Jul 232014

In recent years, I’ve been struggling a little bit with my eyesight.

I’ve been nearsighted all my life, just like my Mom. I remember I once told my Mom when I was a child that at least as we get older, while other people get farsighted, for us the two will cancel out; and who knows, we may not even need glasses after a while.

Alas, that’s not how things work.

Myopia and presbyopia are not mutually exclusive. Just because you are nearsighted does not mean that your eye cannot lose its ability to focus. So you remain myopic, in need of glasses to see things that are afar; but the same glasses are no longer useful when you are staring at things up close.

So like many others at my age, I ended up with graduated prescription glasses: the top of the lens is meant to see far, whereas a lesser diopter is used at the bottom to help see things up close. Of course it also means that like many others in their fifties, I end up adopting that strange posture of holding my head up while reading a book in my hands, just to make sure that I look at the book through the appropriate part of the eyeglass lens.

And, I found, graduated glasses are by no means a perfect solution when it comes to staring at a computer screen. I found that I kept having to change the angle at which I kept my head, as I looked at different parts of the screen. It was frustrating and inconvenient, and indeed, it was interfering with my productivity.

Recently, I got a new pair of graduated glasses, in the hope that they will fix the problem, but they really didn’t.

So then, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I’ve known about a site, clearlycontacts.ca, for some time; they offer prescription glasses at a fraction of the cost you pay at a retail eye-wear store. So I ordered a new pair of “reading” glasses from them. Except that instead of giving them the “correct” prescription (+2 diopters for reading on both eyes relative to the baseline value for my myopia) I specified a smaller correction, halfway between the “reading” and the farsighted values.

The new pair of eyeglasses arrived Monday morning. As I opened the box, I was trying to tame my expectations; after all, you’re not supposed to play eye doctor with your prescription. I opened the box, took out the new glasses, put them on, and… WOW. I can finally see my entire screen clearly, without having to hold my head at unnatural angles. And the eyeglasses are almost good enough for reading, and not too bad for far vision either; my vision is a bit blurry with them, but I can still read, e.g., roadside signs, so these new glasses might even be safe for use while driving, at least in an emergency.

But for the computer screen, they are just perfect. And I already noticed a significant increase in my productivity, simply because my eyes and my neck don’t tire out as I work.

And the price of this little eyeglass adventure? A grand total of 58 dollars and 95 cents. Less than 60 bucks. And that price actually included scratch-resistant lenses.

Needless to say, I am very pleased. Indeed I am sufficiently pleased to provide clearlycontacts.ca free advertising in the form of this blog post. I am sure they don’t mind.

 Posted by at 10:35 pm
Jul 192014

To sum up:

  • MH17 was shot down over a region of Ukraine controlled by pro-Russian separatists.
  • Said separatists have shot down several Ukrainian military aircraft in recent weeks, including an AN-26 transport aircraft.
  • Said separatists recently bragged about having acquired a powerful truck-mounted anti-aircraft missile battery.
  • Said separatists posted publicly on social media, complete with eyewitness video, about having shot down another AN-26 at the time when MH17 crashed, and in the same region.
  • The posts came from a source that was accepted as credible in the past, and were widely circulated in Russian media.
  • The posts were removed a few hours after it became clear that the aircraft in question was in fact a civilian airliner.
  • The Ukrainian government published intercepted cellular telephone calls, in which alleged separatist leaders, and possibly their Russian contacts, were discussing the incident. Although the source (Ukraine) is not impartial, no reason was presented so far to question the authenticity of the intercepts.

In light of all these facts, even if the black boxes can never be analyzed, even if the wreckage has been disturbed, even if the site has been looted, even if no investigators are allowed on the scene, I think that the basic conclusion is rock solid: MH17 was shot down by pro-Russian separatists who mistook it for a Ukrainian military airplane, and who were possibly not aware of the fact that international air traffic was allowed to fly over the disputed region at altitudes greater than 32,000 feet.

The only real questions that remain, in my opinion, concern the extent of Russia’s involvement. Where did the missile come from? Was it captured by the separatists themselves or was it provided by Russia? Who operated the missile? Was it Ukrainian rebels who may have received relevant training while serving in the military, or was it personnel provided by Russia?

From The Times of London.

