Campus Activists From A Bygone Age

Writer and commentator Elamin Abdelmahmoud. There's a weekly CBC News segment hosted by Rosemary Barton called At Issue which I watch every week when I'm at my parents' house and many weeks when I'm not. It features four political commentators discussing recent events from Parliament Hill and sometimes getting into heated arguments about them. The panelist in the "lower right corner" rotates periodically but someone who watches for any decent length of time will see Elamin Abdelmahmoud in that spot. Elamin is the host of another CBC show and a writer for BuzzFeed who recently released a memoir called Son of Elsewhere about his family's experience of moving to Canada from Sudan. While I was hearing interesting opinions of his on and off for the last two years, it didn't take me long to find out that his undergrad is also from Queen's University in Kingston. But it was only last month that I flipped to a profile of him in the Queen's alumni magazine and began learning much more. The two facts that helped me the most sounded quite innocuous at first: that he attended from 2005-2011 and that he used to go by the nickname Stan. But this made me think more about whether I had ever crossed paths with him and it turns out the answer is yes. So now I get to have fun reminiscing about these exact circumstances and the wider cast of characters that they involve.

Which Countries Do This Well?

In Ontario, where I'm currently staying, a "vaccine passport" program went into effect two days ago. I just ate at a restaurant which didn't check for one but in principle they all have to. In Alberta, which has been much less careful, business can choose whether to check for vaccine passports or operate at a lower capacity. And in the United States, the recent executive order is forcing vaccine hesitant employees to take a rapid test once per week or finally get the vaccine.

Critics of these measures have tried to make them look more extreme by pointing out that there are European countries with no vaccine mandates whatsoever. What they forget to mention is that vaccine passports were only proposed out of necessity. If a country doesn't use them, this is more than likely because citizens welcomed the vaccine with open arms.

I have tried to find fault with vaccine passports many times but I keep coming up short. The billionaires most guilty of hoarding wealth are hoping that the appalling gains they've made off this pandemic will continue afterwards. The e-learning companies, which also saw a boom, are hoping that their newest exploitative practices enjoy a similar longevity. Could it be that discrimination based on immunization status is also part of a creeping erosion of civil liberties? I just can't get there. Every vaccine administered raises a vulnerable person's chances of survival. Letting members of our communities know that we've extended this courtesy is something we should be doing anyway. Overcoming the logistical hurdles in doing so is why we have elected officials.

All this is to say that I support the principle of vaccine mandates. But an implementation which thinks it's a good idea to use barcodes like this one risks doing more harm than good.

A mysterious QR code which the NHS told me to show regarding my vaccination.

Checking Which Passwords Have Been Pwned

There is only one rule of Internet safety that all people know. Never send personal information to suspicious websites. If this is the freshman rule, then there is a sophomore rule as well. Even websites with good intentions do not always succeed at keeping your data safe. For the longest time, I expected this to leave me with absolutely no recourse if the companies in question decide not to publicize their data breaches. However, there is a wonderful service at HaveIBeenPwned.Com which can put some agency back in the hands of us users.

The maintainer, a security expert named Troy Hunt, keeps it up to date with information about hundreds of data breaches on major social networks, blogs and online stores. More ambitiously, you can also search for your email address (or your friend's email address) in order to directly see whether one of the accounts associated with it has been compromised. This is because Troy often obtains the precise databases that are sold by black hat hackers. But the benefits do not stop there. The best part of the site is a function to search for leaked passwords themselves. Whenever Have I Been Pwned knows about one of the passwords you type in, there can be no doubt that it's time to retire that password for good.

This is a function that can be used in three ways so I want to explain all three.

Unable To Bet On The Election

Do we know what's going to happen during the 2020 American Election? I can tell you what's going to happen after. If Trump wins, streets with fill up with protesters in close to 100 countries. If Biden wins there will be protests as well, but largely confined to the US. How many other American elections have made this a near certainty? While not always for the right reasons, frequent voters have spent Trump's entire first term being heavily invested in the question of whether or not he will get a second. Here is why I think he won't.

