached comparable numbers of maximum daily new cases and both are clearly past the peaks of their respective distributions. Notice how the number of new cases grew in Korea more rapidly than in Australia while the descending sides of the curves are very similar. In any case, contrary to what our government tells us, the curves are far from being symmetrical.

That the government's plot is an exercise in statistics becomes even clearer when you look at the Wikipedia page on the normal distribution:

This must be where the government's overpaid modellers have got their ideas...

Now let's explain how the number of ICU beds and the daily number of new cases are linked.

If we get 1,000 new cases today and 1,000 new cases tomorrow, each group will require a similar number of ICU beds after a week or so.
The current status (2020-04-09 13:45) provided by the Department of Health tells us that in Australia we have a total of 6,013 cases and 87 patients currently in intensive care.

That said, you cannot simply calculate that 1,000 new cases will require more or less 87/6013 = 15 additional ICU beds a week later because to determine the total number of ICU beds needed, we need to take into account for how long each patient remains in ICU: the longer the patient stays, the more beds we need. Furthermore, sadly, we also have to take into account the number of deaths (currently 50 in Australia). Careful modelling is required to prepare reliable projections.

A critical issue in modelling the pandemic is how to estimate future numbers of new infections, especially when considering that some infected people have no symptoms an can therefore spread the virus undetected. The only way to get hold of such community-based transmission is to test lots of people. This is why the WHO's Director has been promoting "testing, testing, testing". Fortunately, our government got it right, relentlessly testing as many people as possible, the only limitation being the number of testers and the availability of test kits. A better knowledge of community-transmitted cases will result in better models.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

COVID-19 - flattening the curve

Resistance is futile: COVID-19 - flattening the curve My last post was in September 2015. Somehow, after that, I lost interest in writing my sermons and stepped off the soap box. But the way in which politicians and journalists speak abut "flattening the curve" when talking about COVID-19 as if it were obvious to the vast majority of the public prompted me to attempt an explanation of what "flattening the curve" actually means. It still involves logarithmic plots, which many will find confusing, but it might help.

I want to post this article as quickly as possible. My apologies for the typos I will inevitably make.

Here are the curves the politicians are talking about, drawn for China, Korea, Iran, and Japan:

The numbers at the bottom indicate the days since the World Health Organisation has started reporting data on COVID-19 on 2020-01-21. You can see them on the WHO web site. For this plot, I have used all the reports till #63, published today (2020-03-23).

The numbers on the left tell you how many new cases were reported for each day. In fact, this is not entirely true, because the plot shows weekly averages to avoid wild fluctuations. That is, every point of each curve is averaged with the preceding and following three points. Therefore, these plots are useful to see the trends, rather than individual values.

The numbers of daily new cases of all countries represented in this plot reached a maximum before starting to decline. It means that the drastic measures taken in those countries managed to bring the contagoin under control. Notice that Korea and Japan have an initial "bump" followed by a systematic increase. This could be due to the transition from imported cases to community-transmitted cases, but it is only my speculation and I could be completely wrong.

More importantly, note that China and Korea are experiencing a resurgence of new cases in the past week or so. This could be due to the relaxing of the containment measures or, as China has stated in several occasions, to infected residents returning home from abroad, thereby carrying the virus back home. In any case, unless great attention is paid, the contagion could flare up again, like a non-completely extinguished bush fire.

While China, Korea, and Iran experienced a rapid increase in new cases, Japan quickly managed to bring the increases under control, as shown by the fact that the curve is "flatter" (first hint at what "flattening the curve" means, although it will become clear at the end).

Let's have a look at Germany, Italy, and Spain:

The curves are bent but haven't reached a maximum. This means that the measures adopted by these countries has started to bite, but the situation will become worse before beginning to improve. In other words, the bending of the curves indicate that the number of daily new cases is still increasing, although less rapidly. The days in which the number of new infections will begin to decrease is still to come.

Finally, let's have a look at Australia and the United States:

Do you see how the lines are straight up? These countries are still in the "exploding" phase of the contagion. In semi-logarithmic plots, straight lines mean exponential growth. It means that the number of new cases is growing exponentially. The situation in the USA is worse than in Australia because in Australia the daily increase is around a couple of hundred, while in the USA they get several few thousand new cases per day.

The last plot I want to show you is of the total number of cases, rather than of the number of daily new cases:

First of all, notice that the numbers on the left now reach 100,000. For those with knowledge of Mathematics, I will say that these curves are the integral of those shown in the first three plots. That is, these curves show the areas under the previous curves. Perhaps not surprisingly, the bottom curve of this fourth plot is that of Japan, which is the country with the lowest number of daily new infections.

As I already said, a straight line represents an exponential growth. The thin grey lines are there for reference, and tell you in practical terms how to read the country-specific curves. The slope of the lowest (dashed) thin line represents a doubling of the total number of cases every 10 days. As you can see, Japan managed to contain their total number of cases around that figure, as the curve for Japan is almost parallel to the 10-day-doubling line.

The other thin lines, closer and closer to the vertical, represent doublings of total number of cases every 5, 4, 3, and 2 days. As you can see, the curves of most of the countries shown are clustered around the 2-day-doubling line, the only exception being Australia, which is close to the 3-day-doubling line.

These are the curves that the governments try to flatten with their measures (some might refer to the curves shown in the first three plots, but if you flatten one, you also flatten the other). Here, like in the first three plots, you can clearly see that China and Korea have managed to flatten their curves, while the USA and Australia are still shooting straight up.

To give you a better idea of what a 2-day-doubling means, consider that each 100 infected people become 1131 after one week, 12,800 after two weeks, and 144,815 cases after three weeks. Staggering numbers. With 10-day-doublings, the initial 100 cases become 162 after one week, 264 after two weeks, and 429 after three weeks. This is the difference betweem Italy, overwhelmed by the sick, and Japan.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Authors' Mistakes #31 - Lee Child

After longer than one year of silence, it is about time that I resume writing in my blog.  I know, blogs are out of fashion, but who gives a damn?

