Jun 212015
 

Someone on Quora asked if hackers really need multiple computers. Well… I am not technically a hacker (in the bad sense of the word) as I do not use my skills for illicit purposes, but I certainly have multiple computers, as this panoramic picture taken from my home office chair demonstrates:

Here is what’s in this picture:

  1. Two older, dual-core workstations that I still keep hooked up for test purposes.
  2. A monitor (currently off) with a KVM connecting the four computers on this desk. Under the monitor, three laptops (my current travel laptop, a still more or less current netbook, and an older laptop that I don’t really use anymore.)
  3. Two more computers: my main server and its standby backup. On top, a wireless access point; behind (not visible) two network routers and several concentrators, as well as an older monochrome laser printer. Behind on the floor, there is also a UPS.
  4. Underneath it all: several cardboard boxes containing vintage calculators and various bits of computer parts.
  5. A filing cabinet. (On top, not seen, some radio frequency equipment, a multi-standard VHS VCR that I still occasionally use to digitize old videos, and a turntable record player.)
  6. Several pieces of radio frequency test equipment, owned by one of my clients. On top (not visible) my tablet.
  7. Underneath, my main workstation, with 2×24 TB (mirrored) external storage. A UPS is behind the workstation.
  8. My main monitor and keyboard. Under the monitor, a photo printer, and my old smartphone (still functional, with a data-only SIM card that I keep as a backup Internet connection. My current smartphone is the one I used to take this picture.)
  9. A laser printer and scanner. Underneath, under the desk, some boxes of paper, manuals, etc.
  10. My “hardware” desk, with boxes of parts, a soldering iron, a test power supply, a couple of multimeters and other equipment. Under the desk (not seen) more computer parts and more radio equipment.
  11. My secondary monitor and keyboard. An oscilloscope is sitting under the monitor.
  12. Two more computers: an older Windows 98 machine that I keep around as it can connect to legacy hardware (including the old “winprinter” style laser printer seen here, as well as an EPROM programmer) and a backup of my main workstation. A UPS is also visible.

Not seen in this picture (behind me and/or above) are bookshelves full of technical books and literature, folders containing MSDN subscription CDs/DVDs, three additional older computers (not hooked up, but functional) and additional computer parts, lots of cables, etc.

Most of this equipment is “in use”. Out of the 7 desktop computers shown, three are currently powered (but two are powered 24/7, a server and my main workstation.)

 Posted by at 6:35 pm
Jun 212015
 

There is a particularly neat way to derive Schrödinger’s equation, and to justify the “canonical substitution” rules for replacing energy and momentum with corresponding operators when we “quantize” an equation.

Take a particle in a potential. Its energy is given by

$$E=\frac{{\bf p}^2}{2m}+V({\bf x}),$$

or

$$E-\frac{{\bf p}^2}{2m}-V({\bf x})=0.$$

Now multiply both sides this equation by the formula \(e^{i({\bf p}\cdot{\bf x}-Et)/\hbar}\). We note that this exponential expression cannot ever be zero if the part in the exponent that’s in parentheses is real:

$$\left[E-\frac{{\bf p}^2}{2m}-V({\bf x})\right]e^{i({\bf p}\cdot{\bf x}-Et)/\hbar}=0.$$

So far so good. But now note that

$$Ee^{i({\bf p}\cdot{\bf x}-Et)/\hbar}=i\hbar\frac{\partial}{\partial t}e^{i({\bf p}\cdot{\bf x}-Et)/\hbar},$$

and similarly,

$${\bf p}^2e^{i({\bf p}\cdot{\bf x}-Et)/\hbar}=-\hbar^2{\boldsymbol\nabla}e^{i({\bf p}\cdot{\bf x}-Et)/\hbar}.$$

This allows us to rewrite the previous equation as

$$\left[i\hbar\frac{\partial}{\partial t}+\hbar^2\frac{{\boldsymbol\nabla}^2}{2m}-V({\bf x})\right]e^{i({\bf p}\cdot{\bf x}-Et)/\hbar}=0.$$

Or, writing \(\Psi=e^{i({\bf p}\cdot{\bf x}-Et)/\hbar}\) and rearranging:

$$i\hbar\frac{\partial}{\partial t}\Psi=-\hbar^2\frac{{\boldsymbol\nabla}^2}{2m}\Psi+V({\bf x})\Psi,$$

which is the good old Schrödinger equation.

The method works for an arbitrary, generic Hamiltonian, too. Given

$$H({\bf p})=E,$$

we can write

$$\left[E-H({\bf p})\right]e^{i({\bf p}\cdot{\bf x}-Et)/\hbar}=0,$$

which is equivalent to

$$\left[i\hbar\frac{\partial}{\partial t}-H(-i\hbar{\boldsymbol\nabla})\right]\Psi=0.$$

So if this equation is identically satisfied for a classical system with Hamiltonian \(H\), what’s the big deal about quantum mechanics? Well… a classical system satisfies \(E-H({\bf p})=0\), where \(E\) and \({\bf p}\) are eigenvalues of the differential operators \(i\hbar\partial/\partial t\) and \(-i\hbar{\boldsymbol\nabla}\), respectively. Schrödinger’s equation, on the other hand, remains valid in the general case, not just for the eigenvalues.

