Archive for the ‘Whacky’ Category

Where does Go go? (1)

December 6, 2016

In mid 1980s IBM hired the team developing a chess computer program for Carnegie Mello University. Known as Deep Thought, the program won a game against Grandmaster Bent Larsen in 1988 but lost the match against the reigning champion Garry Kasparov in 1989 by two games to zero. Renamed Deep Thought it challenged Kasparov again in 1996 and this time lost 4-2. Then in 1997 in New York City Deep Blue became the first computer program to defeat the reigning human chess champion under tournament conditions by beating Garry Kasparov 3.5-2.5. The era of human dominance in chess was over.

Deep Blue was run on a dedicated mainframe with multiple processors operating in parallel. The code, while sophisticated by 1990s standards, derived much of its strength from being able to search and analyse the game many moves ahead. Human brain has limitations in this area but conventional wisdom was that top players more than make up for it by being able to think strategically. In 1997 the sheer computing power of a super-computer running code compiled by a team of experts overpowered the chess intuition of the best human player and, as they say, the rest is history. I remember speculations made post-1997 that there is another game which will not fall to the computer analysis that easily. Go.

Chess is played on a 8×8 board and has 20 possible opening moves. Go is played on a 19×19 board and the number of opening moves is 361. An average chess game is 40-50 moves long versus 200 moves in Go. This should give an idea how much more computationally intensive the game of Go is compared to chess. In fact the number of possible positions which may arise in Go is so huge it exceeds the number of atoms in the universe many, many times over. In that sense it is impossible to apply the brute force Deep Blue approach to Go – there simply is not enough computing power available in the World to search all the moves. Which is why Go players rely largely on intuition and feel when they play. Something computers cannot do – right? Read on to find out!

Where does Go go? (2)




What was Donald’s trump card? (2)

May 5, 2016

To understand why Donald Trump is so popular among the American electorate – and also why the mainstream media completely misjudged the level of public support for him – let us take a look at an article published in Huffington Post after the Indiana primaries:

Happy first day of a half year of living with the possibility (however remote we have to believe it to be in order to stay sane) that Donald Trump — this crass and crude boor, this bloodthirsty psychopath, this Brobdingnagian narcissist, this proudly misogynistic ignoramus, this pus-filled boil of hate, this odious short-fingered vulgarian — could be the 45th President of the United States.

Now, I do not know Mr Slansky for a bar of soap but this is a vile, deranged, vulgar verbal assault. That a foul, abusive outburst like this even got published is a testament to the general attitude of the people controlling the contents of the media. It does not however reflect the mood of the American public at large. Wherein lies the problem.

As I wrote in March 2016:

I do not have a horse in the US presidential race but Trump’s willingness to openly talk about things other politicians consider off-limits is refreshing

Trump’s meteoric rise to prominence shows that I am not the only person sick to the back teeth of the politically correct garbage coming from the politicians. But this rift between the political elites and grass-root US was only allowed to develop because the media cozied up with Washington and became a de facto part of the official establishment. The American public is disillusioned not only with the tedious, visionless politics of their elected representatives but also with the media blind to the frustrations of the electorate. You would think that the editors have learned from the recent events but obviously they have not because all we are getting from them is more patronising. The way things are going it is not Trump but the likes of Huffington Post becoming irrelevant.

The most succinct and insightful analysis of the current situation I have come across was recently published in the UK’s tabloid, Mirror. It summarises the reasons why Trump is so popular in five bullet points:

He’s a TV star

He’s straight-talking

He’s a Washington outsider

He’s funding his own campaign

He dislikes immigrants

Like it or lump it, the American public is fed up with professional politicians eloquently spouting sleek phrases which sound comforting but carry no meaning. They are also over the self-important media telling them what to think and say. No prizes for guessing that da-boss has a degree of sympathy for both these sentiments.


What was Donald’s trump card? (1)

May 5, 2016

First, congratulations to Donald Trump for winning the Republican nomination. He did it against heavy odds – in a truly American style dare I say! In this post I will look at the reasons behind his popular appeal and also at the way the media covered his remarkable rise to prominence.