I like how Lee Child writes, and I usually find in his books nothing worse than a couple of typos.  But in the book I am currently reading, Personal, he made a bad mistake.  So bad that I cannot remain quiet about it!  In fact, I have to write about it at once, even if I have only read less than a quarter of the novel.

On page 61 (of my Australian edition, ISBN 978-0-593-07383-4), he writes that kicking down a door was
A question of force, obviously, which is the product of mass times velocity square, and that squared [his Italics] part puts a premium on speed, not weight.
Now, forces are measured in Newtons (N=kg*m/s2).  The formula  ½ M V2 refers to  the kinetic energy of a moving body and is measured in Joules (J=kg*m2/s2, or J=N*m).  They are different things.

He then goes on with the following explanation:
Bulking up by twenty pounds at the gym is good, because it throws an extra twenty pounds in the mix, but moving your foot 20 per cent faster is better.  It does you 400 per cent of a favour.  Because it gets squared.  Which means multiplied by himself.  Money for nothing.
How painful!  I don't remember how heavy Jack Reacher is, but twenty pounds will be about 10% of his weight.  The kinetic energy of a body 10% heavier is 10% higher.  If, on the other hand, the body moves 20% faster, its kinetic energy increases by 44% (because the energy at the higher speed is 1.22 = 1.44 times the original energy).  Did Child obtain his 400% by dividing 44% by 10%?  I don't know.  But one thing is clear: the whole paragraph is muddled.  And all those full stops don't make it clearer.  And why should your weight be relevant when you kick a door with your foot?

Kicking doors...

The door and the door jamb have a certain elasticity, and you have to apply enough force to them in order to exceed the limit of what they can take.  If you remain well below the limit, the door flexes by an amount proportional to the force you apply (Hooke's law) and it returns to its original condition when you stop pushing.  Admittedly, a door is not as flexible as, say, a stick.  But the principle is the same: if you were strong enough, you wouldn't need to kick a door in order to knock it down.  You could just push with increasing pressure until it breaks.

When you kick a door, your foot almost completely comes to a stop, thereby losing its kinetic energy.  The sole of your shoe and your foot and leg compress (similarly to when you squeeze a rubber ball) and the door and door jamb flex (like when you bend a stick).  But if you hit with more and more energy (and assuming that you don't break your foot), the elasticity of the door cannot absorb it, and an increasing portion of that energy goes into deforming and, ultimately, breaking the door.

If you divide the kinetic energy of your foot by how much the door can bend, you have a rough estimate of the force that you apply to the door when you kick it.  So, all in all, as the flexibility of the door is what it is and the mass of your foot also doesn't change, it is true that the only thing you have an influence on when you want to kick down a door is the speed of your kick.  But Child's explanation is still muddled because he confuses energy and force and states that the weight of the whole body is relevant.

Child also made an impossible assertion on page 93:
the table was loaded with a long line of twelve laptop computers. All of them were open to the exact same angle, and all the screens were showing the exact same things, which were animated Police nationale screensavers, moving slowly but purposefully around the screens, all in lock step
Wow! how do you synchronise the screen savers of twelve computers and keep them in sync?  Assuming that the computers would sync their time via the network (which is a standard practice), the moving pattern would have to start at given times, rather than just keep going.  And why would anybody want to do it anyway (except for impressing Reacher, that is)?  What a concept...

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
P.Warren & M.Streeter
Nigel Cawthorne

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The book lives on

When I finally bought an iPad, I was looking forward to reading a lot of books that were no longer in print.  I warmed at the idea that one day I could take with me all the books I had ever read.

But then I discovered that the iPad was too heavy for comfort when reading in bed, where I do a non-negligible part of my reading.  And holding it by the edge meant that sometimes I would unintentionally flip a page.  Furthermore, sometimes I wanted to reflect on what I had just read or re-read a paragraph, and that resulted in a dimming of the display.  As Captain Picard said in the Star Trek episode Yesterday's Enterprise (one of my favourite), Not good enough, dammit, not good enough!

And yet, as Sherman Young convincingly affirms in his book The book is dead, the only way for the book to survive is if book lovers embrace eBooks.

Young's book was published in 2007, three years before the iPad became available (2010-04-03 in the USA).  Therefore, Young's vision of a heavenly library was still an act of faith. He wrote (p 151/152, his Italics):

We can imagine the heavenly library as the world's collection of books available in an instant. It will be searchable, downloadable, readable with recommendations and suggestions from other readers, authors and critics; and a place to contribute to discussions about the book in question. Imagine that it will allow access to titles that might not be feasible in print (one in which all the Vogel [my linking] shortlisters are published, not just the winner); where the new Patrick Whites get to hang out their talent for as many books as is required to find their voice. Imagine a catalogue of niches, made possible and searchable via electronic delivery; enabling a different set of publishing economics and priorities.

Does it sound familiar?  We are definitely getting there.  No more trees felled; no more money spent on printing books and shipping them around the world; no more books out of print; no more well-written books full of ideas that remain unpublished because they are systematically rejected.

Sherman points out that the term book has come to identify both a physical object consisting of bound printed pages and its conceptual content of information and ideas.  In his opinion, and I agree with him, we should distinguish between the two meanings.

There are many objects like telephone books, dictionaries, cookbooks, travel books, puzzle books, etc. that, although they consist of bounded printed pages, do not communicate any ideas, do not make the readers reflect on what they are reading, and do not contribute to a book culture that involves exchanging opinions and experiences with others.  Such objects effectively are non-books.

Other borderline non-books are most of those written by celebrities, regardless of whether they are performers (actors, sportspeople, politicians, etc.) or individuals who gained fame or notoriety by executing some news-making acts, like circumnavigating the world solo or killing somebody.

