Feb 062016
 

I just came across this gem of an example of bad coding in the C language.

Most C implementations allow arrays as function arguments. What is less evident (unless you actually bothered to read the standard, or at least, your copy of Kernighan and Ritchie from cover to cover) is that array arguments are silently converted to pointers. This can lead to subtle, difficult-to-spot, but deadly programming errors.

Take this simple function, for instance:

void fun(int arr[100])
{
    printf("REPORTED SIZE: %d\n", sizeof(arr));
}

Can you guess what its output will be? Why, arr is declared as an array argument of 100 ints, so the output should be, on most systems, 400 (ints being 4 bytes in length), right?

Not exactly. Let me show you:

int main(int argc, char *argv[])
{
    int theArr[100];

    printf("THE REAL SIZE: %d\n", sizeof(theArr));
    fun(theArr);
    return 0;
}

On a 64-bit Linux box, this program compiles cleanly, and produces the following output:

THE REAL SIZE: 400
REPORTED SIZE: 8

Similarly, on Windows, using a 32-bit version of Microsoft’s C compiler, I once again get a clean compile and the program outputs this:

THE REAL SIZE: 400
REPORTED SIZE: 4

The morale of this story: Array arguments are pure, unadulterated evil. Avoid them when possible. They offer no advantage over pointer arguments, but they can badly mislead even the most experienced programmer. Compilers still allow array arguments, mainly for historical/compatibility reasons I guess, but it is unconscionable that they don’t even provide a warning when this abuse of syntax happens.

 Posted by at 9:45 am
Jan 292016
 

Eons ago, back when dinosaurs still roamed the Earth, George W. Bush was still a first-term president, there were only five Star Wars films and Java applets were still cool, I created an applet that showed what Mars would look like if its surface was covered by oceans.

I liked what I did so I added the capability to use other data sets, including data sets for the Earth.

The applet is worthless now, or almost so. Java applets are no longer supported in Google’s Chrome browser. They were never really supported on mobile platforms. Even in browsers that do still support Java, the user has to go through hoops and add my domain as a security exception (not recommended) to allow my unsigned applet to run; all this a result of vain attempts to address the security risks inherent in Java and its implementations.

Anyhow, the applet still works if you can run it. And this is what the Earth looks like today:

Someone recently asked what our planet would look like if it was devoid of oceans. If sea levels were 5000 meters below the present value, the planet would still have a shallow ocean in place of the Pacific. Otherwise, though, it would be mostly dry land with only some inland seas where the Atlantic and the Indian oceans used to be.  It would be possible to walk from pole to pole without wetting your feet; however, you might get a tad thirsty along the way, and there’d not be much rain either.

Decrease ocean levels by another 1000 meters to 6000 below present sea levels, and the last remaining ocean is gone:

Finally, at 7000 meters, the only open water that remains would be in places of the deepest ocean trenches. (Mind you, even then, some of these seas would still be up to four kilometers deep.)

I was also asked what things would look like if the seas rose. There is a surprising amount of change to coast lines by an increase of a mere 50 meters:

Florida is gone; Western Europe looks noticeably different. Increase the sea level rise to 200 meters, and now the change is rather more dramatic:

earth+0200

India is now an island or almost so (there may be some land bridges connecting it to the Asian continent that are too narrow to be visible at this map’s resolution). Much of Europe, Russia, Australia, South America, and the eastern parts of North America, gone.

Finally, at 1000 meters, only mountain ranges remain:

With this little dry land left, there is not much in the way of storms; like Jupiter with its Great Red Spot, the Earth might also develop long-lived storms that circumnavigate the planet many times before dissipating.

 Posted by at 3:30 pm
Jan 282016
 

If you are not following particle physics news or blog sites, you might have missed the big excitement last month when it was announced that the Large Hadron Collider may have observed a new particle with a mass of 750 GeV (roughly 800 times as heavy as a hydrogen atom).

