Apr 292016
 

When you contribute on Quora as I do, Quora may reward you by declaring you a “most viewed writer” in select topics.

What I didn’t realize is that Quora’s powers reach not only beyond planet Earth, but also beyond the boundaries of our physical universe.

A few months ago, Quora declared me most viewed not just in this universe but in parallel universes:

But if you thought this cannot be topped, here is the latest: I am now a most viewed writer in the whole multiverse!

Wow. I really feel special.

 Posted by at 11:13 am
Apr 262016
 

This is an eerie anniversary.

Thirty years ago today, reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew to smithereens.

It’s really hard to assign blame.

Was it the designers who came up with a reactor design that was fundamentally unstable at low power?

Was it the bureaucrats who, in the secretive Soviet polie state, made it hard if not impossible for operators at one facility to learn from incidents elsewhere?

Was it the engineers at Chernobyl who, concerned about the consequences of a total loss of power at the station, tried to test a procedure that would have kept control systems and the all-important coolant pumps running using waste heat during an emergency shutdown, while the Diesel generators kicked in?

Was it the Kiev electricity network operator who asked Chernobyl to keep reactor 4 online for a little longer, thus pushing the planned test into the late night?

Was it the control room operator who ultimately pushed the button that initiated an emergency shutdown?

And the list continues. Many of the people we could blame didn’t stick around long enough: they died, after participating in often heroic efforts to avert an even greater disaster, and receiving lethal doses of radiation.

Some lived. This photo shows Arkady Uskov, who suffered severe radiation burns 30 years ago as he helped save colleagues. He, along with a few other people, recently revisited the control room of reactor 4, and were photographed there by Radio Free Europe. (Sadly, the photos are badly mislabeled by someone who didn’t know that “Arcadia Uskova” would be the name of a female; or, in this case, the genitive case of the male name Arkady Uskov. Thus I also cannot tell if “Oleksandr Cheranov”, whose name I cannot find anywhere else in the literature of Chernobyl, was a real person or just another RFE misprint.)

Surprisingly, the control room, which looks like a set of props from a Cold War era science fiction movie, is still partially alive. The lit panels, I suspect, must be either part of the monitoring effort or communications equipment.

It must have been an uncanny feeling for these aging engineers to be back at the scene, 30 years later, contemplating what took place that night.

Incidentally, nuclear power remains by far the safest in the world. Per unit of energy produced, it is dozens of times safer than hydroelectricity; a hundred times safer than natural gas; and a whopping four thousand times safer than coal. And yes, this includes the additional approximately 4,000 premature deaths (UN estimate) as a result of Chernobyl’s fallout. Nor was Chernobyl the deadliest accident related to power generation; that title belongs to China’s Banqiao Dam, the failure of which claimed 171,000 lives back in 1975.

 Posted by at 5:52 pm
Apr 212016
 

Her Majesty, Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada (and a bunch of other countries that I care a great deal less about as I don’t happen to live there) was born 90 years ago today.

She is my favoritest Queen. May she enjoy many more happy birthdays in good health.

 Posted by at 10:23 am
Apr 192016
 

I have been, and will continue to be, critical of many of the policies of Israel. I think that the policy of occupation, while tactically perhaps important, is a political dead end in the long term. I think it is in Israel’s best interest to help create a viable, strong Palestinian state, as any other solution leaves the Palestinian people in perpetual misery, and may ultimately lead to Israel’s own destruction.

That said… anyone who suggests a moral equivalency between Israel’s policy of occupation and Palestinian terror ought to look at such artistic gems like this Hamas cartoon from yesterday:

Line Jerusalem-Hell

Line Jerusalem-Hell

I don’t think even the most rabid far-right press outlet in Israel would find it suitable to publish a cartoon that ridicules the suffering of Palestinian civilians. The fact that Hamas (and many other Arabic press outlets) think it’s okay to publish stuff like this speaks volumes.

I have little doubt that Netanyahu’s government will retaliate. I also have little doubt that they will not target civilian buses on Gaza; on the contrary, they will make quite an effort to avoid civilian casualties. I also have little doubt that they will not be successful, and given Israeli firepower, a number, perhaps a sizable number of Palestinian civilians will die, and Israel will be the target of severe criticism, much of it well deserved.