Over the last 11 months we have been treated to a campaign of attacks against Donald Trump orchestrated by the left-leaning media (which these days includes pretty much all media, bar some independent internet based news services). Trump was demonised as racist, bigot, liar, misogynist, sexist, ignoramus, Islamophobe – you name it and the epithet was probably used against him by someone somewhere. To make absolutely sure no sane American would ever considered voting for him a series of articles prophesising his imminent demise was published in print and online. A handy reference of these embarrassingly biased predictions is reproduced here for your enjoyment:

“Our emphatic prediction is simply that Trump will not win the nomination. It’s not even clear that he’s trying to do so.” (Nate Silver, FiveThirtyEight, Aug. 11)

“Historians looking back will peg the beginning of the end of the Trump show to his New Hampshire moment last week.” (Arianna Huffington, Huffington Post, Sept. 22)

“Trump has every right to run. This is a democracy after all. But what he should not get is covered as though this is an even-close-to-serious attempt to either win the Republican nomination or influence the conversation in GOP circles in any significant way. It’s not.” (Chris Cillizza, The Fix, June 17)

“The chance of his winning [the] nomination and election is exactly zero.” (James Fallows, the Atlantic magazine, July 13)

“Trump is no more going to actually win the nomination than Sanders is.” (Matthew Yglesias, Vox, Aug. 5)

“Trump is toast after insult: ‘McCain not a war hero.'” (New York Post cover, July 19)

“Donald Trump is going to lose because he is crazy.” (Jonathan Chait, New York magazine, Aug. 26)

“When the primaries arrive early next year, the Trump vote will subdivide further among the other Republican tortoises. If he stays in, Donald Trump becomes another presidential also-ran. With ostentation suitable to his stature, Mr. Trump should retire to a skybox, and enjoy what he has wrought.” (Daniel Henninger, Wall Street Journal, Sept. 30)

“Donald Trump is not going to be the next president of the United States. This reporter is already on record pledging to eat a bag of rusty nails if the real estate tycoon with the high hair manages to snag the GOP nomination, much less takes down likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton next fall.” (Ben White, CNBC, July 17)

“Now, seriously, does anyone other than The Donald truly believe his fame and fortune are going to get him anywhere in a Republican presidential primary, let alone a general election? His candidacy has been a joke from the start. He makes for great copy, but so did Jack the Ripper.” (Peter Fenn, U.S. News & World Report, July 20)

“We’re told from (pretty much) every analyst out there — liberal, conservative, doesn’t matter — to not take Trump seriously, and they’re right.” (Joe Concha, Mediaite, July 9)

“It’s going to be Rubio. I’m telling you: It’s going to be Rubio.” (David Brooks, New York Times columnist on NBC, Jan. 24)

Topping it all off is the delightfully idiotic statement by Dana Milbank who is now preparing to eat the paper it was printed on:

Trump will lose, or I will eat this column

I realise that opinion pieces in the media are there to stir up interests and generate discussion but how could so many leading journalists and commentators get their predictions so consistently wrong over such a long period of time? How come they could not see what was coming?

What was Donald’s trump card? (2)


Confessions of a coffee addict

April 2, 2016

After years of denial the time has come to admit what those close to me already know: my coffee consumption is out of hand. To get some positives out of this situation I decided to share my ratings of the coffeehouse chains operating in New Zealand, for the benefit of the blog readers.

Drinking coffee is a total experience engaging all the senses and it is not easy to get the package right. Taste, texture and temperature of the brownish broth all have to be perfect. My favourite fix, trim flat white, adds the extra challenge of a low fat milk which will not hide the imperfections with a buttery richness of full milk. So is it even realistic to expect a consistently good service from commercial coffee chains?

My absolutely favourite coffee brand in New Zealand is Columbus. I regularly visit three of their franchises and have yet to be disappointed. The taste and texture are consistently top notch, as is the presentation. That their large cup is only NZD4.80 is an added bonus. The Columbus trim flat white consistently earns 7 to 8 out of 10 in my ranking. Well done.

The tier below is occupied by two franchises which deliver very different styles of coffee – Starbucks and Coffee Club. The Starbucks product is smoother and more balanced while Coffee Club typically delivers a bit of bite but both are perfectly drinkable. While more expensive than Columbus – the large cup at Starbucks and Coffee Club costs close to NZD6 – I rate them both at around 6.

A notch below (but well above some specialised coffee outlets) is good ol’ MacDonald’s. Stay away from their filter coffee but the barista flat white is quite respectable. More in the Starbucks “safe” style although not quite as cultured so maybe a 5. Available 24/7 even in drive through which is a huge advantage.