Within hours of the announcement, a flurry of papers began to appear on the manuscript archive, arxiv.org. To date, probably at least 200 papers are there, offering a variety of explanations of this new observation (and incidentally, demonstrating just hungry the theoretical community has become for new data.)

Most of these papers are almost certainly wrong. Indeed, there is a chance that all of them are wrong, on account of the possibility that there is no 750 GeV resonance in the first place.

I am looking at two recent papers. One, by Buckley, discusses what we can (or cannot) learn from the data that have been collected so far. Buckley cautions researchers not to divine more from the data than what it actually reveals. He also remarks on the fact that the observational results of the two main detectors of the LHC, ATLAS and CMS, are somewhat in tension with one another.

Best fit regions (1 and 2σ) of a spin-0 mediator decaying to diphotons, as a function of mediator mass and 13 TeV cross section, assuming mediator couplings to gluons and narrow mediator width. Red regions are the 1 and 2σ best-fit regions for the Atlas13 data, blue is the fit to Cms13 data. The combined best fit for both Atlas13 and Cms13 (Combo13) are the regions outlined in black dashed lines. The best-fit signal combination of all four data sets (Combo) is the black solid regions

From Fig. 2: Best fit regions (1 and 2σ) of a spin-0 mediator decaying to diphotons, as a function of mediator mass and 13 TeV cross section, assuming mediator couplings to gluons and narrow mediator width. Red regions are the 1 and 2σ best-fit regions for the Atlas13 data, blue is the fit to Cms13 data. The combined best fit for both Atlas13 and Cms13 (Combo13) are the regions outlined in black dashed lines. The best-fit signal combination of all four data sets (Combo) is the black solid regions.

 

The other paper, by Davis et al., is more worrisome. It questions the dependence of the presumed discovery on a crucial part of the analysis: the computation or simulation of background events. The types of reactions that the LHC detects happen all the time when protons collide; a new particle is discerned when it produce some excess events over that background. Therefore, in order to tell if there is indeed a new particle, precise knowledge of the background is of paramount importance. Yet Davis and his coauthors point out that the background used in the LHC data analysis is by no means an unambiguous, unique choice and that when they choose another, seemingly even more reasonable background, the statistical significance of the 750 GeV bump is greatly diminished.

I guess we will know more in a few months when the LHC is restarted and more data are collected. It also remains to be seen if the LHC can reproduce the Higgs discovery at its current, 13 TeV operating energy; if it does not, if the Higgs discovery turns out to be a statistical fluke, we may witness one of the biggest embarrassments in the modern history of particle physics.

 Posted by at 6:25 pm
Jan 282016
 

There is an interesting paper out there by Guerreiro and Monteiro, published a few months ago in Physics Letters A. It is about evaporating black holes. The author’s main assertion is that because of Hawking radiation, not even an infalling ray of light can ever cross the event horizon: rather, the event horizon evaporates faster than the light ray could reach it, neatly solving a bunch of issues and paradoxes associated with black holes and quantum physics, such as the problems with unitarity and information loss.

I find this idea intriguing and very appealing to my intuition about black holes. I just read the paper and I cannot spot any obvious errors. I am left wondering if the authors appreciated that the Vaydia metric is not a vacuum metric (indeed, it is easy to prove that a spherically symmetric time-dependent solution of Einstein’s field equations cannot be a vacuum solution; there will always be a radial momentum field, carrying matter out of or into the black hole) but it has no bearing on their conclusions I believe.

Now it’s a good question why I am only seeing a paper that is of great interest to me more than six months after its publication. The reason is that although the paper appeared in a pre-eminent journal, it was rejected by the manuscript archive, arxiv.org. This is deeply troubling. The paper is certainly not obviously wrong. It is not plagiarized. Its topic is entirely appropriate to the arXiv subject field to which it was submitted. It is not a duplicate, nor did the authors previously abuse arXiv’s submission system. Yet this paper was rejected. And the most troubling bit is that we do not know why; the rejection policy of arXiv is not only arbitrary, it seems, but also lacks transparency.