But as you wonder who the real injured party is in this never-ending conflict, look at that cartoon again and ask yourself: who is it who actually glorifies violence on civilians, who is it who believes that the indiscriminate killing of civilians is something to be encouraged and celebrated?

And in case this one cartoon is not sufficient, do yourself a favor and search a little bit on Google. Some of the published anti-Israeli cartoons are so depraved, even Hamas disowns them. No, not because they have any sense of remorse, simply the explicit depiction of the rape of an Arab woman by a Jew was too much in conflict with their, oh, Islamic sense of modesty I guess, and they were also concerned that they may have offended their West Bank brethren by making them appear too submissive. Ah, here it is:

Gaza man: “West Bank, get up and defend your honor and your children!”
West Bank woman: “Yes, I would like to, but I have no permit.”

Lovely artwork, isn’t it? Shows a deep concern for humanity, civil rights and all. Dr. Göbbels would be proud.

 Posted by at 9:24 am
Apr 152016
 

Not for the first time, one of my Joomla! sites was attacked by a script kiddie using a botnet.

The attack is a primitive brute force attack, trying to guess the administrator password of the site.

The frustrating thing is that the kiddie uses a botnet, accessing the site from several hundred remote computers at once.

A standard, run-of-the-mill defense mechanism that I installed works, as it counts failed password attempts and blocks the offending IP address after a predetermined number of consecutive failures.

Unfortunately, it all consumes significant resources. The Joomla! system wakes up, consults the MySQL database, renders the login page and then later, the rejection page from PHP… when several hundred such requests arrive simultaneously, they bring my little server to its knees.

I tried as a solution a network-level block on the offending IP addresses, but there were just too many: the requests kept coming, and I became concerned that I’d have an excessively large kernel table that might break the server in other ways.

So now I implemented something I’ve been meaning to do for some time: ensuring that administrative content is only accessible from my internal network. Anyone accessing it from the outside just gets a static error page, which can be sent with minimal resource consumption.

Now my server is happy. If only I didn’t need to waste several hours of an otherwise fine morning because of this nonsense. I swear, one of these days I’ll find one of these script kiddies in person and break his nose or something.

 Posted by at 11:50 am
Apr 102016
 

I’ve been encountering an increasing number of Web sites lately that asked me to disable my ad blocker. They promise, in return, fewer ads.

And with that promise, they demonstrate that they completely and utterly miss the point.

I don’t want fewer ads. I don’t mind ads. I understand that for news Web sites, ads are an essential source of revenue. I don’t resent that. I even click on ads that I find interesting or relevant.

So why do I use an ad blocker, then?

In one word: security.

Malicious ads showed up even on some of the most respectable Web sites. Ad networks have no incentive to vet ads for security, so all too often, they only remove them after the fact, after someone complained. And like a whack-a-mole game, the malicious advertiser is back in no time under another name, with another ad.

And then there are those ads that pop up with an autostart video, with blaring sound in the middle of the night, with the poor user (that would be me) scrambling to find which browser tab, which animation is responsible for the late night cacophony.

Indeed, it was one of these incidents that prompted me to call it quits on ads and install an ad blocker.

So sorry folks, if you are preventing me from accessing your content because of my ad blocker, I just go elsewhere.

That is, until and unless you can offer credible assurance that the ads on your site are safe. I don’t care how many there are. It’s self-limiting anyway: advertisers won’t pay top dollar for an ad on a site that is saturated with ads. What I need to know is that the ads on your site won’t ruin my day one way or another.

 Posted by at 9:19 am
Apr 092016
 

This beautiful image is a frame capture of the latest SpaceX first stage rocket, moments after its successful landing on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You (yes, that really is the drone ship’s name) last night:

The landing was a little sloppy. I mean, look how far off-center the rocket happens to stand.

Still… I am seriously beginning to believe that Elon Musk may accomplish his ultimate goal within my lifetime: the beginning of the human colonization of Mars.

To live long enough to see the first human set foot on Mars… now that’s a dream worth living for.

 Posted by at 10:21 am
Apr 082016
 

I just finished reading an online-only novel, Armageddon, part of The Salvation Wars series, originally planned as a trilogy by author Stuart Slade.

