Serge Boucher

I'm a computer scientist at ULB, focusing on databases and the semantic web. I'm also a musician and photographer.

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Latest reads

23 Things They Don't Tell You About Capitalism
Always On: How the iPhone Unlocked the Anything-Anytime-Anywhere Future--and Locked Us In
The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution
Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality
The New New Rules: How Everybody But Me Has Their Head Up Their Ass
Naked in Baghdad: The Iraq War and the Aftermath as Seen by NPR's Correspondent
The Panic of 1907: Lessons Learned from the Market's 'Perfect Storm'
The Revolution: A Manifesto
The Most Human Human
The Last Lecture
Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life
The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith
Chew On This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food
One Red Paperclip: The Story of How One Man Changed His Liofe One Swap at a Time

2013 Reading Challenge

2013 Reading Challenge

Serge has read 10 books toward his goal of 100 books.
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On the Blackness of Black Peter

I spend a lot of time debating online, and I'm often surprised at what people get upset about. Last year, when the city of Brussels decided for once to replace its Norwegian-grown christmas tree with a modern tree-like sculpture made of steel, light and plastic, thousands of people flocked to internet forums to denounce this as an unacceptable attack on Western civilization. They claimed, on no basis whatsoever, that this was all a conspiracy by Belgian Muslims to undermine Christmas celebrations and pave the way for the establishment of Sharia law in Belgium.

There was not a shred of evidence for this, and it made absolutely no sense, but that didn't prevent numerous otherwise sane people from hurling obscenities at anyone cooly pointing out the facts of the matter and the complete absence of any controversy. One year later, as a very organic, European-grown tree is making its way back to Brussels' Grote Markt perfectly on schedule, some of these fools are still convinced that it's only through their "activism" that Brussels still celebrates Christmas.

So I've seen more than my share of people who voice angry opinions about things they know nothing about. Yet I don't think I've ever seen so much mindless rage as has poured over the Zwarte Piet controversy that now engulfes many of my friends' virtual walls and other usually pleasant discussion fora. Since this absurdity shows no sign of blowing over anytime soon, I thought I'd here lay down the facts as best I understand them, so I can point to this post in any future discussion. I'm not sure it will convince anybody, but it will sure save me a lot of typing.

So here's a very abbreviated list of arguments I've seen spouting all over the internet, and why they don't make any sense.

"The UN is threatening to ban Zwarte Piet"

No, it's not. Some people who think Zwarte Piet is a racist symbol got to the UN's attention, and its Human Rights Council asked the government of the Netherlands for clarification, which it gave. That sums up the extent of official involvement on this.

Shockingly, the UN does not have the authority to ban cultural demonstrations in its member states. Its UNESCO specialized agency has the authority to investigate cultural and educational issues on an advisory basis, which is what it's doing here. End of story.

"The UN is wasting valuable resources investigating this"

Actually "investigating" is much too strong a word. The UN's Human Rights Council received a complaint from something called the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, a group consisting entirely of volunteers and apparently unaware that the whole of humanity is of African descent.

In response to the complaint of these unpaid volunteers, UNHRC wrote one letter in January, to which the Dutch government replied in June. I don't know how many letters those two entities write each year, but I'll venture that it's enough that two additional missives don't make for an overwhelming burden.

"We've been doing this for thousands of years, why is the UN attacking an age-old tradition now?"

I like this one a lot, because it happens to be wrong on all possible levels.

While the closely-related holiday of Christmas does go back thousands of years, even to pre-Christian traditions, the first references to Zwarte Piet only appeared in the middle 19th century, and the character continuously evolved well into the 20th. As age-long traditions go, this is a very recent one.

More to the point, the character was not suddenly made controversial by the United Nations. Dutch citizens of all races have raised concerns about him for at least a generation. It seems that the UN probe originates from Dutch citizens who, unsure on whether they'd get a fair hearing in the Netherlands, looked for international mediation.

And obviously, just because we've done something a certain way for a long time doesn't absolve it from reconsideration. Slavery, denying the vote to women and bullfighting are only three examples of despicable practices that endured for centuries before anyone started questioning them. I'm sure you can name many more.

"There can't be anything racist about Zwarte Piet because he's not black! He's just a chimney sweep whose face is covered in soot."

I've seen this raised a lot by French-speaking Belgians, who kinda-sorta-have a bit of a point.