This manuscript archive is immensely valuable to researchers. It is one of the greatest inventions of the Internet era. I feel nothing but gratitude towards the people who established and maintain this repository. Nonetheless, I do not believe that such an opaque and seemingly arbitrary rejection policy is justifiable. I hope that this will be remedied and that arXiv’s administrators will take the necessary steps to ensure that in the future, rejections are based on sound criteria and the decisions are transparently explained.

 Posted by at 5:51 pm
Jan 282016
 

This is NASA’s week of tragedy.

Today is the 30th anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Challenger with seven souls on board. One of my notable memories of this event is that it was the first time that I recall that the national broadcaster in then still communist Hungary didn’t dub a speech of Ronald Reagan. I think the speech was actually carried live (it took place at 5 PM EST, which would have been 11 o’clock at night in Hungary; late, but not too late) and it may have been subtitled, or perhaps not translated at all, I cannot remember. For me, it was also the first disaster that I was able to record on my VCR; for days afterwards, my friends and I replayed and replayed the broadcasts, trying to make sense of what we saw. (Sadly, those tapes are long lost. My VCR was a Grundig 2000 unit using a long-forgotten standard. After I left Hungary, I believe my parents used it for a while, but what ultimately happened to it and my cassettes, I do not know.)

Yesterday marked the 49th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts who were hoping to be the first to travel to the Moon. Instead, they ended up burned to a crisp in the capsule’s pure oxygen atmosphere, with no chance of escape. Arguably though, their tragedy resulted in much needed changes to the Apollo program that made it possible for Apollo 11 to complete its historic journey successfully.

And finally, in four days it will be exactly 13 years since the tragedy of Columbia, which disintegrated in the upper atmosphere at the conclusion of a successful 16-day mission. I remember that Saturday all too well. I was working, but I also had CNN running on one of my monitors. “Columbia, Houston, comm check” I heard many times and I knew something already that those in the mission center didn’t: CNN was already showing the multiple contrails over Texas, which could only mean one thing: a disintegrating vehicle. And then came the words, “Lock the doors”, and we knew for sure that it was all over.

Of course the US space program was not the only one with losses. The Soviet program had its own share of tragedies, including the loss of Vladimir Komarov (Soyuz 1 crash, April 24, 1967), three astronauts on boar Soyuz 11 (depressurization after undocking while in space, June 30, 1971), and several deaths on ground during training. But unlike the American cases, these Soviet deaths were not all clustered around the same date.

 Posted by at 3:35 pm
Jan 272016
 

I was never a fan of conspiracy theories. Most popular conspiracies are highly improbable: maintaining complete secrecy would require thousands of people to cooperate for many years.

But just how improbably are conspiracies, really? Well, now there is a quantitative estimate, thanks a paper by David Robert Grimes. Grimes used several specific, high-profile cases of actual conspiracies to estimate the likelihood that a conspiracy is revealed by a participant. He found that while the probability that any individual participant betrays the conspiracy may be quite small, the likelihood that the conspiracy is revealed over time nonetheless approaches unity over the years, as demonstrated by the following diagram:

The parameter p in these curves represents the probability that any given participant will break his silence in a given year.

So then, this is it… by Grimes’s calculations, if the Moon landing had been a hoax or if similarly, vaccination or climate change were both just vast conspiracies, these would all have been revealed with a very high likelihood in the span of no more than a few years.

None of this will deter conspiracy theorists, I am sure. If all other arguments fail, they’ll just declare Grimes himself to be a member of the conspiracy, too. Well, for all you know, I may also be an agent of the secret cabal, using my blog to lure the unsuspecting into believing that man walked on the Moon, that vaccines save lives or that anthropogenic climate change is actually happening…

 Posted by at 5:28 pm
Jan 202016
 

One of the blessings of being self-employed is that I don’t need to read IT job advertisements on a regular basis.