From a practical point of view, what the non-books have in common is that they are designed to make quick money for the publishers.  Publishers used to invest in promising authors and then nurture them to success, but today's big publishers (and most of the small publishers as well) are an industry like any other.  It doesn't make any difference to them that they are selling books instead of vacuum cleaners.  What counts is that they can show good quarterly figures.  In a sense, we cannot even blame them, because the whole society is fixed on making a quick buck.

Fortunately, the Internet and electronic publishing give us a new way of sustaining a book culture (and culture in general).  Those with ideas can express them and communicate them to like-minded people living anywhere in the world.

According to Chris Anderson (The Long Tail, p 127), "the future of business is selling less of more".  What he means in practical terms is that businesses can make more money by selling few instances of many items than by selling lots of instances of few items.  In his book, published in 2006, Anderson concentrated on the music industry, but what he wrote applies to eBooks as well.

To understand how this works, consider this: if 10 titles sell in one year 1,000,000 copies, they result in the sale of 10 million books; if, at the same time, 1,000,000 titles sell 50 copies each, they result in the sale of five time as many books as the blockbusters (these figures, which I have adapted from those reported by Anderson, are not far from the real figures for 2004).  According to the Wikipedia page on the long tail, "a large proportion of Amazon.com's book sales come from obscure books that [are] not available from brick-and-mortar stores".

What this means is that your ideas can reach their audience.  Social media and web sites like goodreads.com make possible a digital version of the book culture that used to revolve around printed books.

I just have to get used to reading eBooks.  Perhaps the mini-iPad or the iPad-air will be good enough.  For now, I have a paper-white Kindle and will try to get along with it!

How to avoid accumulating unread books

I only buy books that I am pretty confident I will read (it wasn't always like that!), but I have still been buying more books than I can read.  For example, last year, I read 57 books but bought 69.  As a result, the shelf I reserve for books I haven't yet read contains 62 books of non-fiction and 16 of fiction.

A couple of months ago, I instituted a new rule: I only allow myself to buy one book after reading two of the books I already have.  This means that I should drain my backlog of books in approximately two and a half years, after reading (62 + 16) x 1.5 = 117 books.

But I can always decide that I am not going to read some of the books I already have...   ;-)

The article on The book is dead, by Sherman Young, will be next.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

I am a book lover

I started this article with the idea of writing of a book I had just read, but got lost in reminescences.  I found covers of books I read more than 50 (yes, 50!) years ago and got sidetracked.  Very few, if any, could possibly be interested in my book-reading experiences.  But then, who cares?  I don't want to throw away this article simple because I am not a celebrity!  After all, with so much new stuff appearning on the Web every minute, most pages are never read or even accessed.  I'm very happy if somebody reads what I write and finds it either useful or amusing, but, ultimately, I write mainly for myself, because I have the need or simply the pleasure of expressing myself.  The article about the book I originally wanted to write about will come later.

Since when I was a child, not even a teen-ager, one of my favourite pastimes has been reading.  I started with adventure novels by Emilio Salgari.  After that, I read books like The Last of Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper, the Tarzan books by Edgard Rice Burroughs, and also the Ruyard Kipling's books.  Or perhaps I should say "L'ultimo dei mohicani" and "Tarzan delle scimmie", because I only understood Italian then.

I remember buying books published by Viglongo and Marzocco.  They were large-format books, sometimes quite thick.  My mother would come with me to the bookshop and chat with the salespersons while I choose the next book to read.  Sometimes, it took me the best part of half an hour because I couldn't decide what I wanted to read next.  Each book would cost 500 Italian Lire, which, at the time (we are talking about the late 1950s or perhaps the first 1960s), were worth less than one American Dollar.

When I was in bed with parotitis, my mother read out to me La città del re lebbroso (256 pages, published by Viglongo in 1956, available online), and she loved it too.

Then, I discovered Science Fiction.  The first book I read was Death's Deputy, By Ron Hubbard, published by Mondadori in 1954 as No. 37 of their SF series I Romanzi di Urania.  I didn't know then that most translations were also arbitrarily shortened to fit into the standard length of the series!  A shame, really.

A bit later, I discovered the crime novels.  In the early 1960s, the most widely known series of crime novels was I Gialli Mondadori, published by "Arnoldo Mondadori Editore" (founded in 1907 and bought by Berlusconi in 1991).  "Giallo" in Italian means "yellow" and, indeed, the book covers were all yellow.  In fact, they were (perhaps, still are) so popular, that in Italy all crime novels are simply called "libri gialli", regardless of who publishes them!  Here is the cover of the very first "Giallo", published from 1929 to 1941:

After the war, in 1946, Mondadory restarted the series with Erle Stanly Gardner's The Case of The Silent Partner (sorry I couldn't find a better image):

In the early 1960s, when I discovered Perry Mason, I bought all the novels I could find (eleven, I believe).  In one week, I read ten of them.  That got me saturated and never touched a Perry Mason novel again till very recently, when I read (obviously in English this time) two of them re-published by Penguin.

In 1963, I started attending high-school and kept reading all sorts of things.  Unfortunately, one day, my mother decided that I wouldn't re-read my adventure books and donated them all to a charity.  I would love to page through them again, but the past is the past.

Years later (in 1978), when I moved to Germany, I left all my stuff with my mother.  Unfortunately, her cellar was very humid and, one day, she indiscriminately tossed away everything I had left to remind me of my youth: books, magazines, pictures, small cameras, memorabilia, and even my school certificates.  If I had been there, I would have tried to salvage something, but I was 1,300km away.  What a loss!

It is true what the Buddhists say: attachment causes suffering.  The more you have, the more you are afraid of losing your possessions.  Eventually, everything will go.  The more you are aware of it, the less you will suffer.

