Archive for the 'society' Category


This is not a post about Obama.

Here is a little comparison based on my short visits to a few North American cities. The hobos in Vancouver introduce themselves to tourists, ask them where do they live, say that they have relatives in that country and then ask for change so that they could pay for gas, pizza or a stay in YMCA – that is, they do much the same thing as the hobos in Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, Rome, Moscow and many other touristic cities. They were also the most annoying, but except that the city is very charming.

The hobos in San Francisco are quite similar, except they hold lovely honest signs such as “Need weed” and “Why lie? I want a beer!”

The hobos in Seattle didn’t try to harass me. In fact they all looked very intelligent, even in their rags. They actually seemed to develop intelligent conversations with the passers by. I didn’t talk to any of them.

Now, this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the hobos and the weirdos of all the above cities are nowhere near those in New York City. I visited Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan below Central Park; i’ve seen the most interesting guys around Washington square. What’s really curious, though, is that the New York guys are also the ones that bothered me the least – they are very weird, but they mind their own business.


Thinking About the Spammer

Once i used to read most of the spam that i received. Then it became too much and i started reading only spam in Hebrew, which is quite different from the English and Chinese varieties. But now even that is too much. Lately i ignore most of it. It’s a bit unfortunate, because it is a curious bit of human culture.

Today i received a message with this subject: “Gay Sex Tanned guy bangs a friends ass”. The content was auto-generated near-gibberish of weird words, such as “blackstrap ghostless shikargah , spermatocidal sahara dewormed”. I’s probably supposed to trick spam filters. But there was nothing except it: No dirty images, no link to a porno site, no advertising.

Most people don’t give a damn, but i wonder: Is it just totally pointless waste of bandwidth? Is it supposed to trick me into trying to reply to this email and verify that my email address is right? Did the spammer send the message with a link to a porno site, but it was deleted by some filter? Was the spammer supposed to send it with a link but made a mistake? Did he program the spamming robot incorrectly?

A spammer is human, too.

Lentils and Spinach

On my trip to Catalonia i couldn’t miss the fact that nearly all of the writing on signs there is in Catalan (and in Val d’Aran it’s in Aranese, but that’s a separate story). It’s easy to pick up the basics of Catalan if one knows some French, Italian or Spanish, and i know a little of them all, so I’ve been studying Catalan since. I listened to some music and read some literature in that language, and i’ve been waiting for that great, language-defining sentence. I mean, Catalans love it, ‘cuz it’s their own, and their passion for it is quite infectious, but is there something that will catch my imagination and make me really fall in love with Catalan instead of just adding it to the list of languages which i pretend to know?

I bought four CD’s of Catalan music in Barcelona – Mazoni, Sanjosex, Refree and La Troba Kung-Fú. They are all good, but La Troba Kung-Fú quickly became my “band of the year”. They have a few great catch-phrases on their excellent album; here’s a couple:

“Prou sang pels reis i pels senyors.” – “Stop blood for the kings and for the lords.”

“Calor, calor, que em falta calor, acosta’t una mica per favor.” – “Heat, heat, how I miss heat, get a little closer to me, please”. (You absolutely have to hear the song to get the feeling of it – it’s amazing. There’s an MP3 of “Calor calor” on the website; don’t be ashamed ask me if you can’t get it. If you know the smallest thing about me, then you must agree that if i’m telling that a Latin song is “amazing”, then something must be really special about it. Also note, then “que em” is pronounced as if it was written “cam” and “per” is pronounced as if it was written “par”.)

OK now, but that’s music; music is easier to catch. How about literature?

In addition to a bunch of dictionaries and grammars, i bought two reading books in FNAC Barcelona: Sergi Pàmies’ “Si menges una llimona sense fer ganyotes” (“If You Eat a Lemon Without Making a Grimace”) and Manuel de Pedrolo’s “Mecanoscrit del segon origen” (“Second Origin Typescript”). Pàmies’ book caught my attention in the bookstore because of its funny name, because it was the fourteenth printing since it was first published a year ago (which must mean that it’s popular), and because it was a collection of short stories, which is good for learning a language. I asked a lady who stood nearby what does she think of it; luckily she spoke good English. She told me that it is quite hard and surrealistic and suggested to get the Mecanoscrit.

I read the Mecanoscrit first. According to Wikipedia, this book has been wildly popular among Catalan readers for many years. Indeed, it’s a pretty good book of science fiction and it’s not too hard to read. I enjoyed the plot – except the disappointing ending, and the language was easy enough, but it wasn’t too exciting either.