But for those friends of mine who do, I just came across this gem that helps translate the common buzzwords and catch phrases that appear in these ads:

Don’t let any of this deter you from going after that position… just tamper your expectations.

 Posted by at 6:22 pm
Jan 142016
 

Recenly, there was a particular piece of music that caught my attention on CBC’s The Signal: Sapokanikan by Joanna Newsom.

The song begins with the lines,

The cause is Ozymandian
The map of Sapokanikan
is sanded and beveled
The land lone and leveled
By some unrecorded and powerful hand.

This made me re-read Shelley’s timeless poem about the ruined statue of Ozymandias in the desert:

‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look at my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

And then here is a real-life Ozymandian tale from a few days ago, from China: A 37-meter tall golden statue of Mao erected in the middle of nowhere.

The ending, however, is different: After the statue has been ridiculed on Chinese social media (with many quoting from Shelley’s Ozymandias) the statue was hastily demolished. Wisdom has not yet departed the Middle Kingdom, it seems.

 Posted by at 2:08 pm
Jan 062016
 

I’ve become a calendar boy.

Or to be more precise, an illustration in a paper that my friend and colleague, Eniko Madarassy and I published together early last year in Physical Review D found its way to the 2016 calendar of the American Physical Society.

aps-2016-78

Now if only it came with perks, such as getting a discount on my APS membership or something… but no, in fact they didn’t even bother to tell us that this was going to happen, I only found out today when I opened my mailbox and found the calendar inside. Oh well… It was still a nice surprise, so I am not complaining.

 Posted by at 2:35 pm
Dec 302015
 

It is nice to have a paper accepted on the penultimate day of the year by Physical Review D.

Our paper in question, General relativistic observables for the ACES experiment, is about the Atomic Clock Ensemble in Space (ACES) experiment that will be installed on board the International Space Station (ISS) next year. This experiment places highly accurate atomic clocks in the microgravity environment of the ISS.

How accurate these clocks can be depends, in part, on knowledge of the general relativistic environment in which these clocks will live. This will be determined by the trajectory of the ISS as it travels through the complex gravitational field of the Earth, while being also subject to non-gravitational forces, most notably atmospheric drag and solar radiation pressure.

What complicates the analysis is that the ACES clocks will not be located at the ISS center-of-mass; therefore, as the ISS is quite a large object subject to tidal accelerations, the trajectory of the ACES clocks is non-inertial.

To analyze the problem, we looked at coordinate transformation rules between the various coordinate systems involved: geocentric and terrestrial coordinates, coordinates centered on the ISS center-of-mass, and coordinates centered on ACES.

One of our main conclusions is that in order for the clock to be fully utilized, the orbit of the ISS must be known at an accuracy of 2 meters or less. This requirement arises if we assume that the orbits are known a priori, and that the clock data are used for science investigations only. If instead, the clock data are used to refine the station orbit, the accuracy requirement is less stringent, but the value of the clock data for scientific analysis is also potentially compromised.

It was an enjoyable paper to work on, and it is nice to end the year on a high note. As we received the acceptance notice earlier today, we were able to put the accepted version on arXiv just in time for it to appear on the very last day of the year, bearing the date December 31, 2015.

Happy New Year!

 Posted by at 8:57 pm
Dec 242015
 

It has become a habit of mine. On Christmas Eve Day, I like to offer my best wishes to all my friends, members of my extended family, and indeed to all good people on this Earth with the words of the first three human beings in history who left our planet and entered orbit around another celestial body: The astronauts of Apollo 8, who accomplished their historic mission at the end of one of the most tumultuous years since World War 2, 1968.

And as they emerged from the dark side of the Moon and reestablished radio contact with the Earth, they greeted their fellow humans by quoting from the Book of Genesis. They then finished their broadcast with these unforgettable words: “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas and God bless all of you – all of you on the good Earth.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm
Dec 242015
 

Here is the Weather Network’s forecast for today that was made a couple of days ago:

No, they weren’t lying. Here is what my thermometer showed just a few minutes ago:

20151224_113346

And it’s already less than what it was; the temperature dropped from 16.4 to 16.2 degrees Centigrade in the past half hour.

