Jul 282015

Warning: I don’t usually use strong language in my blog. This post is an exception. Sometimes a spade has to be called a spade… or an asshole has to be called an asshole. If you are offended by strong language, please stop reading now.

I am writing this blog entry on account of the fact that a famed lion in Zimbabwe, a 13-year old male named Cecil, was killed by an asshole. An asshole whose pecker is too limp, I suppose, so he has to supplement his masculinity by killing rare, magnificent animals.

The asshole’s name is reportedly Dr. Walter Palmer, an American dentist from Minnesota. And yes, Dr. Palmer, you are a class one asshole. A disgusting, sad, pathetic, sick moron. (Palmer is on the left in the archival picture below, but his smiling buddy is a sad, pathetic, sick moron, too.)

A picture like this actually makes you feel proud? Happy? The carcass of a beautiful big cat gives you a sense of accomplishment? That you made the world better? Contributed something to humanity? Something for your children to remember you by? Or are you just one of those jackasses who doesn’t care one way or another, so long as you can prove that you have money to waste and creatures to kill?

The killing itself was reportedly quite gruesome. Shot not by a gun but by an arrow (possibly to avoid the noise that might have called attention to the fact that the lion was illegally lured from a nearby national park; the jackasses claim though that this is a way to “honor” the animal) the lion escaped and was tracked for a day or two before it was finally shot dead, skinned, its head removed as a trophy.

To be clear: I eat meat. I am perfectly comfortable with people hunting for food or survival. Yes, that includes hunting for seals, too. But hunting for glory? In the 21st century? When we have the power to destroy most living things on this planet in a matter of minutes? Yes, successful hunters had reasons to be proud back in centuries past when hunting skills were essential for survival. But today? The real heroes are those who help preserve fragile ecosystems, who save species from extinction. The real heroes are those African park rangers, for instance, who earn pennies a day trying to protect such glorious creatures from sickos like Palmer.

This animal was not killed for food or because it threatened someone. It was killed because a pathetic asshole wanted to collect its preserved head as a trophy.

I was hoping that Dr. Palmer is still in Zimbabwe; that he would be caught there and would spend a few years rotting in an unpleasant, dirty, hot, smelly African jail. Sadly, it appears that he is safely back in the US, and he is unlikely to be charged.

Fuck you, Dr. Palmer. Really, really, really fuck you. Fuck you for drawing pleasure from destroying some of the most magnificent things that exist on our shared planet. It is shitheads like you that make me want to get off the planet at the earliest opportunity. You might think that what you have done was legal… but it only shows the kind of human garbage that you really are. So from the bottom of my heart… fuck you.

 Posted by at 9:34 pm
Jul 252015

This is an idea my wife and I have been thinking about for months: a Web site that lists Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s political sins, where visitors can vote by assigning the number of cats that, in their opinion, Mr. Harper must adopt to atone for said sins.

Finally I realized that rather than coding the site from scratch, I can implement it using existing blogging software and plugins.

So here it is: catsforharper.ca.


In the coming days/weeks, I will keep adding topics. Votes, which require registration (to cut down on comment spam and clickbot activity), are welcome.

 Posted by at 10:31 pm
Jul 212015

And now we are down to three cats in the house.

Our long-haired kitty, Fluffy, came to the end of her life today. Having lost nearly all her mobility due to not one but two tumors (one near the heart, another one compressing her spine), and often lying in her own waste in the past week, we came to the conclusion that it was time to let her go.

So today, a very kind and compassionate Dr. Lianna Titcombe of Claire Place Mobile Veterinary Services came to our house and euthanized Fluffy, after we said our final goodbyes.

I knew what was happening, I have been through this before, I know there are people in the world going through suffering unimaginably worse than ours. Yet it still broke my heart.

Fluffy was a stray that we adopted her back in 2008. She looked like a miniature mammoth with her winter fur.

In contrast, yesterday she was more like a rag doll: wherever you put her down, that’s where she stayed, her once luscious fur matted with urine.

But her eyes were still hers. And her purring motor was still in excellent working order. And she still enjoyed the final treat that we gave to her before she was sedated.