 Posted by at 6:29 pm
Jun 182015
 

Having just finished work on a major project milestone, I took it easy for a few days, allowing myself to spend time thinking about other things. That’s when I encountered an absolutely neat problem on Quora.

pi

Someone asked a seemingly innocuous number theory question: are there two positive integers such that one is exactly the π-th power of the other?

Now wait a minute, you ask… We know that π is a transcendental number. How can an integer raised to a transcendental power be another integer?

But then you think about \(\alpha=\log_2 3\) and realize that although \(\alpha\) is a transcendental number, \(2^\alpha=3\). So why can’t we have \(n^\pi=m\), then?

As it turns out, we (probably) cannot, but the reason is subtle and it relies on a very important, but unproven conjecture from transcendental number theory.

But first, let us rewrite the equation by taking its logarithm:

$$\pi\log n = \log m.$$

We can also divide both sides by \(\log n\), which leads to

$$\pi = \frac{\log m}{\log n}=\log_n m,$$

but it turns out to be not very helpful. However, squaring the equation will help, as we shall shortly see:

$$\pi^2\log^2 n=\log^2 m.$$

Can this equation ever by true for positive integers \(n\) and \(m\), other than the trivial solution \(n=m=1\), that is?

To see why it cannot be the case, let us consider the following triplet of numbers:

$$(i\pi,\log n,\log m),$$

and their exponents,

$$(e^{i\pi}=-1, e^{\log n}=n, e^{\log m}=m).$$

The three numbers \((i\pi,\log n,\log m)\) are linearly independent over \({\mathbb Q}\) (that is, the rational numbers). What this means is that there are no rational numbers \(A, B, C, D\) such that \(Ai\pi+B\log n+C\log m + D=0\). This is easy to see as the ratio of \(\log n\) and \(\log m\) is supposed to be transcendental but both numbers are real, whereas \(i\pi\) is imaginary.

On the other hand, their exponents are all rational numbers (\(-1, n, m\)). And this is where the unproven conjecture, Schanuel’s conjecture, comes into the picture. Schanuel’s conjecture says that given \(n\) complex numbers \((\alpha_1,\alpha_2,…,\alpha_n)\) that are linearly independent over the rationals, out of the \(2n\) numbers \((\alpha_1,…,\alpha_n,e^{\alpha_1},…,e^{\alpha_n})\), at least \(n\) will be transcendental numbers that are algebraically independent over \({\mathbb Q}\). That is, there is no algebraic expression involving roots and powers of the \(\alpha_i\), \(e^{\alpha_i}\), and rational numbers that will yield 0.

The equation \(\pi^2\log^2 n=\log^2 m\), which we can rewrite as

$$(i\pi)^2\log^2 n + \log^2 m=0,$$

is just such an equation, and it can never be true.

I wish I could say that I came up with this solution but I didn’t. I was this close: I was trying to apply Schanuel’s conjecture, and I was of course using the fact that \(\pi=-i\log -1\). But I did not fully appreciate the implications and meaning of Schanuel’s conjecture, so I was applying it improperly. Fortunately, another Quora user saved the day.

Still I haven’t had this much fun with pure math (and I haven’t learned this much pure math all at once) in years.

 Posted by at 8:25 pm
Jun 182015
 

Today is the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the final, decisive battle that ended Napoleon’s second, 100-day reign.

People occasionally call the Napoleonic Wars World War 0: like the two World Wars of the 20th century, this war, too, was global in scope (especially if I include the War of 1812) and millions died.

Others suggest that there were much larger conflicts in Europe’s past, such as the Seven Years’ War. Perhaps true, but I’d argue that like the two World Wars of the 20th century, the Napoleonic Wars also had a more lasting legacy: they changed the existing world order. Before the Napoleonic Wars, Europe was still a collection of medieval, mostly multi ethnic feudal empires. The Napoleonic Wars sowed the seeds of ethnic nationalism on the one hand and constitutional democracies on the other. They gave rise, for better or for worse, to the modern ethnic nation states that characterize Europe today. Meanwhile in North America, the War of 1812 established the path that led to Canada’s nationhood.

So to me, it’s World War 0. And it ended exactly 200 years ago today. Unlike World War I, it wasn’t “the war to end all wars”, although it did bring in an unprecedented era of relative peace, prosperity and enlightenment in Europe. As a result, the 19th century became the true century of science and technology, which saw the emergence of modern cities with electric lighting, streetcars, telephone and telegraph networks, proper sanitation, functioning social institutions, modern police forces, newspapers and public education. It is too bad that in the century that followed, the century that was greeted with such hope and expectations that it was once dubbed “the century of reason”, saw ethnic nationalism take center stage and lead to unspeakable horrors.

