Nov 102017

I’ve seen several news reports commenting on the fact that Donald Trump was using Twitter while visiting China. That despite the fact that Twitter is one of those Western services that are blocked by China’s “Great Firewall”. Some even speculated that Trump was using a military communications network or some other exotic technology to circumvent Chinese restrictions. (As if the US military was foolish enough to let this idiot of a president’s unsecure smartphone access their network.)

But reality is much more mundane, as I know quite well from personal experience in China.

When you are traveling with a phone registered to a foreign service provider, your Internet connection initiates from that provider’s network. So insofar as the Internet is concerned, you are not even in China. Your connection initiates from your home country. In my case, whenever I used my phone in China for Internet access, I accessed the Internet from an IP address registered with my Canadian cellular service provider, Rogers. I had unrestricted access to Google, Facebook, CNN and other news sites, with no Chinese restrictions.

Trump probably did exactly what I did, except that he probably worried about international data roaming charges and data caps a little less than I. He grabbed his phone, turned it on, and used it without a second thought. (OK, that’s not exactly like me. Trump was probably not surprised to see Twitter work on his phone in China, because he probably knows very little about the Great Firewall. I was mildly surprised myself, especially as I went there prepared for the worst, with multiple overt and covert VPN options prepared just in case I needed them. Which I did… but only when I was using the hotel Wi-Fi instead of the cellular network.)

 Posted by at 9:21 am
Nov 092017

Sci-Hub is a Russian Web site that contains pirated copies of millions of research papers.

Given that many of these papers are hidden behind hefty paywalls, it is no surprise that Sci-Hub has proven popular among researchers, especially independent researchers or researchers in third world countries, whose institutions cannot afford huge journal subscription fees.

Journal publishers do provide a service (at least those few journals that still take these tasks seriously) as they go through a reasonably well-managed peer review process and also perform quality copy editing. But… the bulk of the value comes not from these services, but from the research paper authors and the unpaid peer reviewers. In short, these publishers take our services for free (worse yet, often there are publication charges!) and then charge us again for the privilege to read what we wrote. No wonder that even in the generally law-abiding scientific community there is very little sympathy for journal publishers.

Nonetheless, publishers are fighting back, and the American Chemical Society just won a case that might make it a lot harder to access Sci-Hub from the US in the future. For what it’s worth, it hasn’t happened yet, or maybe we are immune in Canada:

$ dig +short
$ traceroute
 9 ( 46.916 ms 44.267 ms 66.828 ms
10 ( 31.017 ms 29.719 ms 29.301 ms

I don’t know, but to me it looks as just another case of using the legal system to defend a badly broken, outdated, untenable business model.

 Posted by at 9:04 am
Nov 072017

In between being sick with a cold and being hopelessly behind with my TODO list, I almost forgot. Today was an remarkable anniversary.

It was 100 years ago today that the Great October Socialist Revolution (which happened on October 25 according to the Julian calendar, which was still in use in Russia in 1917) achieved victory in St. Petersburg and the Utopian communist Soviet state was born.

Sadly, the Utopian dreams did not last very long. In between its inability to govern without violence and the threats, both internal and external, that the fledgling communist state faced, it quickly turned to a less Utopian interpretation of Marx’s dream: The “dictatorship of the proletariat”, one-party rule in a totalitarian police state.

Nonetheless… when I was little, growing up in then-communist Hungary behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union seemed eternal. Its successes were spectacular, including how it prevailed against the Nazi war machine in the Great Patriotic War and also how it rushed to the forefront of many areas in engineering and the sciences, including the first orbital spacecraft and the first manned spaceflight.

Alas, the Soviet Union proved less eternal than anyone thought. It was done in by an incompetent, ultraconservative octogenarian leadership and the inherent failures and weaknesses of its command economy. Less than 75 years after it was created, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The red flag over the Kremlin was taken down, and the Soviet federation itself broke up into its constituent states.

And now here we are, on the 100th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, and barely anyone remembers. There are no broadcasts of military parades from Moscow’s Red Square. Not even a brief commemoration in the evening local news on the CBC, or on CNN in between their analysis of Trump’s Asia trip and the results of tonight’s interim elections. If Russia is mentioned at all, it’s only in the context of the Mueller investigation. The revolution that shook the world in 1917 and shaped the world for three quarters of a century afterwards seems mostly forgotten.

Heck, I almost forgot to blog about it.

 Posted by at 10:54 pm
Nov 072017

In case anyone is wondering why my blog has been sitting idle for the past two weeks…

It’s a damn cold.

I haven’t had a cold or a flu in years. In fact, I was beginning to think that I might have become immune.

Er… nope.

Nearly two weeks ago, my wife began to feel sick. The usual: a bit of a cough, a bit of a runny nose, and a fairly high temperature, actually. The next morning when I woke up, I felt perfectly fine. Until I coughed a little, that is. And it felt like a sharp knife stabbing me in the middle of my chest. “Damn,” I said to myself, “I caught it.”

And caught it I did. I was sick for many days. Something that has not happened to me in decades: I even stayed in bed for half a day a couple of times.