The legend of Père Fouettard (literally "whipping father", the French equivalent of Zwarte Piet), as told in north-eastern France and French-speaking Belgium, is different from its Dutch counterpart, and goes something like this : a greedy innkeeper kidnaps three wealthy kids on their way to a prestigious boarding school in order to rob them. He slits their throats and, in some versions, hack them to pieces and cook them in an earthy stew for his evening dinner. A passing Saint-Nicholas discovers the crime, resurrects the children and binds the innkeeper to his service. He now follows him on his errands, sweeping chimneys for Saint-Nicholas to crawl into, and punishing ungodly or otherwise bad children who deserve no gifts but that of a sound whipping.

In some parts of France the character is still undoubtedly pictured as a White chimney sweep:


Elsewhere, however, especially in Brussels, the character is represented exactly as he is in the Netherlands, like this :


Now, this curly-black-haired dude wearing lipstick might very well be a chimney sweep (although judging by his impeccable colorful clothes he must have changed since his last assignment), but then he's a black chimney sweep. Incidentally, the above image happens to be the cover picture for a facebook group dedicated to defending the character against the mighty UN. It has nearly 50.000 members, many of whom repeatedly assert to anyone who'd listen that the guy pictured there is clearly white.

Now, it's perfectly fine for reasonable people to disagree on whether or not the legend and its current representation raise the question of racism. But anyone who says the UN is deeply misguided about the nature of Zwarte Piet only betrays his ignorance. The Dutch character is not, and has never been, a chimney sweep. He's simply the black servant of Sinterklaas.

If you're disinclined to trust me on this, just read the Dutch government's answer to the UN questions. It clarifies some confusion on whether or not the Dutch government is planning to nominate the Sinterklaas festival as a piece of Intangible Cultural Heritage worthy of safeguarding, and emphasises that the Dutch government does a lot to prevent racial discrimination, which it certainly does.

But at no point does the official response of the Dutch government raise any question on the ethnicity of Zwarte Piet. He's a black guy. Always has been. If you don't know that, you don't know anything about this controversy.

"This is one more attempt to undermine our culture by outsiders, who resent Western civilization, want to divide us, and are sure that all white people are racists"

I've kept that one for last because it is the most insidious. Again, before it was an international phenomenon, this was for years a controversy among Dutch citizens, so the claim that this is an attack by "outsiders" is patently false.

But what makes this claim especially loathsome is that many of the complaints voiced against Zwarte Piet were made and are made by Black Netherlanders of Surinamese and Antillean descent. Why are these Black people Dutch citizens ? Because a few centuries ago, the Dutch Empire claimed Suriname and the Antilles as colonies, enslaved the local population and brought African slaves there for economic benefit. It takes a very special combination of ignorance and xenophobia to describe as "outside aggression" the concerns of Dutch citizens who live in the Netherlands only because their ancestors were once the personal property of the Dutch Empire. Here again, if you don't know this, you have no business being upset about any aspect of this controversy.

Many people also want to blame Muslims for this, for some reason. Here's a recent post on that same pro-Père-Fouettard group:


This is, if at all possible, even more ridiculous. Suriname and the Dutch Antilles are overwhelmingly Christian and have negligible Muslim populations. The only evidence I've found that the Muslim minority in the Netherlands care at all about this is a survey that found many Dutch Muslims understand how the character of Zwarte Piet might be considered offensive by... black people.

In conclusion

I have not adressed in the above the question of whether or not the Zwarte Piet character is in any way racist. Nor am I going to make any suggestion on whether or not the celebrations of Sinterklaas should be changed or in what way. This is ultimately for the Dutch to decide. It almost goes without saying that I don't wish the character to be obliterated. No-one wants that. He's part of our history and shared heritage, even if the Dutch government won't make that claim to UNESCO just yet.

What I do wish is that more people would take the time to study the symbolism behind the character. While he's today only a playful candy-giving fool, studying the legends behind his existence and the society where they evolved is deeply enlightening.

Most of all, I wish everyone who has fond childhood memories of Sinterklaas celebrations would pause a moment before joining a protest group on facebook and writing knee-jerk reactions to things like the recent UN probe. I get why you might understand any suggestion that one of your beloved childhood characters might be racist as an accusation that you, yourself, are racist. But that's not what the UN is saying. That's not what I'm saying. That's not, as far as I can tell, what anyone who has voiced an opinion on this is saying. We just want people to reflect a little on how the character came to be represented as he is. Try it, you may find the exercise is worth your time.