 Posted by at 7:59 pm
Jun 102015
 

A great many years ago, my uncle Jóska once played a joke on the family. He found a large utility scrub brush somewhere, and at the most unexpected moments, he held it under your nose and said, “Come, give a kiss to grandpa!”

What he really meant, of course, is that the scrub brush looked like the grandfather of all toothbrushes. Even so, “give a kiss to grandpa” became kind of an inside joke in our family whenever we encountered something that was unusually oversized.

Like an oversized piece of caramel candy.

When I was a child, one of our favorite candies was the “cow caramel” candy, a Polish product, a caramel candy that, unlike most caramel candies, was neither sticky nor chewy; rather, it just crumbled in your mouth without sticking to your teeth or palate. Oh, and it was very tasty, too.

This “cow candy” is still manufactured, and it is routinely available even in Canada at European deli shops. Although we try to keep our candy consumption at a minimum for all the obvious reasons, my wife and I remain regular buyers.

So imagine my surprise when the other day, my wife comes home with the grandfather of cow candies: a giant, mega-size (it says so on the label) cow candy that looks just like the regular cow candy, except that it’s much bigger.

But, I can attest, just as tasty. We cut this one in half and enjoyed it earlier tonight, but not before I snapped a picture, showing the “regular” cow candy and a Canadian quarter for size comparison.

 Posted by at 9:56 pm
May 242015
 

John Forbes Nash Jr. is dead, along with his wife Alicia. They were killed on the New Jersey Turnpike when the taxi, taking them home from the airport, crashed into a guardrail and another vehicle after the driver lost control while trying to pass.

Nash and his wife were returning from Norway, where Nash was one of the recipients of the 2015 Abel prize.

News of this accident made me shudder for another reason. Less than two weeks ago, when I was returning from Dubai, my taxi driver not only answered a call on his cell phone, he even responded to a text while driving. I was too tired to say anything at first and then thankfully he came to his senses… but his behavior made me feel decidedly uncomfortable in his vehicle. Next time, I will not hesitate to tell the taxi driver to stop immediately or call another taxi for me.

 Posted by at 1:38 pm
May 232015
 

The Irish have voted. Yes, once arch-conservative, Catholic Ireland where abortion remains illegal and where homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1993 became the first country in the world where same-sex marriage is legalized through a public referendum. Wow.

 Posted by at 10:24 am
May 212015
 

Local signal substitution or simultaneous substitution is when a cable company replaces the signal of a US station with that of a local Canadian station when the two broadcast the same show.

The idea is to give local stations a chance to earn more advertising revenue. A great idea when it works, but an absolute annoyance when it is done improperly.

Like tonight… when I am staying up late for the sole purpose of watching the very last David Letterman show.

letterman

The show runs longer than usual… not surprising.

What is also, sadly, not surprising, but annoying like hell, is when Rogers Cable rather inconsiderately cuts off the CBS signal at 12:37 AM, because in their book, Letterman should have shut up by then, and if he didn’t it’s his problem, not theirs, and according to their schedule, it’s now time to substitute another signal.

I so, so, so hope that one of these days, the CRTC will tell these buggers to bugger off and stop messing with the signal.

Then again, it probably won’t happen before this whole conventional television thing becomes entirely irrelevant anyway… and good riddance, too.

Fortunately, I was able to watch the rest of Letterman’s final show on another channel, the signal of which was not messed up by our favorite idiotic cable company. It did mess up my attempt to record the final show, though. And to think that they have the audacity to complain that the CRTC ended simultaneous substitution for the Super Bowl.

(I notice that in the meantime, somebody came to their frigging senses at Rogers, and the CBS signal is restored. Bravo. Better late than never, I suppose.)

 Posted by at 12:53 am
May 192015
 

When good people don’t speak up, bad things happen. That, if anything, is the most important lesson from the history of the 20th century.

So I spoke up today, after reading two alarming articles about Canada’s treatment of would-be Roma travelers from Hungary.

Numbered streets, Miskolc. (Source: HVG.HU)

Numbered streets, Miskolc. (Source: HVG.HU)

Here is what I wrote:

To: <Minister@cic.gc.ca>,
<rob.nicholson@parl.gc.ca>,
<mauril.belanger@parl.gc.ca>,
<cbcnewsottawa@cbc.ca>
Cc: <Chris.Alexander@parl.gc.ca>
Subject: Canada humiliating Hungarian Roma travelers at Vienna airport?
Date: Tue, 19 May 2015 11:45:54 -0400
 

Dear Mr. Nicholson:
Dear Mr. Alexander:
Dear Mr. Belanger:
Dear CBC Ottawa:

I am a Canadian citizen, born in Hungary. In recent years, I have watched in dismay how my country of birth is increasingly embracing xenophobia and racism, to the extent that U.S. Senator McCain recently accused the Hungarian government of having neo-Nazi tendencies. Having lived almost my entire adult life in Canada, this is not a value system that I can embrace; rather, my values are the Canadian values of multiculturalism, tolerance and inclusiveness.