OK, now I am on the mend. I still don’t have much of a speaking voice, I still get coughing fits, and my stomach is still a bit queasy, but I feel generally okay.

My wife recovered a little more quickly than I, but even she is still coughing occasionally.

I hope that we both paid our dues to the demons of the common cold or the evil spirits of the flu for several years to come.

Meanwhile, I already had a lot of catching up to do before I fell ill… now, my TODO list looks bad enough to make me feel desperately, depressingly sick again. Will I ever catch up?

 Posted by at 10:39 pm
Oct 252017

One of the blessings of working at home is that I rarely drive. For which I am grateful.

Today, I did drive, because I had to meet someone. And I ended up in an unexpected traffic jam due to a lane closure.

It appears that they were doing emergency (?) traffic light repair at the intersection of Vanier Parkway/Riverside Road and the eastbound Queensway off-ramp here in Ottawa. What is incomprehensible is why they had to close a lane of Vanier parkway on the bridge, long before the intersection, and before the on-ramp lane splits, thus causing a close to half-mile long traffic back-up.

[Sorry, no audio. I was swearing too profusely.]

PS: Yes, I know. First world problems.

 Posted by at 4:47 pm
Oct 212017

Yes, my Canada includes Quebec. It includes Quebec’s unique culture. It includes the French language. It includes Quebec’s different legal system, different traditions. It includes the brave, righteous struggle of Quebecois against being treated as second-class citizens of this country.

Protest against Bill 62 along a bus route on Montreal’s Parc Avenue Friday. (Sudha Krishnan/CBC)

But… My Canada does not include populist intolerance. Nativism. Xenophobia. Political opportunism, the willingness to awaken demons for the sake of winning elections.

Quebec’s Bill 62 is a solution to a non-existent problem. I have not heard of any issues arising from Muslim women in traditional clothing boarding a municipal bus. Or for that matter, from a member of the staff at a hospital wearing a face covering. (Don’t they often wear surgical masks anyway?)

Bill 62 is clearly divisive. I sincerely hope that sooner rather than later, it will be declared unconstitutional by a Quebec court. And that finally, there will be Quebec politicians who will have the guts to go against the majority and educate them against the hate and intolerance that they are so willing to embrace.

But if it remains the law of the land in Quebec… then you know what? I hope Quebec will hold a referendum soon and secedes from Canada after all. Because my Canada does not include a shameful law like Bill 62. Get out of Canada and take your xenophobia with you.

Mind you, I remain hopeful that it’s the law that goes away, and Quebec remains. Because… mon Canada comprend le Québec… un Québec sans loi 62, sans xénophobie.

 Posted by at 12:31 pm
Oct 162017

Today, a “multi-messenger” observation of a gravitational wave event was announced.

This is a big freaking deal. This is a Really Big Freaking Deal. For the very first time, ever, we observed an event, the merger of two neutron stars, simultaneously using both gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves, the latter including light, radio waves, UV, X-rays, gamma rays.


The significance of this observation must not be underestimated. For the first time, we have direct validation of a LIGO gravitational wave observation. It demonstrates that our interpretation of LIGO data is actually correct, as is our understanding of neutron star mergers; one of the most important astrophysical processes, as it is one of the sources of isotopes heavier than iron in the universe.

Think about it… every time you hold, say, a piece of gold in your hands, you are holding something that was forged in an astrophysical event like this one billions of years ago.

 Posted by at 2:33 pm
Oct 162017

I decided to never again listen to pundits about Donald Trump.

My dislike of Trump has not changed since yesterday, last week, or last month. My disappointment that this person was elected as President of the United States is no less profound than it was eleven months ago.

But that does not mean that I need to listen to every lie and every distortion that comes from the media.

The contrast between what Trump actually says when he is speaking in public or responding to journalists vs. what the pundits want you to think he is saying… Well, when I am listening to actual Trump, I sometimes wonder if those pundits and I are listening to the same person. Like when the pundits were telling me that Trump wanted to increase the number of nuclear weapons tenfold and that he was bragging about America’s nuclear arsenal during his impromptu, brief news conference during the photo-op with Trudeau. Yet when I listened to his actual words, it was a journalist who (referring to anonymous sources) asked Trump about the tenfold increase, which Trump denied; and, continuing his response, Trump “bragged” that America already has a formidable nuclear arsenal, and that his priority is to make sure it is in “top top shape” and 100% functional. With all due respect, this is not an improper thing for the President of the United States, who is also commander-in-chief of all US forces, to say.

The things I don’t like about Trump are too numerous to count. Which is why I am especially liable to believe lies about him that make him appear worse than he actually is. Lies that you are inclined to believe are far more dangerous than lies you reject outright. So I don’t need lies from media pundits. I’ll just focus on what Trump actually says, and despise him on account of his own words, not the words of others.

 Posted by at 2:28 pm
Oct 052017

When I first saw the movie, Never Let Me Go, a few years back, it left me breathless. I mean, it left me gaping, with my best “what the fuck was that?” expression frozen on my face. It was, to put it mildly, a shocking film.

