Mar 282015

I was quite doubtful about the theory that Germanwings 9525 was brought down intentionally by its co-pilot. I was more inclined to bet on a health problem. Perhaps I could argue that in a sense, I was right: mental illness can be just as debilitating as any physical condition. And a person suffering from severe mental illness can be quite capable of doing unspeakable, irrational things, whether it is due to “voices”, an exaggerated sense of self, or whatever.

In response, airlines around the world are now instituting the “two person rule”, requiring two members of the crew to be present in the cockpit at all times. Like the reinforced cockpit door, I wonder if this recommendation is based on the best scientific analysis available, or if it is another example of knee-jerk “security theater”.

I am especially concerned because in response to a very low probability event (a pilot going berserk and locking the other pilot out), we introduce another possibility, the probability of which may in fact be higher: that a non-pilot member of the crew gains access to the cockpit with nefarious intent.

Arguably, this is replacing one black swan with another black swan but still… think of the reinforced cockpit door itself. It was supposed to prevent another 9/11-like scenario, however unlikely it is for one to occur again; instead, it introduced its own unique dangers, and now claimed 150 lives. Not only that, but I just found out that the door mechanism itself has been responsible for at least one unscheduled landing, when it began smoldering and the resulting smoke caused pilots to divert.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to listen to the professionals, say, at the American NTSB and ask for their informed analysis and opinion before introducing these regulations?

 Posted by at 11:44 am
Mar 272015

In an interview with Radio Free Europe, a former employee reveals what is a de facto Orwellian Ministry of Truth operated by Putin’s regime in Russia.

In St. Petersburg’s Internet Research center, professional Internet trolls are employed who post comments on various social media sites. The operation is sophisticated: employees play different roles, creating an impression of genuine debate in which, of course, the government line always prevails. Their activities sometimes become surreal, described as a parody of Orwell’s novel. But wait a cotton-picking minute… wasn’t it Orwell’s novel that was supposed to be the parody? What a strange world we live in.

 Posted by at 10:49 am
Mar 262015

One of my all-time favorite movies is the 2012 film Cloud Atlas. I love this film so much, I watched it at least 5-6 times already. Indeed, I went beyond merely watching it: for the first time, I actually contributed to IMDB, by describing some obscure goofs and anachronisms that I discovered in the film by accident.

I find it especially interesting how a high-budget movie can recreate a scene from the past. The movie features a storyline that takes place in 1973 San Francisco. However, it was not filmed in San Francisco, but rather, Glasgow, Scotland. Here is one example of a scene from the film vs. the actual street as seen on Google Street View (the overlap is not exact, but close enough I think):

Some of the changes were physical decorations no doubt; other changes were likely just clever use of CGI. Either way, I am impressed. Of course I loved the old cars, too.

I was somewhat less impressed by the fact that the film’s version of Van Ness Ave was a rather narrow, one-way street. That’s not the Van Ness Ave that I know! Nonetheless, it didn’t take anything away from the film, which for now, and for the foreseeable future, remains on the top of my list. Why? To quote a character from the film, it’s about “just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes… over and over.”

 Posted by at 7:53 pm
Mar 262015

It’s all over the news this morning: the young, inexperienced copilot (or maybe not that inexperienced: he was recognized by the FAA in September 2013) was in the cockpit, the pilot was locked out, and the copilot deliberately set up the plane for descent with the intent to commit mass murder-suicide.

However, I have lingering doubts. Specifically, I think it’s too early to discard concerns about the copilot’s health.

We learned that in the first 20 minutes, the conversation between the two pilots was cheerful, but during the last 10 minutes, as they reviewed the landing checklist, the copilot’s responses were “laconic”.

Could it not be that the copilot was experiencing a severe health problem, for instance, a stroke?

Nah, how could that be, he was only 28!

Except that I personally knew a 28-year old young man, an engineer in seemingly perfect health, no destructive habits, nice, intelligent, soft spoken, gentle: only to be found dead in his bedroom one day, after he suffered a fatal brain aneurysm.

Confusion caused by the onset of a stroke or aneurysm may also explain why the copilot may have entered incorrect information into the plane’s autopilot. It may also explain why he never said a word.