Which is why I am deeply alarmed when I read about Canadian immigration authorities acting in a manner that, if the accounts are true, can only be described as racist and xenophobic.

I am specifically referring to two articles, published recently (May 11 and May 18) in the Hungarian weekly newsmagazine HVG, about a Roma researcher and a Roma family who were denied entry into Canada in a manner that (if the accounts are to be believed) was humiliating, racist, and wholly contrary to Canada’s values.

I am providing my partial translations of the two articles below. The Hungarian originals can be found online at

http://hvg.hu/itthon/20150511_Cigany_ezert_nem_repulhetett_Becsbol_egy

and

http://hvg.hu/itthon/20150518_becs_austrian_airlines_romak_kanada

I realize of course that our authorities face the very difficult task of preventing abuse of our generous refugee system, and that these articles present only one side of these stories. Indeed, I sincerely hope that this is the case, as otherwise, the only possible conclusion is that Canada’s immigration authorities willfully and routinely violate some of our core values when it comes to legitimate Roma travelers to this country.

For this reason, I’d like to bring these two articles to your attention, in the hope that you can investigate what actually took place and, should it turn out that our authorities or individual officials acted contrary to our country’s values and regulations, take the necessary steps to ensure that we do not humiliate would-be travelers to Canada solely on account of the color of their skin.

Sincerely,
Viktor T. Toth
3-575 Old St Patrick St
Ottawa ON K1N 9H5
613-789-0510
https://www.vttoth.com/

————————————

First article: HVG.HU, May 11, 2015

[head] Hungarian Roma researcher not even allowed to board the plane

[lead] You thought that all you need to travel to a visa-free country is a passport, valid ticket and enough money? If your skin is a little darker, you may be in for a surprise. We tell a frightening tale, in which a researcher heading to Canada was not allowed to board her plane but instead, was humiliated and shouted at at the airport.

Eva’s travel on April 8 began like anybody else’s: as she already purchased a ticket to Toronto, on this day she was ferried to Vienna, where the direct flight was to depart. Eva was heading to Canada to do a survey on the generational relationships of Roma immigrants there. Hungarian citizens do not need a visa to travel to Canada since 2008, that is, in theory, there are no limitations on travel so long as the traveler has a valid passport, ticket, and is able to support himself financially during the trip. Eva had all these, so she was very surprised when the officers of Austrian Airlines and the airport pulled her aside after a passport check.

According to Eva, the conversation soon acquired the tone of an interrogation, in which officers of Immigration Canada also began to participate through the telephone. A guard kept an eye on Eva, they asked her where, why she was planning to go to Toronto, who she planned to visit. They checked her details, but they stated that they were unable to check with the person who was supposed to provide Eva with a place to stay. (In contrast, this person later stated that there was no sign on his phone of any attempt to call.)

At this point, Eva felt that it would be better to ask for a translator, as things were getting interesting. They were also interested about the amount of money she had on her, but did not ask her to show the cash. Eva had 1000 Canadian dollars, which was supposed to be enough for three weeks; as her lodging was secured, it did not appear insufficient. Eva was beginning to feel desperate, she asked them to check her, her family, as they would see that they have significant scientific and artistic accomplishments – her daughters are actresses, her husband is a musician and director, she doesn’t understand why there would be a problem.

The problem was that they viewed Eva as an illegal immigrant, a potential asylum seeker. A person who might want to abuse Canada’s immigration system. That’s because Eva is a Roma.

[subhead] Immigration Office Instructing the Airline?

After the so-so investigation and even more interesting turn of events took place: the airline stated that the immigration office told them not to fly Eva to Toronto, even though the office asserted that they left the decision to the airline.

Subsequently they left Eva on her own, it took a while for her to find her way back. Her passport was checked once again, and when she had the audacity to request her luggage back, her Austrian attendant reproached her loudly in the presence of the several hundred people in the waiting room. It was not easy to get her luggage back, it took Eva’s son-in-law, who is fluent in German, two times half an hour to get back the suitcase, during which time their car was ticketed, too. “I never felt so humiliated,” recalls Eva who, although she is a well-known Roma intellectual, asked us not to reveal her surname when we wrote this article.

At least she was luck in that her children, who took her to Vienna, were still in town and therefore they were able to return to the airport for their mother. After a little consultation, they decided to visit the Canadian consulate in Vienna, where an interrogation similar to that at the airport followed. The official kindly suggested to Eva to request an immigration visa, so she tried to explain that she has no plans to emigrate. “Why would then want to travel to Canada?” was the question. “I am sorry I didn’t just tell him that I want to be a thief,” said Eva later. This is when they found out that supposedly Canada already penalized airlines because in recent times, 500 illegal immigrants arrived from Hungary. Thus, Eva was not allowed to fly.