And yet, I am very attached to my books.  Sometimes, I think I should give them all away and be free of that attachment, but I don't think I will ever really do it.  Actually, once, I almost did it.  I think it was in the late 1970s or early 1980s.  I decided I had to give up my possessions, including my books, to detach myself from "having" and fully embrace "being".  But I couldn't separate myself from three books: La venticinquesima ora, by Constantin Virgil Gheorghiu, Siddharta, by Hermann Hesse, and La dottrina del Tao, by Alberto Castellani.  Well, to be entirely correct, I also kept some reference books like a sky atlas and some textbooks.  But you get the idea.

I currently own 1,142 printed books, 143 of which are stored in cartons that fill the bottom level of a couple of wardrobes.  I have several bookshelves in my study, but a non-negligible part of the available space is taken up by DVDs, CDs, and various stacks of papers.

Now, you might wonder how I can possibly know the exact number of books I have...

I know it because I keep a spreadsheet with the full list of them.  Each item includes the following information:
  • Category (e.g., Hist);
  • Identification code (e.g., ha.01);
  • Last time read (e.g., 2002_04);
  • Language (e.g., E);
  • Title (e.g., The Custom of the Sea);
  • Author[s] (e.g., Neil Hanson);
  • Number of pages (e.g., 458);
  • Format (e.g., p);
  • Location (e.g., b).
In the example, The Custom of the Sea, by Neil Hanson, is a paperback of 458 pages, written in English; I classified it as Hist-ha.01; it was the fourth book I read in 2002, and is to be found in the "big" bookcase.

Yes.  You got it: I keep a list of all the books I read.  Each reading entry also includes the start and end dates and the number of pages I actually read (because sometimes I don't read them from cover to cover).  Unfortunately, I only started in 1991.

After studying the various classification methods used in libraries, I decided to develop my own.  The problem was that I didn't want to have to learn decimal classification (like in the Dewey system) or arbitrary letters (like in the Library of Congress system).  That is, I wanted to group the books in a way that would tell me what the book was about.  Here it is:

I initially placed the books in the proper order, but things got messy over the past couple of years.  I will have to put them back in order and then, perhaps, identify the books I should give away.

I also keep the list of books I read but no longer have, either because I gave them away or because I had borrowed them from libraries or friends.

And then (obviously!), I make all sorts of statistics.  For example, I know for each year since 1991 how many pages I read of books in each category.  It turns out that between 1991 and 2013, I read 45 books/year  and 39 pages/day, but the averages are increasing: in the ten years from 2004 to 2013, I read 49 books/year and 47 pages/day.

Now, eBooks in EPUB format are making my statistics more difficult to keep because their text "flows".  But I can still estimate a number of virtual pages by counting the words in an eBook page, multiplying it by the number of pages in the eBook, and dividing the result by 250...

In any case, although I bought an iPad and a Kindle, I don't really enjoy reading books in digital format.  I love the physicality of printed books.  In other words, although I recognise that the real value of books is in their content, I also love books as objects.

But enough for now.  I will write on the subject of printed books vs. digital books in my next article, when I will talk about The book is dead, by Sherman Young.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Jihad and Kamikazes

Paul Ham, in his book Hiroshima Nagasaki, reports that in 1945 the Japanese tried hard to recruit 15-year-old boys as Kamikaze pilots.

He writes:

In Hiroshima, Nagasaki and elsewhere, advertisements for ‘child soldiers’ appeared in the newspapers, encouraging parents to enlist their sons. Posters exhorted children to worship and imitate the death squads and kamikazes. Captions such as, ‘Mother! Father! Send me into the skies too!’ accompanied dreamy pictures of boys gazing into US ships. The Intelligence and Aviation Bureaus and the Great Japan Aeronautic Association were responsible for these desperate appeals.

As I keep saying in my articles, desperation is what drives terrorism. Let's give hope to those suicide bombers and they will stop blowing themselves up.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Enough is Enough!

For how long are our governments going to put up with Israel's annihilation of Gaza?

The Israeli Army has hit UN refugee camps, schools, and hospitals, but the governments of Australia, the USA, and who knows how many other countries don't make a pip.

For how long political alliances and lobbying-driven expediency are going to justify our leaders' acquiescence?

Gaza has been blockaded since 2007.  This is inhumane and it should stop.  But now the situation has deteriorated past beyond that.  More than 1300 Palestinians have been killed, against 60 Israeli.  Every death is a tragedy.  Every death deprives a family of a loved one.  But most of the 60 or so Israeli deaths are of soldiers who entered Gaza to bring destruction, while the majority of the Palestinian deads are civilians, including hundreds of children.  Those with bloodied hands are Benjamin Netanyahu and his government.

How can anybody call such a massacre of innocent lives an assertion of Israel's right of self-defence?  Hamas should stop firing rockets into Israel.  There is no doubt about that.  But even if Hamas's deadly game were a disingenuous attempt to stoke the conflict in order to score political and diplomatic sympathies, it couldn't possibly justify Israel's response.

Gaza is one of the most densely populated regions on Earth, and now Israel has declared a No-Go zone covering 30% of the whole territory.  Additionally, Israel has destroyed the only power plant in Gaza, causing a permanent black-out in 80% of the strip.  Without electricity, the fridges don't work, and most Palestinians are then forced to go out to buy food every day, further endangering their lives in the process.

Self-preservation justifies a lot, but I am sure that many Israelis will be as horrified as I am at what is happening in Gaza.

During the second half of 1978, I was in Israel twice, for a total period of about two months.  During my first trip there, I was for a month in Degania Aleph, the first Kibbutz established in Israel, were I met the young lady who was to become my wife.  I have very fond memories of my staying in Israel and the last thing you could say about me is that I am an anti-Semite.

The resentment that is growing inside me is therefore not centred on the Jewish people, but on the criminal policies of the Israeli government.  I am a pacifist and don't condone violence, especially when applied to the weak and the disadvantaged.

Obviously, I don't only condemn the actions of Netanyahu's government, but also Hamas strategy of confrontation and, most of all, the suicide bombings that have become an almost-daily occurrence in the Middle-East.

