Code Overtones

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Conned?!

There is a Men's restroom right across the Service Canada office in Guy-Favrau complex in downtown Montreal. I happened to visit it one morning. As I was washing my hands, a shabbily dressed man besides me tried to get my attention. He asked if I speak English. As usual my first instinct was to ignore the man who looked like a homeless bum. But if this guy was asking for help just because he couldn't speak french, I didn't see any harm talking to him. We just stepped out of the restroom after drying our hands under the hot air blower. Suddenly he started speaking in very good English. That's not usual on the streets of Montreal.

He said, "I arrived last night by a bus from Halifax, Nova Scotia. My bus arrived at Berry UQAM and I was supposed to go to Boston on a connecting bus as soon as I arrived. But the bus got cancelled and they misplaced my luggage. So my bags haven't arrived yet. I'm going to Boston to do a procedure on the tumor in my stomache." This is where it got confusing to me. He opened his jacket, pulled up his sweatshirt and showed a big tumor sticking out of his stomache. It was big. The size of his head maybe. I tried my best to not show my disgust. He covered it up and continued telling his story.

"I need to get my medications. The pharmacist here told me that my Insurance provider in Halifax will not work here. Since I didn't expect getting stranded in Montreal, I didn't bring much money with me. I had $120 with me. The pharmacist asked for $148."

All this time, he was showing me a paper, which had something written on it in blue pen. I could make out words like 'Berry UQAM', timings, the sum total of some dollar figures, etc. Everything else was in very illegible handwriting.

"I'm running $28 short."

... At this point, I found myself confused. Since the beginning I assumed this is a homeless man trying to get some money from me. But I wasn't prepared for such an elaborate story, certainly not one substantiated so well. Turning down a homeless man is pretty easy, but ignoring a stranded sick traveler can definitely make you feel guilty.

I tried to rationalize the situation. To begin with, I cannot say whether this man is lying or saying the truth. The probability that a given unknown person would lie or tell the truth will be 50%. Then in my mind I drew a table. On the left all the things that indicated he was lying and on the right all the things that could prove he wasn't. I was filling this table as he was presenting me his story. The actual tumor (or what he showed me of it), was a big entry in the right column. Eventually I decided that even if there is a possibility that he is telling the truth and I walk away; I'll always feel guilty for being a skeptic and valuing $28 more than the helplessness of a sick person. After I seeing the situation in this way, I knew what to do. I wasn't as worried about being fooled for $28 as I was about being irrational. Also, I wanted to know the truth.

So I took out my wallet and gave him $30. He asked for my phone number to return the money, which of course I didn't give. And then I started looking for his reaction to get a hint of the truth.

He said, "Thank you. It's good to know there are people.. blah blah" I cut him short and made my exit.

To me it appeared textbook response. If you are asking strangers for money to treat the pain from an illness, because you are stranded in a foreign city, then you are in a very stressful situation. And then you find a person who just solves that problem by giving you all the money you need. ...and you don't show any emotion. You give a boilerplate response. It was at this moment that I thought I had enough data to prove to myself that he was lying.

Later, I tried to put myself in his shoes as a conman and tried to imagine how such situation could be set up.

It is easy to gain sympathy as a stranded Anglophone in Montreal who can't speak or understand french. Showing someone a big tumour in your stomach, increases your credibility a lot and gains you lot of sympathy instantly. Moreover, anyone would want to avoid looking at an abnormal growth in someone's body, so most people won't tend to overanalyse it, if at all. Putting everything he was saying on a piece of paper, somehow made it more credible. I overlooked the fact that all of it was written by hand and in illegible handwriting. He could have scribbled all of it on his own. Furthermore, the price he was asking was just right. Not too small, to raise the doubt that he was just a petty beggar. Not too large, to outweigh my conscience.

