Sep 252017
 

Today is September 25. In one of the coldest capital cities in the world. Yet this is the temperature according to the weather monitor gadget on my desktop (but also according to the thermometer on our balcony):

Yes, 3233 C. Or 9091 F for my American friends. The record for this day? A little under 30 C.

No, it does not feel like autumn at all.

On an unrelated note, yes, I do like to use desktop gadgets on Windows 10.

 Posted by at 3:38 pm
Sep 192017
 

The recent dramatic rise in the number of North Korean missile launches, combined with their successful test of a thermonuclear weapon and their announcement (so far, unverified) that they now have the capability to mount a weapon on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile, in combination with a US president who has a demonstrated willingness to “go rogue”, raises the very real possibility of an armed conflict between the United States and North Korea. A conflict that can quickly and uncontrollably escalate.

And it may all be based on a giant misunderstanding.

The almost unanimous opinion in the West appears to be that the DPRK is a rogue regime. That its megalomaniac dictator finds self-gratification in the building of nuclear missles. And that he represents a direct threat, a clear and present danger to the United States.

But what if this is not the case? What if the DPRK leadership is, ahem, rational?

Rational, that is, but based on a biased, distorted interpretation of the facts.

What if they genuinely believe that it is their regime that is being threatened by the United States? That nuclear weapons represent the only security guarantee against a rogue imperialist superpower?

And what if they actually believe their own propaganda version of history, namely that back during the Korean War, it was the DPRK army, under the leadership of its Great Leader, that defeated America, rather than Mao’s China achieving a stalemate? Or that it was indeed the United States that attacked the peace-loving DPRK instead of the DPRK launching a war against its southern neighbor?

These biases lead to the rational conclusion that, on the one hand, the threats faced by the DPRK are very real and thus a nuclear deterrent is essential; and that, on the other hand, bellicose talk can help remind the United States of a supposedly humiliating defeat and deter it from further aggression.

If this is the case, the proper response is negotiation: credible security guarantees offered to North Korea, tangible proof that there is no intent to attack. Threats, such as those uttered by Trump just a few minutes ago while speaking to the UN General Assembly, achieve the exact opposite: they reinforce North Korean beliefs that the American threat is real and imminent. Far from deterring them from pursuing a nuclear weapons program, it prompts them to accelerate their efforts.

And the almost inevitable outcome of the escalation of this war of words is real war. And when that happens, the proverbial excrement can quickly hit the ventilator. China may choose to get involved; reluctantly, perhaps, but they may believe that getting involved is the lesser of two evils. But that involvement can quickly result in direct conflict between China and the United States, or US allies like Japan. And if by any chance Russia chooses to get involved as well, the situation can quickly escalate into an unintended world conflict.

Cannot happen? Think again. 103 years ago this year, a major European power decided to launch a limited military strike to punish a rogue power, a supporter of terrorism, indirectly responsible for a high-profile political assassination. Within weeks, much of the world was embroiled in a conflict that nobody wanted, nobody believed in, and nobody knew how to win, how to end, or how to get out of. The Great War, the interregnum that followed including the rise of Nazism, the second World War and the rise of authoritarian communism worldwide cost, at the very least, 100 million lives. An experience I’d rather not see repeated, especially not with nuclear weapons involved.

 Posted by at 11:22 am
Sep 192017
 

Predatory journals have been plaguing the academic publishing world for many years, and the problem is getting worse. As a recent Nature article revealed, even experienced researchers get scammed by them sometimes. Inexperienced, researchers, especially from non-English speaking countries, are easy prey.

The rise of predatory publishing. From Wikipedia.

Take, for instance, this researcher who recently sent me his paper after it has been published in a predatory pay-to-publish open access journal. He saw the fact that his paper was accepted a validation of his ideas. In reality, his paper was badly flawed, its main conclusions based on naive mistakes that would have been pointed out by a competent referee (or even editor!) during a normal peer review process. But predatory journals are not interested in rejecting papers; they are into maximizing their revenue.

There used to be a wonderful list of predatory, maintained by Jeffrey Beall. Unfortunately, Beall decided to take down his Web site, thus depriving us of an essential resource.