There are also two coffee brands I rate around 5 which do not have their own retail franchises – Allpress and L’affare. Both sell their roasted beans to small independent cafes and lunchbars which serve it their own way. While the overall experience will vary depending on the outlet operator Allpress and L’affare coffee usually does not disappoint in terms of taste. A notch below them in the same segment of the market are two other coffee roasters – Atomic and Karajoz.

The most disappointing flat white experience I had at a major franchise in New Zealand was Esquire Coffee House. It was so bad the first time round I had to try again to make sure this was not a one off. Sadly, the second time was even worse and I cannot believe how Esquire manage to survive in the crowded market for quality coffee outlets.

In case you are wondering – I have had a few 9s at various outlets over the years but no franchise can consistently deliver coffee that good. Yet to taste a perfect 10!

Off to get my fix now 🙂



Is democracy bipolar?

March 14, 2016

So the Germanwings pilot who deliberately crashed his plane in March 2015 killing all 150 on board appears to have been suffering from severe depression. The information about the illness was not available to his employers because of the privacy laws. These laws are meant to prevent the discrimination of people with mental or other illnesses in the workplace. It has to be said that in this particular case the laws worked a treat – the suicidal pilot was allowed to fly so the workplace discrimination was successfully prevented. A minor downside is that the plane ended up embedded in the side of a mountain but this should not unduly worry the privacy advocates, should it?

The report into the causes of the crash now recommends that the privacy laws be relaxed to allow the airlines better access to their pilots medical records. In a masterpiece of Orwellian logic:

 A union representing German pilots welcomed the recommendations as a “balanced package of measures”, but it said strict rules on data protection needed to be developed in conjunction with criteria for suspending confidentiality rules.

So yes, there should be more access to the medical records but only if there is more data protection. I believe that, considering the current public mood, some waivers of the privacy laws will probably get implemented. Then the conspiratorial faction of the unions will kick up a fuss about the workplace discrimination and, with the support of the loopy Greens, bring back the protection of the medical data from the prying eyes of the employers. And then another nutter will sit behind the rudder of an airliner…

This spectacle – fits of tightening and relaxing of the privacy laws – has been going on for as long as we had democracy in the West. Laws introduced as a knee-jerk reaction to tragic incidents get diluted over time to appease the more paranoid/anarchist/anti-government faction of the voters. There is no long-term view adopted on which provisions best suit the interests of the public; just a series of convulsive changes driven by lobby groups. The media obligingly report the proceedings so the public will be subjected to the alternating scares of unsafe pilots and spying employers. Is there a better way?

Well, how about the airlines deciding how much they want to know about the pilots they are looking at employing and then letting us know the standards they apply? One airline might require access to full medical records and even carry out occasional drug detection and psychological tests of their pilots. Another airline would employ anyone with a valid license to fly. Having been informed about the above recruiting rules – which airline would you choose to fly with?

N.B. I have written on da-boss about the nutty medical rules for pilots before

Does Islam condone violence?

November 20, 2015

The question crops up every time an atrocity is committed by terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam. Invariably, reasoned voices in the media argue that the people who commit mass murder cannot be Muslims because Islam is a religion of peace. The debate which follows tends to get circular. This is largely because in the West we assume that, almost by definition, religions are about personal beliefs, spiritual development, charity and compassion. From this point of view Islam – being a religion – cannot possibly inspire or condone violence. In this post I will try to answer the title question by adopting a different perspective.

I look at Islam just like any other social idea i.e. applying conventional logic. Muslims are the followers of Muhammad. Muhammad was crystal clear that his message must be accepted in its entirety. He actually referred to those who followed him but did not do everything they were instructed to do as “hypocrites” (these day it is more common to hear about “heretics”). So was Muhammad ‘s teaching one of peace? Here are some direct quotes from Quran to help you decide for yourself:

Quran (9:5) – “So when the sacred months have passed away, then slay the idolaters wherever you find them, and take them captive and besiege them and lie in wait for them in every ambush, then if they repent and keep up prayer and pay the poor-rate, leave their way free to them.”

Quran (3:56) – “As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help.”

Quran (8:39) – “And fight with them until there is no more fitna (disorder, unbelief) and religion should be only for Allah”

Quran (8:12) – “I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieve. Therefore strike off their heads and strike off every fingertip of them”

Quran (9:73) – “O Prophet! strive hard against the unbelievers and the hypocrites and be unyielding to them; and their abode is hell, and evil is the destination.”