May not be impressive for a place like Dubai or Mumbai but lest we forget, I live in Ottawa, supposedly the second coldest capital city on Earth.

Needless to say, we are not going to have a white Christmas this year.

 Posted by at 11:42 am
Dec 162015
 

The reason for my trip to China was to participate in the 3rd workshop on the TianQin mission.

TianQin is a proposed space-borne gravitational wave detector. It is described in our paper, which was recently accepted for publication in Classical and Quantum Gravity. The name, as typical for China, is poetic: it means a zither or harp in space or perhaps (sounds much nicer in English) a celestial harp. A harp that resonates in response to continuous gravitational waves that come from binary pulsars.

Gravitational waves are notoriously hard to detect because they are extremely weak. To date, we only have indirect confirmation of gravitational waves: closely orbiting binary pulsars are known to exhibit orbital decay that is consistent with the predictions of Einstein’s gravity.

Gravitational radiation is quadrupole radiation. It means basically that it simultaneously squeezes spacetime in one direction and stretches it in a perpendicular direction. This leads to the preferred method of detection: two perpendicular laser beams set to interfere with each other. As a gravitational wave passes through, a phase shift occurs as one beam travels a slightly longer, the other a slightly shorter distance. This phase shift manifests itself as an interference pattern, which can be detected.

But detection is much harder in practice than it sounds. Gravitational waves are not only very weak, they are also typically very low in frequency. Strong gravitational waves (relatively speaking) are produced by binaries such as HM Cancri (aka. RX J0806.3+1527) but even such an extreme binary system has an orbital period of several minutes. The corresponding gravitational wave frequency is measured in millihertz, and the wavelength, in tens or hundreds of millions of kilometers.

There is one exception: inspiraling neutron star or black hole binary systems at the very end of their lives. These could produce detectable gravitational waves with frequencies up to even a kilohertz or so, but these are random, transient events. Nonetheless, there are terrestrial detectors such as LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory) that are designed to detect such events, and the rumor I heard is that it may have already happened. Or not… let’s wait for the announcement.

But the continuous waves from close binaries require a detector comparable in size to the wavelength of their gravitational radiation. In short, an interferometer in which the laser beams can travel at least a few hundred thousand kilometers, preferably more. Which means that the interferometer must be in space.

This is the idea behind LISA, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna project. Its current incarnation is eLISA (the “e” stands for “evolved”), a proposed European Space Agency mission, a precursor of which, LISA Pathfinder, was launched just a few days ago. Nonetheless, eLISA’s future remains uncertain.

Enter the Chinese, with TianQin. Whereas eLISA’s configuration of three spacecraft is designed to be in deep space orbiting one of the Earth-Sun Lagrange points with inteferometer arm lengths as long as 1.5 million kilometers, TianQin’s more modest proposal calls for a geocentric configuration, with arm lengths of 150,000 km or so. This means reduced sensitivity, of course, and the geocentric orbit introduces unique challenges. Nonetheless, our colleagues believe that it is fundamentally feasible for TianQin to detect gravitational waves from a known source with sufficient certainty. In other words, the primary mission objective of TianQin is to serve as a gravitational wave detector, confirming the existence of continuous waves emitted by a known binary system, as opposed to being an observatory, usable to find previously unknown sources of gravitational radiation. Detection is always easier: in radio technology, for instance, a lock-in amplifier can be used to detect the presence of a carrier wave even when it is far too weak to carry any useful information.

Theoretical sensitivity curve of the proposed TianQin mission.
Theoretical sensitivity curve of the proposed TianQin mission.