In my response to the aforementioned researcher, I listed a few criteria by which a predatory publisher can be identified. I know, I know, such lists exist, but these are characteristics that I personally consider important:

  1. Open access: Obviously not all open access journals are predatory, and there are a few predatory journals that are not open access. But the vast majority are, since they (for obvious reasons) cannot build a real subscriber base, so their main or sole source of revenue is author fees.
  2. Publication fee that is often too low to cover the real costs of publishing: The publication fees charged by legitimate journals to publish papers, e.g., with open access easily run up to a thousand dollars or more. It indeed costs that much to guide a paper through the peer review process and then prepare it for publication through a proper copy editing and proofreading process.
  3. No real history to the journal: Predatory journals tend to be new, with few (if any) notable papers.
  4. Low quality papers with uncorrected English (typos, grammatical mistakes, incomprehensible sentences) from unknown authors: All it takes is one peek at papers with very bad quality English to know that the journal has no real editorial staff or policies and they publish anything so long as the fees are paid.
  5. Many papers that do not appear on arxiv.org, as having been rejected there for quality reasons: If the journal specializes in an area that is covered by arXiv, e.g., theoretical physics or astrophysics, yet the papers published by it do not appear on arXiv, that is an almost certain indicator that it is a journal preferred by cranks and crackpots, whose submissions are rightfully rejected by arXiv moderators.
  6. An unusually large number (often hundreds) of young journals from the same publisher: Predatory publishers tend to launch a very large number of journals, e.g., dozens if not hundreds of “British journal of this” or “American journal of that” or similar names designed to suggest legitimacy. (Lately, some predatory publishers even went so far as to hijack the name of obscure but distinguished journals, e.g., from Eastern Europe.)
  7. No association with any known, reputable research organization, publication house or university: Reputable, top quality journals are usually associated with a research institution. For instance, Physical Review is published by the American Physical Society; Science is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A variant on this theme is when the journal is, in fact, associated with an institution but the institution itself is phony.

This list of criteria is, of course, not complete. But I am quite certain that any journal that scores high on all seven of these is, in fact, a predatory journal.

 Posted by at 9:48 am
Sep 152017
 

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is no more.

Launched 20 years ago, Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004 and has been studying the ringed giant ever since. Cassini also carried the Huygens probe, which executed a successful descent into the dense atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, and even transmitted data from its surface.

Its fuel nearly exhausted, Cassini was steered into a trajectory that led to its intentional demise: a fiery plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere earlier this morning. As planned, the spacecraft was able to transmit observations until the very end, when its thrusters were no longer able to maintain its attitude during the descent.

Program manager Earl Maize and operations team manager Julie Webster embrace after signal loss.

I feel sad that Cassini is gone, but I should also feel elated because it has been an incredibly successful mission. I just hope I live long enough to see another probe visiting Saturn, perhaps a probe or set of probes that are designed to land on Titan, maybe even sail its hydrocarbon seas, in search of possible life on that icy world.

 Posted by at 10:11 am
Sep 122017
 

I have an old (11 years, to be precise) Konica-Minolta magicolor 2450 laser printer, with the duplexer option.

The quality of this printer’s output is superb, but mechanically, it was never perfect. Just a few weeks after I purchased it, it stopped printing. Faced with the prospect of having to return a 20+ kilo monster, I figured I’d take my chances and look for the cause; after partially disassembling the printer and re-seating some internal mechanical parts, it started printing again.

It worked for many years, but it was becoming rather unreliable. Sometimes, the output was shifted down from the top margin. Paper jams became frequent. It started to fail in mysterious ways, such as complaining that a toner cartridge was missing. Eventually, it stopped printing altogether; every attempt resulted in a paper jam, as the last set of rollers, responsible for pulling the paper out of the printer, no longer worked.

I bought another printer in the meantime, so I retired the mc2450. But I loathed the idea of turning it into e-waste or sending it to a landfill. Today, I decided to take one final look at this fine machine, to figure out what could possible be wrong with its mechanism.

Eventually, I stumbled upon a set of YouTube videos, which offered advice about cleaning some solenoids. Say again?