  1. Biden is way ahead in the majority of swing states. To be sceptical of these pollsters, you would have to not only dismiss the claims that they improved their methodology in response to 2016 but also believe that they have accumulated several additional errors since then.
  2. Biden has displayed an almost Trump-like ability to make all criticism go away simply by saying "come on, man". While Biden's gaffes are very different from Trump's deliberate lies, both have a willingness to go off-script which a certain type of voter finds endearing.
  3. Institutional support has turned Trump into a standard-issue Republican devoid of any economically populist streak he may have once had.
  4. A sudden improvement in Trump's messaging would not do him much good since the number of people who have already voted is possibly half of what the eventual turnout will be.
  5. There's also a little thing called the coronavirus. Voters who have taken it upon themselves to analyse Biden's platform or compare the US to other countries probably don't need much convincing. But for everyone else, there is a stark difference between this politicized pandemic and past war-like crises which have usually served to bring the population together.

I tried to act on these suspicions by signing up for PredictIt but I cannot get them to accept my account. It looks like I will have to forego hopes of monetary gain and be satisfied with the modicum of relief that Biden's election brings.

Got A Website Uncensored

There are a few things that Internet users in the UK (where I have just moved) need to know.

  1. The close brushes Canada has had with censorship are nothing compared to the UK. It really matters whether you get an ISP that wants to fight this trend.
  2. Some companies, such as Andrews & Arnold, have filled this niche by providing broadband of a quality that's hard to find on the other side of the pond. I first became aware of this company when I checked for the ISP with the top rating on ISP Review. My impression just got better and better as a I spent more time on their website. It is remarkable how many resources they put at your fingertips — SIP services, an IRC channel, a wiki on how to use many different modems and routers, a blog that advocates for digital rights, numerous references to xkcd, the ability to pay every full moon, etc.
  3. If the appointment to set up your line doesn't happen right away (which is inevitable with a small company like AA), you will probably come across the "Cloud" wireless hotspot run by Sky News. This is a pretty slow option that even has some bugs with how packets are handled. I don't know whether it's a keepalive connection, persistent connection or referrer check but some basic property of web forms failed most of the time when I tried to edit Wikipedia.

Anyway, on one of the good days using the free wifi, I tried to go to MEGA only to find out that it had been blocked. Blocked for copyright reasons you ask? Because its controversial founder launched the site in order to make it more resilient to the types of infringement cases that took down Megaupload? No, the network said that it had been listed under the blocked category radicalization.

Steamed Hams But The Episodes Didn't Stay Good

I'm not sure what I did on weekdays at 9pm during my earliest years but after 2000 the answer was simple. I was watching The Simpsons on The Comedy Network. Most of my middle school friends were doing the same and this put us in a position to witness the end of an era. Reruns that aired every day seemed strikingly different from the new episodes that aired on Sunday and it did not take us long to figure out that the latter were steadily getting worse. The decline of The Simpsons is common knowledge but I recently found a visualization which puts it in a rather harsh perspective. This chart, by filmmaker Sol Harris, points out among other things that The Simpsons has more than twice as many episodes as the next longest running cartoon. The writers would be able to take 14 years off to come up with good ideas again and still be able to call themselves the record holders. I would say the tail is so long that some viewers, who have already been watching for a number of years, were born after the last good episode.

A plot showing a rating out of 10 issued by Sol Harris for each 1989-2017 Simpsons episode.

But what is the last good episode? Modulo some broken clocks that are right twice a day, Harris tells us that it is the 12th Halloween special which aired at the beginning of season 13. The episode afterwards called "The Parent Rap" is scorned as "the definitive moment when the show went from 'Bad Simpsons' to 'Bad Television'". In the Harris ratings, which I have re-plotted above, the beginning of season 13 indeed looks like a turning point. A more satisfying exercise is to justify this with maximum likelihood estimation.

