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

Friday, March 30, 2012

The war on drugs has been lost

Just yesterday I wrote about how futile the war on drug is, and today I read an article in the latest issue of Time (April 2nd) that confirms it. The title, "Incarceration Nation – The war on drugs has succeeded only in putting millions of Americans in jail", says it all.

Some figures are mind boggling: while Japan has 63 prisoners per 100,000 citizens, Germany 90, France 96, and Britain (one of the highest rates) 153, the USA has 760! (In agreement with the figure of 743 reported by Wikipedia ;-)

The population of US prisoners today is more than five times what it was in 1980. Still according to Times, this is due to the so-called war on drugs, as more than half of today’s inmates were convicted on drug-related offences.

Another staggering figure: in 2009, 1.66 million Americans were arrested on drug charges, and 4/5 of them simply for possession.

Last year, a global commission on drug policy consisting of very authoritative politicians and former world-leaders stated that "The global war on drugs has failed." Its main recommendation was to "encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens."

I couldn't agree more...

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Drug Scores

The UK Advisory Council for the Misuse of Drugs published in 2010 an interesting report.  Among other interesting data, I discovered in it the following histogram:

What interests me is the harm done to others.  The seven most damaging drugs are: alcohol, heroin, crack cocaine, tobacco, cannabis, cocaine, and amphetamine.

Alcohol  is more than twice as harmful to others than heroin, and tobacco is worse than cocaine, cannabis, and amphetamine.

And yet, while in most countries you can buy alcohol and tobacco in drugstores (interesting name for a type of shop, actually), in many places you can end up in jail for smoking a joint.  I might be mistaken but, as far as I know, except in Holland and California, you cannot even use cannabis for therapeutic purposes.  How ridiculous is that?

I am in favour of LEGALISING all drugs (not just decriminalising some of them).

I have heard lots of arguments and discussions concerning pros and cons, but the bottom line is that forbidding the use of drugs doesn't work, as shown by the failure of alcohol prohibition in the USA between the two wars.  By making drugs illegal, we only sustain the criminality associated with their illegal trade.

If we legalised all drugs, most of the effort and money currently wasted on the losing war on drugs could be redirected towards more productive purposes, including educating people on how to deal with those substances.

The heavy taxes on alcohol, tobacco, and gambling mean, among other things, that smuggling of cigarettes into Australia remains a profitable trade. Therefore, I have no doubt that a legalised trade of opiates and cannabis would not completely remove their illegal trafficking.  Still, it would significantly reduce an important source of income for terrorists and other criminal organisations.

Let's face it, we only make a distinction between, say, alcohol and cannabis because of cultural and traditional reasons.  Such a dramatically different attitude towards different types of drugs is not based on Science and logic.

I think that governments should prevent people from harming others.  That's why I welcome heavy fines given to people who drive in an altered state.

But I also think that governments should help those who harm themselves, and in my opinion, the best way to help addicts is to try to understand why they do it, and ensure that they have access to clean drugs and needles.  If heroin were legal, deaths due to overdose would become a thing of the past, and most addicts would no longer need to resort to prostitution or crime to finance their dependency.

Addiction in itself should be treated as an illness, not a crime, and it should not be stigmatised.  Some people can drink a lot without becoming alcoholics, while others can become addicted to alcohol very easily.  Both genetic predisposition and societal factors play a role with any drug.

Many think: it will never happen to me.  But they might be wrong.  Sometimes, for some reason, people lose control over one of their needs or desires and begin over-drinking or over-eating, or become addicted to adrenaline or sex.  When will we step down from our pulpit and help them, rather than condemn them as sinners?

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Thank You!

Dear visitor from Montana,

Thanks to you, I have had visitors from all 50 USA and Washington DC.

OK. The next post will be more interesting (at least for some :-).  I promise.

Monday, March 19, 2012


There are two types of earlobes: attached and free, as shown in the following picture I found in BasicGenetics – Examples of Dominant and Recessive Traits.

Apparently, attached earlobes are a recessive character, although it is not always clear whether a particular earlobe is attached or not, and several genes seem to be involved.