One thing it does not explain is why the pilot was unable to enter the cockpit using an emergency code. It is not clear to me what procedures were available to the pilot at this point, but if the copilot had to actively prevent the pilot from entering the cockpit, then obviously the suicide theory must prevail.

Regardless of the outcome, I also consider these 150 (or 149) innocent lives victims of post-9/11 hysteria. In our fear over the possibility that hijackers with the ability to pilot a plane might enter the cockpit, we made sure that it is impossible to enter to cockpit in a legitimate emergency… something that is far more likely to happen than another 9/11-style hijacking. Sadly, I fear that this is not the last time that people get killed as a consequence of our thoughtless, knee-jerk response to terrorism that is based on ignorance, not facts and scientific analysis.

 Posted by at 10:20 am
Mar 262015

Meet MJ, a neighborhood cat. (Before we learned his name, we called him Pajamas, because of the night attire like appearance of his coat.)

MJ is a famous cat; he even shows up, along with his buddy Misty, on a Google Street View frame.

We’ve known MJ for a decade. He’s a lovely cat. He also likes to explore the neighborhood… even though he lives on the other side of a wider neighborhood street, he regularly appears at our doorstep late evenings, saying hello, sometimes begging for some food.

We haven’t seen MJ since October. He always disappears for the winter months; our guess is that his owners keep him indoors, or perhaps he just doesn’t feel like roaming too far in the dark, icy cold of an Ottawa winter.

But this morning, walking by MJ’s house, I spotted him:

Yay! This is the surest sign yet that spring may happen this year, despite all the snow and ice that still surrounds us. I just hope I’ll soon spot Misty, too. I asked MJ about his buddy, but he wouldn’t say. Hope Misty is okay.

 Posted by at 9:38 am
Mar 252015

Curse my suspicious nature.

Here I am, reading a very nice letter from a volunteer who is asking me to share a link on my calculator museum Web site to cheer up some kids:


And then, instead of doing as I was asked to do, I turned to Google. Somehow, this message just didn’t smell entirely kosher. The article to which I was supposed to link also appeared rather sterile, more like an uninspired homework assignment, with several factual errors. So I started searching. It didn’t take very long until I found this gem:

Then, searching some more, I came across this:

Or how about this one:

Looks like Ms. Martin has been a busy lady.

So no, I don’t think I’d be adding any links today.

 Posted by at 7:33 pm
Mar 252015

Epic tales tend to be one sided. Hobbits: good, orcs: evil. Rebel Alliance: good, Galactic Empire: evil. And so on.

Except that sometimes, we do get a glimpse of the story from the perspective of the other side.

The conversations between orcs that we witnessed in later chapters of the Lord of the Rings kind of humanized them: they were not necessarily nice guys, but they were, well, foot soldiers in an army like foot soldiers in any other army. Russian novelist Kirill Neskov must have been thinking the same thing when he wrote The Last Ringbearer, a novel in which we learn that Mordor is a peaceful country undergoing an industrial revolution, which is threatened by backward, war-mongering imperialists led by Gandalf, who is seeking “a final solution to the Mordorian problem”. Wow.

As for Star Wars, I always wondered: When the Death Star was destroyed, for instance, how many innocent people: children, civilian employees, family members, cooks, nurses, doctors, and so on, were destroyed along with the artifact? More than that, what if the canonical account is really a one-sided, distorted version of the real story, and the Rebel Alliance is just a bunch of terrorists while the Galactic Empire is really a peaceful, progressive civilization representing law and order?

Apparently, I am not the only one with these thoughts. Here is an amazing short animation of a battle between the Empire and the rebels… from the Imperial perspective:

What can I say? Let’s hope the good guys win… whoever they are.

 Posted by at 8:58 am
Mar 242015

Why would a perfectly good airplane, flying along its designated route in broad daylight over Europe, suddenly decide to descend in an orderly fashion until it flew into the French Alps?

Maybe we will find out when the black boxes are analyzed. (One reportedly has been found already.) Given the controlled nature of the descent and the fact that the aircraft never deviated from its planned route, I fear that it will turn out to be something blatantly stupid and trivial, such as the autopilot’s altitude hold being accidentally disengaged, or the wrong value entered.

 Posted by at 2:12 pm
Mar 232015

Emmy Noether… not exactly a household name, at least outside of the community of theoretical physicists and mathematicians.

