domingo, setembro 17, 2017

Programming is Like Music: "Python - Become A Master In Python" by Richard Dorsey

Just what is the fascination with spreadsheets? I played with them on my Spectrum in the 80s, but it wasn't very useful. I used a spreadsheet on a Psion handheld in the 90s to keep track of some data. And nowadays I have a spreadsheet in LibreOffice to keep track of my expenses and work out my tax (estimate, since obviously, you need to use a proper package to get it right). I've worked in places in the meantime where bosses think that Excel is a suitable tool for project planning. It isn't. But if you only give people a hammer, everything looks like a nail to them. As a programmer, myself, I'm finding this whole thing fascinating. The quality of the kid's programming output (and yes, it is programming, not 'coding') is going to be directly proportional to the teacher's ability who's teaching them. I have a big worry that this will go the way of foreign language learning in school though, even without this concern over the quality of teaching. It's a subject that needs self-determination and a lot of time spent outside of the class room to truly get to grips with. Without these two things pupils, will probably grow to despise the subject - and we may even start to put off future would be programmers. Children as young as four have been learning programming skills in the classroom for many years with programmable toys: Big Trak, Roamers and BeBots are some examples which have been whirring around on the floor. Disguise a robot as a sheep and get it to run away from the farmer or program a lifeboat to reach a sinking ship etc.

But programming is hard; very hard. Heartbleed and the concurrent Apple invalidation of security certificates in their software demonstrate how bloody hard it is. Teaching children to code is analogous to teaching them to make nuclear bombs. Though I think it’s not so much like teaching them to make nuclear bombs; it’s more like doing physical education with the goal of teaching them all to be fast bowlers. Or music with the idea of trying to make them all composers of classical sonatas.

Python is the right choice, and it really is easy as languages go. But for most people even learning Python is going to be frustrating to the point of impossibility. You could try LiveCode - also open source. A bit like the old Hypercard. Or you could try learning the Bash shell or Awk - both restricted purpose non-GUI languages which may be more accessible because they have very clearly defined purposes and limits. Or you could try the Gnome package Zenity. Python is very general and it has the complexity of having lots of IDEs...The problem most people have is conceptual. Their minds simply do not work like that. There is no particular reason why they should. Most people will not be able to be good fast bowlers either. They are perfectly fit, healthy and intelligent people. Inability to programme is no bar to learning or achievement of all sorts. It is much more important to know how to set up an OS, how to set up a network, to understand something about security and servers, permissions, users, all that stuff. Python really is simple when you compare it to a language like C. For example, to create an array with even integers from 1 to 100 in just one line in Python, you can do list comprehensions:

myArray = [x for x in range(1, 101) if x % 2 == 0]
Try doing that in C, you'll end up with something like this:
main() {
int myArray[100], i, index;
index = 0;
for (i = 0; i < 101; i++) {
if (i % 2 == 0){
myArray[index] = i;
index ++;

Wait! Why would I want that in an array I have no idea...

This looks much better:

for (i = 0; i < 51, i++) array[i] = i*2

In any case, what does the length of the code matter?

What matters is the readability and clarity of the code and how fast the programs runs.

Having learned both basic, Z80 machine code and assembler in the early 1980s I would say that the revised mental processing I needed to master to be able to create programmed solutions to problems using any of these coding methods has proven very useful in all manner of situations requiring clear thinking since that time. The big problem with learning this stuff is getting over the jargon and meeting the standard of prior assumed knowledge. They will also need to teach kids quite detailed machine architecture otherwise this scheme will fail.

Programming is like music or creative mathematics. Only 10 or 15 percent of the population are going to be able to do it. An even smaller percentage of current teachers is going to be able either to do it, or still less teach it. The idea that we take a year, teach all teachers to be programmers, and then have them teach all children to programme? It’s simply mad. Not only is it impossible, it is squeezing out from the curriculum the teaching of something that is much more useful and which is possible to teach everyone. That is systems management. Setting up computers and networks, trouble shooting, installing operating systems, servers and the like. Files and file management. The command line. Elementary scripting to the extent necessary to use the command line properly. In short, how to manage computers and networks. Not how to write programmes in two languages. Teach this, and you will be giving a valuable general purpose skill children will use in employment and private lives. And it is possible to teach it to almost everyone.

We don't try to give all teachers a knowledge of music composition next year, and have them then teach it to all children the following year. This is as crazy an idea as that would be. The only result is that we will prove once and for all by a wonderful national experiment that programming is a very specific and comparatively rare ability. And in the process, we will make a lot of perfectly intelligent and able people feel totally stupid and frustrated, when we could have given them useful and enjoyable instruction in things they could learn and would use.

Having this stuff ingrained young means it’s part of the way you think for life, and it’s hard for today's adults to estimate how much of this knowledge is going to be needed in the future just to be able to have access to decent jobs. Almost in the same way that typing was appropriate in the age before computerisation so that people could get higher paid clerical, administrative, and executive roles.

School should be as much about teaching kids to learn as it is teaching them what to know. The distinction is subtle but important.

Bottom-line: Will Dorsey’s book help on this road to computer literacy? Nope. Too short and without the stuff one needs to learn how to program in Python, but I’m not even sure that was the author’s intention. I don’t really know what kind of rationale these type of programming books fulfill, to be honest. How can anyone become a master at Python programming without the use of classes (strangely absent in the book)? Mind-boggling to say the least…

sábado, setembro 16, 2017

All Much Ado about Nothing: “The Trouble with Physics” by Lee Smolin

“The Weinberg-Salam model requires that the Higgs field exist and that it manifest itself as the new elementary particle called the Higgs boson, which carries the force associated with the Higgs field. Of all the predictions required by the unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces, only this one has not yet been verified.”

In “The Trouble with Physics” by Lee Smolin

Hello physicists and Lee Smolin in particular,

I can't say I agree with such a hard stance against string theory personally like Smolin does, but I’m what’s known as a stupid person, so it doesn’t really matter what I think. However, I do feel it is healthy for science to have people that challenge ideas from all sides. All this will do is galvanise people to work harder to provide evidence to prove or disprove any theory that tries to describe reality. Science thrives in areas of confliction.

Life is the memory of what happened before you died, i.e. we cannot extricate ourselves from the universe in any way shape or form, including our "objective," apparently repeatable theoretical notions. By definition, there is only one UNI-verse. If you want to call it a universe of multiverses or a multiverse of universes, or balls of string with no limits, no problem, but there is only one of everything that is and isn't. This assemblage of atoms, no different from any other atoms, called the human body, has a life and death, as do the stars; it also has an internal resonance we like to call the consciousness of self-awareness of existence. We all too often, de facto, accept that there is a universe outside our "selfs", our bodies, i.e. it’s just me, my-self, and I, and the universe that surrounds my body, as if there were a molecular separation of some sort. This starting point for science, i.e., this assumed separation from a universe that surrounds our (apparent) bodies is the first thing that has to go. By definition there is only one UNI-verse that includes Heisenberg, I, the photos and videos of flying objects that make apparently perfect right angle turns at thousands of miles per hour, which we casual observers are not able to identify, black holes, white holes, pink holes, blue holes, our memories, our records, not to mention everything else. It's all much ado about nothing. As someone else used to say, "This IS the cosmic drama," we are living at the interface of the Sun's outgoing light and the apparent incoming light from the universe that appears to surround the Sun. Ah, but, what if we live in a black hole and don't realize it? That would mean the night sky, which most of us consider to exist outside the sun would actually be all the light of the sun after doing a 180, except, and here's the kicker, daylight, i.e., the light of the sun that we experience as sunshine. Maybe we need to revise the old coin that says yin and yang, black holes and white holes, matter and anti-matter, light energy and dark energy, night and day, black and white, etc. ad nauseum, are two APPARENT sides of the same coin as perceived by bunches of atoms they (we) are observing other atoms in a universe that is completely outside their (our) own "personal universe" as defined by their (our) sensory input. In other words, the interface between black and white colors our apparent existence. That sophistry and $2.25 will get you a ride on the tube.