The only study I found about the frequency of the two types of earlobes was conducted on a sample of 1600 unrelated individuals in Lagos (Nigeria). It stated: the population frequency of attached is 25.37%, a value within the range for Caucasoids but lower than for Mongoloids. OK. One in four.

In any case, my earlobes are free. I got interested in earlobes after noticing that, while turning in bed, the lobe of the ear resting on the pillow was folded up. I used my index finger to unfold it because it made me feel more comfortable. No big deal. But I wonder for how many years I had done it without realising it.

Now, as earlobes (like noses) tend to grow with old age, perhaps this action of unfolding earlobes when lying on my side only became necessary in recent years. But perhaps I have always done it automatically, without becoming aware of doing it. It might have happened all my life.

This makes me wonder how many other actions I perform without being aware of them.

And is it only me or other people do it as well? Further, if they don't, is it because their earlobes don't fold or because they don't notice it?

Perhaps most people with free earlobes need to unfold them every now and then. If this were the case, I like to think that this article will make some of you aware of it!

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Probably not a scam...

A few days ago, I published in this blog my second article about email scams. Then, just yesterday, I received the following email:

At first sight, it looks reasonable. A few years ago I wrote a book titled Beginning JSP, JSF, and Tomcat Web Development http://zambon.com.au/non_fiction/books_and_manuals/jsp_jsf_tomcat/, and Udemy does offer courses online at udemy.com http://www.udemy.com/

But this email remain suspicious, because the links don't point to the URLs they claim to be pointing to: if you hover with the cursor over the link Udemy.com at the beginning of the message, you see that it actually points to go.toutapp.com/vmqy0979d (as shown in the snapshot). The link in the middle of the message points to another go.toutapp.com page: 97rma91x6. The two links apparently pointing to two different press releases, actually point to the same page 1edz9gz8n, and the link to www.udemy.com points to fc7tpmwsj.

Now, all this could be perfectly legitimate, as toutapp.com http://toutapp.com exists and provides services to track access to websites. Also, the pages mentioned in the email exist.

This might just be a "good old-fashion" junk mail, like all unsolicited messages that offer services or products. But this hiding of URLs behind links that claim to point to other pages is in itself suspicious, and I strongly recommend never to follow them. I don't.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Religion and Multiculturalism

I just read a couple of articles on the Canberra Times, Canberra's major daily newspaper, that made me reflect on some issues connected with religion and multiculturalism.

First of all, I discovered that in the Australian Federal Parliament, before each sitting day, the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate request God's blessing and read the Lord's prayer.

Apparently, the political leaders agree that this 'monocultural' and discriminating practice should continue.  I personally, perhaps not surprising to those who know me even just a bit, find it appalling.

Although Australia doesn't have a state religion like Britain and the Australian constitution even prohibits the establishment of a national church, we don't have a clear separation of State and Church like in the USA.

One side effect of this is that we spend a lot of money to support religious schools.  I agree that in a free country religious organisations should be able to indoctrinate (ahem...  I meant: to educate ;-) children in the tenets of their religion.  But what I don't agree about is that they receive state subsidies while doing so.

In general, the existence of expensive private schools encourages and perpetuates a classist society.  Therefore, I am against public funding of private schools, whether they are religious or not.  The objection that abolition of public funding would force closure of many private schools is not a valid one, because it has been shown over and over again that government subsidies of private enterprises result in inefficiency and complacency.  That money should go to improve public schools: higher pay for teachers, smaller classes, better infrastructures.  Then, with time, the idea that private schools provide better education would fade away.

But I am digressing...

By funding religious schools, beside diverting money away from public schools, the State legitimises them.  I don't think that any public penny should support, for example, the juxtaposition on equal footing of unprovable beliefs and proven scientific theories, like stating that Intelligent Design is as valid a theory as Evolution by Natural Selection.

About Multiculturalism, I would like first of all to state unequivocally that I am in favour of maintaining cultural diversity.  I read in several articles that Multiculturalism in Europe has failed.  This might well be, and I cannot be sure that the idea of Multiculturalism is in fact unworkable on the long run.  But it seems to me that we have no choice, and that we should work hard to keep it alive.

What are the alternatives?  Ghettoes?  A revival of the White-Australia Policy?  Forcible integration by banning cultural diversity?  I don't think so.