Which is why I was so surprised today when I noticed Google’s March 23 Doodle: a commemoration of Emmy Noether’s 133rd birthday.

Wow. I mean, thank you, Google. What a nice and deserving tribute to one of my heroes.

 Posted by at 11:36 pm
Mar 222015

A British monarch was laid to rest today.

No, you didn’t miss anything in the news. Queen Elizabeth II is still the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom or, for that matter, Canada.

The monarch who was laid to rest is none other than Richard III, the last British monarch to have been killed in battle on home soil, 530 years ago this year.

His remains, however, were only found in 2012 and were not positively identified until some time after.

And now, Richard III has found his final resting place.

 Posted by at 7:28 pm
Mar 142015

I hate software upgrades.

It is one of the least productive ways to use one’s time. I am talking about upgrades that are more or less mandatory, when a manufacturer ends support of an older version. So especially if the software in question is exposed to the outside world, upgrading is not optional: the security risk associated with using an unsupported, obsolete version is quite significant.

Today, I was forced to upgrade all my Web sites that use the Joomla content management system, as support for Joomla 2.5 ended in December, 2014.


What can I say. It was not fun. I am using some custom components and some homebrew solutions, and it took the better part of the day to get through everything and resolve all compatibility issues.

And I gained absolutely nothing. My Web sites look exactly like they did yesterday (apart from things that might  be broken as a result of the upgrade, that is.) I just wasted a few precious hours of my life.

Did I mention that I hate software upgrades?

 Posted by at 7:30 pm
Mar 102015

We live in a strange new world indeed.

A strange new world in which the Foreign Minister of the Islamic Republic of Iran appears to have a much better grasp of the Constitution of the United States of America than the ever so patriotic, ever so constitution-defending lot of Republican senators who undertook to send a letter to Iran in an attempt to undermine their own president.

 Posted by at 12:52 pm
Mar 072015

I did not believe that I could become more disenchanted with Stephen Harper’s government, but I was wrong.

Two major legislative items on the Harper agenda this spring are tougher criminal sentences and Bill C-51.

Tougher sentences? Is this really the biggest problem facing Canada? Especially considering that violent crime in this country has been consistently on the decline for the past four decades or more?

As for Bill C-51, the government’s proposed anti-terrorism bill, it is taking this country to a whole new territory by turning our security intelligence service into a de facto secret police, among other things.

Is this really Mr. Harper’s vision of Canada? A petty, vindictive police state? Or is this just cynical politicking in an election year? If so, are Canadians truly this easily frightened into giving up basic liberties for the illusion of security?

I cannot even begin to describe how incredibly disappointed I, a one-time conservative voter, am with Mr. Harper and his Conservative Party.

Sadly, my disappointment extends also to Mr. Trudeau and his Liberal Party’s cowardly decision to support C-51. It is incomprehensible, to be honest, and for the first time in my life, it makes me seriously contemplate voting for the NDP. (Unfortunately, if too many people think like I do, the vote on the left will again be split, and Harper stands a chance to remain in power for another five years. May the powers that be and the Giant Spaghetti Monster have mercy on us if that happens.)

What I would really like to vote for, however, is a conservative government that eschews ideology in favor of fact-based governance. One that does not resort to low-brow populism. One that does not use fear to justify legislation that undermines fundamental rights. One that pursues an agenda of international cooperation, not narrow-minded petty vindictiveness. We used to have conservatives like that in this country. It’s time for them to wake up and return.

 Posted by at 5:47 pm
Mar 052015

I am still digesting the news, which I received while in Hungary, that Leonard Nimoy, aka. Mr. Spock, is no longer with us.

And now there is breaking news that Harrison Ford, aka. Han Solo, aka. Indiana Jones, crashed while flying solo in a vintage WW2 aircraft in California. The good news: according to the LA Fire Department, his injuries were moderate and he was alert as he was transported to hospital.

I wish him a speedy recovery.

 Posted by at 7:18 pm
Mar 052015

Last month, something happened to me that may never happen again: I had not one but two papers accepted by Physical Review D in the same month, on two completely different topics.