[subhead] Canada: Everything was by the book

Although she suffered financial damages, as in addition to the cost of the trip to Vienna, she also lost her insurance (her ticket was refunded by the airline), this was primarily a humiliation. Eva is considering a lawsuit against the airline.

[…]

We also contacted Canadian authorities about this incident. The answer of Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Canada Border Services was that everything was by the book: Canada is fighting against illegal immigration and they cooperate with other countries’ border protection agencies as well as airlines.

[…]
————————————

Second article: HVG.HU, May 18, 2015

[head] “It was a test and they failed” – New scandal at Vienna airport

[lead] Another Roma family heading to Canada was returned at Vienna Airport. They say their legal rights were violated, they were humiliated, and to prevent their travel, Canada’s authorities ignored their own regulations. The government of Hungary remains silent about these cases.

Once again an outrageous incident concerning Roma took place at Vienna Airport, and again involving a flight to Canada. We recently reported about the case of Eva: the Roma researcher heading to Canada was turned back by the combined efforts of Austrian Airlines and Citizenship and Immigration Canada at the Austrian airport, when she was not allowed to fly to Toronto. As it turns out, Canada’s authorities may request a letter of invitation from the receiving party, and if the passenger does not meet requirements (doesn’t have enough money, doesn’t have an arranged place to stay) they can be turned back at the airport. However, Eva reported that neither her place to stay nor the money she carried were checked, and she felt she was singled out because of her Gipsy identity.

Now, hvg.hu received information about another incident that reinforces this suspicion. Vendel Orsos, resident of Hedrehely, and his family were taken to Budapest by his brother-in-law on April 29. They left Ferihegy Airport at 7 AM and were already in Vienna at 7:45. They planned a family visit to Orsos’s sister, a chartered accounting who has been living in Canada for the past 15 years. They were already having their passports checked when he noticed that they were being scrutinized by one of the officials. When they arrived there, the person asked if he spoke English. When he answered in the negative, the official switched to Hungarian and asked, “Where in Hungary do you live?” After he answered, they were removed from the line. Meanwhile Orsos saw that other passengers standing in line behind them were able to board without trouble after showing their passports and boarding passes.

[subhead] Canada’s story keeps changing

Orsos was then connected to a translator from Canada by telephone, who flooded the man with questions about, for instance, his home or his job. “I really didn’t understand why he was asking,” said the man whose background is perfectly respectable, and thus was able to answer both questions with an honest yes. The translator also asked why his children, traveling with them, had different surnames.

This outraged him, but he tried to explain calmly that they decided with his wife that their children should have their mother’s surname, as they hoped this would make it less likely for them to be subjected to anti-Roma prejudices. However, he was legally registered as the children’s father.

[…]

Orsos states that he was patiently answering every question, but after his answers the lady told him that “this was a test and you did not pass,” and thus they were not allowed to fly to Canada. This despite the fact that the family carried a valid letter of invitation.

Orsos’s brother-in-law meanwhile contacted the family that was now stuck in Vienna and also called the relative in Canada, to find out if she was contacted to verify what the family stated at the airport. It turned out that the woman was not even contacted, even though they told Orsos that they were not able to reach her. Then the Canadian relative, Zsuzsa, called the airport in Vienna and asked why the family was not allowed to fly. She says they told her it’s because they did not carry enough money. This was not true, they didn’t even check how much money they carried, remembers Vendel Orsos.

Finally, Zsuzsa convinced them to allow the family to fly but then the airport informed them that they can no longer be found. But the family didn’t even leave the airport, they had no place to go, after the two-and-a-half hour ordeal they stumbled back to the waiting area but — like Eva — they received no help. When they found out from the man’s sister that they are allowed to fly after all, they tried to check in but were told that this was no longer possible. The adults were trying to restrain themselves but because of the humiliation and helplessness, Orsos’s wife began to cry.

[…]

They had no other choice but to return home. They could fly back but they were afraid that in that case, they’d not get their HUF 800,000 airfare back… they lost all trust in Vienna authorities. Therefore, they waited for a relative who drove from Hedrehely to pick them up. Thus they spent an entire day, with two children at the airport, from their early morning arrival until 1 AM. They satisfied every requirement to travel but Canada ignored its own strictly defined regulations, complained Vendel Orsos. Their dream vacation thus ended at 5 AM the next day. The family wrote down their story and even faxed a copy to the Canadian Embassy in Vienna but to this date, they received no answer.

[…]

 Posted by at 2:55 pm
May 152015
 

Whenever I travel, I think a lot about Internet security. For purely selfish reasons: I do not wish to become a victim of cybercrime or unnecessarily expose my own systems to attacks.