I am not a string theorist but back in the day I considered myself a physicist who knew a few physicists doing physics for a living. Something that might surprise people to hear is that many (perhaps the majority?) of string theorists did not spend any time thinking of ways the idea could make observable predictions. The reason for this was that the typical energy scale of string theory is much higher than even scales we try to probe in the early universe in cosmology. They argue that getting string theory to say something specific about physics 'beyond the standard model' would be like trying to describe friction of a carpet in terms of quarks and leptons i.e. theoretically conceivable but practically impossible. Seen in these terms though, string theory itself is a generalization of the 'theory of carpets' i.e., it is built as an extension of ideas we know are very successful at familiar energy scales: quantum mechanics and relativity.  Indeed, the reason the 'typical' energy scales of stringy stuff are thought to be so "unreachably" high is due to an extrapolation about the strength of gravity based on the value of Newton's gravitational constant you can measure on a table-top on earth.

In my opinion this huge extrapolation is a dangerous one as there are reasons to believe that they are things going on in physics before this high-energy scale which may change our understanding of things very much (e.g. the observed value of the 'cosmological constant'). These things could render any of the assumptions about string theory invalid. This represents a rather peculiar situation. Due to their assumptions, the string theory community is likely incapable of making any predictions about anything in our universe. Progress regarding the 'truth' of string theory therefore will not come from string theorists doing string theory calculations but from other physicists experimentally probing the assumptions that string theory relies on.

The question remains whether string theory has advanced understanding of the physical world. They had like one vague prediction for the LHC and when it didn't come true there were all like "ah, it only emerges at much higher energies!". LMAO! String theory is religion at this point. On the other hand, I side with Smolin when he says he’s interested in a testable theory. It just so goes that Smolin's ideas are not fatalist, which turns many militant atheist types off because it means life is not an accident; what that says about God, his position is completely agnostic. Considering the symbiosis we find in nature, his views make a lot of sense and unify well with a lot of biology and ecology.

I'm told string theory is great mathematics though, so great one String Theorist ended up winning the highest price in mathematics, the Fields Medal. I’m talking about Edward Witten who has also lots of references in Smolin’s book.

Between 2006 (when this book came out; see quote above regarding the yet still to be discovered Higgs’ particle), 2012 (when the Higgs boson was “discovered”), and 2017 (when I’m writing this review), what have we to show for String Theory? Not much. And since physicists have spent a lifetime ignoring observational data, they don't feel in the least bit accountable for (1) the plain truth (2) being wrong or (3) all the lives that they destroyed along the way when they mocked the people who were trying to tell them that they were wrong. Over the next few years you will see them lay claim to a beautiful theory of Quantum Gravity, even capable of making contact with experiment. They will even tell themselves that they were really working on this theory of Quantum Gravity all along.

Well, bottom-line: I hope someone kills String Theory, it's getting to the stage where physics is starting to resemble pseudoscience, and lots of pretty and convoluted theories that are essentially untestable.

NB: I don’t care about String Theory; what I really want is FTL travel. I want what the Tomorrow’s People had: flicking long distances in time and space in the blink of an eye; I want the Star Trek replicator that makes my dinner when I want it and how I like it; I want my phaser at stun; I want all of this. If the String Theory gets me there asap then spend, spend, spend...

sexta-feira, setembro 15, 2017

The Ballet Dancer: "The Late Show" by Michael Connelly

“It’s like the laws of physics—for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction. If you go into darkness, the darkness goes into you. You then have to decide what to do with it. How to keep yourself safe from it. How to keep it from hollowing you out.”

In "The Late Show" by Michael Connelly

It isn't polite to look in through other people’s windows. I knew this but still I would do it. It isn't an obsession, it isn't voyeuristic. No. But sometimes things would catch my eye as I walked past. A nice vase, a sleeping cat, a glimpse of a print on a wall, random "stuff" that makes a home a home. I liked to imagine who would surround themselves with these things, what do they look like? How do they live? In one window, I know is a tiny figurine of a young ballet dancer - cheap, pastel, glazed. Nondescript. Given a place of prominence through love.
I once saw the woman who owned that dancer.
It was her feet, the size of her feet. Sitting on the bus, I was just mesmerized by her feet. Spilling over her cheap plastic slip-on shoes. Feet that looked bulbous and par boiled like a body rising from a too hot bath. Veins cracking and breaking under the strain of their burden. Sad, shuffling feet trudging homeward, kicking carrier bags straining under the weight of their contents.
I followed the feet really, not the woman. I honestly don't recall what she looked like. Large I suppose, judging by her feet. Those feet. And, as I passed the door she had disappeared through, I took a glance to the side - there was this little dancer. More delicate in that moment than anything I had seen before.

I walked on and away. I have never been back to that street, but sometimes I think about that figurine and wonder if those feet might dream of dancing. I try not to look in windows any more.

quinta-feira, setembro 14, 2017

Non-Flash-in-the-Pan SF: “Counting Heads” by David Marusek

“I am not pouting, and I am certainly not indulging in self-pity, as Eleanor accuses me. In fact, I am brooding. It is what artists do, we brood. To other, more active people, we appear selfish, obsessive, even narcissistic, which is why we prefer to brood in private.”

In “Counting Heads” by David Marusek

SF stories often regurgitate medieval themes and settings, including wars, sword fighting, emperors, dukes, and so on. Star Wars and Dune do this, too. They would have us believe that people still fight with (light) sabres although they master FTL travel as well. Light sabres may be entertaining, but to me they are not serious SF. I prefer another kind of SF, the kind that shows NEW forms of human/alien behaviour induced by alien settings and new technology, NEW dilemmas and choices, and shows how current developments will play out in the not-too-distant future. In short, it kind of sheds light on the human condition as I’ve been writing “ad nauseam” on this blog. David's Marusek brilliant "Counting Heads" has no sword fighting, no laser guns. It does have court cases being pursued by Artificial Intelligence Assistance up to the Highest Court within milliseconds. People being "seared" - deprived of their online identity and thereby being unable to live a normal life. Societies with large numbers of clones such as "Maries" (that often marry Freds, who are fond of making lists for everything they do). Leftover Nano weapons from a past conflict still wreaking havoc. How drones will change the way life is lived. People choosing the age at which they remain living. A large queue forming outside the neighborhood 3D print shop because someone is printing a couch... Etcetera. And the book was written in 2005. This shows it’s not necessary to write 600-pages books to give us a fine SF novel. More words, not always give us a better book for sure; would a longer book serve to clarify, especially when the reader is forced to embrace and remember new names and terminologies at almost every paragraph? Do we really need to be spoon-fed? I much prefer my SF to be ultra-dense like Marusek's; he prefers to build the world through subtle hints for an attentive reader to pick up and put together. But we're geeks. We're smart guys. We wear hats. This is how we should want our books. We don't need our mommies to cut up our steak for us, so why do we need an author to spoon-feed us big chunks of exposition to explain every nuance? Were this another type of SF novel (meaning bigger), it’d degenerate to a sinkhole of flash-in-the-pan fantasy in the guise of science fiction.