But although I don't excuse the recourse to terrorism, I do understand it.  Perhaps more people should try to go beyong their one-way mindset and attempt to perceive the world from the point of view of suicide bombers.  Those young Muslims feel like cornered animals, and lash out in desperation.  The opulence of the Western world is for everyone to see on the TV screens, as is its moral decadence and its Hedonism, accompanied by hypocritical statements of values and virtues that have long be supplanted by greed and selfishness.  Of course an increasing number of young Palestinian (and Syrian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Iraqi, ...) are attracted to those who speak of honour, purity, and a sacred mission to rid the world of the sinners.  How can they resist that message, as misdirected and instrumentalised as it is?

We who live in rich western democracies should do our best to educate these youg people, give them hope, treat them with respect and compassion, not simply try to switch them off.  And we should, first of all, start work at home by electing full human beings to govern us, rather than puppets of multinationals or robots only capable of uttering slogans.

I am sick and tired of listening to politicians who never answer a question, who only follow the party lines, who treat human beings as if they were inanimate objects, and who don't listen to anyone when they are in government only to oppose everything when they are in opposition.  How I would love to be able to look at our elected representatives and feel proud of my country!

But I am digressing...

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The struggle of making an EPUB on the Mac

EPUB (Electronic PUBlication) is an e-book standard by the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF).  Most significantly, Apple and an increasing number of vendors have adopted it for their e-readers.

The latest version of the standard is 3.01, but be warned: it is not easy to understand.

In essence, an EPUB consists of web pages plus some files that tell the e-reader how the pages are organised:
  • The file named mimetype contains the string application/epub+zip.
  • The folder named META-INF contains the XML file container.inf with additional general info.
  • XHTML (i.e., HTML conforming to the XML standard) documents contain all the text, with links to images and media objects.
  • A file with extension opf (which stands for Open Packaging Format) defines how the various documents fit together.
  • An XHTML document defines how the user can navigates through the e-book.
Once you have all your files in place, you zip them together, change the extension from zip to epub, and read them as an e-book on your iPad.  The IDPF provides a validator that lets you check your document.  If you have done everything right, you are rewarded with the following message:

My test.epub was a trivial e-book, but it literally took me hours before I could work out how to put it together on the Mac.

To zip a folder on the Mac is easy: all you need to do is select the folder and then click on the "Compress" entry of the "File menu".  But if you do so, the folder itself will be zipped and you don't want that.  You want a single zip file with the content of the folder, without the folder itself.  In my case, I had a folder called test containing the file mimetype, the folder META-INF, and the folder EPUB with the rest (you can name most of the files as you like).

The Mac OS is Unix-based.  As such, it includes the almost universally present zip command.  But it took me a while to make my test.zip (then renamed test.epub) that would pass IDPF's validator.  After attaching to the test folder where all the e-book files were, I typed the following commands:

Giulios-Mac:test giulio$ zip test -X -0 mimetype

  adding: mimetype (stored 0%)
This first command created the file test.zip containing mimetype and nothing else.  The -X option ensures that no attributes are added to the file and -0 that the file remains uncompressed.  In this way, you satisfy the EPUB standard that mimetype be the first file in the package, naked, and uncompressed.  If you zip everything at the same time or without the options, the validator will fail.

Giulios-Mac:test giulio$ zip -r test * -u -n zip
  adding: EPUB/ (stored 0%)
  adding: EPUB/.DS_Store (deflated 95%)
  adding: EPUB/main.html (deflated 79%)
  adding: EPUB/nav.html (deflated 39%)
  adding: EPUB/package.opf (deflated 51%)
  adding: EPUB/util/ (stored 0%)
  adding: EPUB/util/ebook.css (deflated 71%)
  adding: META-INF/ (stored 0%)
  adding: META-INF/container.xml (deflated 34%)
This second command adds to test.zip the rest of the e-book (identified by the asterisk).  The -u option specifies that it is an update, and -n zip excludes from the compression the files with extension zip (necessary because test.zip is inside test/).

As you can see, my e-book only included one XHTML document (main.html) and a style sheet (ebook.css), with no images.  I have named my XHTML files with the extension HTML because I found it easier to work with and extensions don't matter.  Also notice that the folder EPUB/ contains a file named .DS_Store.  Mac OS freely sprinkles these files all over the place to store folder properties.  They are a hidden nuisance that causes problems whenever you access Mac folders outside the Mac universe.  But you can remove them with the following command:

Giulios-Mac:test giulio$ find . -name ".DS_Store" -depth -exec zip test -d {} \;
deleting: EPUB/.DS_Store
It searches the current folder and all subfolders for files named .DS_Store.  Whenever it finds one, it passes its location on to the zip command that removes it from test.zip.

Finally, the following command showed that all .DS_Store files had been removed:

Giulios-Mac:test giulio$ zipinfo test.zip
Archive:  test.zip   3176 bytes   9 files
-rwxr-xr-x  3.0 unx       20 b- stor 30-Jul-14 11:29 mimetype
drwxr-xr-x  3.0 unx        0 bx stor 30-Jul-14 16:47 EPUB/
-rwxr-xr-x  3.0 unx     1694 tx defN 30-Jul-14 15:03 EPUB/main.html
-rwxr-xr-x  3.0 unx      461 tx defN 30-Jul-14 15:05 EPUB/nav.html
-rwxr-xr-x  3.0 unx      836 tx defN 30-Jul-14 16:03 EPUB/package.opf
drwxr-xr-x  3.0 unx        0 bx stor 30-Jul-14 14:02 EPUB/util/
-rwxr-xr-x  3.0 unx     1996 tx defN 30-Jul-14 15:57 EPUB/util/ebook.css
drwxr-xr-x  3.0 unx        0 bx stor 30-Jul-14 11:29 META-INF/
-rwxr-xr-x  3.0 unx      259 tx defN 30-Jul-14 14:54 META-INF/container.xml
9 files, 5266 bytes uncompressed, 1822 bytes compressed:  65.4%

I tried to remove the bloody .DS_Store files before zipping, but without success.  I resorted to removing them from the zip file out of desperation, but it works just fine.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A World of Exibitionists and Voyeurs

On 2014-07-25, the Los Angeles Times reported "Google reportedly finalizes deal for live stream service Twitch".