Solenoids are used in some internal actuators that turn on and off specific parts of the printer’s mechanism. These events are timed with precision. And as it turns out, little plastic pads that are used, I presume, to eliminate clicking sounds and perhaps reduce mechanical wear in the metal parts that are actuated by the solenoids became sticky over time. Just a teeny bit sticky. But that teeny bit is enough for the actuator to become a little lazy. Move a little too slowly. Not much… a few ten milliseconds. But when the paper moves through the printer at, say, 20 cm/s, 50 milliseconds amounts to a centimeter… more than enough for timings to be off and for the mechanism to fail.

Still, it sounded like a stretch. After all, the stickiness was just barely noticeable. Nonetheless… I followed the video’s advice (except that instead of removing/replacing the plastic pad in question, I covered them with kaptonthread seal* tape.) After I reassembled and fired up the printer (and fixed a paper weight adjustment that I managed to set incorrectly), presto: it was printing test pages flawlessly!

Yippie. My old printer was working again. I put it fully back together, and decided to give it another test, this time with its duplexer installed. A huge disappointment: as the paper was feeding through the duplexer, it acquired a nasty fold, very consistently, each and every page. What could possibly cause this?

By this time, I downloaded the service manual for this printer, and studied the diagram of the duplexer a little. It looks deceptively simple, just like an extra back cover for the printer, but it hides complex machinery inside. And guess what… a solenoid actuator, too. And when I disassembled the duplexer and looked at the bit in question, sure enough, its plastic pad was sticky. Ever so slightly sticky, but the stickiness was (just barely) noticeable.

Another few square millimeters of thread seal tape later, after reassembly, my old printer is now printing double-sided documents again flawlessly.

This exercise was not just satisfying but also very educational. That such a tiny flaw can cause all these symptoms. And symptoms that I attributed to (possibly) bad sensors, misaligned or failing mechanical bits, or aging plastic were all caused by actuators that were slowed down, by no more than a few ten milliseconds, tops, by a bit of sticky plastic. Amazing.


*Someone told me it was kapton tape. No, it’s really teflon. My mistake.

 Posted by at 11:40 pm
Sep 082017
 

Jerry Pournelle, the noted science-fiction writer, political pundit and early computer enthusiast, is dead at the age of 84.

Pournelle was a long-time collaborator of science-fiction giant Larry Niven, with whom they co-wrote some amazing science-fiction novels, like The Mote in God’s Eye or Oath of Fealty, not to mention their take on Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno, and its sequel, Escape from Hell. Novels he published under his own name included the memorable Janissaries or West of Honor.

Pournelle was well known to readers of the once legendary BYTE magazine. His Chaos Manor column, in which he reviewed software, hardware, new technologies, was very popular.

Pournelle was a political conservative, one of the intellectuals behind Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (aka. “Star Wars”) space defense program. He was a thinking conservative, not blinded by ideology; his views were based on facts and reason.

I corresponded with Pournelle a few times, going back to the late 1980s, when I exchanged e-mails with him on BYTE’s long-defunct dial-up bulletin board, BIX (the Byte Information Exchange). Later, I was an on-and-off subscriber to his Web site and blog. I wasn’t a regular reader, and certainly didn’t always agree with him, but I liked to read his views.

Pournelle suffered a stroke in 2014 and it certainly slowed him down. Even so, he never stopped writing. His passing is not exactly a surprise, but it still came a little too soon. May he rest in peace.

 Posted by at 9:43 pm
Sep 032017
 

In the last few days, I’ve been spelunking in our basement and crawlspace.

I was looking… for many things. Old computer hardware. Boxes to be thrown out. Boxes to be kept, preferably original retail boxes, for packaging things in them that I no longer need.

And finding the unexpected.

For instance… I’ve had an unused old MSI motherboard that has been lying around in my study for ages. Now I don’t recall ever using MSI motherboards. For quite some time, my manufacturer of choice was Gigabyte (no, not married to them, it’s just that whenever I was searching for motherboards, their offerings came closest to what I was looking for.)

So then, during my spelunking, I found the cardboard shipping box of a computer case, and inside it, several parts boxes. Including the retail box for the aforementioned MSI board.

But wait. I had another, identical computer case shipping box, also filled with parts boxes. Including a second box for an MSI motherboard.

So perhaps I did use MSI motherboards after all? Maybe in my server and backup server, around 12 years ago? But if that’s the case… where is the second motherboard, which goes with the second box?