The answers to these questions determine the degree of Mr. Putin’s culpability.

The Ukrainians also presented a video, showing the alleged missile truck, with one of four missiles missing, en route to Russia. There were also reports according to which the airplanes black boxes were found and have since been removed to Russia. If true, these facts only increase the culpability of Mr. Putin’s government.

Meanwhile, Russia’s propaganda machine is now in high gear, full of insinuations, including these:

  • Ukrainian air defense forces were tracking MH17. (Of course they were. That’s what air defense forces are supposed to do. I know… I served in one of them 33 years ago as an unhappy conscript, trained as a radar operator.)
  • Ukraine is responsible for a crime that happened over her territory. (Except when said territory is controlled by separatists who are supported, overtly and covertly, by a foreign government.)
  • MH17 earlier flew near Mr. Putin’s presidential airplane, which had similar markings, and NATO may have been trying to murder the Russian president. (Mr. Putin’s airplane never entered Ukrainian airspace. NATO does not usually miss its target by several hundred miles. And the actual locations of civilian aircraft in European airspace are available to anyone with a Web browser, which includes NATO officers but not necessarily ragtag paramilitaries in the fields of eastern Ukraine.)

So there. Tensions are never a good thing, especially with a nuclear superpower like Russia, but I nonetheless believe that at the very least, Mr. Putin should be held accountable for being an accomplice in a crime against humanity.

 Posted by at 4:45 pm
Jul 172014

Here is the Google Maps location of the last ADS-B coordinate transmitted by MH17:

And here is a (since deleted) social media release by Igor Ivanovich Strelkov, commander of the separatist Donbass People’s militia:

The underlined text reads, in English (slightly edited Google translation):

In the area Torrez just downed plane An-26, lying somewhere in the mine “Progress.” As we warned – do not fly in “our sky.” And here is the video confirmation of the “birdfall.”

Bravo, murderers. I hope you are proud. And congratulations are also due to Mr. Putin; after all, if you give a lit match to a child, you cannot really disclaim responsibility when the house burns down.

 Posted by at 3:10 pm
Jul 172014

Malaysian airlines confirms that it lost contact with MH17, a scheduled flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

According to Interfax, the flight went down near the Ukrainian-Russian border. As this is a known conflict zone, it raises the possibility of foul play, especially considering that a few days ago, Ukraine lost a cargo plane and it may have been shot down by Russia.

On the other hand, whatever the cause, it cannot be good news for Boeing either.

 Posted by at 11:50 am
Jul 112014

My stepfather is an avid angler. He spends his summers in their cottage just south of Budapest, on the bank of a branch of the Danube river. He loves to fish.

Late May, he caught what was one of the biggest fish in his life: a 21.8 kg grass carp.

To be sure, this is not the biggest fish ever caught, even at this particular location. The biggest grass carp that was caught there in recent memory weighed 35 kg; and the biggest anything was a 70 kg wels catfish.

Nonetheless, a 21.8 kg (48 lbs) fish is a respectable catch, which earned my stepfather a place in the local angler society’s record books.

Upload date: 2014.06.03
Species: Grass carp
Name: Tibor Kovrig
Organization: Ráckevei HE
Mass of fish: 21,800 g
Length of fish: 96 cm
Fish circumference: 76 cm
Caught on: 2014.05.27 10:50
Catch location: RSD main branch (13 rkm)
Bait, feed: Sweet corn, puffed corn
Technique, equipment: Shimano 4000 reel, 0.20 Gold Star braided line, #2 hook
Other circumstances: Sunny day, no wind, appr. 30 minutes tackling time

For what it’s worth, the fish was eventually released back into the river; in return, my stepfather was rewarded with a free license for next year.

 Posted by at 12:49 pm
Jul 102014

Two days ago, I was driving south on Bank Street when I saw this:

Yes, a double rainbow. The last time I saw a double rainbow like this was nearly 20 years ago, when my wife and I were driving through the Rocky Mountains on our way to California.

 Posted by at 8:30 am
Jul 082014

I don’t usually comment on soccer games because, well, I am a geek. I am not into sports.

But today’s game was something special. This image (source unknown, popped up on several sites on the Interwebs during the game) sums up what happened rather nicely:

7:1. Wow. Poor Brazilian team and fans. I hope none get lynched or commit suicide tonight.