This has turned out so long that I feel a need to thank those who unwittingly contributed to it. While there's a lot of original research in the above, I would never have taken such an interest in, nor learned so much about this issue, without the writings of and discussions with Caroline Sägesser, Marcel Sel, Aziz Madrane and Séverine de Baets. Obviously none of them has read this at the time of publishing, and any mistake is solely mine.

One Thing Opponents to Gay Marriage Get Right

While doing research for another article, I came across this list of "ten reasons why homosexual marriage is harmful and must be opposed". Predictably, most of it is preposterous bullshit, but one point struck me as interesting if not particularily original:

Legalizing gay marriage validates the homosexual lifestyle

For the sake of argument, let's pretend the author isn't a raging homophobe writing for other raging homophobes who think the "homosexual lifestyle" involves bi-weekly orgies, masturbating in the street, and infecting strangers with AIDS for fun. Since the real "homosexual lifestyle" is similar to the "heterosexual lifestyle" in all aspects but gender preference for sexual partners, this "validation" is arguably the most valuable goal of legalizing gay marriage.

Some of my liberal friends here in Europe have decidedly mixed feelings about marriage in general, and often express surprise when gays push for marriage equality. Couple stability rests in practice on personal commitment to each other and each other's children, not on religious or state recognition for their union, so why would progressivist gays cling to this quaint and outdated institution?

It's not that gays are desperate to get married. It's that denying them the right to marry is society's way of telling them that their union isn't as good as that of heterosexuals. As long as marriage is the sole prerogative of heterosexual couples, homosexuals will remain second-class citizens, reduced in the eyes of society to perpetual bachelors, who may very well engage in long-term relationships, but yet can never grow up to become adults and start "real" families.

This is a profound disgrace. We know now that homosexual love is similar to heterosexual love in all respects but the sex of the desired person. We also know that same-sex partners can raise a child just as well as heterosexual couples. This wasn't always obvious, and it's a shame that as a society it took us so long to discover this moral truth. Remember though that we humans are kinda slow at morals generally: it wasn't that long ago that white people had a broad consensus against blacks being fully humans. Today we know better, both about blacks and about homosexuals, and it is time our laws reflect this relatively newfound knowledge.

So our homophobic nutjob friend is entirely right about this: legalizing gay marriage does, in fact, validate the homosexual lifestyle. It's bloody well time.


Best Thing Ever

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a square-jawed individualist or join a heroic quest; I grew up wanting to be Hari Seldon, using my understanding of the mathematics of human behavior to save civilization.
OK, economics is a pretty poor substitute; I don’t expect to be making recorded appearances in the Time Vault a century or two from now. But I tried.

Paul Krugman's introduction to a just issued deluxe new edition of Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy.


Blasphème et lois mémorielles

Unusually, a post in french, about serious philosopho-societal stuff. Don't worry, I'll be back soon talking about the iPhone 5 or something.

Le débat récent sur le "film" innocence des musulmans puis sur les caricatures de Charlie Hebdo a fait ressurgir une question importante : pourquoi en Belgique est-il légal de choquer des millions de musulmans en caricaturant le prophète, mais illégal de choquer des millions de juifs en niant l'holocauste?

Je pense qu'il existe une réelle différence entre se moquer d'un mythe religieux et faire fi d'une réalité historique. Je pourrais détailler le propos, mais d'autres l'ont déjà très bien fait, donc je préfère référer le lecteur vers le billet récent de Nadia Geerts, qui dit bien mieux que moi ce que j'aurais envie d'exprimer sur le sujet.

Néanmoins, même si je nie l'équivalence stricte, je suis tout aussi opposé aux lois anti-négationisme qu'aux lois anti-blasphème. Et comme je ne vois que très rarement un auteur qui n'est pas négationiste s'exprimer pour qu'on laisse aux négationistes le droit de faire de même, ce texte, je vais l'écrire moi-même.

Je peux imaginer quatre raisons de soutenir les lois anti-négationisme et autres lois mémorielles, et aucune ne me convaint complètement :

1) l'holocauste est un fait historique avéré, et toute personne qui prétend le contraire est donc nécessairement dans une optique de désinformation. Probablement, oui, mais justement c'est une excellente raison de ne pas interdire ce discours : on n'interdit pas de dire que la terre est plate, ou que la lune est en chocolat vert. Une vérité indéniable n'a pas besoin du support de la justice pour être acceptée. Généraliser ce raisonnement serait d'ailleurs catastrophique : si on interdit de dire tout ce qui est contraire à "ce qu'on sait", par définition la connaissance ne peut plus évoluer.