Quran (9:123) – “O you who believe! fight those of the unbelievers who are near to you and let them find in you hardness.”

Quran (17:16) – “And when We wish to destroy a town, We send Our commandment to the people of it who lead easy lives, but they transgress therein; thus the word proves true against it, so We destroy it with utter destruction.”

Quran (25:52) – “Therefore listen not to the Unbelievers, but strive against them with the utmost strenuousness…”

Quran (66:9) – “O Prophet! Strive against the disbelievers and the hypocrites, and be stern with them. Hell will be their home, a hapless journey’s end.”

To my mind it was not. Actually, Quran and Hadiths are full of incitements to violence yet this is what Muslims are expected to accept as the word of Allah. But what about the people claiming to be Muslims who do not accept these teachings? Well, according to Muhammad himself they are not Muslims but rather hypocrites/heretics. They are like people who claim to be Christians but do not accept the Genesis or sanctity of Christ. If you heard someone say “I am a Christian but I do not accept what Christ said” you would probably respond “Ha – that means you are not a Christian!”. The same way people who do not accept the holy and infallible words of Quran, including the above blood-thirsty passages, are not really Muslims.

The above steps of logic are very simple. The only reason the issue gets muddied up is that we tend not to apply cold logic in dealing with religion. However, I do not see Islam as a religion because it has political ambitions. This is similar to the way we normally view Nazism. We could call it a “religion” and stop worrying about what it proclaims. People would then be able to gather to read “Mein Kampf”, listen to Hitler’s rants, wear Nazi uniforms, parade with the swastika flags etc. But this is not how we look at it. Nazism is a totalitarian ideology which has historically caused a lot of misery so we outlawed it. Barring the tag “religion” Islam is the same and should be viewed the same – as a totalitarian ideology.

Of course Islam could become a civilized proposition by disowning the violent passages in Quran and Hadiths – this is the “reformation” Hirsi Ali and others have been talking about. It would be a massive theological challenge which would undoubtedly lead to bloodshed in the Muslim world. Alternatively Islam could drop the political ambitions and become a true “religion” – a set of rules which people may choose to follow or ignore in their private lives. But, since Quran instructs Muslims to conquer the World, this will also never happen. So we in the West are caught in this impossible quandary. We are the heirs to the tradition of rationalism yet we feel we have to suspend rational thinking to justify doing nothing about a bunch of misfits in our midst openly following murderous instructions compiled in medieval Arabia.

Of mice and men

August 19, 2015

John B. Calhoun was an American ethnologist and behavioural researcher renowned for the series of studies of the rat and mice populations. In 1968 he initiated his most famous experiment in which he released four breeding pairs of mice into a carefully designed enclosure dubbed “Universe 25”.

The mice had abundance of food, water, nesting material and no natural predators. The objective of the experiment was to track the growth of the mice population in these conditions, which might have parallels to the social behaviour of humans on an increasingly overcrowded Earth. Based on his previous research Calhoun did not expect a happy ending and he was right. Here is a brief account of what happened in Universe 25 (after Mysterious Universe):

During this [first] phase, the mouse population of Universe 25 roughly doubled every 55 days until by day 315 their numbers had reached 620. (…) The enclosure wasn’t truly overcrowded, as it had been designed for up to 3,000 mice, but rather, it had developed a very unbalanced distribution of individuals. This persistent gathering and eating in overcrowded gathering points seemed to result in three times more socially immature mice than socially established ones, suggesting that they were somehow losing their ability to form social bonds. That was around the time when the perfect society of unlimited resources that Calhoun had so meticulously created began to crumble.

So social dysfunction started well before the population reached the limit of the available resources.

From around Day 315 of the experiment, a wide variety of odd behavior started to surface among the animals. Some male mice who had no social role in the face of the burgeoning population suddenly seemed to lose their sense of purpose and became detached from these natural roles. They stopped trying to defend their own territory or pregnant females, lost interest in those around them, and whereas they would normally emigrate to other broods they found none willing to accept them and so became listless wanderers tending to congregate in the center of the Universe where they spent their days mindlessly eating or fighting amongst themselves. These males were seen as the “outcasts” of the society.