 Posted by at 11:48 pm
Jun 282014

Exactly 100 years ago today, a south Slav nationalist teen, Gavrilo Princip, became a part of weaponized history when he shot to death the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, prince Franz Ferdinand along with his wife, Sophie. The shots shattered the dream of the “Century of Reason”: Instead, the 20th century came to be remembered as a century of global upheaval, the two deadliest global wars in history, the birth and ultimately, death of the worst totalitarian empires the world ever saw and the rise of a new kind of empire, as a result of which many now call the 20th century the American Century.


Today should be a day of remembrance. And in many ways it is… especially in Sarajevo, where they just erected a statue of the young assassin who set out to change the world and arguably, became one of history’s most successful rebels ever as a result.

And no, contrary to popular belief, Princip was not eating a sandwich at the time.

 Posted by at 10:26 am
Jun 212014

Having been annoyed by a Firefox crash a few weeks ago, I decided to give Google’s Chrome browser a serious try on my Windows desktop. I am, after all, using Chrome on my Android phone and tablet, so I figured I might as well swear allegiance to our Google overlords on my desktop as well…

But it’s not going to happen, not just yet. Yesterday, after I managed to close a tab in Chrome by accident one too many times, I Googled for ways to disable the “X” in tabs other than the active tab… only to find that Google years ago declared that they don’t consider this a problem and they would not solve it. Indeed, I find Chrome’s customization features rather limited compared to what is available in Firefox under about:config.

So, I switched back. I shall be using Firefox for the time being. I am still keeping Chrome on standby, just in case Mozilla goes berserk (their recent UI changes were not exactly welcome with open arms by much of the user community, myself included; who knows what new insanity awaits us in the pipeline.)

And, it seems that I am not alone.

 Posted by at 3:28 pm
Jun 152014

Freedom House is not happy about Hungary.

According to their latest report, Hungary remains a consolidated democracy, but only barely. The threshold index value is 3.00; Hungary slid from 1.96 in 2005 to 2.96 in 2014. (A lower value means a better democracy score.)

Opponents of Orban’s increasingly autocratic regime point at this report as proof that Orban’s government is undemocratic, or worse. They have a point.

But… the trend did not begin in 2010, when Mr. Orban was elected. Hungary’s index was already 2.39 in 2010. The trend is clearly long term, transcending governments.

Freedom House Democracy Score - Hungary

Freedom House Democracy Score – Hungary

No, it is Hungary as a whole, the country that is turning its back to democracy, listening to populists blaming everything on Brussels; or to radical populists, blaming everything on “international financiers”; or to extremist populists who have no use for such euphemisms and just blame everything openly on the Jews. Or the “liberal-bolsheviks”. Or America (but pointedly NOT blaming Barack Obama; after all, nothing a black man does can be consequential. No, it’s Joe Biden that they seem to be fixated on.)

What a bunch of… Aw, nevermind.

 Posted by at 9:27 am
Jun 092014

Trees in Ottawa are being devastated by an invasive species, the emerald ash borer. The city decided to get rid of infected trees as quickly as possible, to prevent the further spread of these bugs and also to avoid accidents that may occur as sick, weakened trees may fall in storms.

Whether or not the city is doing the right thing, I don’t know. The result, however, is devastating. Here is one example: the intersection of Murray and Beausoleil streets right here in our neighborhood. This is what the intersection looked like back in August 2012, when Google’s Street View vehicle roamed the neighborhood:

And this is what the same corner looked like just a few days ago:

The trees are gone. All of them.

I honestly don’t know what to think. I just hope the city knows what they are doing.

 Posted by at 5:17 pm
Jun 032014

So a few days ago, Inmarsat and the Malaysian government released what they call the “raw” data about the so-called handshakes between Inmarsat’s Indian Ocean satellite and the ill-fated airliner.

I looked at the data. It was presented in a most inconvenient form, a PDF file with little explanation and with copy-and-paste disabled. Nonetheless, I was able to copy the data to a spreadsheet with only a moderate effort, using Firefox’s built-in PDF viewer instead of Acrobat.

The data set is very detailed, but really, only two columns seem to be of interest: the so-called “beat frequency offset” (BFO) and “burst timing offset” (BTO).