2) le discours niant ou minimisant un génocide est profondément offensant pour les familles des victimes, et pour tous les membres du peuple qui a été ciblé. Je pense que c'est cette raison-là qu'ont en tête ceux qui accusent les laïcs opposés aux lois anti-blasphème de "double discours". L'idée que l'état devrait rendre illégal ce qui peut choquer pose de multiples problèmes. Comment légiférer sur ce qui offense ? Pourra-t-on jamais mesurer le degré de désaroi causé par un discours donné, et, en attendant, que tolérer, que condamner ? Est-ce qu'un message qui heurte une personne très, très fort est plus ou moins condamnable qu'un message qui gène légèrement plusieurs millions ?

En tant qu'athée laïc, j'ai une tendance naturelle à être d'avantage choqué par le déni d'une vérité historique que par des railleries envers un personnage religieux. Je suis d'un autre coté conscient que dans une société multi-culturelle, mes sensibilités personnelles ne peuvent à elle seule constituer une base légale. Est-ce qu'un propos négationiste est plus ou moins heurtant pour "le juif moyen" qu'une caricature de Mahommet l'est pour un "musulman moyen" ? N'étant ni juif ni musulman, je me sens désarmé pour répondre à cette question. Je suis par contre convaincu que personne d'autre ne peut y répondre de façon objective. Tout cela me suggère qu'on ne peut pas interdire une parole uniquement parcequ'elle choque.

3) le discours négationiste, aussi distant soit-il des faits historiques, risque d'attiser l'antisémitisme chez le lecteur peu informé. Ce n'est évidemment pas un hasard si les milieux où court l'antisémitisme et ceux où le négationisme s'exprime sans complexe sont souvent confondus. D'où le désir pour tout anti-raciste de faire disparaître le discours négationiste. Objectif tout à fait louable, mais avant de prôner la solution législative, on doit se poser une question: est-ce que ça marche ?

Malheureusement, je ne pense pas. Malgré la loi, celui qui cherche un milieu où le négationisme est accepté le trouvera facilement, que ce soit sur internet ou entre amis partageant la même vision du monde. Est-ce qu'il y a moins d'antisémitisme dans les pays condamnant le négationisme ? J'aimerais voir une étude scientifique sur cette question, mais, en attendant, mon impression est que ce n'est pas le cas. Je dirais même que l'interdiction offre une aura rebelle au négationisme, pour les mêmes raisons qui font que l'adolescent en crise est plus séduit par les drogues illégales que par celles qui sont socialement acceptées.

4) enfin, et malheureusement on ne parle presque jamais de ça, les lois mémorielles offrent une caution morale au pays qui les promulgue. L'holocauste (pour prendre le génocide le plus connu) n'est pas que la responsabilité d'un fou, mais aussi de tous ceux qui l'ont suivi, et de ceux qui ont regardé sans rien faire. Si un pays est responsable de quelque façon pour les actes de ses citoyens, alors l'Allemagne, l'Autriche, la France, la Belgique, la Lithuanie et beaucoup d'autres ont, en tant qu'entités légales, une part de responsabilité pour ce qui s'est passé dans les années 40. (Tous ces pays comptaient d'héroïques opposants au nazisme, mais cela ne les dédouanne pas de leurs collaborateurs.) Ces pays ont réagi de diverses façons à leur mauvaise conscience, mais tous ceux que j'ai cité ont d'abord rendu illégal l'expression de toute opinion minimisant ce crime contre l'humanité.

Il sera difficile de jamais pardonner la complicité des pays européens dans le programme Nazi d'extermination des juifs, des homosexuels, des gitans, des franc-maçons, des malades mentaux et de tellement d'autres… La première étape nécessaire est pour moi d'accepter publiquement cette responsabilité. Certains pays l'ont fait, pas tous. Ensuite, promouvoir des politiques qui luttent non seulement contre l'antisémitisme mais également contre tous les autres racismes, pas au moment où le racisme s'exprime, mais à sa source, en luttant contre la peur, l'obscurantisme, et l'ignorance des autres cultures. Certains pays essayent, mais fort timidement.