Hoping to see some more interesting language, i moved to Pàmies. It’s not too surrealistic. It is a bit depressing. It’s funny in some places. Maybe it is funnier for native readers and i just don’t understand it well enough to get the jokes. But it was here, that i finally saw this great sentence, that great language-defining phrase. The story tells about a guy who hates one of his neighbors for some unknown reason:

Si tens preferències de paladar que ni tu mateix t’expliques, i t’estimes més un plat de llenties que no, posem per cas, un d’espinacs, ¿per què no ser igualment arbitrari amb els veïns?


If you have taste preferences that even you cannot explain to yourself, and you would like a plate of lentils and not, for example, one of spinach, why then can’t it be equally arbitrary about the neighbors?


There’s a Hebrew saying – “If someone is gossiping with you, he’s gossiping about you, too.” Which is probably correct. That’s why i hate listening to gossip even passively.

But there’s also another thing. Some people like to gossip about other people, and in the same time, either deliberately or compulsively, live their life in such a way that other people can gossip about them.

When i try to think logically, then the idea of gossip is supposed to be this: When you say unpleasant things about other people, you are supposed to imply that you are not like that. But that thinking is too naïve and positive – quite often the opposite is true.

Changing my life with a wave of her hand

Lately i’ve been reading the printed version of Richard Stallman’s book Free Software, Free Society.

Reading and thinking to myself – here i am, reading a book, which is revolutionary to a certain degree. Which is naïvely (?) written and edited in a way that is supposed to be understood by people who are not computer geeks. I am sure that it fails. I even think that there’s a slight possibility that someone who doesn’t understand computers will actually read it, misunderstand it, and start some extremist group.

It makes me think – is it revolutionary like The Kapital? No, it is not. The Kapital is rather scientific, with historical and economical research behind it. Stallman is not so good with providing references for his claims. Some company did that, some guy did this, someone sued somebody else – almost without any reference. (It doesn’t mean that the whole Free Software movement sucks at reference – Lawrence Lessig’s excellent book Free Culture is very well referenced.) Yet the tone is convincing. I read it and i like to imagine Stallman speaking. This part is particularly powerful – he is talking about the first time he tried to get the source code for something and was refused:

See, he had promised to refuse to cooperate with us — his colleagues at MIT. He had betrayed us. But he didn’t just do it to us. Chances are he did it to you too. [Pointing at member of audience.] And I think, mostly likely, he did it to you too. [Pointing at another member of audience.] [Laughter] And he probably did it to you as well. [Pointing to third member of audience.] He probably did it to most of the people here in this room — except a few, maybe, who weren’t born yet in 1980. Because he had promised to refuse to cooperate with just about the entire population of the Planet Earth. He had signed a non-disclosure agreement.

Now, this was my first, direct encounter with a non-disclosure agreement, and it taught me an important lesson — a lesson that’s important because most programmers never learn it. You see, this was my first encounter with a non-disclosure agreement, and I was the victim. I, and my whole lab, were the victims. And the lesson it taught me was that non-disclosure agreements have victims.

Transcript of Richard M. Stallman’s speech, “Free Software: Freedom and Cooperation”, New York University in New York, New York, on 29 May 2001.

I may not agree with every word, but i deeply respect this kind of universal radicalism – to see society and humanity beyond the dry legal texts.

I like to amuse myself with the idea that this book is revolutionary; that i am a revolutionary; that i read the right revolutionary books of the generation. And then i think that i am not sure that i would be very proud if as a young person a hundred years ago i would read Marx. Well, i am quite sure that had i lived then, i wouldn’t think that Marx is my kind of revolutionary, anyway, although i don’t know who would it be.

But guess what makes Stallman a little like Marx after all, even though it is probably not important to him?

They are both Jews.

I didn’t know it until today. Look at this: R. Poynder interviews R. M. Stallman (PDF).

Gmar khatima tova, everyone.

Oh (edit): H.L.A., thanks for the corrections.

Made Me Cry – Nikita

My nephew Nikita came to Israel to spend the summer with his grandparents – my parents. It was all fun, until two days before his flight back to Moscow he was hospitalized in Rambam with a bad case of peritonitis.

So his flight is postponed, of course. A week after the operation he can still hardly eat and walk. My parents sit at his bed in the hospital twenty-four seven and they are terribly tired, so i came to help them.

Today i sat with him for a few hours. He mostly slept. The TV was on with a low volume and i watched Music 24 (nonstandard1), the Israeli music channel.