The challenges of TianQin are numerous, but here are a few main ones:

  • First, precisely controlling the orbits of shielded, drag-free test masses such that their acceleration due to nongravitational forces is less than \(10^{-15}~{\rm m}/{\rm s}^2\).
  • Second, precisely controlling the optical path such that no unmodeled effects (e.g., thermal expansion due to solar heating) contribute unmodeled changes more than a picometer in length.
  • Third, implementing time-delay interferometry (TDI), which is necessary in order to be able to compare the phases of laser signals that traveled different lengths, and do so with sufficient timing accuracy to minimize the contributions due to fluctuations in laser frequency.

Indeed, some of the accuracy requirements of TianQin exceed those of eLISA. This is a tall order for any space organization, and China is no exception. Still, as they say, where there is a will…

Unequal-arm Michelson interferometer
Unequal-arm Michelson interferometer.

One thing that complicates matters is that there are legal barriers when it comes to cooperation with China. In the United States there are strong legal restrictions preventing NASA and researchers at NASA from cooperating with Chinese citizens and Chinese enterprises. (Thankfully, Canada is a little more open-minded in this regard.) Then there is the export control regime: Technologies that can be utilized to navigate ballistic missiles, to offer satellite-based navigation on the ground, and to perform remote sensing may be categorized as munitions and fall under export control restrictions in North America, with China specifically listed as a proscribed country.

The know-how (and software) that would be used to navigate the TianQin constellation is arguably subject to such restrictions at least on the first two counts, but possibly even the third: a precision interferometer in orbit can be used for gravitiational remote sensing, as it has been amply demonstrated by GRACE (Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment), which was orbiting the Earth, and GRAIL (Gravity Recovery And Interior Laboratory) in lunar orbit. Then there is the Chinese side of things: precision navigation requires detailed information about the capabilities of tracking stations in China, which may be, for all I know, state secrets.

While these issues make things a little tricky for Western researchers, TianQin nonetheless has a chance of becoming a milestone experiment. I sincerely hope that they succeed. And I certainly feel honored, having been invited to take part in this workshop.

 Posted by at 5:32 pm
Dec 082015
 

Hello, Guangzhou. And hello world, from Guangzhou. Here is what I see from my hotel window today:

It is a very interesting place. Today, I had a bit of a walk not just along the main urban avenues, full of neon and LED signs and modern high-tech stores, but also in some of the back alleys, complete with street vendors, stray dogs, and 60-70 year old crumbling buildings, some abandoned. In short… a real city with a real history.

For what it’s worth, I am here on account of a conference about a planned space-borne gravitational wave detector called TianQin.

 Posted by at 2:31 am
Dec 032015
 

It has been in the news recently that the baboon exhibit at the Toronto Zoo had to close temporarily. The reason: Following the death of the matriarch, there was a power struggle.

The reason why I find this fascinating is that these baboons weren’t fighting for food. They were not fighting for sex. They were not fighting for a more cozy sleeping place or anything else tangible.

No… they were fighting for power.

That such an abstract concept not only exists in the animal world but may even prompt a vicious fight might upset those who maintain illusions about the noble animal world. But then, perhaps the animal world is not that different from the world of humans.

We all came from the same place, after all.

The next time a bellicose politician, ruler or warlord makes a threat, brandishing fancy weapons of war, in some vainglorious quest for power, just think of one word: baboon.

 Posted by at 6:28 pm
Dec 012015
 

Aspiring US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders reportedly said that it is “profoundly wrong” that the top 1% has more wealth in our society than the bottom 95%.

Today, The Globe and Mail offered a perfect example why.

Look at this group photo:

Notice the people in this picture: The presidents of Indonesia, the United States, France and India, and the Prime Minister of Canada… and Bill Gates.

In other words, five elected leaders (together representing at least one quarter of all of humanity) and one very rich guy who is in this picture only because he has tons of money.