In case you don't know, Twitch Interactive offers live streaming of people playing video games.

Google paid 1G$ (1 billion US dollars) to gain control of Twitch.  It sounds outragious to me, perhaps because I stopped playing wideogames when PacMan and Pong were the rage of the time.  But it makes sense: Twitch has 45 million unique viewers per month (up from 3.2M since the site was launched three years ago).  "Twitchers" spend daily an average of 106 minutes watching somebody else play video games, and 58% of them do it for more than 20h a week.  And when Google will merge Twitch into YouTube, you can reasonably expect that more live activities will be added.

OK.  I admit it: all the craze of the past decade to post selfies and videos has never excited me.  I don't have this urge to show myself to the world.  What motivates me to publish this blog is the hope (dare I say knowledge?) that, among all the chaff I write, there is something that people will find useful or at least entertaining.  Buried among the postings about how to fold toilet paper (Toilet paper woes) and those containing micro-fiction (e.g., Being a Toad), there are more serious articles.  My most-viewed top three (perhaps not surprising, about programming) have so far collected 11,484 page views (OO - UML Behavior Diagrams, OO - UML Structure Diagrams, and Fortran and Eclipse on the Mac).  Very far from the millions of hits of successful videos, but it still gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling to think that I helped thousands of people in a practical way.

Humans are social animals.  We have to give credit to people like Mark Zuckerberg to have recognised it and to have been able to capitalise on it.  It is, in a sense, the logical evolution of the tabloid magazines.  A major difference though is that now everybody can feel a bit like a celebrity, especially if [s]he agrees to bare body and soul to the world!

FaceBook, YouTube, Flicker, and the rest of the "social" web sites let everyone give in to exibitionism and, at the receiving end, voyeurism.  I don't understand how people can spend hours reading and writing gossip.  I only like YouTube because it lets me see old TV programs in B&W and performances of my favourite singers.

The success of Twitch is just one more confirmation of this exibitionism/voyeurism compact that drives the Internet (besides porn, of course).

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Authors' Mistakes #30 - Nigel Cawthorne

I just finished reading The History of the Mafia, by Nigel Cawthorne.  I found it quite interesting, although after a while, the endless list of killings began to become monotonous.  There is no list of bibliographic references, which means that the book cannot be really considered a reliable source of historical information.  But it is a good starting point for learning about the Italian Mafia. Unfortunately, as it systematically happens when a non-Italian writes about Italy, it contains several mistakes.  Actually, there is also a bad mistake of English grammar...

The Mafia code of silence, "omertà", is spelled "omèrta".
The word "pentiti" means "repenting ones", not "penitent ones".
"Goodbye to the Mafia protection money" is written as "addiopizzo", while it should have been written as "addio pizzo", with two separate words.
"Organisation" is spelled the Ameriacn way ("organization"), although in the same page you can read "honour", which is a British/Australian spelling of what the American would spell "honor".  This is not a problem of Italian (and it is not the English grammar problem I mentioned above), but it is an annoying inconsistency.
"Fontana Nuova" means "New Fountain", not "New Source".
The plural of the Italian word "capo" (I.e., "chief") is written as "capos", while it should have been "capi". The same mistake is repeated on page 200.
Somebody belonging to the Neapolitan equivalent of the Sicilian Mafia is called "camorrista", not "camorristo".  It is the same with other words that end with "sta".  For example, "artista" is used in Italian for both male and a female artists (but the undefined article gives away the gender, as a male artist is "un artista", while a female artist is "un'artista").
Wrong spelling of a preposition: "di Vigilanza" (which means "of Vigilance") is spelled "de Vigilanza".
The Italian royal family was originally from the Alpine French region of "Savoy", which is "Savoia" in Italian, while "Sovoia" is not an Italian word.  Therefore, I cannot imagine that an Italian restaurant in Manhattan in 1908 was called "La Sovoia".
An error similar to #7: "another Brooklyn camorristi" is wrong because "camorristi" is plural.  It should have been "camorrista".
"Gaetono" should have been "Gaetano".
"Raimondo" is the name of a man.  It should have been "Raimonda".
The Italian for "corps" is "corpo", not "corpe".
"Borgata" is not the Italian word for "village" and it can mean "hamlet", not "slum". It can indicate a group of houses along or near a main road or, in Rome, a working-class suburb at the edge of the city.
Rebibbia is in Rome, not Palermo.
"Scarpa" does mean "shoe", but in Italian, not in Sicilian dialect.
"Corleonisi" should be "Corleonese".  The name of the Sicilian town is "Corleone", and the ending in "i" is plural.
The murdered General of the Carabinieri was "Dalla Chiesa", not "Chiesa".  The same mistake is repeated on page 150 and twice on page 180, but ion page 180 the name is also written twice correctly.
"Cessation" should be "Cassation".
Here is the mistake in English grammar: "After running his brother's campaign, John made Robert attorney general".  The subject of the main clause is John ("John made..."), but it was Robert who ran his brother's campaign.  Something like "After Robert ran his brother's campaign, John made him attorney general" would have been correct.
The sentence "Chi l'ha visto?" should have been translated as "Who ha seen him?", not "Who has seen it?".
There is no town named "Duisberg" in Germany.  Its name is "Duisburg".

When will authors who write about Italy and Italian ask a bilingual editor to check their texts?  I could do it (for a reasonable fee!)

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
P.Warren & M.Streeter

Monday, July 21, 2014

Legalise them all

For years I have been of the opinion that we should legalise all drugs, light and heavy.  I don't use any drug and only drink a little, perhaps a beer a week. That wouldn't change if cannabis, narcotics, and what-have-you became available legally.  I just don't understand why the state should prevent people from smoking or injecting what they want.  They do it anyway.  If drugs were legally available, the cost, both in terms of suffering and in terms of dollars, would be significatly reduced.  And the thefts, spreding of diseases, and violence that surround the drug trade would disappear.