My point: there is SF that retells old stories in new settings, and there is SF that throws most of the old out and replaces it with thought-provoking new stuff. The books from Philip K. Dick could only be made into movies at the end of his life, and decades thereafter, because that's when society had learned enough to understand his concepts. Maybe the same will happen to David Marusek.

SF = Speculative Fiction.

quarta-feira, setembro 13, 2017

733bi/fo@@h732=|$dGGGHHH&+~52: "Think Like a Hacker - A Sysadmin's Guide to Cybersecurity" by Michael J. Melone

“Thinking like a hacker means studying the tooling that hackers use, attending hacker conferences such as DEFCON [and C-Days in Portugal], and practicing hacking and exploitation in a lab environment.”

In “Think like a Hacker: A Sysadmin’s Guide to Cybersecurity” by Michael J. Melone

What happens in real life passwords-wise? (I know what I’m talking about; back in the day I was in the trenches doing this for a living…)

The passwords are usually stored in a database with the username, when you enter your username and password one is checked vs another. Obviously if the database was stored "in the clear" anyone who stole it or looked at it would know your password. This can't work for anywhere where the user accounts must be secure - even from employees, which is basically everywhere. So, what is done is that the password is "hashed" which means that it is encoded using a one-way conversion formula. If I have the formula and the password I can reproduce the hash result, that's a match! I can open your account! That's what a website does when you enter the right password. But if you just have the hash then if you give that to the website it will apply the formula and create a different result and the system will say "no dice". So having the hashes is no use to a hacker.

Unless the hacker guesses the formula. And this is where the billions of attempts come in. If an employee or hacker steals the list of hashes and usernames they will use them to guess the formula. The bigger the list the more chances of a password being repeated in it, if the hacker spies two hashes that are the same (or with modern functions, hashes that are related with a regularity that clever math can show) then that might mean that the passwords used to generate them are the same, and if the said password is 12345678 then it's very likely Mr. hacker will guess the formula required, and at that point off we go to the races. If the hacker has the database on his own computer (and one can rent very big, very fast computers now for very little $$$) many billions of guesses and tries and tests on the hash function can be done every second.

Good web sites do three things, firstly they "salt" their passwords with a random string which is kept separately like "733bi/fo@@h732=|$dGGGHHH&+~52-" which means that all passwords have that added to them before hashing. Secondly, they use strong hash functions like not SHA-1. The final thing that it is easy to do is to stop users using any password in the top 5000 passwords lists, stop them using any dictionary word and insist that the password contains numbers, capitals, lowercases and symbols.

Unfortunately, such is the sophistication of password cracking software these days that even a long password is no guarantee of security and hardware is getting faster all the time so just a long password is no cast iron guarantee of security. Use very different passwords on online services and be careful about the links between different apps; these days you can use your Facebook ID to login to a range of different sites for example; if you do this consider the implications of what could be accessed if say your Facebook ID is compromised and the data that is shared between the 2 sites.

A password manager is a good way to go for remembering all these different passwords some of them will generate a random password of a specific length for you when you set up a new account and they are available as apps on smartphones, however choose a secure password to access it and ensure it is securely encrypted using something like AES and be careful where it's stored, remember the "Cloud" is just another computer hosted somewhere in the world, there is no guarantee cloud storage is secure; if you back up to these services then encrypt the backups (Companies like Apple offer this with just a check box and password field as an option in your back up settings).

I am extremely careful with LinkedIn these days, I once found all my information available online (legitimately) because they had changed their privacy options and data was open by default to certain LinkedIn partners who took it upon themselves to publish my CV publicly (thanks for the spam to the email accounts I used at that time guys!), they seem to have a very relaxed approach to privacy and peoples profiles often appear in straight Google searches, CV's by their nature tend to include a lot of personal information, and certainly a lot of contact info.

Most hacking attempts do not even use passwords; they exploit failings of the site's code itself. Meanwhile the 'password complexity' argument is based on being able to submit thousands of passwords a second to the same account. Any system which allows that is a dumb piece of design. The sensible answer is that you should not use a guessable password. The rest is basically a 'straw man' designed to shift attention away from the real security failings of the software industry.

Passwords are recognised as being extremely fallible and there is a big discussion going on as to how to replace them, biometrics are equally insecure and you can't change them if they are compromised, as for flaws in code allowing exploits, these will always exist, even the best programmers make mistakes and the sophistication of cracking tools is improving all the time. I view this as being a bit like home security, you can add all the window locks, security deadbolts and alarms that you like, it's never a guarantee that someone can't break in, and in the case of on-line data where government funded agencies are involved then all bets are off.

Personally, I try not to put anything important on the internet, my plans for world domination and my Mum's recipe for bread pudding I memorise, and keep in my head, they can't hack that......yet! :)

Bottom-line: Hackers don't try to guess passwords to get your account. They hack into the system, steal the encrypted data and then, outside of its secure ecosystem it is now vulnerable to brute force attacks. Once a reasonable number of passwords has been hacked, this can be sold onto the highest bidder who will then harvest your data. Often, they will use the same username-password combination on other common websites such as PayPal and Amazon where they can make online purchases or Facebook and Gmail/Hotmail where they will begin the process of identity theft or look through old messages for even more important passwords or bank account details. Remember that holiday you took with your mates and you instant messages them your bank details so they could pay you for the flights? Yep, that's still in your message box. So, change that Facebook password. Now!

terça-feira, setembro 12, 2017

Peter Hall, 1930-2017

(Judi Dench as Titania during the filming of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by Peter Hall in 1968)

No, I'm not going to write about his Shakespeare productions. I'm going to write about his take on Wagner's Ring Cycle, with only some en passant comments about Shakespeare. With Peter Hall there was none of this "Macbeth" set in a bus shelter or "King Lear" set in McDonalds, or what have you. Contrary to much received luvvie "wisdom" I think it takes more understanding and scholarship to play a classical text "straight" than it does to pointlessly "update" it. An intelligent audience can draw its own conclusions. "Henry V" doesn't have to be played in modern day military camouflage to make the connection between 15th century and 21st century jingoism, as per Iraq war or whatever. I understand that, for its admirers, the greatness of Hall's Ring Cycle lay in its fidelity to the classical style of Wagner himself, and his eschewal of the 'concept' style of interpretation that you had with the previous Boulez Cycle from 1976 and that you were to have with productions after the Hall version closed. As I recall, Hall argued that the Ring was, first and foremost, a mythological narrative, a view that conformed exactly to Wagner's own arguments about the nature of opera and drama. The mythological style is bound up with the universality of theme and characterisation that Wagner associated with Greek tragedy. From what I have read about his Ring Cycle, Hall must have studied Wagner's writings, because, by all accounts, he had a very clear understanding of Wagner's intentions. What would I not give now to have been able to be in Bayreuth to see the Hall Ring in the 80s.

segunda-feira, setembro 11, 2017

Literature as a Strengthener of Character: "The Cambridge Introduction to Shakespeare" by Emma Smith

Cease to persuade, my loving Proteus!