To make a long story short: I am able to confirm the approximate location of the southern search area that was initially explored on March 18 or thereabouts. I am not able to find any rationale for preferring the southerly route over the northern route. The data are symmetrical in this regard. If the airplane flew north, it would have ended up somewhere in Kazakhstan, again in agreement with published predictions for the northerly route.

So here is what I did to arrive at these conclusions.

The little explanation that is offered suggests to me that the BFO is essentially a one-way Doppler frequency shift \((\Delta f)\); whereas the BTO is a two-way propagation delay \((\Delta t)\), with some constant, unknown bias.

The raw data are pretty confusing:

First, there is a lot of stuff happening before and around take-off, around 16:41 UTC. Then something clearly changes around 17:07, the time of the last reported ACARS contact; and once again, there is an anomaly around 18:15, the time of the last reported primary radar contact.

So rightly or wrongly I am summarily dismissing these early data points, as I cannot make heads or tails of them.

Similarly, I am dismissing the very last data points, when clearly some other anomaly was taking place.

Which leaves me with a total of 5 “clean” pairs (both BTO and BFO) of data points between 19:41 and 00:11 UTC. There are two additional data points around 18:15: one is BFO only, the other is BTO only as the corresponding BFO is ambiguous.

My basic assumptions are as follows:

I accept the published time and location of the last civilian (secondary) radar contact (6°55’15″ N, 103°34’43″ E at 17:21 UTC) and the last military (primary) radar contact (6°49’38″ N, 97°43’15″ E at 18:15 UTC) as valid. I am assuming that the aircraft flew between these points in a straight line (i.e., along a great circle) at constant speed.

I accept the validity of the aforementioned “clean” Inmarsat data points, 7 in total (2 partial). I am assuming that during this phase of the flight, the aircraft was again traveling in a straight line (that is, along another great circle) at constant speed.

For the sake of simplicity, I assume that the satellite is above the equator, exactly stationary relative to the Earth’s surface, and that the aircraft is not affected by wind. (A more refined calculation might take into account the slight motion of the Inmarsat IOR satellite relative to the ground, and also the known wind patterns at the time of the aircraft’s disappearance. Of course such an analysis is necessarily fraught with significant uncertainties, as not knowing the altitude of the aircraft means we don’t know how it is affected by wind. So the resulting error may not be much smaller than the error I introduced into my calculations by these simplifications.)

The first order of the day was to find a formulation that characterizes the airplane’s trajectory using a minimal number of parameters. For this, I drew the following diagram:


Here, \(R\simeq 6,371~{\rm km}\) is the Earth’s radius; \({\bf s}\) is the geocentric position vector (of length \(R+h\)) of the Inmarsat satellite, which is hovering at an altitude of \(h\simeq 35,800~{\rm km}\); and \(\phi\) is the geocentric angle between the position of the satellite and the initial position of the airplane, which is moving with velocity \({\bf v}\). The angle between the initial velocity vector of the airplane and the direction of the satellite ground track position is given by \(\theta\).

In a Cartesian coordinate system in which the initial position, \({\bf r}(t=t_0)\) of the airplane is given by \({\bf r}_0=[0, 0, R]\) and \({\bf s}\) is in the \(y-z\) plane, these vectors are given by

{\bf s}&=[0,(R+h)\sin\phi,(R+h)\cos\phi],\\
{\bf r}&=[R\sin\theta\sin\omega t,R\cos\theta\sin\omega t,R\cos\omega t],\\
{\bf v}&=\dot{\bf r}=[v\sin\theta\cos\omega t,v\cos\theta\cos\omega t,-v\sin\omega t],

where the angular velocity is given by \(\omega=v/R\) and of course \(v=|{\bf v}|\).

The distance between the satellite and the airplane is then given by \(d=|{\bf s}-{\bf r}|\). The line-of-sight velocity of the airplane, as seen from the satellite, is given by \(v_{\rm LOS}=({\bf s}-{\bf r})\cdot{\bf v}/d\). This leads us directly to a model of the two Inmarsat observables:

|\Delta t|&=\left|\frac{2d}{c}\right|,\\
|\Delta f|&=\left|\frac{v_{\rm LOS}}{c}f_0\right|,

where \(c\) is the velocity of light and \(f_0\simeq 1.6435~{\rm GHz}\) is the transmitter frequency on board the aircraft. Absolute values are used to account for the inherent sign ambiguity in the reported observables.