In Australia, despite some cases of ghettoisation, like with the Vietnamese community in Cabramatta in the late 20th century, Multiculturalism seems to be working.  I feel I don't need to cease being an Italian and a Roman in order to be and Australian and a Canberran.

This is what I understand as Multiculturalism: a blending of communities that integrate their traditions into the fabric of Australian society.  I have no doubt that Australia has benefited from the presence of substantial minorities coming from different cultures and languages.

Perhaps, if my skin were not lily-white, I would feel differently.  Perhaps, if I had not been educated in a European country, I would find it much more difficult to integrate into the Australian society while maintaining what makes me an Italian.  Perhaps, if  I were a Muslim man and wore a black long beard, I would be looked at with hostility and fear.  I don't know.  I hope not.

I believe that everybody should be able to maintain their traditions and, even if I am an atheist, practice their faiths.  But, although I am not in favour of a policy of total assimilation, there are practices that I don't find acceptable.  I know: who am I to claim the higher moral ground?  Why should the rules of our society, based on the Christian tradition and an Anglo-Saxon model of state, be better or preferable to those of other societies?

These are not easy issues to talk about, but they have to be resolved nonetheless, if we want to maintain a peaceful coexistence in our country.

I am against forced marriages, infibulation of women, circumcision of women and men, and violent domination of female family members, to name some.  Also, I find that punishing people by stoning to death or by cutting a limb has no place in a free society.  Therefore, I would never agree to introduce a form of Sharia law as, I believe, has happened in Britain.  The laws of the country should equally apply to everyone.

Circumcision of minors, unless done for documented and validated medical reasons, is nothing else than gratuitous mutilation.  I would like to see it banned in Australia.  If Jews and Muslims, instead of cutting the foreskin of their male children, had the tradition of cutting off their left ear, I am confident that it would have been banned long ago.  Then, why should religious circumcision be tolerated?

We now condemn how children were treated in Australian orphanages decades ago.  They were subjected to damagingly harsh discipline and physically and sexually abused.  We now condemn the practice of taking aboriginal children away from their families to educate them in our European ways.  We now think that lashing people until their back is reduced to a bloody pulp is barbaric.  We are appalled at learning that people were routinely lobotomised in order to calm them down.  And yet, not long ago, these practices were perfectly acceptable.

Our society is based on respecting the integrity of the individuum, both physical and psychological.  The general principle is that we are free to do what we want as long as we don't affect others.  This is why we now ban smoking almost everywhere: to protect the health of those who would be passive smokers.  But I find it absurd that we can tell a parent: stop smoking in the car if your child is on board, but please feel free to cut away a part of his body if it makes you feel better!

Is this arbitrary?  Absolutely!  And who should be entrusted with the task of deciding what is acceptable and what is not?  In a democratic country, only one answer is possible: through legislation passed by elected representatives.

Inevitably, cultural minorities will invoke the application of anti-discrimination laws designed to protect them to continue practices that the vast majority of Australian people would find unacceptable.  And so they should.  But a culture that is unable to adapt is destined to oblivion.  In the end, they should accept the changes, as we all do.

In my opinion, practices should be considered in terms of the permanent impact they have on the subject.  One month after I was born, I was taken to a church and received some cold water sprinkled on my head.  I cried for that, but no permanent damage was done.  But if my father had come from some regions of Sudan, he would have made three cuts on my face, which would have scarred me for life.  I say: if we have to allow people to scar their children in the name of traditions, to hell with those traditions!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

More on visitors to this blog

My second-last article showed that the countries of people who visit this blog form a small-world network. To prove it, I plotted the number of countries versus their number of unique visitors and showed that it resulted in a power-law dependency.

But what if you simply rank the countries on the basis of their number of visitors and then plot the number of visitors per country against the country ranks?

I didn't really know what to expect. I knew in advance that the points would run from top left to bottom right, because the highest ranks (1, 2, ...) are for countries with large numbers of visitors, while the lowest ranks are for countries with small numbers of visitors. That was a direct consequence of how I had defined the ranking. I also knew that I would have many more points for the lower ranks. But why should there be a relationship between the number of visitors of a country and its rank? A rank seems such an ad-hock number...