If the mice universe was meant to show what might happen to us, humans, we see a growing population of unattached males with no family responsibilities and little interest in the society in general. Not a good sign.

The more dominant males among these became markedly more vicious and violent, attacking others without provocation and fighting for no apparent reason. Many of these roving males would roam about attacking or mounting, essentially raping, other mice indiscriminately, regardless of gender or relation. The non-dominant males conversely became extremely meek and passive, with some of them becoming the targets of repeated attacks by other males while refusing to fight back. In some cases, cannibalism occurred among the mice, and there was generally a descent into feral, violent behavior punctuated by intense bursts of shocking brutality.

This is getting really ugly. Does indiscriminate raping and intense bursts of shocking brutality not remind you of the exploits of the Islamic State? How about the West becoming “extremely meek and passive”?

The female mice were not having much more luck. In the absence of any males willing to protect their nests, mothers began to become highly aggressive towards trespassers, essentially taking on the role typically reserved for the males. Unfortunately, this went into overdrive. Young mice were banished before they were weaned and often mothers ignored their young or seemingly forgot about them. Some females became unusually aggressive towards even their own offspring and would even sometimes attack and kill their own young, while others became morose hermits who refused to mate. All of this led to a quickly sinking birthrate and an infant mortality rate of over 90% in some areas of the enclosure. 

This is truly frightening – aggressive females turning against their young, with a resulting precipitous drop in the birthrates.

The final phase of the experiment was ominously referred to as “the death phase” or “die period.” By Day 560, the population increase had plunged to next to nothing, partly due to the alarming mortality rate that had reached nearly 100% and partly due to a disinterested attitude towards procreation that began to be exhibited in many of the male mice.

More on the males disinterested in procreation:

Amid all of this turmoil and degradation within Universe 25, there was also a new generation of mice emerging that had not ever been subjected to a normal social upbringing and showed absolutely no interest in fighting, courtship, mating, raising young, or much of anything really. Calhoun referred to this aberrant group of mice as “the beautiful ones.” These “beautiful ones” were completely detached from society, had completely lost touch with normal mouse behavior, and spent all of their time eating, sleeping, or incessantly grooming and preening themselves, leading them to having a fine, robust, healthy appearance with keen and alert eyes, hence their name. Calhoun often referred to these mice as “handsome,” however, their beauty was truly only skin deep. Inside they were empty. 

Some interesting thoughts on how mind degradation leads to physical decline:

Calhoun liked to refer to this drastic detachment and lack of will to participate in society as the “first death,” or basically the death of the animal’s spirit, which would occur before the “second death,” or physical death of the body. Once this “first death” was reached, the mice were no longer really mice anymore but rather empty husks merely killing time awaiting the inevitable death of their body and an end to their pointless existence. They had in a sense lost all will to live in any useful manner.

And, finally:

This was the unstoppable slide to catastrophe, the point of no return, the “behavioral sink” that Calhoun had talked about, and the mouse utopia’s apocalypse came crashing down as all of these factors conspired to cause the population to start barreling rapidly towards extinction until there were none left. Universe 25 had ceased to exist.

In the context of its human parallels, I am finding the decline of Universe 25 both fascinating and scary.


Yes or No?

July 19, 2015

The options in the title of this post seem to exhaust the spectrum of the Western logic. As we view it a statement is either true or false, an object either exists or does not. While we may know or not know the answer to a particular question these two alternatives (knowing and not knowing) are also within the two-valued logic. So far so good but are there any logical states outside this neat convention? While the issue has been puzzling me for a long time this post was prompted by the book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” recommended to me by my dear friend Nick.

“Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”. This question, if asked of most reasonable males, does not have an adequate answer. Saying “no” would effectively admit to uncivilised behaviour in the past so someone who had never beaten one’s wife is out of options within the confines of a two-state logic. One way of handling a situation like this is to answer that the question is based on the wrong premise although this may sound like a cop out and is neither definitive nor logically satisfying. Interesting, but are there examples of a similar ambiguity outside the field of idle legal rhetoric?

Technology does not get more precise and structured than computers. The binary world consists of only two states – 0 and 1. In the guts of computer hardware zero (equivalent to No) is represented by no current/charge. A flow of current or presence of a charge is 1 – meaning Yes. There does not appear to be any room for a third logical state within the parameters of the problem. But the author of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, Robert M. Pirsig, gives an example of just that. A computer which is switched off does not contain in its circuits information which can be interpreted as either zeros or ones. It is outside the realm of validity of the question. The Yes/No logical alternatives are not useful in describing a switched off computer. A computer with unstable circuitry and oscillating currents will also fall in this category. Japanese language apparently even has a word for the “third” logical state – Mu. It means no such thing, impossible, cannot be answered.