This is not quite the end of the story, however. We know from the description of the Inmarsat data that \(\Delta t\) includes an unknown constant bias \(\Delta t_0\). Furthermore, \(\Delta f\) not only includes an unknown constant bias \(\Delta f_0\) but also includes partial compensation for the Doppler effect by the aircraft transmitter, which we can represent by a scaling factor \(\xi\). Thus the model for the observables must be revised as follows:

|\Delta t-\Delta t_0|&=\left|\frac{2d}{c}\right|,\\
|\Delta f-\Delta f_0|&=\xi\left|\frac{v_{\rm LOS}}{c}f_0\right|,

This, then, represents our final model for the Inmarsat observables. The model has several adjustable parameters, namely \(v\), \(\phi\), \(\theta\), \(\Delta t_0\), \(\Delta f_0\) and \(\xi\), which can be used to fit the scarce BFO and BTO data points. One question remains, however: shall these be fitted together or separately? Fitting them together would require weighting data of different physical dimenions (seconds for BTO, inverse seconds, or Hz, for BFO). These weights would normally come from estimates of standard deviation on the data, but we have no such estimates. The unknown weights can completely alter the resulting parameter fits, and produce nonsensical results.

Instead, I opted to fit the BFO and BTO data points separately. First, I fitted BTO against \(\Delta t\) by varying only \(v\), \(\phi\), \(\theta\) and \(\Delta t_0\), as the remaining two parameters have no effect on \(\Delta t\). This yielded an estimate for the trajectory of the aircraft. Next, I checked if I can fit \(\Delta f\) against BFO by varying only \(\Delta f_0\) and \(\xi\). (NB: So I am really not fitting the trajectory to the Doppler frequency shift, I am merely checking the validity of the fit. If the model I use is not appropriate to estimate the transmitter frequency bias and Doppler compensation, it might explain why Inmarsat are confident that the northerly route can be excluded.)

Without further ado, the following plot demonstrates the result:

In this plot, the vertical axis on the left is in Hz (for \(|\Delta f|\) and BFO) whereas the vertical axis on the right is in seconds (for \(\Delta t\) and BTO). Yes, I used Microsoft Excel… when you have a nail, a hammer will do nicely.

The values that I obtained for this fit are given by:

v&=867.16~{\rm kph},\\
\Delta t_0&=0.234572~{\rm s},\\
\Delta f_0&=121.7882~{\rm Hz},\\

This fit by itself does not tell me where the aircraft flew. That is because the model is rotationally symmetric around the ground track position of the Inmarsat satellite. What it does tell me is that at \(t=t_0\) (I arbitrarily chose \(t_0\) to be 19:41 UTC, the time of the first clean Inmarsat data point with both BFO and BTO) the aircraft was on a circle from which the satellite could be seen at 52.6° above the horizon; whereas at the time of the last data point, at 0:11 UTC, the satellite-to-horizon angle was 38.6°.

This is encouraging, as it agrees with published estimates of the infamous “Inmarsat arcs” that position the aircraft along an arc from which the satellite viewing angle is approximately 40°.

But I can do better than this. Let me take a closer look at the two radar data points at 17:21 and 18:15 UTC. These correspond to a great circle trajectory with a velocity of 718.6 kph, almost exactly in the direction of the Inmarsat satellite. By simultaneously extrapolating this trajectory forward and the just calculated Inmarsat-based trajectory backward (for details, see the Wikipedia article on great circle navigation), I can find the time \(t\) when the two trajectories have matching satellite viewing angles. This happens just a few seconds after the last military radar contact at 18:15.

This means that I have an actual starting position for the Inmarsat track at 6°49’34″ N, 97°40’47″ E, at 18:15:22.7 UTC. If my calculations are valid, at this spot the aircraft would have turned to follow a trajectory that is nearly at a right angle to the line that connects its position to the satellite ground track position.

One question, however, remains and it is a nagging one. Did the aircraft turn north or south? Malaysian authorities and Inmarsat insist on the southern track. But I see nothing in the data that they released to support this assertion. If the aircraft turned south, it would have ended up at 38°36’30″S, 88°17’27″E by my calculation, a position that is pretty close to the original search location southwest of Perth, Australia in the Southern Indian Ocean. Therefore, I can confirm the validity of this part of Inmarsat’s analysis.