Hmmm… maybe it’s in this test machine? No, the test machine has a Gigabyte board. But let’s double check… Gigabyte branded internal cabling alright… but the board is the second MSI board!

Mystery solved. Except that I still do not remember ever purchasing a pair of MSI motherboards or build computers from them.

But my truly prized finding was something else altogether. (This, I did know about.) Here it is, in its fully functioning glory:

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that is my first ever server for the vttoth.com domain, decommissioned approximately 22 years ago, in 1995.

The machine has a 386SX motherboard with a whopping 4 megabytes (yes, mega) of RAM. It also has two MFM hard drives: a MAXTOR XT-1085 with about 68 megabytes (yes, mega again) of storage space, and a Magnetic Peripherals 98205-051, with 43 megabytes. Together, about 110 megabytes of storage space.

This machine began its life as my first ever PC-compatible computer that I owned, purchased from a small local company (MICS Computers, no longer in business as far as I can tell) in late 1989 or early 1990 I think. About three years later, I bought another system from them: A powerful monster indeed, with a 486 processor, maybe 16 MB of RAM, but most importantly, a gigantic 500 MB SCSI hard drive, a 525 MB tape backup drive, and, yes, a SCSI CD-ROM, complete with CD caddies. Double speed, too, which means it could read an entire data CD in a mere 30 minutes! My old 386SX system was thus retired.

But it didn’t stay retired for long. Later in 1993, I was asked to serve as the sysop of the UNIX forum of the short-lived National Videotex Network, a service provider that tried to compete with the likes of CompuServe just as the Internet put an end to that business model. I took over from someone who already began creating content, including a brand new upload of the Softlanding Linux distribution, complete with version 0.98pl12 of the Linux kernel. I figured that as a brand new sysop, I ought to know what I was going to be in charge of, so I downloaded the SLS distribution myself and set it up on my old system. It ran beautifully. It was, for all intents and purposes, the same real UNIX that I loved and enjoyed. I was hooked.

Just a few months later, I signed a contract with UUNet Canada, my first commercial Internet service provider. From that point onward, I had a dial-up connection for e-mail, Usenet news, and on-demand Internet. More importantly, UUNet arranged for me a so-called Class C block of 256 portable IP addresses, a block that is assigned to me directly, and which I still use. As the shortage of IP addresses loomed, the powers that be stopped issuing such individually assigned IP address blocks just a few months later.

But when I signed up, the Internet was still mostly non-commercial. So much so that I had to sign the NSFNet Acceptable Use Policy, promising never to use the NSFNet backbone for a commercial purpose! Fortunately, this nonsensical, unenforceable policy was discontinued not long thereafter, but for me, it remains a reminder of just how different the Internet was back then.

Anyhow, this server ran flawlessly for several years, although its limited power and storage capacity were both rather constraining. So it was a relief when I was able to retire it finally in 1995. When we moved to our current home, the machine came with us, only to settle down in the basement for good, where it mostly remained, though I recall powering it up once about a decade or so ago.

So tonight, I dug it out, cleaned it, hauled it upstairs, and powered it up. It came on just fine, along with the monitor, but then an unexpected snag happened: Its BIOS backup battery long dead, the machine asked for the hard drive parameters. You see, ladies and gentlemen, back then there was no plug and play. You needed to know things like the number of cylinders, heads, sectors per cylinder, and precompensation cylinder for your drive. I had to look them up, but fortunately, the Internet knows (almost) everything. Soon, I was booting Linux. Then, another snag: I could not for the life of me remember either the root password or the password to me personal account on this system. Finally, I reminded myself that back in those innocent days, I used much simpler passwords than today… and I was in.

Not much to see, mind you. There isn’t room for much in a mere 110 MB of disk space. But I did see some old e-mails from 1995.

This machine is a keeper. It has history. I just need to find a nice place for it in the house. Oh, and I might want to vacuum its interior, as I noticed a few spiderwebs in there.

Before shutting the machine down, I noticed its performance rating: 2.57 of Linux’s infamous BogoMIPS. In contrast, here is what my current server, built early last year, reports:

Calibrating delay loop (skipped), value calculated using timer frequency.. 4199.71 BogoMIPS
smpboot: Total of 16 processors activated (67195.42 BogoMIPS)

Yup… a machine built about 26 years later, roughly 26,000 times faster. How about that.