The premise: God gave up on the Earth, and let it be known that from now on, it all belongs to Satan. However… Earthlings fight back. And pity the poor demon with his pitchfork when he is confronted with machine gun bullets, cluster bombs, incendiary bombs or Sarin gas, brought about by an impersonal modern military machine that is designed to destroy and annihilate its enemy… and then they haven’t even seen the worst of it yet.

And just as I was finishing the book, I came across this GIF meme: a machine, crucifying Christ at a rate of about one crucifixion per second. And suddenly, I started to feel really sorry for Hell’s demons.

OK, I may be the stupid atheist here, but I find this short clip more than creepy. It speaks volumes about the human race, about what we became and where we are heading, and none of it is nice.

 Posted by at 1:22 am
Apr 072016
 

News item from Google news: Ottawa taxi drivers plan to blockade city bus depots.

Oh really? You jackasses really believe that this is the way to gain support at Ottawa city hall?

OK, they now claim that it’s just a rumor. I am not convinced.

I hope your industry dies, like, yesterday.

Not long ago, I was committed to using regular taxis (on the rare occasions I needed one) and not rely on untested, unproven, new services like Uber.

It was the taxi industry and their thuggish reaction to Uber’s disruptive technology that convinced me otherwise.

Thugs have no place on our city’s streets. Not even when they are masquerading as licensed taxi drivers.

Perhaps if, instead of acting like a criminal gang, you had focused on making your cars cleaner, your service more reliable, your drivers better dressed and better behaved, most of us would still remain committed to your service.

 Posted by at 1:57 am
Apr 022016
 

Sometime last year, I foolishly volunteered to manage new releases of the Maxima computer algebra system (CAS).

For the past several weeks, I’ve been promising to do my first release, but I kept putting it off as I had other, more pressing work obligations.

Well, not anymore… today, I finally found the time, after brushing up on the Git version management system, and managed to put together a release, 5.38.0.

maxima

Maxima is beautiful and incredibly powerful. I have been working on its tensor algebra packages for the past 15 years or so. As far as I know, Maxima is the only general purpose CAS that can derive the field equations of a Lagrangian field theory; for instance, it can derive Einstein’s field equations from the Einstein-Hilbert Lagrangian.

I use Maxima a lot for tensor algebra, though I admit that when it comes to integration, differential equations or plotting, I prefer Maple. Maple’s ODE/PDE solvers are unbeatable. But when it comes to tensor algebra, or just as a generic on-screen symbolic calculator, Maxima wins hands down. I prefer to use its command-line version: Nothing fancy, just ASCII art, but very snappy, very responsive, and does exactly what I want it to do.

So then, Maxima 5.38.0: Say hi to the world. World, this is the latest version of the oldest (nearly half a century old) continuously maintained CAS in existence.

 Posted by at 9:31 pm
Apr 012016
 

Here is a rather entertaining piece of video evidence demonstrating that at least some lessons of history are not forgotten:

As they say, “We know where assholery leads… You will learn if even we were teachable!” Although judging from the comments on YouTube, not everyone is ready to learn these lessons yet.

Still… seeing several right-wing European politicians, including Hungary’s Orban (2:16), with Donald Trump’s toupee… priceless.

 Posted by at 1:50 pm
Mar 292016
 

Until recently, this used to be one of my favorite deep space images:

It is a frozen lake in the Ruach Planitia region of Neptune’s Moon Triton: an incredibly distant, dark and desolate world.

OK, the image is still one of my favorites, but on my list of favorites, it’s just been taken over by this one:

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a large (about 30 km) frozen lake (most likely frozen nitrogen), in the Sputnik Planum region of the planet Pluto.

Who would have thought that Pluto, the recently demoted ex-planet, a frozen world at the edge of the solar system, would have such complex climate and such a fascinating geological history?

Wow.

 Posted by at 9:35 am
Mar 222016
 

Not sure how it happened, but it appears that I was a successful political animal today. Kevin McCarthy, House leader in the U.S. Congress, held a question-and-answer session on Quora today, and my question (about Obama’s SCOTUS nomination) turned out to be the top question, which he answered first. Not sure if that is a good thing… after all, I remember all too well the saying, “it’s better to be unknown to the gods than to be loved by them.” Predictably, the answer was a party line answer with very little information content, but still.