If the points aligned along a curve, it would imply the presence of some sort of correlation among the countries, which seems preposterous.

Guess what? the plot turns out to be a power law:

N(R) = 1524.4 * R-1.1685

With R = number-of-visitors rank and N = number of visitors.

If you choose any pair of countries R1 and R2, you obtain:

N1/N2 = (R1/R2) -1.1685

If the exponent where -1, you would have straight inverse proportionality: double the rank and you half the number of visitors. As it is, The number of visitors decreases a bit more rapidly: when you double the rank, you get a bit less than half the number of visitors (~0.445). And this happens in the same way for, say, ranks 3 and 6 as for ranks 10 and 20 or 50 and 100.

What is the meaning of this? Some deeper understanding is required...

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Another UPS email scam

In September 2011, I published in this blog an article titled How to identify some email scams.

A couple of days ago, I received another scam email claiming to come from UPS and once more from China. This time it had an attachment, and the first thing that made me suspicious was that the attachment was in HTML format, as I expect invoices attached to emails to be in PDF format.

But it was a very smart scam, because by claiming that they were sending an invoice, they played on the resentment of receiving an unjustified bill, which could result in carelessness.

Here is the snapshot of the email:

The links pointed to myapp-ups.com/main.php?page=03def465fa1423ac. The inclusion of "ups" in the domain name was clearly intended to allay any doubt that the mail was legitimate, but I don't think that UPS would use a domain name with "myapp" in it. I can imagine dozens of Chinese (and perhaps non-Chinese as well) scammers frantically registering all possible "whatever-ups.com" domain names, and send millions of emails to gullible westerners...

I searched the whois database to see who had registered myapp-ups.com and this is what I got:

This is what scammers do on Valentine days: they register domains for their scams...

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The small world of this blog

In August 2010, I published in this blog an article titled Network of Feedbacks on eBay.

In that article, I explained that a small-world network is a network in which some large nodes (called "hubs") with a lot of links reduce the average number of links you need to go through in order to connect all nodes with each other. I also said that the relationship between the N number of nodes with a given L number of links follows a power law of the form

N = A x Lg

where A is a constant.

I showed that the network formed by a sample of people giving and receiving feedback on eBay is a small-world network with g = -1.526.

On Christmas day last year, I decided that the time had come to check whether the visitors to my blog (i.e., You) formed a small-world network.

To do so, I considered each country as a node, and grouped the 122 countries from which I had received visits according to the number of unique visitors (at the time, a total of 5790). To compensate for the fact that there were many countries with few visitors and few countries with lots of visitors ( the hubs), I chose intervals that had a doubling upper value: 1 to 10, 11 to 20, 21 to 40, 41 to 80, 81 to 160, 161 to 320, 321 to 640, 641 to 1280, and 1281 to 2560. Then, to plot the intervals, I chose an abscissa that was in the middle of each interval on a logarithmic scale: L = exp((ln(Xmax) + ln(Xmin))/2).

This resulted in the following table of values:

L 3.16 14.83 28.98 57.27 113.84 226.98 453.25 905.80 1810.90

and the following plot:

As you can see, the coefficient of determination R2 is quite close to 1. This means that the number of countries vs. their number of visitors of this blog well approximates a power law, which in turns indicates that my visitors belong to a small world.

When I sampled the data, the countries with at least 100 visitors were: the USA (the most WWW-active country in the English speaking world), Australia (my home country), India (1 Gpeople and English speaking), the UK (large English-speaking country), Germany, Canada (largish English-speaking country), Italy, France, and Spain.

The high number of visitors from Germany, Italy, and France can perhaps at least in part be explained by the fact that I lived in those countries and actually grew up in Italy. Therefore, I have several contacts in each one of them.

I have no explanation of why more than 100 Spaniards, a comparatively small nation and non-English speaking, visited my blog.

But the reasons why those countries are hubs of people interested in my blog are immaterial. They exists and the size of the nodes follows a power-law distribution. The fact that the sample for the largest hubs is statistically poor, will probably cause changes in the slope as more visitors discover my blog, But that doesn't change the basic result.

Therefore, to all new visitors who are reading this article, I would like to say:

Welcome to my small world!