What the state should do is ensure that intoxicated people do not endanger other people's lives.  And they are failing on that, because drunks cause many fatal car accidents and street fights.  The issue is not whether somebody is drunk or high on dope.  The issue is whether that person can sit behind a steering wheel or punch somebody on the nose. In this sense, alcohol is far more dangerous than, say, heroine. And yet, nobody (fortunately) is speaking of outlawing alcohol.

Can you imagine how much money would be freed if we stopped preventing people from buying drugs or growing marihuana plants in the backyard?  By legalising drugs, we would undermine most of the trafficking and the associated criminality and would save the lives of those who now die for overdose because they inject badly cut drugs.  And the government could tax drugs as they do now with alcholic beverages.

Obviously, these considerations are not new, and I am sure that somebody will find counter-arguments for any argument I can bring, but we only need to look at history to know what we should do, because humans have not significantly changed since recorded history.  In fact, we only need to go back less than one hundred years.

I am reading the book The History of the Mafia by Nigel Cawthorne, and have just arrived to where he writes about Prohibition and Al Capone.  This is how that chapter begins:

         When the Volstead Act banning the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages was passed in 1919, organized crime in America went mainstream. [...] it is estimated that 75 per cent of the population of the United States became client of bootleggers. It was big business. There had been 16,000 saloons in New York before the Volstead Act. These were replaced by 32,000 'speakeasies' (illegal drinking establishments). Britain's alcohol export to Canada rose six-fold and it was said that more intoxicating liquor was sent to Jamaica and Barbados than the population could possibly drink in a hundred years. During five years of Prohibition, 40 million gallons of wine and beer were seized. In 1925 alone, 173,000 illegal stills were impounded. This did nothing to stem the supply. And with the price of alcohol first doubling and then climbing to ten times what it had been before Prohibition, there was plenty of profit for the bootleggers.

Can you imagine how much effort and money it took to discover and seize millions of gallons of beverages and to close hundreds of thousands of illegal stills?

And it didn't really work.  It only gave to organise crime a new market.

Perhaps not many know that Prohibition, besides in the USA, was tried in several countries (Russia, Finland, Iceland, Norway, to name the most significant). And it didn't work there either. It only helped organised crime.

You know what?  I am optimistic.  I believe that in a decade or two, at least in the western democracies, governments will realise that they have been mistaken in banning drugs.  Cannabis Sativa is a lovely leafy plant and I would love to grow it in my garden.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Books: Writings on an Ethical Life, by Peter Singer

I just finished reading Writings on an Ethical Life, by Peter Singer.

For those who don't know him, Peter Singer is a philosopher who has become very controversial because some of his positions, which he expressed without compromising clarity to political correctness.  This book is in my opinion a must-read for everybody who is concerned with moral and ethical issues.

In an interview conducted by Bob Abernethy and shoved on WNET-TV on 20 September 1999, he expressed very clearly the key concepts that form the basis of his positions (a transcript of the interview is included in the book).  In response to the very first question, he stated:

         First, it is important to say that in my view [...] a human being doesn't have value simply in virtue of belonging to the species Homo Sapiens.  Species membership alone isn't enough.  The qualities that I think are important are, first, a capacity to experience something—that is, a capacity to feel pain, or to have any kind of feelings.  That's really basic.  But then that's something we share with a huge range of nonhuman animals.  In addition, when it comes to a question of taking life, or allowing life to end, I would say it matters whether a being is the kind of being who can see that that he or she actually has a life—that is, can see that he or she is the same being who exists now, who existed in the past, and who will exist in the future.
        I use the term "person" to refer to a being with that kind of self-awareness—in the words of the philosopher James Rachels, a being who can live a biographical life and not merely a biological life.  A person has a lot more to lose when his or her life is ended than a being that is conscious, and can feel pain, but nevertheless is conscious of its existence only moment by moment, experiencing only one moment of consciousness and then the next, without understanding the connection between them.

One of the results of his position is that in his opinion parents should be able to choose to kill their newborn child if it was born with conditions so severe that doctors don't really try to keep it alive.  In Singer's words, "It would be justifiable to take active steps to end that infant's life swiftly and more humanely than by allowing death to come through dehydration, starvation, or an untreated infection".

Clearly, such positions have generated a lot of controversy.  But I have to ask, once political correctness and absolute truths based on faith rather than logic are left behind, how can anybody disagree with such a statement?  The sanctity of human life advocated by many (perhaps most) is based on the concept that human beings are made in the image of God and should be treated in a special way purely because they belong to the species Homo Sapiens.  But a baby, as a being, is no different from other mammals.  In fact, it can be argued that, given the choice between saving an adult chimpanzee and a human baby with spina bifida, we should save the chimpanzee.  An adult chimpanzee has a past and looks forward to a future life, why a human infant has no past and is not self-aware.

In general, I find that too often society reacts to ideas and events because it is perceived that people have to react that way, rather than because they have thought the whole matter through.  This is not the first time that I mention my hatred for political correctness (and empty politeness, but that's another matter).

Nowadays, you cannot disagree with some policies of the state of Israel or condemn some acts of the Israeli army without being accused of anti-semitism.  Well, I believe that Israel has no moral right to keep the people in Gaza captive and prevent ships from supplying them.  Hamas shouldn't send rockets to Israel.  It is, in fact, an activity that I found unacceptable and, frankly, also counterproductive.  But the Israeli government really are bullies.  And I am not for this an anti-semite!