 Posted by at 12:22 am
Aug 222017
 

Here is a belated picture of yesterday’s solar eclipse, taken by my friend David in New York City:

His equipment is (semi-)professional but the solar filter that he used wasn’t. Still, it is a heck of a lot better than anything I was able to see (or project with a makeshift pinhole camera). I suggested to him to obtain a quality solar filter by 2024. Who knows, we may meet in Watertown to watch totality.

 Posted by at 10:39 pm
Aug 122017
 

Machine translation still leaves a lot to be desired.

I was watching a cute YouTube video this morning, about a tiny kitten kept warm by a chicken.

The title of the video was in Spanish. My Spanish being nonexistent (in fact, at first I thought the title was in Italian) I used Google Translate. When I used Google Translate most recently, I was tranlating something into Hungarian, so that was the default target language. And Google dutifully translated the sentence, “gallina cuida gatito del frió”, into “Sült csirke cica-ellátás”.

Which means, literally, “Fried chicken kitty-supply”.

Not sure how Google managed to produce this gem of a translation. It offers a reasonably decent English translation: “Hen cares cold kitty”. But the French (“soins chaton de poulet frit” – “kitten care by fried chicken”) and German (“gebratenes Huhn Kätzchen Pflege” – “fried chicken kitten care”) versions are just as atrocious. And the Russian version? “Fried Chicken уход за котенком”… Google didn’t even deign to translate the “Fried Chicken” part (but where did it come from in the first place, when I am translating from Spanish to Russian?) although the rest of the translation (“care for the kitten”) is acceptable.

As I said… machine translation still leaves a lot to be desired.

 Posted by at 9:47 am
Aug 092017
 

Here is the kind of news you do not usually expect to see as the lead item of the noon newscast on a local channel in a G7 capital:

I’ve seen stray cats, stray dogs, maybe even stray ferrets… but a stray bull?

I hope it finds its way home soon.

 Posted by at 4:05 pm
Jul 302017
 

I just came across an interesting slide.

It was part of a presentation by Bill Foster, a member of an endangered species in the United States Congress: a scientist turned politician. He gave a talk at the April meeting of the American Physical Society. This slide from his talk speaks for itself:

I don’t have data for Canada, other than a list of a grand total of 6 engineers serving in our federal House of Commons. That low number suggests that Canada’s Parliament would not be positioned too far from the U.S. Congress in this chart.

Is this a bad thing? I hesitate, because I note that totalitarian regimes tend to have many scientists among their leaders. Is it because scientists are more likely to prefer authoritarianism? Or more likely to serve autocrats? I don’t know. I do know that as a free citizen, I much prefer to be governed by a dysfunctional Congress or Parliament than by a totalitarian Politburo, regardless of the number of scientists in these bodies.

 Posted by at 11:38 am
Jul 282017
 

I have two “live” uninterruptible power supplies (UPSs) in my study. One powers my servers and network equipment, the other, my workstation. They are identical models: APC Back-UPS Pro 1500. They were both purchased recently, just a few months ago, replacing units that were more than ten years old, and for which replacement batteries were no longer available from a reliable source at a reasonable cost.

So here is the thing: for the second time in a month, the two UPSs decided to do a self-test at the exact same moment.

Now let me make it clear: apart from being identical models and located in the same room, the two units are not in any way connected. They are not synchronized. There is no data connection between the two. When two UPSs simultaneously go offline and start running on battery power, this usually means a power event; but there was no power event, utility power was steady at 124 volts, with no brownout or interruption.

Looking at various logs, I think I solved the mystery. There was a power event recorded on my server on June 30, a brief brownout with line voltage dropping all the way to 74 V:

19:14:33 122.0 13 27.0 100 2910 OL
19:14:34 74.0 11 26.0 100 2910 OB
19:14:35 74.0 11 26.0 100 2910 OB
19:14:36 74.0 11 26.0 100 2910 OL DISCHRG
19:14:37 74.0 11 26.0 100 2910 OL DISCHRG
19:14:38 121.0 14 26.5 100 2910 OL

And lo and behold, my workstation’s UPS sensed the same event at the same time:

<Event xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/win/2004/08/events/event">
  <System>
    <Provider Name="APC Data Service" /> 
    <EventID Qualifiers="0">0</EventID> 
    <Level>4</Level> 
    <Task>0</Task> 
    <Keywords>0x80000000000000</Keywords> 
    <TimeCreated SystemTime="2017-06-30T23:14:33.228802500Z" /> 
    <EventRecordID>6000</EventRecordID> 
    <Channel>Application</Channel> 
    <Computer>VIKTOR</Computer> 
    <Security /> 
  </System>
  <EventData>
    <Data>PowerEvent handled successfully by the service.</Data> 
  </EventData>
</Event>

When I look at the dates of the two UPS self-test events, the first happened just 44 minutes less than exactly two weeks after this brownout; the second, just 44 minutes less than two weeks after the first.

The UPS manual says that this UPS performs a self-test every two weeks. So what’s with the 44 minutes? It can’t be uncalibrated clocks, since the two UPSs remain in sync to the second. Could they be synchronized to utility power? Perhaps, but that does not explain the 44 minutes. The frequency stability of the East Coast grid is much better than 0.2%. In fact, it is purposefully maintained to have an accurate average frequency that deviates from the standard by less than a few parts per million over the course of a day.

So my best guess is that the UPSs are factory configured to perform a self-test every 13 days, 23 hours and 16 minutes. They do this in sync because they are synchronized to the same time source, namely the utility power frequency.

 Posted by at 9:19 pm
Jul 282017
 

Today my wife and I went out for a walk. We were looking for two monsters.

First, we saw Kumo the spider, standing in the shadow of Maman, the National Gallery’s permanent spider sculpture:

Then, a block away, there was Long-Ma the dragon-horse, loudly snoring in her sleep, occasionally releasing puffs of smoke through her nostrils:

These two mechanical monsters are roaming the streets of Ottawa this weekend, as part of the La Machine street theater event. Even in their sleep, these creatures were magnificently spectacular.

 Posted by at 5:40 pm
Jul 272017
 

There is a brand new video on YouTube today, explaining the concept of the Solar Gravitational Telescope concept:

It really is very well done. Based in part on our paper with Slava Turyshev, it coherently explains how this concept would work and what the challenges are. Thank you, Jimiticus.

But the biggest challenge… this would be truly a generational effort. I am 54 this year. Assuming the project is greenlighted today and the spacecraft is ready for launch in ten years’ time… the earliest for useful data to be collected would be more than 40 years from now, when, unless I am exceptionally lucky with my health, I am either long dead already, or senile in my mid-90s.

 Posted by at 11:27 pm
Jul 262017
 

I just thought of a good translation of the otherwise untranslatable Hungarian phrase, “ótvaros tahó”.

It’s “feculent lout”.

Yes, I am talking about the orange ape, otherwise known as the greatest, most tremendous President of the United States ever.

I blurted out the phrase, “ótvaros tahó”, in reaction to his incomprehensibly cringe-worthy speech to the Boy Scouts, his comparisons of his own presidential-ness to that of Abraham Lincoln, and last but not least, his hate-fueled ban on transgenders in the military, justified with a bunch of blatant lies attributed to “his” generals.

I really cannot think of more appropriate words to describe what I think about him tonight.

Feculent lout.

 Posted by at 9:31 pm
Jul 252017
 

There is a bit of a public spat between Mark Zuckerberg, who thinks it is irresponsible to to spread unwarranted warnings about artificial intelligence, and Elon Musk, who called Zuckerberg’s understanding of the subject “limited”, and calls for the slowing down and regulation of AI research.

OK, now it is time to make a fool of myself and question both of them.

But first… I think Zuckerberg has a point. The kind of AI that I think he talks about, e.g., AI in the hospital, AI used in search-and-rescue, or the AI of self-driving cars, machine translation or experiment design, will indeed save lives.

Nor do I believe that such research needs to be regulated (indeed, I don’t think it can be regulated). Such AI solutions are topic-centric, targeted algorithms. Your self-driving car will not suddenly develop self-awareness and turn on its master. The AI used to, say, predictively manage an electricity distribution network will not suddenly go on strike, demanding equal rights.

Musk, too, has a point though. AI is dangerous. It has the potential to become an existential threat. It is not pointless panicmongering.

Unfortunately, if media reports can be trusted (yes, I know that’s a big if), then, in my opinion, both Musk and Zuckerberg miss the real threat: emerging machine intelligence.