Yes, most likely I was conned. ... I would never know.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Uruguay's President

Some snippets from this great news story about Uruguay's President

"I'm not the poorest president. The poorest is the one who needs a lot to live," he said. "My lifestyle is a consequence of my wounds. I'm the son of my history. There have been years when I would have been happy just to have a mattress."
"My country is not particularly open. These measures are logical," he said. "With marijuana, this is not about being more liberal. We want to take users away from clandestine dealers. But we will also restrict their right to smoke if they exceed sensible amounts of consumption. It is like alcohol. If you drink a bottle of whisky a day, then you should be treated as a sick person."
"Contemporary politics is all about short-term pragmatism. We have abandoned religion and philosophy … What we have left is the automatisation of doing what the market tells us."

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

New rules for Formula 1

There are many aspects of our culture that can be called flamboyant, lavish and egregiously wasteful; yet we just love them. Take "Formula 1" for example. The amount of fuel these cars burn and the amount of cash their manufacturers spend to design and manufacture them, is shocking. But like many others I am a huge fan of Formula 1 races. Almost inhuman speed, unimaginable power, glamorous look and the sound that literally shakes you to the core - what's there not to like. Despite the guilt of burning so much precious fuel, I would definitely want to be in one of these super cars.

So this morning, it was very satisfying to read the news about the new F1 rules and the motive behind them. The new rules require the teams to use different engines in the cars (V6 instead of V8). There are more restrictions on the total fuel they can use and the rate at which they can use them. There is more emphasis on use of electric motors (2 instead of 1), or what's called the "Energy recovery system". What's most notable however is the motive behind these new restrictions.
The idea is to bring F1 into line with cutting-edge road-car technology, and to stimulate research and development in that area. The name of the game is efficiency - using much less fuel to generate the same performance. The idea is to increase fuel efficiency by as much as 40%.
This is a way of channeling the competition of a sport towards the betterment of our society. The new feats of engineering happen when they are pushed to the limits and then some more. Then over time they become commonplace and part of everyday life - in this case improving the car we drive to the shopping mall.

It gives some meaning to our celebration of Formula 1.


Sunday, December 01, 2013

Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice

The other day I was reading a book on Mechanical engineering. The introductory chapter of the book had sections with terms like "engineering responsibility", "professionalism", "ethics". In traditional engineering disciplines these terms have been significant, because the product you design may directly harm or kill someone. In Software engineering however these aspects haven't been imprinted on the minds of practitioners of this profession.

I was glad therefore to see this link on Hacker News today: Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice

Here's the quoted short version:

The short version of the code summarizes aspirations at a high level of the abstraction; the clauses that are included in the full version give examples and details of how these aspirations change the way we act as software engineering professionals. Without the aspirations, the details can become legalistic and tedious; without the details, the aspirations can become high sounding but empty; together, the aspirations and the details form a cohesive code.
Software engineers shall commit themselves to making the analysis, specification, design, development, testing and maintenance of software a beneficial and respected profession. In accordance with their commitment to the health, safety and welfare of the public, software engineers shall adhere to the following Eight Principles:
1. PUBLIC - Software engineers shall act consistently with the public interest.
2. CLIENT AND EMPLOYER - Software engineers shall act in a manner that is in the best interests of their client and employer consistent with the public interest.
3. PRODUCT - Software engineers shall ensure that their products and related modifications meet the highest professional standards possible.
4. JUDGMENT - Software engineers shall maintain integrity and independence in their professional judgment.
5. MANAGEMENT - Software engineering managers and leaders shall subscribe to and promote an ethical approach to the management of software development and maintenance.
6. PROFESSION - Software engineers shall advance the integrity and reputation of the profession consistent with the public interest.
7. COLLEAGUES - Software engineers shall be fair to and supportive of their colleagues.
8. SELF - Software engineers shall participate in lifelong learning regarding the practice of their profession and shall promote an ethical approach to the practice of the profession.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Something's Missing


When autumn comes, it doesnt ask.
It just walks in, where it left you last.
And you never know, when it starts
Until there's fog inside the glass around your summer heart