The easiest way to achieve end-to-end encryption is through a virtual private network (VPN). Whenever possible, I connect to my own router’s VPN service here in Ottawa before doing anything else on the Interwebs. The connection from my router to the final destination is still subject to intercept, but at least my connection from whatever foreign country I am in to my own network is secure.

A VPN has numerous other advantages, not the least of which is the fact that to the outside world, I appear to have an Ottawa-based IP address; this allows me, for instance, to use my Netflix subscription even in countries where Netflix is not normally available.

The downside of the VPN is that I am limited by the outgoing bandwidth of my own connections. But in practice, this does not appear to be a serious limitation. (I was able to watch Breaking Bad episodes just fine while in Abu Dhabi.)

Unfortunately, a VPN is not always possible, as some providers, for reasons known only to them, block VPNs. (I can think of a few workarounds, but I have not yet implemented any of them.) Even in this case, I remain at least partially protected. I have set up my mail server such that both incoming (IMAP) and outgoing (SMTP) connections are fully encrypted. This way, not only are my messages secure, but (and this was my main concern) I also avoid leaking sensitive password information to an eavesdropper.

When it comes to Web sites, I use secure (HTTPS) connections whenever possible, even for “mundane” stuff like innocent Google searches. I also use SSH if necessary, to connect to my servers. These days, SSH is an absolute must; the use of Telnet is just an invitation for disaster.

But of course the biggest security risk while one is on the road is the use of a public Wi-Fi network anywhere. Connecting to an HTTP (not HTTPS) server through a public Wi-Fi network and logging in with your password may not be the exact equivalent of telegraphing your password to the whole wide world, but it comes pretty darn close. Tools that can be used to scan for Wi-Fi networks and analyze the data are readily available not just for laptops but even for smartphones.

Once an open Wi-Fi network is identified, “sniffing” all packets becomes a trivial exercise, with downloadable tools that are readily available. Which is why it is incomprehensible to me why, in this day and age, most providers (e.g., hotels, airports) that actually do require users to log in use an unsecure network and just intercept the user’s first Web query to present a login page instead, when the technology to provide a properly secured Wi-Fi network has long been available.

In the future, no doubt I’ll have to take even stronger measures to maintain data security. For instance, the simple PPTP VPN technology in my router has known vulnerabilities. Today, it may take several hours on a dedicated high-end workstation to crack its encryption keys; the same task may be accomplished in minutes or less on tomorrow’s smartphones.

So there really are two lessons here: First, any security is bettern than no security, as it makes it that much harder for an attacker to do harm, and most attackers will just move on to find lower hanging fruit. Second, no measure should give you a false sense of security: by implementing reasonable security measures, you are raising the bar higher, but it will never defeat a determined attacker.

 Posted by at 2:46 pm
May 142015
 

I have been neglecting my blog in the past two weeks, but I had a good reason: I was traveling again.

I was once again in Dubai, where I spent some time on the 14th floor of an office building. From that building, I noticed another, very strange edifice with barely a window on its first few floors, and some absolutely giant fans on its roof. I was wondering what it was: a telephone exchange? A data center? No… a central air conditioning plant for a city block. Wow.

Later that evening, we walked to a restaurant in downtown Dubai, and I had a chance to stare at one of the city’s newest attractions (I don’t know how long it has been around, I only just noticed it now), a red streetcar. Lovely.

I only spent a day in Dubai before heading off to Abu Dhabi in a rental car. Rather than purchasing a new GPS (or an expensive map for my old Garmin) I decided to rely on Google Maps on my phone. Not that I really needed to; once I found my way out of Dubai, I was quite familiar with the route and the location of my Abu Dhabi hotel. Indeed, I found the hotel without difficulty, and early next morning, I found myself staring at a surprisingly faint desert sunrise, the Sun obscured by sand and fog:

I spent four days in Abu Dhabi, working hard. Having my own transportation really made things easier, not just to commute back and forth between my hotel and my client’s office, but also to do mundane things like going to a supermarket for some fresh fruit or a bottle of Coke purchased at a tiny fraction of the hotel price.

Four days fly by like nothing, and all too soon, I found myself on the highway again, heading back to Dubai. This time around, I used my phone not just for navigation but also as a dash cam:

This turned out to be a big mistake. Barely more than ten miles from my hotel, just as I was entering the thickest parts of the freeway spaghetti in Dubai, my phone went dark. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why a phone’s battery gets depleted when the phone was plugged in just fine. (I solved the mystery today through some experimentation: the use of two applications, but especially the continuous HD video recording overheated the phone, and it stopped charging the battery as a precaution.) Anyhow, I was left to my own devices, so it was with no small amount of pride when, maybe 20 minutes later, I got out of the rental car in front of my hotel, having found the place from memory, driving through downtown Dubai like a native.