Tempting fate a little further, I also created an updated version of an infographic that compares the truthfulness of presidential candidates. Despite her reputation as untrustworthy, and much to my surprise I admit, Hillary Clinton is still pretty much on top (same number of true/mostly true answers as Sanders and Kasich, but fewer untruths).

Not that this will stop Trump’s supporters from voting for him. They’ll just declare Politifact biased and full of lies or whatever.

 Posted by at 11:04 pm
Mar 222016
 

Today is a remarkable day. I spent more than the usual amount of time peeking at either CBC Newsworld or CNN, and I have yet to see the face of a certain American real estate magnate turned reality TV show host turned politician; not that I particularly miss the sight of his toupee.

The reason why Mr. Trump didn’t appear on screen is the multitude of other things happening.

For us here in Canada, the most consequential news are the federal budget, the first by Justin Trudeau’s recently formed liberal government. As promised, it’s a budget about spending and spending some more; the projected deficits are huge. The premise of this budget is that deficit spending is necessary in order to help the stagnant economy.

News of the budget were almost dwarfed by news of the death of Toronto’s larger-than-life former major, Rob Ford. Rob Ford was intensely disliked as a politician, but I think few people wished him to die a miserable death from a rare form of cancer. As Ford himself said, his tenure as major, for better or for worse, will be remembered.

Then there is, of course, that terrible series of coordinated attacks in Belgium, with dozens dead. In addition to an impotent, and likely excessive response by inept authorities (I just saw that the airport in Brussels will be shut for three days), it will also likely trigger a new wave of islamophobia, xenophobia. A message that, thankfully, has few followers in Canada, as splendidly evidenced by the negative response in Quebec to French far-right leader Marine Le Pen’s visit, which is coming to its conclusion.

What was supposed to be the big news of the day is the end of another politician’s trip abroad, namely Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba… but the CNN anchors broadcasting from Havana are talking mostly about the Brussels attacks and their aftermath.

The other big news of the day was supposed to be the “winner-take-all” Arizona caucus… but with all the other stuff going on, I have not yet heard this mentioned on CNN or CBC Newsworld today. Thus, no Donald Trump on my television screen either.

All this news makes me wonder if The Globe and Mail tomorrow might end up being published with not one but maybe three consecutive cover pages.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm
Mar 202016
 

Recently, it was proudly announced that Canada now has a state-of-the-art emergency preparedness system, with the participation of major telecommunication companies like Bell or Rogers.

The problem… well, here is an example of the problem:

This is what was on my television screen a little earlier this afternoon, in place of CNN, for something like a full minute or so.

And not just in place of CNN. In place of every channel. Even if I was trying to watch a recorded show on the PVR.

What’s wrong with it, you ask? Well, I live in Ottawa. That is more than 400 kilometers from Toronto, and the last time I checked, a 1997 Toyota Camry is not a hypersonic jet aircraft.

But even if the abduction happened next door… I don’t mean to be heartless, but this kind of dramatic alert is something I would expect to see if World War 3 was imminent, or if my city (not Toronto!) was about to be hit by an F5 hurricane. Not in case of a domestic abduction (which, in the vast majority of cases, is just a family member like an estranged father, taking a child without permission.)

The last time this happened, I wrote to the CRTC, who told me that it’s not their responsibility (even though they were the ones who mandated it!) but that of provincial agencies and the telecommunication companies that implement the system.

Today, I wrote to Rogers. I do not expect a meaningful reply*.

As if I didn’t already have enough incentives to cut the cable.


*Update: A day after I sent my e-mail complaint to Rogers, a gentleman by the name of Aaron called me from the “President’s office”. He very patiently listened to me as we discussed not just the emergency alert system but also other issues related to the digital transition, the cost and limited choice of decoder equipment, and other topics. We spent more than 20 minutes on the phone. I still don’t expect anything meaningful to happen, but I appreciated it that my complaint was taken somewhat seriously.