The golden age of the music video has ended in about 1996. Back then MTV was the undisputed Master of the Universe and local videos, although very low-budget, aspired to the international big brother and had a lot of character. These days, however, nearly all Israeli music videos can be grouped into three sets:

  1. The singer is walking around the streets of Tel Aviv. And it’s the same couple of streets in all of them.
  2. The singer is walking around his rented apartment in Tel Aviv, makes coffee, watches TV, talks on the phone or goes down to the street to buy cigarettes.
  3. A huge close-up on the singer’s face. Obviously, this group is the most disgusting. I guess that too many video directors fell in love with Sinéad or – worse – with Alanis (Flash2).

By a rough count, nine out of ten videos falls into one of these, which is quite astonishing and depressing. It can ruin even good songs. But there are exceptions.

Eviatar Banai‘s video for “Yesh li sikuy” (Flash) is a quiet little masterpiece of music video making. The song itself is one of the all-time masterpieces of Israeli music; It is from Banai’s debut album. It’s black and white and it shows people in a bar lip synching to the song, subtly conveying the mood of the line they are singing. (Can you spot Banai himself there?)

Somewhere in the middle of the song there are those lines:

אמא שרה לבן בלילה,
אמא כאן לידך כל הזמן.

Mummy sings to the son in the night,
Mummy’s here near you all the time.

In the video a pregnant woman is singing the last line. You can hardly notice that she’s pregnant until she touches her belly. This subtlety is pure beauty.

I guess that it would make me cry even without the unfortunate circumstances, but sitting there in the hospital near sleeping Nikita while his mother was far away in Moscow did put things into a perspective.

I started writing this entry a few days ago. It was a pretty crazy bunch of days since then.

Nikita’s mother – my sister – Olga finally came to Israel today after fighting with travel agencies for a few days. His health became better.

Yesterday i bought him Gossip’s Standing in the Way of Control, a CD for which he was looking for months, in Moscow and in Israel. Finding it wasn’t easy. He was particularly happy to receive it, which may have contributed to his slowly improving health, too. Despite his current condition, i envy him; i don’t think that i shall ever be as touched by music as i used to be when i was his age.

Anyway, for the night he put it in a drawer next to his hospital bed and in the morning it wasn’t there. There is a slight chance that with all the fuss around him the CD was just misplaced and will be found, but everybody is sure that it was stolen.

I’m amazed. What a terrible scumbag someone must be to steal a rare CD from a sick child. I mean, i would at least understand the motivation if it was something famous, but even i hardly know this band, so what kind of a low life would want to steal it? He can get – what? – 20 NIS for it in a used CD store? Fukker.

1 Actually, the site seems to be mostly functional, but the videos use CastUp technology, which is IE-only. I never managed to install the Firefox plugin they offer, and even if it would work, it would only work on Windows. By the way, i (still) work for the company that recently announced the acquisition of CastUp. What do you know…

2 Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” is not on YouTube. Alanis’ Head over Feet video is still there…

The Future

Where does the computing world go? I’m not talking just about Free Software, but about the whole industry. Even Microsoft is in trouble here.

What more can we do with computers? What will computers do five years from now that they can’t do today?

Writing documents and university papers can’t get much better than MS-Office, OpenOffice, TeX and DocBook. Each of them caters rather well to their respective markets (except some interoperability issues, which are really rather minor if you put the bizness bullshit aside.)

Music, Movies, Animation? You can’t improve this field much more in the home market, and the high-end market of professional artists and studios is rather narrow. (Although ideas expressed in Lessig’s Free Culture can make it wider …)

Business v1.0 software – databases, billing, CRM, ERP? It is a market of reliability, not innovation.

Websites, communications and social networks? True innovation in that area hit a glass wall long ago, if you ask me. Some websites make up nicer AJAX tricks, but that’s about it.

So i thought that the really innovative thing that can useful on a major scale may lie in the field of Linguistics (disclaimer: I am studying for a B.A. in Linguistics). Speech recognition, text-to-speech and automated translation – all of them are related to Linguistics; none of them can be done right without proper scientific Linguistic preparation.

Microsoft puts “improved” speech recognition into every version of MS-Office, but it is very far from doing it right. Xerox and IBM tried something in their respective (and respected) research labs, but it didn’t see the light of day (at least yet). Google are rumored to be doing something with statistics-based automated translation.

But no-one has anything finalized.

The first one who does it right will rule the whole market for years to come. Of the current players, Google seems to have the best chances to succeed, but it can also be a startup company created by an anonymous undergraduate Liberal Arts student in India, Nigeria or Ukraine. Or Israel?

(Originally published in Bug #1.)