You cannot observe that blacks and whites are different without being accused of being racist.  If you search the Internet, you will find that for decades people have argued about differences of IQ between ethnic groups.  Somebody wrote that blacks (or Africans?  I don't remember) have on average a lower IQ than European and that Asians (or Chinese?) have an average IQ higher than Europeans.  And so what?  First of all, we are talking of measurements that are not as straightforward as measuring heights of weights.  With these IQ tests, the only thing that you can be certain of is what the scores are.  Certainly not what they mean and what they exactly measure.  Secondly, there are so many factors that have an influence on the capacity to solve tests, ranging from education to nutrition, from health to how much coffee you have drunk before sitting for the test.  Even if it were true that blacks have lower average scores, very many blacks will still score better than most Europeans and Chinese!

And then, of course there is sexism.  Human females have smaller brains than males.  That is a fact.  Am I being sexist?  Probably not, unless I were than to say that women are therefore less intelligent (whatever that means) than men.  But I certainly don't believe so.  And what if I were to say that women are on average more emotional than men?  Perhaps such a statement has no basis in reality.  But would I be sexist if I were to believe it (I don't actually have an opinion either way)?  And can I allow myself to compliment the look of a woman without being accused of objectifying her simply because so many men and women are concerned with how one looks?  Whoof...

Another concept that cannot be contradicted with impunity in modern society is that everybody is equal.  Now, I believe that everybody should have the right to achieve the maximum level of fulfillment in their lives.  But to say that everybody's needs and capabilities are the same is nonsense.  We are all different!  I know, this can become an excuse for accepting or causing injustice, but by denying that we are different from each other, we run other risks.  For example, physically disabled people are different from people with fully-abled bodies.  If we were to deny it, we couldn't possibly advocate the presence of ramps in buildings, could we?  Peter Singer was accused of advocating euthanasia of disabled adults because of his position about unviable newborn babies.  Come on!

In all cases, the key is respect.  As long as I respect the people I am in contact with, regardless of their color, size, gender, and sexual orientation, I must be able to say what I believe to be true.  Or should I be denied to tell somebody that I think they are incompetent simply because he/she is black, or a woman, or gay, and my criticism might be interpreted as discrimination?  Let's face it: a stupid, as well as a genius, can come in any colour and shape!

What follows is a short section of Peter Singer's book.  The section title is Toward an Ethical Life and was first publishe in 1993 in the book How Are We to Live?

        In a society in which the narrow pursuit of material self-interest is the norm, the shift to an ethical stance is more radical than many people realize. In comparison with the needs of people starving in Somalia, the desire to sample the wines of the leading French vineyards pales into insignificance. Judged against the suffering of immobilized rabbits having shampoos dripped into their eyes, a better shampoo becomes an unworthy goal. The preservation of old-growth forests should override our desire to use disposable paper towels. An ethical approach to life does not forbid having fun or enjoying food and wine, but it changes our sense of priorities. The effort and expense put into buying fashionable clothes, the endless search for more and more refined gastronomic pleasures, the astonishing additional expense that marks out the prestige car market from the market in cars for people who just want a reliable means of getting from A to B—all these become disproportionate to people who can shift perspective long enough to take themselves, at least for a time, out of the spotlight. If a higher ethical consciousness spreads, it will utterly change the society in which we live.
        We cannot expect that this higher ethical consciousness will become universal. There will always be people who don’t care for anyone or anything, not even for themselves. There will be others, more numerous and more calculating, who earn a living by taking advantage of others, especially the poor and the powerless. We cannot afford to wait for some coming glorious day when everyone will live in loving peace and harmony with everyone else. Human nature is not like that at present, and there is no sign of its changing sufficiently in the foreseeable future. Since reasoning alone proved incapable of fully resolving the clash between self-interest and ethics, it is unlikely that rational argument will persuade every rational person to act ethically. Even if reason had been able to take us further, we would still have had to face the reality of a world in which many people are very far from acting on the basis of reasoning of any kind, even crudely self-interested reasoning. So for a long time to come, the world is going to remain a tough place in which to live.
        Nevertheless, we are part of this world and there is a desperate need to do something now about the conditions in which people live and die, and to avoid both social and ecological disaster. There is no time to focus our thoughts on the possibility of a distant utopian future. Too many humans and nonhuman animals are suffering now, the forests are going too quickly, population growth is still out of control, and if we do not bring greenhouse gas emissions down rapidly, the lives and homes of 46 million people are at risk in the Nile and Bengal delta regions alone. Nor can we wait for governments to bring about the change that is needed. It is not in the interests of politicians to challenge the fundamental assumptions of the society they have been elected to lead. If 10 percent of the population were to take a consciously ethical outlook on life and act accordingly, the resulting change would be more significant than any change of government. The division between an ethical and a selfish approach to life is far more fundamental than the difference between the policies of the political right and the political left.
        We have to take the first step. We must reinstate the idea of living an ethical life as a realistic and viable alternative to the present dominance of materialist self-interest. If a critical mass of people with new priorities were to emerge, and if these people were seen to do well, in every sense of the term—if their cooperation with each other brings reciprocal benefits, if they find joy and fulfillment in their lives—then the ethical attitude will spread, and the conflict between ethics and self-interest will have been shown to be overcome, not by abstract reasoning alone, but by adopting the ethical life as a practical way of living and showing that it works, psychologically, socially, and ecologically.
        Anyone can become part of the critical mass that offers us a chance of improving the world before it is too late. You can rethink your goals and question what you are doing with your life. If your present way of living does not stand up against an impartial standard of value, then you can change it. That might mean quitting your job, selling your house, and going to work for a voluntary organization in India. More often, the commitment to a more ethical way of living will be the first step of a gradual but far-reaching evolution in your lifestyle and in your thinking about your place in the world. You will take up new causes and find your goals shifting. If you get involved in your work, money and status will become less important. From your new perspective, the world will look different. One thing is certain: you will find plenty of worthwhile things to do. You will not be bored or lack fulfillment in your life. Most important of all, you will know that you have not lived and died for nothing, because you will have become part of the great tradition of those who have responded to the amount of pain and suffering in the universe by trying to make the world a better place.