The thing about drama is that everybody has to put effort in to learn their part, then they have to work together to make the play happen. Putting on a successful performance is very hard work but the buzz children get from the performance is huge and they learn that hard work is worthwhile. The play won't work without Titania, Bottom or Puck or all the more minor parts or the person who does the lighting, the scenery, the costumes. They compete for parts but work collaboratively to achieve a result and are proud of what they achieve. What better life lessons could children learn? There is bound to be a positive knock-on effect on other subjects.  Any good play, or musical, will do this but Shakespeare has huge scope and, generally, a large cast. This is a wonderful initiative. We owe it to our pupils to open up to their imaginations a world beyond our own shores and time. The 'Metamorphoses' speak to us about the fluidity of identity and have so much to offer to teenagers confronting this issue in their own lives. They can be read with Jeffrey Eugenides' 'Middlesex' as effectively as with Shakespeare. Emma Smith is right to point to the importance of the Philomela story for 'Titus Andronicus', but the many rape narratives in the 'Metamorphoses' present serious ethical challenges in the classroom. In teaching teenagers (and not only) respect for others, you are teaching them respect for themselves. That's the main point of school and home; in their rapidly-changing world (i.e. their intellect, their bodies) these are mainstays. These are what enable them to contextualise the attacks of commerce on their minds. And anybody who thinks that good literature and art aren't great strengtheners of character is missing the point; of course, they are, because they improve human intelligence.

Stage managed, manufactured vessels who are 'famous' for no reason other than having their pictures taken and heavily edited and being over-publicised by people you never see.

Why anybody thinks that this is in any way 'good' is beyond me, but young people see these people being rewarded and being rich and think that this is in some way a worthwhile pursuit, whilst people locked in a laboratory or grinding out groundbreaking research they don't know or care about.

It's a big, big problem in the social media age but one that the people who could address it won't. Ms. Swift have one, possibly huge advantage over Shakespeare’s Cleopatra et al: they are real and they are still alive. But alive they may be, but to the audience who will never see them, except maybe on a well-guarded stage a long way away, arguably not real. So, a fictional character could perhaps serve as well as a role model as a media created celebrity. Whether a sixteenth century fictional character will serve is another question, but characters from “The Hunger Games” and “Game of Thrones” are equally distant in time and space, so it might work. The question we haven't dealt with is why Viola and Rosalind would be better role models. I think they would be but, why would they?

As for Cleopatra, she was selfish, manipulative and self-destructive. She blithely brought about the death of thousands of Roman and Egyptian troops (not to mention her lover) for no reason other than her own desire for power. She brought about the complete collapse of Egypt as an independent country, then she topped herself. Not a good example. Although many people seem to subscribe to the myth of Cleopatra as either some floozy of the ancient world, a brazen strumpet and home-wrecker who spent her time in the beds of the most powerful men of the Roman world, or of Cleopatra as the ultimate hopeless romantic and ill-fated lover who died by her own hand, supposedly by snakebite.

At any rate, Cleopatra is infinitely more worthy as a role model for women of all ages than the "famous for being famous" Lady Gaga. The historical as well as the Shakespeare’s fictional Cleopatra was a truly impressive personality: not only did she survive the murderous intrigues of the Ptolemaic court, she was also an enlightened and compassionate ruler. One of her most famous acts was - at a time of drought and famine - to issue an edict opening the Alexandrian granaries to feed the non-Macedonian population of that great metropolis as well as the rural poor, which - despite alienating the Macedonian aristocracy and elite -secured her popularity with all the peoples of the kingdom. Her respect for Egyptian cultural and religious traditions, led to her being crowned as Pharoah - the first Ptolemy in generations to rule as both King/Queen of Alexandria and Pharoah of Egypt as well as the first Ptolemy ever to speak Egyptian. Considering that she came to the throne while still a teenager, effectively ruling alone in a world dominated by men she did extremely well - and if one includes Marcus Antonius' excessively generous gifts of large chunks of the Roman Empire to her, she certainly expanded the Ptolemaic Kingdom to its greatest extent in centuries. Had Cleopatra and the Egyptian fleet only stayed to fight Agrippa and rescue Antonius' blockaded fleet at the strategic disaster that was the Battle of Actium, she would have dramatically changed the course of Roman, and probably world, history. Cleopatra was unquestionably a brilliant woman in her own right - as well as being a polymath and a polyglot fluent in all the languages and dialects of her own kingdom (including Hebrew) - she was a highly effective ruler of a notoriously volatile kingdom whose capital was not only one of the largest cities of the ancient world but also one of the most ethnically diverse, and her tolerance towards ethnic minorities - such as the sizeable Jewish community of Alexandria - is legendary. Intelligent, compassionate, tolerant and courageous, Cleopatra VII ought to be a role model already.

The best role models are people who worked hard and achieved something, and unfortunately, our society does not prize such people in the same way that we do women who have big bottoms or men who inherit lots of money and play businessmen on TV. And that's why these forced role models ultimately won't work. We see those people dwarfing the accomplishments of those who work hard and intelligently to achieve, because they start out from a position of privilege. If women aspire to marrying into money rather than making it themselves, can you really blame them? It's literally the main lesson that our culture teaches.

I was lucky in that I had an inspirational English Literature teacher (Vicki Hartnack) who made Shakespeare characters relevant and, where possible, fun. I still remember the enlightenment she brought with them. 

Still about Shakespeare, would it be possible, even at high school level, to combine the English department with the Drama department to show pupils a more rounded, less dry, view of his work? Acting out, and seeing acted, such complicated works may make them seem more relevant. After all the themes of love, vengeance, war, friendship, happiness, depression, destruction, comradeship, confusion etc. are still as relevant today, but merely reading them off a page as I did eons ago, doesn't bring the complicated plots to life, or explain them in terms of today's society. It seems to trap them in the past. Teachers like Emma Smith (and my own Vicki Hartnack), who try to bring Shakespeare to the fore, should be praised.

quinta-feira, setembro 07, 2017

ThisIsMyPasswordForNatWest: "KALI LINUX - How to crack passwords using Hashcat - The Visual Guide" by Taylor Cook

Yep, most of our supposedly easy-to-remember-hard-to-crack strategies fall pretty quickly when we're informed that there must be a symbol - but not that one, that one, that one, or that one - and there must be a capital letter and there must be a number, oh and sorry your password is now too long. So now we need to remember our standard phrase AND the fact that for THIS website we couldn't use that symbol so we had to put in another and we had to stop after 6, 8 or 10 characters which meant we had to move the number to the front...

Passwords should never be stored as plain-text, but as a big long hash. So 'ThisIsMyPasswordForNatWest' becomes 'a64b8d3190050e4600ed3352cb05e5fb9a54c6dc' under a hashing system called SHA1 for instance, and you can't take that hash and reverse it and get the password. A per-account string of random characters should be added to the user's password too - this alone makes it virtually impossible to crack a password. So long as no website stores your password as plain-text then you're in the clear.

The problem is that you can't trust websites to not store passwords as plain-text, and you have no idea if a website is there just to suck up people's passwords and password strategies. Or even if a company has a website and just one developer decides to make copies of submitted passwords or figure out people's password strategies.

Password strategies also rely on not being popular too - if enough people use the same prefix/suffix, or used the same 'Nellie, the elephant packed her trunk' passphrase but substitute a single word, then it just becomes another strategy that a hacker can add to their brute-force attack.

The Key is: Do not trust websites to store your passwords as hashes. Passwords should never be stored as plain-text, but as a big long hash. 