The same evening, I took the rental car back to the Dubai Mall, once again navigating flawlessly to the right parking lot, finding the rental agency’s kiosk, and completing the return of the vehicle exactly as planned, nailing the timing spot on for my next meeting.

The next evening, I once again went to the Dubai Mall, but this time on foot. The hotel is about a mile from the Mall. Normally, walking a mile is no big deal, but try doing it in 36°C weather! I felt very brave. Not only did I walk to the Mall, I also walked back from the Mall, after I did some shopping (some gifts and once again, some groceries). On the way back, I paused for a moment, looking at (and listening to) the cacophony of non-stop large scale construction right across the Mall:

I spent two more days in Dubai, again very busy. On Sunday, I checked out of my hotel, heading to that same 14th floor office again… and en route, I got wet. There was rain! Not a lot of rain to be sure but still, any rain is a delightful experience when you are in one of the driest places of the entire planet.

Finally, Sunday evening arrived and once again I was heading back to Dubai airport. Heading home.

Halfway through the flight, I looked out my window and saw a half moon over a deep blue sky. It was beautiful.

And then, after a grueling 14.5 hour nonstop flight, I was at Washington’s Dulles airport again, going through a surprisingly quick, efficient, and painless border and customs inspection (the concept of international transit does not exist at North American airports.) As I was walking towards my Ottawa departure gate, I encountered a delightful little facility:

Yes, a rest room for canines! As the door was open, I was even able to take a peek, although for some reason, my phone camera was badly out of focus:

Even in this blurry picture though, perhaps it is clear that the room contains a piece of a fence, some fake grass, and a plastic fire hydrant replica, offering maximum comfort for canine companions. It really gave me a good laugh!

And then, after a brief delay (our aircraft was late inbound), I was flying again. Less than 90 minutes later, I was at Ottawa airport, and soon in a taxi, heading home.

And I am still playing catch-up. So many little things pile up in two weeks!

 Posted by at 9:57 pm
Apr 302015
 

OK, I have had some sad good-byes in my blog this month, so here is a bittersweet one.

Earlier this afternoon, NASA’s Messenger probe, the first planetary probe to orbit Mercury, crashed into Mercury’s surface.

Although this means the end of Messenger, it also means that this particular probe fulfilled all expectations and then some: it worked flawlessly until it ran out of fuel and could no longer maintain a stable orbit around Mercury. The information it provided about the Solar System’s innermost planet will no doubt be studied for many years to come.

Good-bye, Messenger, and thanks for all the good work.

 Posted by at 4:50 pm
Apr 302015
 

Yesterday afternoon, my wife and I took a pleasant stroll downtown, visiting the National Gallery. We were specifically interested in their M. C. Escher exhibition, which is set to close in a few days. It was fascinating, though smaller in size than we expected.

Although I am reasonably well acquainted with the works of Escher, there were some prints that I have never seen before. For instance, this street scene from Abruzzi, Italy, which may well be part of the reason why Escher became fascinated with complex systems of seemingly impossible stairs.

Then there was this amusing National Film Board of Canada animation, from 1998, of Escher’s Sky and Water I. My only concern was for the poor museum security guard standing next to it, who had to listen to its soundtrack, endlessly repeated, throughout the day. (But then, he assured me that he is only there for two-hour shifts.)

Did I mention that the exhibition was smaller than we expected? It was housed in a section that also had some fascinating photographs. One of them was of a strange shape, a blistering ball on top of a stick of sorts:

Edgerton-1952

Except that it wasn’t a stick. It was a steel tower, maybe twenty stories high. And the blistering ball was an atomic explosion in the first one 100,000,000th of a second, one of a series of photographs created by Harold Edgerton with his Rapatronic camera in 1952.

Look at the guy wires. They are still taut. But their top sections are already obliterated by the explosion. The only reason they are still taut is that they never had time to relax, nor would they ever: the atomic fireball expands much faster.

I don’t know, to me this is one of the scariest images ever produced by a camera.

 Posted by at 9:39 am
Apr 222015
 

Alas, Poppy, the 20th century cat, is dead.

We just learned that this beautiful little cat, who stayed with us for a few weeks several times in the past 15 years when her owner was out of town, is gone. She was not young; her exact age was unknown, but she was at least a couple of years old when she was adopted back in 2001. So she was definitely a 20th century cat. While some cats do live 20 years (in rare cases, even 30 years) or more, the average age of a house cat is more like 15 years or so, therefore it is not surprising that it was Poppy’s turn. But sad nonetheless.

Especially sad today, as I learned only a few hours ago that a beloved relative, aunt Éva, wife of my late uncle Jóska, passed away just yesterday, after a brief illness.

Here is the last picture of Poppy that I took, less than nine months ago when she was in our house for the very last time:

Poppy was one of the most beautiful cats I’ve ever known: tiny, with an asymmetric color pattern dividing her face. It always took a day or two for her to acclimatize (I learned always to release her upstairs, where she felt less trapped) but afterwards, she was friendly, gentle, and got along very well with our own cats, too.