The first was a paper I wrote with John Moffat, showing how well his scalar-tensor-vector gravity theory (STVG, also called MOG) fits an extended set of Milky Way rotational curve data out to a radius of nearly 200 kpc. In contrast, the archetypal modified gravity theory, MOND (Mordehai Milgrom’s MOdified Newtonian Dynamics) does not fare so well: as it predicts a flat rotation curve, its fit to the data is rather poor, although its advocates suggest that the fit might improve if we take into account the “external” gravitational field due to other galaxies.

The other paper, which I wrote together with an old friend and colleague, Eniko Madarassy, details a set of numerical simulations of self-gravitating Bose-Einstein condensates, which may form exotic stars or stellar cores. There has been some discussion in the literature concerning the stability of such objects. Our simulation shows that they are stable, which confirms my own finding, detailed in an earlier paper (which, curiously, was rejected by PRD), namely that the perceived instability arises from an inappropriate application of an approximation (the Thomas-Fermi approximation) used to provide a simplistic description of the condensate.


Oh, and we also had another paper accepted, not by Physical Review D, but by the International Journal of Modern Physics D, but still… it is about yet another topic, post-Galilean coordinate transformations and the analysis of the N-body problem in general relativity. Unlike the first two papers, this one was mostly the work of my co-author, Slava Turyshev, but I feel honored to have been able to contribute. It is a 48-page monster (in the rather efficient REVTeX style; who knows how many pages it will be in the style used by IJMPD) with over 400 equations.

All in all, a productive month insofar as my nonexistent second career as a theoretical physicist is concerned. Now I have to concentrate on my first job, the one that feeds the cats…

 Posted by at 3:21 pm
Mar 052015

300px-Audio-volume-high.svgNotice to Web advertisers: If you stick a video on a Web page that starts with blaring noise in the middle of the night, the only thing you accomplish is that I close the bleeping page in a mad panic, and I make sure never to visit it again.

Moments ago, this is what happened when I visited a page on the Montreal Gazette’s Web site, trying to read an article, only to have a car commercial start without any interaction on my part, at maximum volume.

I don’t know what car was being advertised. I don’t even care. I just swore and scrambled to click the Close button.

This is unpleasant even during the day, insanely annoying late at night when you worry about waking up family members, for instance.

I hope that one day, the idiots who believe this form of advertising is appropriate will all have their eardrums pierced in a most painful manner by excessive noise.

It appears though that I am not alone: there is a study suggesting that such loud ads are bad for business.

As for me, against my better judgment, I just decided to install AdBlock Plus on Chrome. Let’s see if it works as advertised.

 Posted by at 2:06 pm
Mar 042015

As I travel to the UAE frequently these days, it is obviously of interest to me when I read about an American facing a felony charge in that country for a Facebook post he made in the US.

It is true that the UAE is not a democratic country. There are no political freedoms there, and opposition activists are sometimes incarcerated. However, the country is by no means a police state. On the contrary, they are proud to have found ways to reconcile conservative Muslim traditions with a modern, fairly tolerant, open 21st century society. As a foreigner, unless you are in the habit of passing bad cheques or farting in elevators, you really have to go out of your way to offend before UAE authorities decide to throw the book at you.

This American may have done exactly that, by posting deeply offensive remarks, directly insulting his UAE employer and management. Such speech may be protected under the US constitution (or not; not even the First Amendment protects false accusations) but the UAE is not the US. The fact that he made the offensive Facebook posts while in the US is an interesting twist, but I don’t think it is sufficient to get the charges dropped.

Still, now that the case has attracted international attention, my suspicion is that he will not receive a jail sentence: his apology will be accepted and he will simply be deported from the country. (His frozen wages, which prompted his outburst in the first place, will probably remain frozen, however.)

 Posted by at 10:05 am
Mar 042015

Benjamin Netanyahu warned the United States, in his unusually (and rather inappropriately) partisan address to Congress, that Iran’s nuclear ambitions represent an existential threat to Israel.

How many times do you cry wolf before others stop taking you seriously?

Back in 1993 (!), Netanyahu told the world that Iran would develop a nuke by 1999. That, of course, was 16 years ago.

Just to be clear, I have no illusions nor delusions about the Iranian regime. It is a dangerous regime that supports unsavory causes, not to mention genuine terrorists, around the world. And they certainly threatened Israel in the past.