Assuming it is constructed with alphanumeric characters accessible directly from the keyboard, your 15-character string has about 15^98 possibilities. There are around 400K words in the Portuguese language alone (I don’t know the number for the English Language). A properly constructed 4-word passphrase has a minimum 4^400K possibilities, and the points about sophisticated dictionary attacks and common phrases and other things one's read on Wikipedia (aka the internet's largest honeypot for armchair know-it-alls) count for nothing if the passphrase itself doesn't follow language syntax. Even if you knew the exact number of words and characters in the passphrase, it would still be quicker on average to alphanumeric brute force than it would to use a dictionary attack. I'll grant you that in the real-world people don't choose good passphrases. They choose easy to remember stuff that makes a logical statement or sentence, or some Shakespearean guff or a line from their favourite movie or song. In that sense your logic sort of works, i.e., if we're going to recommend any "system" to the masses, then yours might be the better one to recommend. (Even that is debatable, as the weak link is still the fact that you have people choosing for themselves. Even you with your vast knowledge went straight for some well-known footballing dirge as an example.) However, don't try to tell those of us who know better that the mere existence of obvious exceptions and shortcuts to cracking poorly chosen or common phrases makes a dictionary-based passphrase less secure than 15 characters chosen from a "dictionary" of 98.

Another piece of advice: Serious hackers don't attack login pages (which usually have some sort of login rate limiting in place), instead they use some sort of social engineering attack to get inside the company’s network and get hold of the user database. The passwords in these databases are stored in encrypted form, but now they can test passwords using their own hardware and without any rate limiting. Using cheap graphics cards and rainbow tables to attack the most common hashing algorithms, they can test billions of password combinations a second. It's only relevant to attacks where the attackers have direct access to the user/password database and the passwords have been safely stored. That said, there have been cases where a site has not been secured against brute forcing.
Corollary of this is, of course, that an attacker brute-forcing your password is often not a problem unless it is used elsewhere (or permits privilege escalation) because the ability to brute-force the password requires the attacker to have already breached the website that password is for.

Bottom-Line: password reuse is a bigger problem than individual password security. Use a password manager and you fix both.

terça-feira, setembro 05, 2017

The Emperor Had the Boy Locked Up: "Mastering Kali Linux for Web Penetration Testing” by Michael McPhee

“As applications have become more complex, and their importance has skyrocketed, bolt-on security approaches are no longer cutting it.”

In “Mastering Kali Linux for Web Penetration Testing” by Michael McPhee.

Hah... memories of a rather expensive inter-bank trading system we were offered one time to test. Examining the executable revealed a few plain text strings, one of which (the name of a biscuit in upper case) stood out as dubious, and turned out to be the encryption key for all communications (“super-duper unbreakable encryption" was one of their selling points) ... With that, and a little bit of poking around, we reached the stage where we could send a message to another counterpart offering them a product at a certain price, and then we could send a message that told the server they'd accepted it (forming a legally binding contract - notional values for these goods were of the order of millions and tens of millions of dollars). Being nice guys, we didn't do this for real (the above was done on the QA rig), but rejected the software. When we explained why, the vendors told us what we did would be "a breach of the license terms", and couldn't understand why we fell about laughing... especially after the way they "patched" the holes (obscured the encryption key with, I kid you not, ROT13.)

Names above withheld to protect the incompetent...

The thing you can usefully pick up in a day or two is more the mindset involved in trying to find and exploit a weakness rather than all the techniques involved (e.g., spend the day with a reformed burglar who can show you which properties and vulnerable where, ditto shoplifters etc.) - the tools and techniques change over time, but the attitude less so... We are cannibalizing our youngest and brightest citizens (worldwide). Aaron Schwartz, Manning and Snowden have all empowered themselves to listen to their consciences and act on information about security and safety breaches or unfair protocols, acts which are no mean feat given that the political noise and threats for being engaged and concerned have never been set at higher decibels. Even if your privacy has already been breached, notification still gives you the option to act: change your password, check your credit card purchases (or freeze them), etc. etc.

Or - where possible - take your business elsewhere, to somebody who protects their clients' data as they ought. It's like the US situation where restaurants that fail a health inspection are obliged to put a notice in their window for potential customers to see; the risk of having to do that gives them an incentive to keep the place clean.

It sounds like a real head-fuck, dealing with all the shit every single time one of the multiple companies that has any of your info has what may turn out to be a minor, insignificant breach. When nearly everyone has opted out or opted for the apparent safety of silence, a few continue to stand up and point out wrongdoing. That we are targeting them instead of the true threats is so insane it points to a societal death wish.

And in the real world someone said "The Emperor has no cloths". Hearing of this, the Emperor had the boy locked up.

domingo, setembro 03, 2017

A Society of Abatement: “Year of the Fat Knight - The Falstaff Diaries” by Antony Sher

“Sartre said that there’s a God-shaped hole in all of us. Greg fills his with Shakespeare; the other day he said, laughing, ‘I’m not the director of a company, I’m the priest of a religion!’ and me? I have Falstaff inside me now – I can say it confidently at last – and that great, greedy, glorious bastard leaves no room for anything else at all.”

In “Year of the Fat Knight - The Falstaff Diaries” by Antony Sher

Reading stuff like this, always awakens my creative streak. Here's a little something for your (and my own) enjoyment I've just written that I think aptly summarises Sher's book:

We really do need some protection
From the spread of the ‘rising enunciation’
Phrases go up? Just at the end?
Drives me completely ‘round the bend

Please don’t do it, it’s annoying?
So monotonous and cloying
Up-talk gives me indigestion
Everything becomes a question!

Form a Society of Abatement
Don’t Make A Question Out Of A Statement!!!
It doesn’t make a lot of sense,
And shows a lack of confidence

Who’re the culprits? Not Westphalians
Personally, I blame South Africans
How can something so iniquitous
Become so globally ubiquitous?
From Durban to Central Park
Hangs a giant question mark

segunda-feira, agosto 28, 2017

Bayes' Theorem: "Música da Sra Bach/Mrs Bach's Music" by Alex McCall, and Irini Vachlioti

I've just watched this documentary and I'm still venting... I must get these vapors out of my system!

Why are people so credulous when it comes to classical music?

It's not limited to classical music. Why are people credulous? Well, for a great many reasons. In this case we have a confluence of several:

i) Bach's works have been analysed for hundreds of years, and little new information has emerged. That means it's hard for anyone to find anything new to say.

ii) its fits a nice contemporary narrative. Unquestionably, talented women have been repressed and marginalised throughout history, and only relatively recently have they received their deserved attention. This means that the potential rediscovery of another such women fits the scholastic zeitgeist, and so attracts the attention above its actual scholarly value. Twenty years ago we'd be asking if Bach's second marriage meant he was secretly gay. So it goes.

iii) the continued fascination with postmodernism in all facets of the arts mean that strong factual evidence is not actually a requirement, and people can be published on the basis of "analysis of penmanship" - a pseudoscience that makes phrenology look credible.

Probably the best way to debunk the silly claim that Anna Magdalena was the composer would be by applying Bayes' theorem to each of the categories of evidence. I have just read a fascinating book by a retired cosmologist who applies Bayes' theorem to argue that Shakespeare was not the author of the sonnets. If I have time I might do this with the Bach example but that's for another post. For now and very briefly, one would consider, firstly, the prior probability that Anna Magdalena was the composer (this would be low, since, for one thing, she is not known to be a composer). Then consider the conditional probability that Bach would do his best work given that he is married to Anna Magdalena. Finally consider the probability that he would do his best work given that he is not married to Anna Magdalena. Now I argue that the last two likelihood ratios are roughly equal hence the posterior probability would not be raised greatly, if at all, above the prior. Of course, I have only considered one category of purported evidence, that Bach did his best work after he married Anna Magdalena, but all the indications are that if all the categories are considered they will not greatly raise the prior if it is raised at all. QED.

It's a sad reflection on the current state of musicology that, rather than exploring important questions, like Bach's influences and influences on, his methods of composition and proper performance practice, someone spends their time on this ridiculous issue. Unlike a painting, the authenticity or otherwise doesn't affect anything of substance, and in this case it appears we can never know the truth. Would it make any difference anyway? Would we play, or listen to the works differently if we thought his wife wrote them?