But what if the airplane flew north instead? That would put it at 44°34’1″N, 66°55’42″E, somewhere in eastern Kazakhstan.

My conclusions, then: the original search area that was designated on March 18, 2014, seems to be validated by the recently released data and my analysis. The assertion that the airplane flew south does not appear to be supported by anything in this data set. If the northern trajectory is not excluded, the airplane may have ended up in Kazakhstan, after flying over places like India, Pakistan, maybe parts of Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Is it plausible that such a flight took place without being noticed by these countries’ air defense systems? I’ll leave that for others to decide.

For what it’s worth, here are the two locations that I calculated, presented using Google Maps:

On a final note, I was hesitating before making this blog post public. This is not just a theoretical exercise of matching aircraft trajectories and radio-metric data. There were 239 souls on board, and their relatives still have no idea what happened to them. Is publishing my less than well-informed speculation about the fate of the airliner the right thing to do? I would probably not be publishing anything if my calculations were in contradiction with the “official” analysis. But as I was able to confirm that analysis (again, except for the exclusion of the northern track) it is perhaps not irresponsible for me to publish these results.

The spreadsheet that I used for storing the transcribed Inmarsat data and for my calculations is available for download.

 Posted by at 8:03 pm
Jun 012014

I just saw a report on CTV about Ubisoft’s new game, Watch Dogs.

It appears to be a fascinating game. And it’s available on the PC.

Yet, I won’t be playing it anytime soon. The reason? Stupid DRM.

People who opted to purchase the game, including people who preordered it, were unable to play because DRM servers crashed and were unavailable. The illogic of screwing paying customers while doing very little to hinder the actual pirates (who, after cracking the game, will have a hassle-free playing experience unencumbered by stupid DRM schemes) baffles me.

I refuse to use pirated copies but I also refuse to pay good money for something that is designed to treat me as a potential thief. Thief I am not, but neither am I an idiot.

Maybe a few years down the line, Watch Dogs will be made available DRM-free on GOG. Until then, there are more useful things to do than wasting my time with a stupid game anyway!

 Posted by at 6:56 pm
May 312014

Yesterday, around 7:17 AM in the morning Eastern time, I took a look at the new NASA site that is streaming Earth-observing video live from the ISS.

While I looked, I noticed a strange plume. It was barely visible, but it was definitely there. As I watched, it was quickly fading away/disappearing behind the horizon, so I was barely able to get a screen capture.

An asteroid impact? A secret nuclear test? Alien invasion? Who knows.

 Posted by at 6:33 pm
May 292014

So I recently spent ten days in the United Arab Emirates.

Ten very busy days. I left on a Tuesday night, flying through London, only to arrive in Dubai late Wednesday night local time. This allowed me to have a workday, Thursday, before the Muslim weekend (Friday and Saturday) began. Then, a full work week, another weekend, and one more workday (a Sunday) before I headed back home.

I am still digesting the memories. This was my first time ever, anywhere in the Middle East. It was a very busy time, to be sure, and I didn’t take many pictures; some of the most interesting places that I saw, courtesy of my hosts, are not the kind of places where a visitor, especially a foreign national, is supposed to take pictures.

But, I did take a few pictures elsewhere. Not very good ones (taken with my phone), but pictures anyway.

For starters, here is the world’s tallest building:

And here is a view of downtown Dubai, as seen while standing right underneath the world’s tallest building:

At the foot of the world’s tallest building is the world’s largest shopping mall. Inside that shopping mall, if not the world’s largest then one of the world’s largest aquariums, with thousands of fish and other sea creatures. The pictures I took were not very good ones (for starters, there were these reflections of the lights of a shop right behind me) but that giant ray in the upper left was something to behold:

If I wanted to sum up my impressions of the UAE with one picture, it would be this one, the entrance of the “Pork Shop” section inside a supermarket within the Dubai Mall:

This picture captures the essence of the UAE: a (so far remarkably successful) attempt to reconcile deeply conservative Muslim values with a cosmopolitan, multicultural 21st century society. All the more astonishing when one considers that this grand experiment is taking place in a country that is not a representative democracy but a constitutional union of seven absolute monarchies.