Damn, my heart breaks still.

 Posted by at 3:45 pm
Jul 202015

\(\renewcommand{\vec}[1]{\boldsymbol{\mathrm{#1}}}\)Continuing something I began about a month ago, I spent more of my free time than I care to admit re-deriving some of the most basic identities in quantum physics.

I started with the single-particle case of a harmonic oscillator. Such an oscillator is characterized by the classical Lagrangian


and the corresponding Hamiltonian


By multiplying this Hamiltonian with \(\psi=e^{i(\vec{p}\cdot\vec{q}-Ht)/\hbar}\), we basically obtain Schrödinger’s equation:


The transition to the quantum theory begins when we accept that linear combinations of solutions of this equation (i.e., \(\psi\)-s corresponding to different values of \(\vec{p}\) and \(H\)) also represent physical states of the system, despite the fact that these “mixed” solutions are not eigenfunctions and there are no corresponding classical eigenvalues \(\vec{p}\) and \(H\).

Pure algebra can lead to an expression of \(\hat{H}\) in the form of “creation” and “annihilation” operators:


These operators have the properties



This same derivation can be done in the relativistic single particle case as well.

Moreover, it is possible to define a classical scalar field in the form

$${\cal L}=\frac{1}{2}\rho(\partial_t\phi)^2-\frac{1}{2}\rho c^2(\vec{\nabla}\phi)^2-\frac{1}{2}\kappa\phi^2-V(\phi),$$

which leads to the Hamiltonian density

$${\cal H}=\pi\partial_t\phi-{\cal L}=\frac{\pi^2}{2\rho}+\frac{1}{2}\rho c^2(\vec{\nabla}\phi)^2+\frac{1}{2}\kappa\phi^2+V(\phi).$$

The transitioning to the quantum theory occurs by first expressing \(\phi\) as a Fourier integral and then promoting the Fourier coefficients to operators that satisfy a commutation relation in the form


This leads to a commutation relation for the field and its canonical momentum in the form


and for the Hamiltonian,

$$\hat{H}=\hbar\omega\left\{\frac{1}{2}+\int\frac{d^3\vec{k}}{(2\pi)^3}\hat{a}^\dagger(\omega,\vec{k})\hat{a}(\omega,\vec{k})\right\}+\int d^3xV(\hat{\phi}).$$

More details are provided on my Web site, at https://www.vttoth.com/CMS/physics-notes/297.

So why did I find it necessary to capture here something that can be found in first chapter of every semi-decent quantum field theory textbook? Several reasons.

  • First, I wanted to present a consistent treatment of all four cases: the nonrelativistic and relativistic case for both the particle and the field theory.
  • Second, I wanted to write down all relevant equations without omitting dimensions. I wanted to write down a Lagrangian density that has the dimensions of energy density, consistent with a scalar field that has the dimensions of length (i.e., a displacement).
  • Third, I wanted to spell out some of the details of the derivation that are omitted from nearly all textbooks yet, I am obliged to admit, almost stumped me. That is, once you see the derivation the steps are reasonably trivial, but it is still hard to stumble upon exactly the right way to apply the relevant identities related to Fourier transforms and Dirac deltas.
  • Lastly, I find it revealing how this approach can highlight exactly where a quantum theory is introduced. In the particle theory case, it is when we assume that “mixed states”, that is, linear combinations of eigenstates also represent physical states of a system, despite the fact that they do not correspond to classical eigenvalues. In the case of a field theory, the transition occurs when we replace Fourier coefficients with operators: implicit in the transition is that once again, mixed states are included as representing actual physical states of the system.

Note also how none of this has anything to do with interpretations. There is no “collapse of the wave function” or any such nonsense. That stuff happens when we introduce into our consideration a “measurement event”, effectively an interaction between the quantum system and a classical instrument, which forces the quantum system into an eigenstate. This eigenstate cannot be predicted from the initial conditions alone, precisely because the classical idealization of the measurement apparatus effectively amounts to an admission of ignorance about its true quantum state.