I'm still waiting for someone to claim Bach was an alien hominid brought to earth by Erich von Däniken's extraterrestrial-friendly Mayans to further the Illuminati's centuries-old plan for world domination in conjunction with the Vatican, Tutankhamen, Scriabin, Leibniz, Elvis Presley and/or dolphins.

And we're back to questions of authorship, did Bach's wife write this, did the Earl of Oxford write Shakespeare's plays, does Victoria Beckham design her clothes – does it matter?

For art it only matters in financial terms, a different attribution can add a million quid on a painting, it's the same object before and after. It's why I prefer to look at the art in the Museu de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, mostly anonymous beautiful objects, the artists biography doesn't get in the way of seeing or hearing the work.

Bottom-Line: Bach tapped into extraordinary mathematical interplays in harmony that stretch the ear to its limit, even now, but all somehow made sense. However, one should not confuse the structural elegance with predictability. His greatest works are characterised by a sort of perpetual harmonic bifurcation: they could at any point unfold one way or the other or slip off another through relative major/minor devices. You never know which which way it will turn, you simply enjoy the harmonic journey Bach that pioneered, precisely because of his genius. He makes the unfamiliar seem familiar.

NB: If you wish to watch the above-mentioned documentary, it's here. Word of warning: The voice-over, in some parts, is in Portuguese. I think it's still watchable for those of you not conversant with Portuguese.

domingo, agosto 27, 2017

Boxing is a science while MMA is a maul: "McGregor vs. Mayweather" Part 2

"Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing."

In Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5 by William Shakespeare

As predicted, Mayweather knocked it out of the park. Mayweather controlled it from the 4th. The discipline of boxing is much purer than MMA and McGregor showed his novice skills early. I liked the way Mayweather just put his gloves up and went inside like a relentless zombie attack. Conor just couldn't figure that one out and had no power inside. He was drawn into a trap and he was dumb and greedy enough to fall for it. His cash mattress will cradle him tonight though, soft and luxurious enough to sooth his bruised ego. If Federer retires I’ll try to convince him and the then Badminton or table tennis world champion to play the Ultimate Tennis Match at Wimbledon’s centre court. This wouldn’t be more ridiculed than this "fight" or shall we call it scam. The only thing that made it vaguely interesting was that McGregor is younger, stronger, faster and able to verbally sell a fight, but it showed that experience, conditioning and ring craft can be more important attributes in a boxing bout.

Haha, what a pack of smart of fleecing sheep. Paid $200 m as a 5 weight world champ to beat a guy who doesn't box in a boxing match while the guy who doesn't box gets $75 m to be beaten by a guy who would never box him in the first place if it wasn't just a joke to earn folk half a billion for a half hours work. When folk just hand over that amount of money to see the inevitable happen in a silly paint by numbers fashion rich men who think the "hoi polloi" nothing but sheep to be fleeced will always exist, they'll abound in fact. And more will be created daily by folk handing them fortunes for doing absolutely zip. Well done those men. Half a billion+ to share among all, half an hour's work & some gunning in front of a press conference & there's half a billion+ lads. Well done, nice work if you can get it & have fools back it to the hilt. Last time Mayweather had to fight a guy with a bust shoulder & got $100m, this time fights a guy who is not even a boxer & he gets $200m. Great work if you can get it. But you really would have to question anyone who'd back it with their money hoping to see something other than a joke bout too secure half a billion+ from fools for half an hour's work ;)

It’s neither Mayweather nor McGregor I blame. It’s the media that sold this scam to the public as something like a regular boxing match. What next? Elton John running the 200 metres against Usain Bolt both singing "Like a candle in the wind"?

Now that it's done and dusted it is clear now how it could have been a much more interesting fight. Mayweather had a fight plan for the long haul while Conor's plan, if he indeed had one, was simply to hope that his strength and energy would last 12 rounds. It could have been much more interesting if Conor's plan was based on the much more likely scenario that his stamina could not last much more than about six rounds. This might have led to Conor adopting a 'knockout-before-round- seven' strategy which basically would mean that if that didn't work he would go out on his shield. In other words, a knock out or bust strategy. Mayweather would have been forced to engage much more in the early rounds if Conor had put his shoulder behind his punches early on. But all that is conjecture. Or maybe that was McGregor's strategy, he just couldn't deliver. He went hard at it in the first three rounds. The fourth, Mayweather had seen all he needed to and slowly started to come out. By the end of the fifth McGregor was physically spent. Mayweather just gave people a bit of value for money. He could have taken down McGregor anytime from the fifth, he had nothing left.

Bottom-line: What a farce. It was like watching a mix of Boxing and Wrestling. At one point, even the ref said "this isn't wrestling guys". I have never laughed so much watching a boxing match. Because of Conor's unorthodox boxing style Mayweather kept turning his back and Conor would resort to clubbing him in the back of his head. If this had been another boxer no doubt he would be disqualified. When Mayweather decided to up the ante, McGregor was just a punching bag. Could the ref had let it play out longer? Possibly. But McGregor was out and that would have just extended his punishment. All in all it's as the "experts" predicted- a mismatch with the boxer coming out on top. I got the sense Floyd was toying with McGregor for the people who had paid. But this is a failed experiment. A Moto GP rider won't come to F1 and blow the timing screens. Hope both sports and others learn from this.

What's next?

Mayweather vs. Sumo champ?
Myaweather vs. Wayne Rooney?
Mayweather vs. Mike Tyson?
Mayweather vs. Hulk Hogan?
Mayweather vs Trump?
Mayweather vs Oprah?

sábado, agosto 26, 2017

Boxing is a science while MMA is a maul: "McGregor vs. Mayweather"

Watching the weigh-in, it does seem that McGregor has some major and unresolved anger management issues. Did Mayweather steal Conor's bike (the shiny new red 5-speed racer he just got for his birthday), or say something horrid and beastly about Conor's Granny (so spiteful, she's such a lovely thing)? Well, what I saw was a heavily tattooed man with a semi erection screaming a lot, and a black guy, slighting shorter, smiling and appearing to enjoy himself. Did I miss something?

Another mail in the coffin of professional boxing. It long ago ceased to be a credible sport. I expect it won't be long until we see a world champion boxer fighting a kangaroo on expensive PPV all in the name of making rich men even richer. McGregor consistently appears an appalling human being, a mangled caricature of a proud Irishman, excelling both in his immense UFC talents and drawing attention for a complete absence of dignity or decency. Mayweather on the other hand, seems also a caricature of sorts, but far less horrid, far less repugnant and with a hint of dignity about him.The Irishman goes much further than puerile, benign banter for the crowd, all part of his act, but it makes the sport look like an open zoo for rabid animals. He is bringing a bad name to boxing...regardless of the result. For there has been a sense of humility, class, about most the top boxers. Hardly all of them, but many, enough to recall a different kind of behaviour outside the ring. McGregor just looks like a clown making a complete fool of himself not to promote the fight but simply because he is nuts. Boxing is a strategic as well as physical sport, I don't like mayweather but he will school this clown. It's terrible for boxing...unless Conor gets put down. If not, it really seems to soil the reputation of the sport. I hope Floyd pondered this. He can't need the money, so its pride I suppose, the chance to reach the 50, and even perhaps some form of loyalty to his fans, most if not all of whom would like to see the fight.