Poppy’s owner used to use a cardboard carrier to transport her. This is what the carrier looked like over 10 years ago:

IMG_0915

In the past ten years, I often repaired this carrier using packing tape and even duct tape. Somehow, it managed to hold together. We were wondering if the carrier would outlast the cat. Now we know.

 Posted by at 7:10 pm
Apr 222015
 

It looks like this is a depressing week of final good-byes in my blog.

I just learned that aunt Éva, wife of my late uncle Jóska, passed away after a brief illness. She was 72.

Aunt Éva was a very private person. I was sure that I had a picture of her somewhere, but I cannot find it anywhere. Perhaps it’s never been digitized? I don’t know.

I last met aunt Éva two years ago, when I was in Budapest for a family visit. We threw a little party at my Mom’s small apartment, and I was delighted when aunt Éva honored us by dropping by briefly. This was a big deal, as she usually avoided such events. I was very grateful that she made an exception to the rule on this one occasion.

I remember her very well, her black hair, her features, her voice. Along with my uncle Jóska, they always treated me like one of their own three children whenever we visited them. I miss both of them.

 Posted by at 6:54 pm
Apr 202015
 

I just learned the tragic news: Less than 24 hours after I uploaded my previous post about the one-time CBC radio program Disc Drive, the program’s former host, Jürgen Gothe, passed away, after a long battle with cancer.

I am deeply saddened. I secretly hoped that one of these days, we will hear him yet one more time on the radio. But that’s not going to happen… his wonderful voice has been silenced forever.

Jürgen was 71.

What a loss.

 Posted by at 3:42 pm
Apr 082015
 

I am listening to The Disc Drive Disc.

The Disc Drive Disc is an audio CD. More specifically, it is an audio CD that was released by the CBC 24 years ago, shortly after the fifth anniversary of my all-time favorite radio program, Disc Drive.

Disc Drive went on for another 17 years or so, until it was unceremoniously dropped from the CBC’s schedule as Radio Two was revamped to cater to a broader audience. I am sure that executives at the CBC are still congratulating each other on such a resounding success, even as the station lost nearly 40% of its audience in the past eight years, in their desperate search for the lowest common denominator, an audience that views “classical” as just a minor, unpopular genre.

And most unfortunately, they lost host Jurgen Gothe and Disc Drive: a unique, eclectic program in which it was not uncommon to hear something from Mozart, followed by Ella Fitzgerald. As Jurgen himself put it on The Disc Drive Disc, this program was unique in the English-speaking (or anything-speaking) world. And Jurgen’s whimsical commentary! It was a joy to listen to his stories about music, food, Herbie the cat or the Willis Point Fire Department. I was looking forward every weekday afternoon to 3 PM, when I could turn on my radio and enjoy a productive few hours at my computer while listening to the program.

Alas, this wonderful, unique, joyful program was taken off the air in 2007. If only I had the presence of mind, I would have recorded as many shows as possible. I didn’t. I did record the very last Disc Drive, which was mainly a replay of the very first Disc Drive, but that’s it.

Except that back in 1991, the CBC did issue the aforementioned CD, The Disc Drive Disc. Of course it is not an easy disc to come by 24 years later. When I searched for it online, second-hand copies were offered for hundreds of dollars on Amazon or eBay. But then, I came across a German music store that claimed to have this CD, still available, for the not so princely sum of 9.99 euros.

I picked, I clicked, and a few weeks later, today that is, I found a nice cardboard envelope in the mail, with The Disc Drive Disc inside. So one very last time, I was able to enjoy something new (to me, that is) from Jurgen Gothe and his team (and cats) from subterranean Studio 20.

Thank you, Jurgen, for the memories.

 Posted by at 3:07 pm
Mar 312015
 

Last evening, I decided to update my rooted Samsung Galaxy S3 smartphone.

I did not expect to stay awake for much of the night, struggling to revive a “bricked” phone.

In the end, though, all is well: my phone is alive and once again, for the first time since the 4.3 update, it is both rooted and encrypted.

 Posted by at 5:18 pm
Mar 312015
 

Social networking sites know a lot about you, and LinkedIn is no exception.

The other day, I noticed a cute tool (for all I know, it was around for years; I don’t visit LinkedIn that often) that graphically summarizes my LinkedIn connections. Here it is:

I was a bit surprised by the number of connections I seem to have from the San Francisco Bay area. I am also wondering about the correct interpretation of the Seniority plot. If you have a lot of senior connections, is it because of your own seniority, or is it because these were all your would-be bosses, but you were never able to find a good position and form good relationships with co-workers?

Then again, as far as I can determine, others may not even be able to view this graphic. That is, unless you are silly enough to post it to your blog for the world to see! Oh… what?!

 Posted by at 5:06 pm