But the number of possible logic values is not limited to three. The ancient Indian philosophy allowed for four such states: Yes, No, both Yes and No, neither Yes nor No. An example of a statement which is both true and false is “This statement is true”. If we assume it is true then it is indeed true. If, on the other hand, we assume it is false then it turns out to be false. So, in effect, it is both true and false! One statement illustrating the fourth logical state is “It will rain next Friday”. The future is indeterminate so any claims made about it are neither true nor false.

Are you confused about this? Yes or No?


The Pope has lost his marbles

November 26, 2014

I never liked Pope Francis because he is a socialist but his latest statement reveals an even deeper level of insanity.

Specifically asked if he thought there was even the most remote possibility of dialoguing with terrorists like those from the Islamic State, Pope Francis said, “I never count anything as lost. Never. Never close the door. It’s difficult, you could say almost impossible, but the door is always open.”

As aptly summarised by the Jerusalem Post:

Ultra-radical Islamic State has captured thousands of square miles (km) of territory in Iraq and Syria, beheaded or crucified prisoners, massacred non-Sunni Muslim civilians in its path and displaced tens of thousands of people.

It is this murderous outfit that Pope Francis wants to leave the door open for a dialogue with. It is sad to see the level of degeneration on display in the Catholic Church.

A virtual life of glory

November 13, 2014

This post follows on from my recent write-up on Sweetie – a digital creation of the Dutch charity used to expose men involved in dubious online activities of a sexual nature.

Let me introduce to you Rehana – a 25 years old female Kurdish fighter whose heroic feats during the defence of the Iraqi border town of Kobane have made the news worldwide.


According to the social media reports Rehana has killed more than 100 ISIS terrorists. Adding insult to injury is the fact that according to some interpretations of Islam male warriors killed by females will not go to Paradise to embrace the promised virgins. Bummer.

However, Rehana’s luck may have run out as she was reportedly captured and beheaded by ISIS. A graphic picture documenting it has been posted online where you are free to go and see it (I will not post it on da-boss). Looks like this was just another episode showing the brutal futility of war, where acts of individual heroisms are followed by more gruesome violence. But Rehana will live on in peoples’ memories – admired by some and hated by others.

If you are abhorred by Rehana’s fate I have good news for you. The story presented above is largely fictional. While, unlike Sweetie, Rehana is a real person (although probably with a different name) her claimed heroics are not. As reported by BBC:

In fact the woman now known as “Rehana” was photographed at an event in Kobane on 22 August – months before her image began trending. She was at a ceremony for volunteers and was wearing a military style uniform. The Swedish journalist Carl Drott was the only international journalist in Kobane at the time and had a short exchange with her before the ceremony. He says she was not a front line fighter at all, volunteering instead with the home guard or police force of Kobane. He says its therefore unlikely she has killed huge numbers of the enemy. “She came up to me and said she used to study law in Aleppo but that Islamic State had killed her father so she had decided to join these forces herself,” Drott says. “I tried to speak to her afterwards but never managed to find her or get her name.” (The name “Rehana” seems to have come later and is not a common Kurdish name).

So how and why did Rehana come to such a prominence?

“She captivated everyone with her pretty eyes and blonde hair. She has a huge fan base,” says the Kurdish blogger Ruwayda Mustafah. “Everyone that I come across admires her because she symbolises what everyone wants to see. That women and men are standing up against barbaric force in the region.”

But how come Rehana, who was not a frontline fighter, ended up getting captured and killed by ISIS? Well, it looks like she did not:

Speaking of ISIS’ sickening propaganda photograph, a journalist who was based in Kobane as recently as last week said the dead woman is not Rehana but another Kurdish resistance fighter. ‘She is my friend and I confirm that she is alive. And the picture of beheaded female fighter is not Rehana’s picture,’ he told MailOnline, speaking on condition of anonymity.

So a young good-looking female student from Aleppo, under a false name, enjoyed a period of virtual glory in the media spotlight, only to suffer a violent (and equally virtual) death at the hands of ISIS. And in the World we are living in this is headline news.