Regardless of how similar Conor is away from the cameras to in front of them, his behaviour serves as an example to others. People look at a champion and use his behaviour as a benchmark. Its cool to be like Conor...Why would he care? Clearly, he doesn't. Yet, true champions, in the purist sense, show respect for the blueprint of a champion they are presenting to the word, attempting to maintain the qualities of humility, respect, politeness, common decency. Those are the true greats...but again, why would Conor care? He just wants the money and the fame and in this age, to behave as he does, appallingly and grotesquely, gets him both in spades...

Conor's success is yet another testament to living in an Age where many in the West are close to brain-dead, needing bright lights and screaming more than anything else to be captivated ...some of the press conferences have appeared like a mass outing for thousands of kids with very severe learning put it kindly.

This is not really a sporting event, but a money-making exercise. A bit like freak shows from the 19th century. Oh, and by the way: watching 2 people rubbing their crotches on each other for minutes on end after a few seconds of laughable striking might be "real fighting" in someone's eyes but it's dull as hell. I'd rather watch showjumping and I hate showjumping.

Bottom-line boxing-wise: Floyd is the best at not getting hit. Mcgregor will flail around like a mad animal. He will get frustrated and Floyd will jab at will. Everyone thinks Mcgregor smashes Floyd out but I would also like to win the lottery.

It's a farce and mugs will pay to watch. Forget the fight; I heard $100,000,000 each.

quarta-feira, agosto 23, 2017

The Emptiness of Literature: "Requiem - A Hallucination" by Antonio Tabucchi, Margaret Jull Costa (translator)

“Were someone to ask me why I wrote this story in Portuguese, I would answer simply that a story like this could only be written in Portuguese; it's as simple as that. But there is something else that needs explaining. Strictly speaking, a Requiem should be written in Latin, at least that's what tradition prescribes. Unfortunately, I don't think I'd be up to it in Latin. I realised though that I couldn't write a Requiem in my own language and I that I required a different language, one that was for me A PLACE OF AFFECTION AND REFLECTION”.

In “Requiem” by Antonio Tabucchi

Affection and reflection: with these two words, Tabucchi defined his book better than any reviewer would be able to. "Requiem" is a small masterpiece of contemporary literature, from which one can only complain about one thing: it ends too soon for those who are taking delight in it.

It's a very subjective thing, but when you read something that impresses you as language, regardless of its meaning, that seems to be so perfectly expressed that no one could have written it better, that makes you want to telephone a friend at 4AM and read it aloud, then you're probably reading a great prose stylist. I also pay attention to a writer's ability to create interesting, appropriate and original metaphors, similes, etc. A few top off-the-top-of-my-head's examples of what I would call great prose stylists, really the greatest of the great, and they’d be Shakespeare, Proust, Walter Pater, Frank Kermode, Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall”, Faulkner, Antonio Lobo Antunes, Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway” and “To the Lighthouse”, William H. Gass, William T. Vollmann, Cormac McCarthy, John Donne in his sermons (which are enjoyable purely as prose), and many, many others. Again, it's all very subjective, and everyone who cares about this stuff probably has a different list. Hell, I would have a different list if I made it two minutes from now...

Having said that, let me fanboy on Tabucchi as hard as I can, and on “Requiem” in particular.

This is a tribute to the dead, a fictional Tadeus (the narrator’S best friend), Isabel (his lover), and Fernando Pessoa. But it is also a tribute to a city almost dead, the old Lisbon that the Europeanization of Portugal had been destroying. Tabucchi is passionate about ancient Lisbon and describes it with affection for the all 12 hours during which the main character goes out in search of his ghosts.

On the last Sunday of July, the anonymous narrator is reading "The Book of Disquiet" by Fernando Pessoa under a mulberry tree in a farm in Azeitão, when he suddenly finds himself at the Lisbon dock waiting for the "dude" with whom he realizes he suddenly had a scheduled appointment. The "dude" is Fernando Pessoa. While trying to figure out how to fulfill his commitment to the poet, the narrator wanders through an almost deserted Lisbon (people have been refreshing themselves on the beaches), following clues that lead him to the Museum of Ancient Art, the House of Alentejo, the Cemetery of Pleasures, Brasileira do Chiado Café and other traditional points of my Lisbon.

This is one of my favorite books. It is an anti-novel, or a perpetually-in-progress-work. Upon re-reading it, I still find it greatly disturbing, and disquieting, because it makes me reflect about life, about myself, about what is to be a writer/reader, about what is to be a human living in a world that makes little sense and that will crush you in a split second and that will never miss your presence in it. It is about temporality and “atemporality”. It is a masterpiece in prose by one of the finest writers that has ever lived. If you are in any way absorbed by Tabucchi’s work, do so in Lisbon itself - where Tabucchi's narrative feels almost palpably real in inverse correlation, or so it seems, to the unreality of his characters.

Best of all, find a seat in the Miradouro de Santa Catarina, looking out over the whitewashed walls & orange pan-tiled roofs towards the hazy Tagus, and read in the company of Reis, Pessoa, Soares, Campus, and Saramago. Later, you'll probably want to wander over to the Noobai Café for a “bica”, or an “imperial”...

Being old enough, it's impossible to me to go look for the young and the hip in Literature. I'm, however, interested in the emptiness of it, the meaninglessness of it. The void it creates. I am interested in Tabucchi's tears because I find incredible beauty in them. I'm interested in the incredible beauty that lies away from Literature - everything that is left behind. The terror it creates?

terça-feira, agosto 22, 2017

The Power of Certain Narratives: "Pereira Declares" by Antonio Tabucchi, Patrick Creagh (translator)

“[…] but I feel I must tell you that originally, we were Lusitanians, and then came the Romans and the Celts, and then came the Arabs, so what sort of race are we Portuguese in a position to celebrate? The Portuguese Race, replied the editor-in-chief, and I am sorry to say Pereira, that I don’t like the tone of your objection, we are Portuguese, we discovered the world, we achieved the greatest feats of navigation the world over, and when we did this, in the 16th century, we were already Portuguese, that is what we are and that is what you are to celebrate, Pereira.”

In “Pereira Declares” by Antonio Tabucchi.

I read this in a Portuguese translation from the Italian more than ten years ago, if memory serves me right, I haven't come across anything quite like it and I still have a place in my heart for portly, perspiring Pereira with his omelets and his quiet, but subversive, decency. This time, this wonderful translation by Patrick Creagh just made my day.

In a narrative that does not want a puzzle, Tabucchi uses a very similar resource to the one used by Isaac Bashevis Singer: that of telling alien stories supposedly collected from conversations with real people, and not hiding it in the book's writing. “Pereira Declares” is a book that walks slowly, seeking to situate the scenario through which the characters walk, without extending the descriptions but worried to leave the reader with significant details about the characters, as, for example, the custom of Pereira to take Lemonades and the same path every day. Alongside this, there is a concern for more philosophical discussions, or at least the ones that foster deeper reflections. One can use as an example both the theory of the confederation of souls and the hegemonic hegemony proposed by Dr. Cardoso as well as Pereira's trajectory. There is also Tabucchi 's sensitivity to perceive and bring to light two issues that I consider to be praiseworthy remarks by “Pereira Declares”: the portrait of the dialectic relationship between the subject and the world, and the capacity to demonstrate the darkest tentacles of the status quo – in this case, Salazar’s Portuguese dictatorship. The relation between subject and world is drawn in the contours of the historical situation of Portugal and the existential situation of Pereira. There is much of the world in Pereira, and much of the dilemmas of Pereira in the world. The tension embodied in the dictatorial political moment is experienced by the character through the psychological state with which he turns things around. The dispute between the hegemonic selves in the confederation of the souls of Pereira is the dilemma that many live under dictatorships: to stay quite in the name of personal security or to risk everything in the name of something greater? The postures in dispute within Pereira are metaphors of this state of tension, which Tabucchi was able to capture with mastery. The persona of Pereira and his psychological characters express very well this question: he incorporated a routine discipline of fearful respect, a fear hidden even in the choice of French tales that he would like to translate. And Tabucchi made this a veiled critical observation, because just when Pereira leaves aside his mediocre habits, he becomes the target of Salazar agents. The testimony of Pereira was made literature by Tabucchi, but he’s also able to extrapolate the conception of literature as an aesthetic object, reinvigorating the power of narratives as devices of reflection as much as objects and aesthetic exercises.