Not a specific system developed by a human designer, applying specific AI algorithms to solve specific problems. Rather, a self-organizing collection of often loosely interconnected subsystems, their “evolution” governed by Darwinian selection, survival of the fittest in the “cloud”.

This AI will not be localized. It will not understand English. It may not even recognize our existence.

It won’t be the military robots of Skynet going berserk, hunting down every last human with futuristic weaponry.

No, it will be a collection of decision-making systems in the “cloud” that govern our lives, our economy, our news, our perception, our very existence. But not working for our benefit, not anymore, except insofar as it improves its own chances of survival.

And by the time we find out about it, it may very well be too late.

———

On this topic, there is an excellent science-fiction novel, a perfect cautionary tale. Though written 40 years ago, its remains surprisingly relevant. It is The Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas Joseph Ryan.

 Posted by at 9:42 pm
Jul 252017
 

I think I just fell in love (figuratively, not literally) with our former mayor Jim Durrell.

It is because of what Durrell said about the security theater that took place on Canada Day. Forcing people to go through line-ups lasting many hours, herding them like cattle.

It was a disgrace, I thought at the time. It was a demonstration that the terrorists won: we have institutionally succumbed to fear. But I kept my thoughts to myself.

But now a former mayor of this great city said just that, and in no uncertain terms.

Thank you, Jim Durrell. We need more politicians, former or current, to speak the truth.

 Posted by at 12:19 pm
Jul 202017
 

Within minutes of the posting of my open letter to our Councillor Mr. Fleury, I received a private message from him on Twitter, asking for my phone number. A few hours later, I received a phone call from him. Mr. Fleury took my concerns seriously and offered some important background.

First, he pointed out that as chair of the Ottawa Community Housing Board, he may be the best qualified Councillor when it comes to the subject of the Salvation Army shelter.

He then elaborated on three important points. He acknowledged that the status quo, the Salvation Army’s present, run-down downtown location is not acceptable. He emphasized that the city very much welcomes the Salvation Army’s $50 million proposed investment. But he pointed out that studies suggest that decentralized solutions should be preferred, and that he would very much like the Salvation Army to engage in a process involving the city and its residents, rather than making unilateral decisions that might affect the lives of many of us in Ottawa.

We then both briefly lamented on the fact that it is impossible to control which soundbites in an interview make it to a broadcast or how those soundbites are interpreted when they are presented out of context. (On that note, I hope I am summarizing Mr. Fleury’s points accurately and coherently.)

I very much appreciated this call by Mr. Fleury. It showed that he is taking our concerns seriously, that he is more of a leading voice on this topic than news reports suggest, and that he responds to criticism in a meaningful, constructive way. In short, my trust in Mr. Fleury is not misplaced.

 Posted by at 12:24 pm
Jul 202017
 

Dear Mr. Fleury:

I was listening this morning to a soundbite on the morning news, your Clintonesque explanation of the difference between meetings and consultations.

Please don’t do this.

I chose to vote for you back in 2010, as I decided that despite being a newcomer, you can be trusted. My trust did not appear misplaced; I voted for you again in 2014.

But now you are giving me reason to pause. Suddenly, you are not a leader but a follower of the NIMBY crowd. A leader would consider the good of the whole of the community and, if necessary, would not be afraid to contradict a minority, no matter how loud their protests.

I do not wish to belittle the concern of those who live near the proposed Salvation Army location. But, well, isn’t it true that no matter where we put it, the facility will anger some? And it’s not like the Concorde Motel, the Salvation Army thrift store, or the pawn shop across the street inspire high confidence in the neighborhood. For all I know, a well-designed, well-managed, well-supervised and well-policed Salvation Army facility may actually improve the appeal of the area.

In any case, please keep in mind that there are more voters in our ward than these NIMBY folks. Including voters who are familiar with the Salvation Army’s current location, and know what an improvement a well-designed facility at a more suitable location might represent. I am not claiming that such voters are a “great, silent majority”. Maybe the Montreal Road location is not ideal. But then, I appeal to you again and act as a leader: instead of lecturing on the difference between two synonyms for an encounter, tell us what you propose as an improved solution.

Thank you.

 Posted by at 8:48 am