However, I do not believe that the Iranian regime is planning to nuke Israel. As a matter of fact, I suspect that they are aiming to remain a “threshold” nuclear power for the foreseeable future: that is, develop the technological foundations so that they are capable of producing nuclear weapons on short notice, use their nuclear program as a bargaining chip, but avoid building actual weapons.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s political stunt is probably causing more damage to Israel than anything the ayatollahs could dream up. By playing a divisive political game in Washington, Netanyahu risks losing the one thing Israel cannot afford to lose under any circumstances: bipartisan support in Washington. For this reason, it seems to me that Benjamin Netanyahu represents a greater existential threat to Israel than any Iranian nuke.

 Posted by at 9:28 am
Mar 042015

Five days ago, I was sitting on an Emirates Airlines flight from Dubai to Budapest.

Our flight took an unusual route. Normally (well, at least within my limited experience) such flights take a route north of Iraq, flying over Iranian airspace towards Turkey. Not this time: We flew across the Saudi desert instead, then turned north over the Sinai peninsula before entering Turkish airspace and turning northwest again. I was wondering about that kink in our trajectory: was it weather or perhaps some airspace over the Mediterranean was closed for military reasons?

As a service to business class customers, Emirates provides a limo service to the destination of your choice on arrival. I was wondering how I would find the limo pick-up location, but it was easier than I thought: the chauffeur was waiting for me at the customs exit, holding up a sign bearing my name. During the journey to my hotel, he told me about his son who wishes to become a particle physicist at CERN. So for a while, we were discussing the Higgs boson and teraelectronvolts, instead of more customary topics, like Hungarian politics.

I rented a car in Budapest, for my mother and I to take a short trip to southern Hungary, to visit my mother-in-law. As we had the car for a whole weekend, on Sunday we decided to take another small trip, this time to the north of Budapest, the small but historical city of Visegrád.

I used to live in Visegrád, from 1974 to 1977, mostly in this building:

At the time, this building served as a resort owned by the Hungarian Industrial Association. As a member of a crafts artisan cooperative, my mother was entitled to vacation in this place, which we did in the spring of 1974. This is how she came to meet my stepfather who at the time was the manager of this facility. To make a long story short, we lived in the manager’s apartment for several years, while my parents built a new house in the same town. I have fond memories of this place.

Today, it serves as a home for the elderly. It seems to be well taken care of. Much to my surprise, one of its terraces appears to have been converted into a chicken coop, complete with a rather loud rooster:

Other than these two excursions and a brief visit to a 91-year old friend who recently had a serious health crisis, I spent most of my time at my parents’ place, a small apartment on the Buda side, nearly filled by a giant dog and his favorite toy:

My parents are very fond of this animal. He is nice, but I remain committed to cats. They are quieter, smell nicer, and require a whole lot less maintenance.

And all too soon, I was on another airplane, flying “business class” on British Airways to London. I had to put “business class” in quotation marks, as there was ridiculously little legroom on this middle-aged A320:

At least, the middle seats were converted into an extra tray instead.

And the flight left Budapest nearly an hour late. The reason? The air crew arrived in Budapest late the previous night, and they had to have their mandatory rest. This presented a potentially serious problem for me: the possibility that I would miss my connecting flight, which, to make things worse, was purchased separately. I probably broke some records at Heathrow Airport as I managed to make it from the arrival gate in Terminal 3 to the Terminal 2 departure gate in only 32 minutes, which included a bus ride between terminals and going through security. I made it with about 10 minutes to spare. I checked and I was told that my suitcase made it, too.

I have to say, while I like both Air Canada and British Airways, their service doesn’t even come close to the quality of service I enjoyed on Emirates or Etihad. And I am not just referring to legroom or the age of the aircraft (the Emirates flight to Budapest was a really aged A330 and the seats, while a great deal more comfortable than these British Airways seats, were nonetheless a little cramped) but also the attentiveness of the staff on board.

Still, the flight was pleasant (except for some rather severe turbulence near the southern trip of Greenland), and some eight hours later, I was back in sunny snowy Ottawa. The land of deep freeze, where the Rideau Canal is breaking all kinds of records, having been open for well over 50 consecutive days already.

 Posted by at 9:06 am