 Posted by at 6:06 pm
Mar 182016
 

Yesterday, I went to see my barber. When I found the shop open, I was delighted that he kept his promise: he planned to retire at the end of last year, but on my last visit, he told me that he’d be keeping the shop open for a while longer. (Yes, it’s been that long since my last haircut. I don’t like haircuts, but when even my wife notices that I am beginning to look like Albert Einstein, I remind myself that you first have to match Einstein’s output as a physicist before you’re allowed to look like him.)

When I entered the shop, I noticed that it was under renovation. But the sign said that it was open! In fact, it was a brand new electronic sign that advertised the business hours. I didn’t see a soul in sight so I hollered, “hello?” and a young, brown-skinned man soon emerged. He assured me that the shop was indeed open for business, so I made the requisite leap in logic and realized that Michel, the old barber, must have retired after all. I asked the young man if he was going to be my new barber.

Soon, I learned a little bit about Paulos the barber. He came to Canada from Ethiopia about five years ago with his brother. Since then, they managed to sponsor several family members. Paulos is a lean, tall 41-year old man, though he looks much younger. He told me that he found the shop advertised on Kijiji and decided to go for it. He told me of his plans to hire 2-3 additional barbers, and create a much more welcoming shop with Wi-Fi and a coffee machine. I took a closer look at his hours: He is keeping the shop open, for now all by himself, from 9 AM until 8 PM every weekday, and until 6 PM on Saturdays.

paulos

Meanwhile, Paulos finished my haircut. When I asked him how much I owe, he told me that it’s whatever I used to pay Michel. So I paid the same amount, with tip, that I used to pay.

As I left the barber shop, I was shaking my head. Damn immigrants, I thought. They have the audacity to come to this country in search of a better life. And the cheek! Never mind making a living, working extra long hours, they actually plan to create jobs! How dare they.

And the cultural rift. It is hard to find a pair of countries more culturally different than Ethiopia and Canada. Yet he has the chutzpah to do this… finding his place in Canadian society, taking over a business from a retiring French Canadian gentleman and daring to be successful.

What a horrible thing that these immigrants are doing. What hubris… instead of being on welfare and being a burden on society, they dare to make this country better, enrich it with their hard work, contribute to its colorful multiculturalism. It is absolutely intolerable. Just what is this place coming to?

 Posted by at 9:50 pm
Mar 122016
 

Yet another chapter from the playbook of the late Weimar Republic: Even as he calls Bernie Sanders a “communist”, Trump now blames his political oppositions, supporters of Sanders and MoveOn.org among them, for the violence, the “planned attack” that erupted in Chicago last night. Which reminds me strongly of how the NSDAP presented itself as the party of law and order that would end the by then rampant violence between NSDAP supporters and communists on the streets of Germany in the early 1930s.

To his credit, Republican candidate Marco Rubio I think understands this.

It was astonishing to watch his body language, his slumped shoulders, as he shook his head when responding to a journalist’s question about his commitment to support Trump if Trump were to win the nomination: “I don’t know. I mean that I already talked about the fact that I think Hillary Clinton would be terrible for the.., for this country. But the fact that you are even asking me that question… er, I still at this moment continue to intend to support the Republican nominee, but… getting harder every day.”

What Rubio said in the minute or two preceding this comment is also worth watching.

 Posted by at 3:13 pm
Mar 092016
 

Our long-serving Member of Parliament, Mauril Bélanger, was the recipient of an unprecedented honor today: He was named honorary Speaker of the House.

Unfortunately, we could not hear Mr. Bélanger speak. That is because he is suffering from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease (its most famous sufferer alive is the physicist Stephen Hawking), which is rapidly progressing; since his initial diagnosis last fall, he lost the ability to speak, so it was his iPad that was speaking for him.

The illness also ended his dream of becoming Speaker of the House, which explains the honor that has been bestowed on him today.

I have a lot of respect for Mr. Bélanger. Over the years, I wrote to him a few times with my concerns, and on more than one occasion I received a personal response, either in the form of a latter or, in one case, in the form of a telephone call. In short, Mr. Bélanger appeared to take the idea of representing his constituents very seriously.

He may have lost the ability to speak but he has not yet lost all his mobility. Although he needed some help, he was able to walk into the Chamber on his own two feet.

It was a moving moment, and I am glad I caught it on the CBC. Thank you, Mr. Bélanger.

 Posted by at 4:30 pm