I Finally Subscribed To PewDiePie

I have finally gone to the channel of the most successful YouTube personality and clicked "subscribe". I probably won't watch any of his videos but I wanted to do my part to keep him in the lead as 2019 starts. The story is that Felix Kjellberg, better known as PewDiePie, got 5 million subscribers by 2013 — more than any other YouTube channel — and managed to hold onto that record for another five years. Today, it looks like his reign is about to end with the Indian media conglomerate T-series acquiring subscribers at a much faster rate. A live counter that I've started watching currently has PewDiePie at 79 million and T-series at 78 million.

This is roughly the same number of people who have ever bought a Nirvana album. The world of difference in perception is what piqued my interest when I first heard about PewDiePie. For an artist who becomes famous with the help of a record label, there is a massive gradient between the two extremes of "I'm a fan who buys albums" and "I've never heard of them". As such, I would expect almost everyone in Canada or the US to have some idea of what Nirvana is. Conversely, I've had plenty of people tell me that they've never heard of PewDiePie. 79 million people is enough to fill a country and a large one at that. But outside this community of loyal fans, any chance of a lasting impression has to compete with the trope of an entertainer chatting into his webcam everyday. PewDiePie is a reminder of the isolation that the Internet can bring and the surprise that can be felt upon learning how many people don't think what you thought "most people" think.

Rescuing GNU Talkfilters

Arch Linux recently produced a list of packages that cannot be built from source because of broken URLs. I had received messages like this before, and usually they simply indicate that the website for a package has changed. This happened a lot, for example, in 2016 when Google Code was shut down and replaced with a raw archive of project snapshots. So I expected that I would only have to do a little bit of searching when the notification came for GNU Talkfilters.

Instead, I could not find any up-to-date sites hosting the source. Every post about it still pointed to the old site with links that lead to 404 errors. It started to look like talkfilters had disappeared from the web. This is unacceptable for any free software project, especially one that ostensibly bears the "GNU" distinction. Because I had compiled the program on my own machine years ago, I was lucky enough to still have a copy of the source lying around. I promptly uploaded it to this very site and updated the Arch package accordingly. As a result, the crisis has been averted and free software users with nothing better to do are still free to apply chat filtering rules like this:

$ echo "Welcome friends, to a new home for GNU talkfilters!" | pirate
Welcome crew, t' a new home fer GNU talkfilters! Shiver me timbers!

I Have Yet To See A 2017 Film

It occurred to me recently that the last time I bought a movie ticket was four months ago. After going through a chronological list of major film releases, I am pretty sure that I have not gone this long between movies since 2012. Here are the release months for films that I saw in various years. The maximum span here seems to be three.

  • 2016: February, April, June, July, September, November, December
  • 2015: February, March, April, May, September, December
  • 2014: January, February, March, April, May, August, October, December
  • 2013: April, May, June, August, October, November, December

An obvious problem with this list is that it is easy to watch a film one or two months after its release. If this had happened with the April 2013 film for example, then that would be an example of another four month gap. However, in this case, I happen to remember that I saw Iron Man 3 right when it came out. Another shortcoming is that the list omits movies that I saw in airplanes, people's houses or rented out venues. The latter type of cinema is something I have actually attended multiple times in 2017.

Four months instead of three is not much of an outlier. So I cannot really say whether this marks a sudden change in my interests. However, I can certainly mention two movies that I actively avoided.

Hacking Conference Offices

I am writing this from Florence during the most exciting trip I've been able to take as a part of grad school. I was fortunate enough that a 7 week workshop in conformal field theory that made a lot of sense for me to attend, chose a beautiful city in a country I had yet to visit. Travelling to surrounding areas will be reserved for the weekends. On weekdays there is a chance to be really productive because the other students and I are surrounded by very intense people.

When we're not talking to these professors and postdocs who have decent offices, the main place for us to work is a room with a window and a twelve seat table. This is not bad because there are usually only six people sitting there. However, this is not guaranteed to stay the case. If one looks at the participant list, there could easily be days when all of the seats fill up. This is where there is room to game the system and I am happy to say that it only required a few lines of code.

A view of Florence


Subscribe to Small Perturbation RSS