 Posted by at 6:27 pm
Jul 152015

I have in my collection of photographs a picture, taken I suspect in the late 1960s or the 1970s by my father-in-law, from the top of the TV tower in Alexanderplatz, in downtown Berlin. The Berlin Wall in this picture is quite visible.

The other day, I was able to identify the exact perspective from which this picture was taken, using Google Maps. The city has changed a lot in the intervening decades (almost half a century!) but some prominent buildings remain quite recognizable. The Wall, of course, is long gone.

Also, there are a heck of a lot more trees. Budapest was like this, too: When I was growing up, there were barely any trees. That is because most trees were cut down for firewood during WW2 so in the 1960s, there were still very few mature trees in the city. Today, the street where I grew up is completely covered by a canopy of green.

 Posted by at 11:56 am
Jul 152015

For the past ten years, I have been thinking about NASA’s New Horizons probe as the space probe that will eventually fly by Pluto if all goes well and its systems perform as expected.

Well, that historic flyby happened today, and New Horizons sent back pictures to prove it. Best of all, it successfully re-established contact after performing its flyby observations. Now we will have to wait many months (more than a year, as a matter of fact) before all the collected data is radioed back to the Earth.

But we already have amazing photos. A sight never seen by a human being up until just over a day ago.

 Posted by at 1:35 am
Jul 132015

A few months ago, after a miserable half decade during which Greece lost one quarter of its economy, fed-up Greeks elected a far-left government that promised no more austerity, no more giving in to heartless European demands.

To bolster its legitimacy, the government held a nationwide referendum, in which Greeks voted in large numbers against accepting a (by then defunct) austerity package that was a precondition for more European bailouts and assistance.

And now… the Greek government agreed to an even worse austerity package than the one Greek voters just rejected?

What exactly happened here while I blinked?

 Posted by at 9:56 pm
Jul 092015

In the past couple of days, I heard several commentators on CNN lament on the fact that China’s debt-to-GDP ratio is much higher (“three times” higher) than that of the US, and that this may be behind the current volatility of the Chinese stock market.

This, of course, is blatant nonsense. China’s government debt-to-GDP ratio is much lower than that of the US. It is in the low twenties, compared with over 100% in the United States. Here is a crude plot (crude because I graphically edited together two plots, but I had to change the vertical scale of one) that shows the two in comparison.

No, China doesn’t have a problem with government debt. China does have a problem with private debt. Look at this monstrous chart:


What this chart shows is alarming. No, still not three times the US private debt-to-GDP ratio (that factor of 3 only happens if you compare China’s total debt to US government debt, which is of course comparing apples to oranges), but it is significantly higher than that of the US. What’s worse is that China is still an emerging economy: in addition to the prosperous middle class of places like Shanghai, there are still close to (or more than?) a billion people in that country who live in third world poverty. (China’s per-capita GDP is $6,800; in the US, the figure is $53,000, nearly eight times higher.)

The wisdom I’ve been reading online is that an emerging economy just cannot afford to have the same level of private indebtedness as an advanced economy.

To be honest, I don’t know if it is true. For all I know, much of China’s debt is held by those who can actually afford it, the prosperous middle class with their SUVs and air conditioned homes in Shanghai or Guangzhou. Indeed, if we split China into two countries, one prosperous and one poor, the prosperous one may well qualify as an advanced economy, and it may be holding most of the debt.

Or not. But whatever the debt situation is in China or its impact on the stock market, it is still no excuse for CNN to keep babbling nonsense.

 Posted by at 10:09 am
Jul 062015

I like New Scientist. This weekly British popular science publication was able to maintain reasonably high standards. More or less.

But not last week. Typos or the occasional excess hype on the cover page are one thing, but what is the excuse for this?

For the record, the solar system is not traveling at two-thirds the speed of light in its voyage around the center of the Milky Way.

To their credit, it has since been corrected on the Web site, but still. Very disappointing.


 Posted by at 12:08 pm
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

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


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

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.


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.


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>,
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




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.

Viktor T. Toth
3-575 Old St Patrick St
Ottawa ON K1N 9H5


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