Indeed, this newspaper article, though somewhat propagandistic (and lest we forget, the press in the UAE is at best “partially free”), demonstrates just how proud they are of their tolerance:

Of course what I was there about was not to judge the cultural tolerance of the UAE but to work on a specific project that had more to do with this:

More about it later, as things unfold.

I only spent a few days in Dubai; most of the time, I was in the fine capital city of Abu Dhabi:

Inside an Abu Dhabi shopping mall, I found a skating rink. Yes, it was 40 C outside (not too warm, I was told; it was still springtime, it would get a lot warmer in the summer) but people were skating. I am not into skating myself so I don’t know for sure, but I don’t believe you can skate anywhere in Ottawa in May.

Being there on business, however, I spent most of my time in offices. In a specific office, to be precise. So most of what I saw of Abu Dhabi was from the office window. Namely a highway:

and a parking area and some more office buildings:

I arrived in Abu Dhabi after three days in Dubai, and I thought I was done with jet lag. But then… on my first night in Abu Dhabi, I noticed that overnight, they were doing work on a metal roof some four stories below my hotel window. The noise didn’t help as I was struggling to fall asleep, but eventually, I managed. I did not sleep very well. On the second night, there was no noise yet I slept even worse. But it was the third night that was like real hell. I went to sleep at around midnight, only to be woken up some half an hour later by the sound of a buzz saw being used to cut sheets of corrugated metal. I phoned the front desk and complained. The sawing stopped, and I was assured that the maintenance work was finished, but that was not the case: work continued on the roof under a portable light, complete with some yelling and clanging as pieces of corrugated metal were being thrown around. At 4:30 AM, I phoned the front desk again. A few minutes later, as I was struggling to go to sleep, they phoned me back (!), asking if a manager and an engineer could come up to my room. I screamed “NO! It’s four thirty in the morning and I am trying to sleep, not have a conference with a manager and an engineer!”

To their credit though, the next day they gave me another room that did not overlook the aforementioned roof. The room was an upgrade, and by the evening, I found a nice bowl of fruit on my table along with a letter from the hotel manager apologizing for that very bad night. I have to say… this was old school classy. (Arguably, not having such noisy work done during the night would have been even classier but still. This was a classy apology.)

From my new hotel room, I could see the freeway bridge that leads to Dubai:

On my last full day in Abu Dhabi, I managed to catch a beautiful sunset from a hotel window. The picture does not give it justice… the sunset was really spectacular.

Then, it was all over and I was on my way back to Dubai, on a highway complete with roadside signs, strip malls and the like, which (apart from the prevalence of Arabic script) could have been anywhere in North America:

There was one thing I saw along the route that I could not figure out. A giant parabolic antenna. It seemed much too large for communication with Earth-orbiting satellites, but if that’s not what it was, then what was it? Radio astronomy? Didn’t look like the right place for it (much too populated, too much radio noise). Deep space communications? I’m not aware of a deep space station in the UAE. So perhaps it was just a high bandwidth satellite communication station. Still… I am curious.

And then it was all over. I next spent 14 hours inside a 777, flying direct from Dubai to Washington. Something I never experienced before was multiple layers of security, namely an extra screening station at the gate, and a procedure that required all passengers to be screened and the entrance to the gate waiting area closed before the corridor to the airplane was opened. While on board that 777, I thought about the poor souls on an identical plane, MH370, whose fate still remains unknown. I survived the long trip in part because I avoided eating too much. I skipped dinner. After I ate my breakfast with gusto many hours later, a very kind stewardess remarked that she was relieved to see me eat; after I skipped dinner and didn’t eat anything, she was worried about me! It’s rare to see that kind of personal attention on an airplane these days.

Changing planes in Washington was less stressful than I expected (having a Nexus card certainly helped) and I arrived home in due course without trouble. And as I was able to sleep on the flight, although I was  tired for the next few days, jet lag was not bothering me badly.

In all likelihood, I’ll go back to the UAE again soon. Although I hate to be away from home, I found the place fascinating and the people I had the good fortune to work with very pleasant, highly capable professionals, so I have reasons to look forward to another trip.