segunda-feira, agosto 21, 2017

Witchcrafty-Cyperpunky SF: “Killing Gravity” by Corey J. White

I am not sure which word I hate more, "badass", or "Kickass". Both, and often the situations where they are used, make me feel like we are celebrating being aggressive and mean rather than being strong.  Why is being successful always equated with winning over others? Why do people encourage someone with "go kick some ass'. Speaking for myself, I would love to make a success of things but I would rather do it without hurting any asses or feeling like my ass is "bad". And by reading some fiction I discover another negative dimension to the word, as usual, women being asked to be strong are asked to be manly. What a sad way to be a feminist. Were I a woman, I’d not aspire to be more like a man. I’d aspire to have the same rights and opportunities as a man, and to be strong in my own way. But that’s just me talking. I understand we must keep in mind that unfortunately the world we live in is a competitive and aggressive one. Whenever someone’s gets to the top it is because he/she has kicked some ass in the road. Of course, there are a few exceptions given certain conditions and circumstances. Because this is the way language develops and changes over time, just as how 'gay' became shorthand for 'homosexual'. 'Badass' might still mean something negative for men (not least because it suits some people to imply as much). It also explains why there have been so many feminist attempts to 'reclaim' words. Or is 'badass' going to join the list of Words-You-Must-Never- Use-to-Describe-a-Woman such as 'feisty'?

Is “badass” the only way to be?

No. Women are diverse that way.

The whole “women mustn't behave like men” line relies on the idea that the behaviour is innately gendered, in the same way that boys supposedly mustn't behave 'like a girl'. So by all means we should find a synonym for 'badass' that means confident, successful, swaggering or whatever. But that's matter of using a thesaurus, or just one of human behaviour, which is as confusing as Bjork sang about, rather than thinking that one side can have all the 'positive' attributes and dump the 'negative' ones on some other group. It's not a question of women behaving like men, it's a question of people behaving how they wish to behave, without reference to their sex. Some people are forceful, aggressive and competitive, whilst some people are quiet, contemplative and unambitious. You can't predict who will be what by looking at their genitals.

I remember seeing a comment from a co-worker along the lines of "If women ran the world it'd be a better place", so I mentioned Angela Merkel and Hilary Clinton, and asked if their world would really be so much better. I got the response "No, not women acting like men." The idea that holding political office is a purely male behaviour surprised me considerably.

It's a great shame that the author has so internalised sexist stereotypes about what constitutes "male" and "female" behaviour that her characters are unable to conceive displays of strength and self-possession as anything other than acting "like a man". This is the same kind of pernicious lie that is used, for example, to attack persons of colour who display academic ambition as "acting white". The reason these "badass" qualities are praised is not because they are intrinsically "male". That is a ridiculous, sexist slur, and one that utterly betrays the many women who naturally possess these qualities, not to mention the many, many men who don't possess them, as being somehow inferior or less-worthy examples of their gender. Also, the idea that they imply some "gun-toting, bullying ass-kicking" stereotype is an absurd fantasy, entirely from the author's imagination. Nobody who is praising "badass" female sports stars is doing it because they are gun-toting bullies. The very idea that they might be is delusional.

That’s why I think this is a false question. It is not about being empowered being victims, but how do we empower ourselves. I, for example, would consider a nurse who works with terminal patients a strong and empowered woman, but is she a badass? No, she is not, because her strength stems from empathy and poise. I do not understand why empowerment must be equated to ruthlessness and even violence. This unconsciously draws from the idea that feminine is somehow weak. Is childbearing and rearing something weak people do? When I see women who are single mums and work and put their kids through university, I think those are strong brave women, yet there is not a hint of toughness and disconnectedness in them, and they are also not victims at all. Think of the grandmothers of Plaza the Mayo, aren't they empowered? They are, looking for their grandchildren for 30 years, but you don't see anybody calling them that. Female empowerment in media, and in fiction in particular, is shown as women kicking ass with violence, instead of shaming whole governments and bringing people to tears due to their courage. "Badass characters", as used in fiction simply implies a healthy amount of self-confidence, and a cool and unpretentious attitude. It is a way of behaving that appeals particularly to the Western psyche. These qualities are praised not because they are "male", but because they are considered objectively praiseworthy, at least within modern western society. And, in moderation, they are praiseworthy. Of course, we should be careful not to denigrate those who do not naturally possess them, just as we shouldn't let admiration for intellectual, academic, physical or societal achievement degenerate into contempt for those who fall short. But we also shouldn't be so afraid of alienating someone that it stops us from offering praise where praise is deserved. Particularly in the case of women who demonstrate the kind of confidence and self-possession that exemplifies being a "badass". While there is nothing intrinsically "male" or "female" about these qualities, it is true that, on the whole, women have not enjoyed the same encouragement to express them as men. Now that is changing, we should not feel ashamed or worried about celebrating them when we have the opportunity.

Female badassery, in SF at least, seems to be reaching the formulaic stage that car chases and sex scenes have long since undergone, so that there's something perfunctory and obligatory about its presentation. Every time there's a fight scene in which there's a female present, novels seem to go out of their way to show that "hey look -- women can fight too!" There's also the influence of Hong Kong action flicks, in which every fight scene must be some ridiculously choreographed acrobatic and gymnastic tour-de-force in which people take multiple kicks and punches to the head, smash through plate-glass windows, and fall several stories without winding up in a major trauma unit and being paralyzed from the neck down, with major brain damage on top of it all, assuming any real person would survive such violence to begin with. I define "badass" as having the courage to be yourself no matter what. You can be a badass and also cry, falter and doubt yourself. All badasses - male and female - are whole people, with weak spots like anyone else. What makes you a badass is having the wisdom and the courage to nurture what needs nurturing. You can also be a badass for fighting lifelong battles that maybe only a very few around you are aware of: mental illness, addiction, domestic violence, poverty. We won't win the Nobel Prize, but that makes us badasses too. We wake up another morning, and some days it isn't a fight, and that in itself is a victory.

Hard SF means more that writing a story about Cowboys, or, in this case, Cowgirls, and giving them ray guns (or absolute mental powers in this case). Or producing a political drama - with aliens (it's still only a political drama). Or making a film about military conquest ... and setting it on other planets. To be true SF, a work must take a theory, observation, scientific or technological phenomenon (real or imaginary) and say "what if ... " What if the world's population rose to 20 Billion? What if the sun exploded? What if we discovered the secret to immortality - or mind reading - or AI? It's that analytical journey told through the medium of fiction that makes SF. Not some guy or girl and his or her "companion" goofing around in a police box. Too many present-day SF authors either lack imagination or feel compelled to write more "accessible" stories. Space-opera is a case in point: an entire genre created just so authors don't have to trouble themselves with thinking up any decent future science, and actually try to imagine and create future tech. Instead, they set stories in futures with less science than we have now, but still have the gall to call them "science fiction". Disgusting. What will they think up next to sell SF?

SF = Speculative Fiction.