A virtual life of crime

October 27, 2014

We usually hear about the blurred boundaries between the virtual and real Worlds in the context of youngsters smashing their car after playing online NASCAR or enacting violence as a result of immersion in graphic computer games. The story I will bring to your attention today deals with a different aspect of the virtual/real conundrum – and different demographics.

Let me introduce to you Sweetie – a 10 year old Filipina who roamed chat rooms and dating websites for 10 weeks, chatting with much older men from all over the World.


These online conversations often got quite explicit – see one example below:


Luckily the appropriate authorities have been notified and the contact details of over 1000 men involved passed on to Interpol for investigation. One man, Scott Robert Hansen from Brisbane, Australia has already been sentenced to 2 years in prison and more arrests are likely to follow.

You may think that the “virtual” angle to the story refers only to the way these interaction took place but this is not so. You see – Sweetie is not real. She is a computer avatar created by a Dutch charity Terre des Hommes for this particular sting operation. But she is not just a static image either – Sweetie could be made to interact with the men:

An app allowed for researchers to press a button to trigger one of a number of pre-programmed moves such as typing, nodding and shifting in her seat so that it looked as though there was a real girl at the other end of the keyboard 

It is hard not to feel relieved that a bunch of creeps will be eliminated from the pool of online sexual predators but one aspect of the story makes me feel uneasy:

Judge Ryrie, in sentencing said Hansen had “a protracted interest in targeting children in various ways”. The fact the girl was not real was irrelevant, she said. “If you believe that’s a nine-year-old girl, then that’s the law, that’s good enough.”

Does it really not matter that Sweetie was not real? I would have thought that had the offence involved interacting with a real child the psychological damage factor would have added to the gravity of the crime. But if we accept it then chatting with a computer-created avatar must fare as somewhat less serious. Would trying to scam Sweetie Nigerian way result in a prosecution for theft? Who would be the victim?

I do not pretend to have the answers but the ongoing intrusion of the virtual reality into our lives is both fascinating and scary.

The 300 million extremists

October 7, 2014

Meaningful discussions of the contentious issues are often thwarted by linguistic ambiguities. A while ago I wrote on how “liberal” may have two contrasting meanings. One other example is the use of the term “extremist” in the context of Islam.

The public pronouncements made after terrorist acts often include statements that the atrocities were committed by “Muslim extremists”. This can mean one of two things. Either the value system which inspires people to harm others is extreme in terms of the general humanistic outlook on life which most people in the West share or, alternatively, it is considered extreme within the range of views represented in Islam. When we say “Muslim extremists” are we saying that they have crossed the boundaries of what we consider a civilised behaviour or do we just claim that they are a fringe group within the body of Islam?

To better understand the difference let us consider the following example. Most people in the West probably believe that being part of an organised religion is a matter of  conscience and everyone should make their own choice in this regard, without being pressured or threatened. This means that when someone decides to leave a religious congregation they have been associated with and move on they should be free to do so. Conversely, pressuring an individual to remain in a religious organisation they do not feel comfortable with would be a disturbingly sectarian behaviour. Threatening those who want to leave would probably qualify as “extreme”. Extreme from the general, humanistic perspective that is.

You may be surprised to learn that the idea of killing those who have left their religion is very well established in Islam. The comprehensive survey carried out by The Pew Research Centre and reported by The Washington Post::

reveals the majority of Muslims in Malaysia, Jordan, Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan believe those leaving Islam should be killed.


Imagine that the Smiths have stopped attending mass at your church. After a while someone talks to them and confirms they have indeed left the congregation. Then you and other parishioners get together and decide that for what they have done the Smiths should be killed. A bit extreme? Not in the Muslim World! But what is the total number of Muslims who are likely to hold this view? By referencing the table with the Muslim population of different countries:

I have worked out that the figure is around 300 million. This is not a misprint – based on the Pew report some 300 million Muslims in the World believe that the penalty for leaving Islam should be death. It clearly demonstrates the linguistic confusion outlined at the beginning of the post. A view which qualifies as extreme from the general humanistic perspective is actually quite mainstream in Islam.

So next time you hear on the BBC that “Muslim extremists” have committed another atrocity bear in mind that the BBC are reporting it from the Western perspective and millions of people in the World may not agree. What is extreme to some may not be extreme to others.