 Posted by at 11:09 pm
May 282014

A few months ago, I upgraded my rooted Samsung Galaxy S3 (SGH-I747M) smartphone. In the process, I lost root, which was rather annoying. I was able to re-root the phone using CF-Auto-Root, but only after decrypting its memory first. When I tried to re-encrypt the phone afterwards, the process failed. The log (adb logcat) showed that it was unable to unmount the /data partition.

I have since tried several approaches to encrypt the phone while retaining root, but to no avail. Here are the things I tried over the past few months:

  • Temporarily disabling SuperSU;
  • Disabling SuperSU using Triangle Away;
  • Wiping the phone (factory reset) while retaining root;
  • Turning off SuperSU logging;
  • Booting into Safe Mode;
  • Manually unmounting /data and most other partitions;
  • As above, in Safe Mode;
  • Unrooting, encrypting, and then rooting using Kingo Android Root (supposedly worked for some people; didn’t root the phone for me).

OK, I give up. I don’t really need to encrypt the stupid phone.

 Posted by at 9:12 pm
May 222014

Arguably America’s most prestigious (but certainly the oldest; it’ll turn 150 next year) weekly newsmagazine, The Nation, published a lengthy article titled Hungary and the End of Politics. The topic is the state of politics in Hungary in view of the recent electoral victory of the ruling FIDESZ party and the authoritarian tendencies of said party and its leader, Viktor Orban.

Beyond describing the steps taken by Orban’s government in the last four years to solidify and entrench itself by building a de facto one-party state, the lengthy article (12 printed pages, as printed from the Web site) also puts Hungary’s political transformation into a European and geopolitical context.

Orban's soccer academy in his birthplace of Felcsút, Hungary. The marker indicates the location of Mr. Orban's residence.

Soccer academy in Orban’s birthplace of Felcsút, Hungary. Marker indicates Orban’s residence.

If I have any complaints about the article, it’s that it does not go far enough. For instance, it did not even mention Orban’s pet project, a soccer “academy”, complete with multiple regulation-size soccer fields and a new $17 million stadium with a capacity of 4000, built literally just a few yards from the home of Mr. Orban in his birthplace, a village of only 1800 inhabitants. Or the recent de facto nationalization of tobacco shops which eliminated the livelihood of scores of small tobacconist businesses, while handing these concessions to loyal FIDESZ supporters. Or implementing a degree of central control over the education system that was unheard of even under communism, where school principals no longer have the authority over petty cash to purchase extra chalk or a spare lightbulb.

No doubt this article, like most others published in the Western press, will be met with a well-organized attempt to discredit it. Its minor inaccuracies (e.g., it mentions Hungary’s nuclear power plants, whereas there is only one) will be portrayed as evidence of journalistic ignorance. Its overall tone will be attributed to the systematic “anti-Hungarian” efforts of liberals (or Jews!) bent on destroying Hungarian nationhood.

Nonetheless, no matter how FIDESZ’s loyal supporters manage to fool themselves, it does not change the fact that under the guise of anti-communism and Christian nation-building, a thoroughly corrupt, oligarchic autocracy is being constructed in the heart of Europe. Twenty-five years ago, Hungarians were proud to live in the “merriest of barracks”, the most liberal state behind the Iron Curtain, which found itself at the forefront of democratic transition as the Soviet empire collapsed. Today, all I can hope for is that Hungary’s example will not be followed by other European nations.

 Posted by at 7:33 pm
May 162014

So here I am, sitting in a hotel room in the 21st century city of Abu Dhabi. After a long day in front of my laptop, I spent some more time with said laptop, this time watching a movie. I bought the DVD of Cloud Atlas a few months ago, but I never had the time to watch it… until now.

All I can say is… Wow. If you give this movie the attention it deserves, it is immensely rewarding. Cinematic science fiction at its absolute best. A movie that borrows some elements from other works, e.g., Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey, or Soylent Green, or The Fifth Element… but it is an absolutely original, astounding tale or rather, six interwoven tales set in the past, present and future, forming a true cautionary tale in the best traditions of classic science-fiction.

I know I’ll watch this movie again… probably many times. For me, it’s going to be one of those movies that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Oh… and the movie should have received an award, if only there was one, for the most creative cinematic use of a cat. I laughed so hard, I almost had an unfortunate accident involving pants and other unmentionables.

 Posted by at 6:26 pm