We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.

I quickly grabbed the book and read it, too. Its impact, if possible, was even greater. An amazing “cautionary tale”, to use Larry Niven’s expression: a piece of science-fiction that holds up a mirror to let us see the darkest corners of our collective soul.

And now the author, Kazuo Ishiguro, won the Nobel prize for literature. Well deserved. Very well deserved.

 Posted by at 10:02 pm
Sep 302017

Move over, Donald Trump. To heck with you, hurricane victims in Puerto Rico. See if I care about Catalonia voting for independence. Here is some real news™ from Canada instead, about a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada, which has been closed since August because a family of raccoons decided to make the ceiling of the place their new home.

Toronto bank branch closed after raccoon family moves in, damages the place.

The damage is extensive. The branch will reportedly stay closed until sometime in October.

You have to admit though that these animals are cute. Even when they are doing their best and try to look ferocious and angry.

 Posted by at 9:14 am
Sep 272017

Interesting forecast, courtesy of the Weather Network earlier this afternoon:

Yes, that is a snow symbol in the upper left corner. And yes, my American friends, the 29 degrees is Centigrade.

Warm snow, I guess.

(The “Accumulating snow” headline for Goose Bay is probably valid. But the upper left corner was supposed to describe current conditions here in Ottawa.)

 Posted by at 6:21 pm
Sep 272017

So here it is: another gravitational wave event detection by the LIGO observatories. But this time, there is a twist: a third detector, the less sensitive European VIRGO observatory, also saw this event.

This is amazing. Among other things, having three observatories see the same event is sufficient to triangulate the sky position of the event with much greater precision than before. With additional detectors coming online in the future, the era of gravitational wave astronomy has truly arrived.

 Posted by at 2:42 pm
Sep 262017

Sunday was the premiere of the latest Star Trek series: Star Trek: Discovery. (Yes, I’m only blogging about it now. I’ve been busy.)

I read many comments on Facebook. One recurring complaint: It’s written by “feminazis”. No white males, indeed no whites at all on the ship’s bridge!

To be honest, this snowflake outrage already makes the show well worth watching. Oh my, no whites among the bridge crew! Well, guess what: We are a minority (around 6.5%) on this planet. If you take a random Earth ship from a random time in the far future, chances are its crew will have few white people among them. Mostly it will be Asians and Africans. And it’s not like I actually noticed the lack of white humans on the bridge until you called my attention to it. Then again, I don’t remember the color of their hair either. (Disclaimer: I am a middle aged white man.)

The show? The new Klingon appearance is distracting, but perhaps we can get used to it. The behavior of the crew is another thing altogether. Mutiny by the Vulcan-raised first officer? Really? A dead captain, a broken (or destroyed?) starship, and an imprisoned first officer at the end of the pilot? And what was that kangaroo court anyway? Hitler’s screaming judge Friesler showed more respect, more compassion than this Starfleet panel of judges. Hiding in the dark, they looked more like the Klingon tribunal that sentenced Kirk and McCoy in The Undiscovered Country. What, pray tell, does this have to do with Roddenberry’s Utopian vision of a Starfleet committed to the rule of law, high principles, and exploration?

I am also troubled by the lack of continuity. Interstellar mind meld? Spock has a half sister? Holographic subspace communications? Ship tech that seems far more advanced than anything on any of the Enterprises of TOS or TNG? Not sure what to make of it.

So it is another space show. It does have a decent budget. It even has potential. But I am not yet sure if it is Star Trek.

We shall see if it lives long and prospers.

 Posted by at 6:00 pm
Sep 262017

Lately, I’ve been spending my free time playing post-apocalyptic computer games. Most recently, Fallout New Vegas, from which this screen shot of a full moon rising is taken.

I’ve now played a couple of Fallout games, the two Metro games and the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. game trilogy. Sure there are some common traits but these games are nonetheless quite different. Yet they all have their poetic moments.

The Metro games left the deepest impression on me, to be sure. The characters in these games were perhaps the most realistic, their despair as they clung to life in the tunnels of the Moscow metro under a dead city, almost tangible. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was something else… for starters, these were games set not in a dead world, only a dead zone in a world that was otherwise alive and well, presumably. And then, Fallout 3 and Fallout NV. When I began playing Fallout 3, I thought that the game lacked soul. Soon, I realized how wrong I was. While the message of the Metro games was that often, it was more satisfying to be merciful (indeed, you can pretty much play through both games without ever killing a human), the message of Fallout is that often there are no good options, only a choice between bad and worse. Killing bad guys or monsters is easy. Killing good guys because they must die for the greater good… Not the choice I’d care to make in real life.

 Posted by at 5:50 pm
Sep 262017

When the rogue, berserker regime of North Korea shows more restraint, more discipline than the United States of America, it is time to worry.

Yet, if news reports are to be believed, this is precisely what is happening, as North Korea is seeking unofficial meetings with Republican political analysts to help them understand Donald Trump.

I think this should scare the bejesus out of every thinking person.

 Posted by at 5:15 pm
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, 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