Il faut avouer que l'éducation, c'est difficile. Donc, à défaut d'avancer dans l'efficace mais difficile, la France condamne Vincent Reynouard en 1992 à un mois d'emprisonnement avec sursis, puis à six mois ferme en 2004. Ça ne sert absolument à rien : ses écrits et vidéos sont largement disponibles sur le net, et ses fans le considèrent comme un martyr de la pensée unique. Il a fallu plus de 50 ans pour qu'un président français présente des excuses — fort timides et circonstanciées — pour une seule des atrocités commises par le régime de Vichy. (La rafle du Vel' d'Hiv, Jacques Chirac, 1995) C'est pitoyable. Mais bon, on emprisonne un gars qui a écrit un bouquin, donc ça va.

Le cas de l'Autriche est encore pire. L'antisémitisme courant dans ce pays durant la seconde moitié du vingtième siècle défie l'entendement. (Un exemple parmi tant d'autres : selon un sondage de 1973, seulement 21% des Autrichiens étaient favorables au retour des juifs autrichiens ayant survécu à l'holocauste.) En 1986, le pays chosi comme président Kurt Waldheim, un ancien officier de la Wehrmacht poursuivi par plusieurs pays pour crimes de guerre. Et en 2005, la police Autrichienne arrête l'historien négationniste David Irving, et le garde en prison pendant plus d'un an. Cela ne sert, encore, à rien.

Vincent Reynouard et David Irving sont des fascistes, je ne dis pas le contraire. Mais il est extrémement dangereux d'interdire à ceux qui ont tort de s'exprimer. Il est illusoire de croire que condamner l'expression publique d'une opinion raciste va de quelque façon diminuer le racisme. Et si l'Europe dépasse un jour l'horreur de l'holocauste, ce sera en assumant pleinement sa responsabilité, en favorisant le dialogue interculturel, et en permettant à tout le monde, aussi bien les victimes que les historiens de tous bords, de s'exprimer. Même ceux qui nient l'évidence. Surtout ceux qui nient l'évidence. La meilleure façon de révéler le négationisme pour l'arnaque haineuse qu'il est, c'est de le laisser s'exprimer au grand jour.


Bien sûr, tout cela a déjà été très bien dit par le regretté Christopher Hitchens, dans un débat à Toronto sur "la liberté d'expression implique le droit à la haine":


Youtube ads are Broken

I never liked ads. About 5% of them are funny, interesting, or in any other way worth watching, but the rest is fluff you have to endure so you can watch whatever it is you really want to watch. In the era of broadcast TV, like 15 years ago, that seemed like a fair deal: stations have to make a profit, yadda yadda yadda. When an ad was especially good I'd remember it and walk away with a positive feeling towards the brand. When it sucked, as it usually did, I didn't mind.

But that was broadcast TV, and now we're in the age of on-demand internet content. And Youtube ads. And in this age, for the first time, some ads offend me by their very existence. I'll search for, say, a Sarah Bettens song, and find it among the first results, and I'm all excited and amazed at this awesome interconnected world that brings wonderful music to my ears, a single click and I can listen to the song — oh, wait, no, actually there's an ad for Gilette I need to get through first.

I understand the reasoning. Disk storage and bandwith aren't free, of course, and if I – the consumer – am not paying for them then somebody else has to. So, ads.

Except that they don't work. One minute ago I had neutral-to-positive feelings towards Gilette. Like all non-Unix-guru males I discovered shaving as I went through puberty, had to choose a razor brand and chose Gilette for no good reason. (Most decisions one makes as a teenager are ill-informed.) For 15 years I wasn't convinced that Gilette was superior to Wilkinson or store brands, but it was what I was using and I couldn't be bothered to rethink that original decision. Having committed to the brand ages ago, I was content to buy new blades every week without thinking too much about it.

Until now. Just this minute, Gilette has stopped being a benevolent partner in my personal hygiene and became the faceless corporation standing between me and a song I love. It is now the enemy. Whether Gilette shaves closer than Wilkinson I still have no idea, but for the first time in 15 years, thanks to a campaign that Gilette paid for, I now have an active interest in doing the comparison.

Google paid 1.65 Billions for youtube thinking it was the future of television, and maybe they were right. But what's obvious is that TV advertising can't transfer easily to Youtube advertising.