Now don’t get me wrong, I like Bill Gates. I liked him even when it was popular to hate him among the cognoscenti. And Bill Gates is a shining example of the conscientious multibillionaire who spends stupendous sums of his own money to make the world a better place. But I still think it is “profoundly wrong” that he is in this picture. Nobody elected him. He is not representing anybody. He is here simply because he commands wealth that is comparable to the GDP of a not so small country.

 Posted by at 5:33 pm
Nov 292015
 

The other day, I saw a curious full-page advertisement in the copy of Ottawa Life magazine that came bundled with my morning Globe and Mail.

It contained phrases and symbology that I am no longer accustomed to see. What caught my eye at first was the red background, complete with five-pointed golden stars and an image of a statue containing a group of heroic figures. Stuff once common on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

Presented by the Embassy of the PRC, it was an advertisement in commemoration of the “Victory of the World Anti-Fascist War” as well as the “Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression”. Symbology and awkward language notwithstanding, knowing what I know about the brutality of Japan’s failed conquest of the Middle Kingdom (including the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons), I believe China has every right to celebrate proudly. Western bias notwithstanding, arguably the true starting date of World War 2 is July 7, 1937, the beginning of Japan’s attempt at a full-scale invasion, and it took a full eight years for this nightmare to end (though not the Chinese Civil War).

 Posted by at 5:25 pm
Nov 292015
 

Everyone, meet the early 5th century saint, Christian theologian and philosopher, Augustine of Hippo. This is the oldest surviving portrait of him:

Why am I so impressed by Augustine? Well, some 1600 years ago he gave the perfect answer to anyone attempting to read science into holy texts. In his opus, The Literal Interpretations of Genesis, Augustine wrote:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about [science] and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics […] The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and […] the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

Of course, you could replace the word Christian with, say, Muslim and [Holy] Scripture with [Holy] Koran, and the meaning remains exactly the same.


As a curious footnote, when I checked my blog to see if I might have written about Augustine before (I haven’t) I noticed that the only other occurrence of “Augustine” here is in the context of the US space program, which was reformulated under the Obama administration in response to the recommendations by the Augustine Commission. Even more curious is that there were two Augustine Commissions, set up 20 years apart, chaired by the same Norman Augustine, former CEO of Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin. Nothing to do with St. Augustine, of course.

 Posted by at 9:52 am
Nov 272015
 

Fourteen years ago, I embarked on a small hobby project: A compiler for an ultra-simple programming language I called W, a language specifically designed to produce short 16-bit DOS programs. It has the distinguishing characteristic of having neither keywords nor types. The only data type on which it operates is a 16-bit machine word (hence the name, W).

I then wrote a few pages about this language that are still featured on my Web site.

Today (not for the first time) my project was rediscovered. Apparently not everyone realized that this was an old project (I now changed the configuration of the project page to make sure its creation date is visible.) The link went a little viral, as it was featured on both Reddit and Y Combinator. Which explains why, when I woke up this morning, I saw my server under a far heavier load than usual.

It was interesting to look at the comments on these two sites. Some liked what I have done. Others were critical, not sure why; it was a hobby project, after all, I wasn’t trying to win any accolades. But there was one particular comment on Reddit, by user MarshallBanana, that I really liked:

“What a bastard, making something for himself for fun. He sure deserves some shit for that.”

 Posted by at 7:18 pm
Nov 272015
 

Today, I tried to reach the Microsoft Developer Network support line to sort out an issue with my MSDN subscription.

After I made the appropriate touchtone selections, however, I was greeted with what sounded like an old Walkman on a nearly dead battery. Quite incomprehensible but certainly entertaining.

It went on like this for a couple of minutes, but then the call was disconnected.

I then tried to call the main Microsoft number, where a helpful lady tried to sort things out for me. She apologized and put me on hold several times while she talked to her supervisor; unfortunately, the last time she tried to put me on hold, she managed to disconnect the call instead.

So I called the MSDN number again (1-800-759-5474) and this time, I recorded the call. When I sped it up, suddenly it all made sense:

Technical difficulties indeed.

 Posted by at 3:18 pm