vttoth

vttoth

I am a software developer and author of computer books. I also work on some problems in theoretical physics. For more information, please visit my personal Web site at http://www.vttoth.com/.

Dec 122017
 

It may not be obvious, but this amorphous thing in this picture is a cat.

This is Pipacs (Hungarian for Poppy), our smallest cat. He is a little over ten years old (exact age unknown, as he was a stray.) He was diagnosed with a bone tumor a couple of years ago, but after the doctor explained that for cats, bone tumors rarely metastasize, we decided to take a risk and not have the leg in question amputated. The main reason is that Pipacs is a very skittish kitty, and we were deeply concerned that such a drastic operation (not to mention multiple, often painful vet visits) would have traumatized him.

So far, so good. That was two and a half years ago. Fingers crossed, but although the growth is there and quite noticeable, accompanied by a small limp, it does not seem to bother him. He remains active, with no signs of pain or discomfort, and no indication of any trouble. We just hope he will stay this way for many more years to come.

 Posted by at 12:09 am
Dec 062017
 

100 years ago today, as war was raging in Europe, the city of Halifax went up in flames in what remains one of the largest non-nuclear man-made explosions in history.

What began as a series of navigational errors resulted in a collision of two ships in Halifax Harbor, one of which was full of explosives. This ship caught fire and as its crew fled, the burning vessel drifted towards the city. It eventually exploded.

The destroyed Exhibition Building in Halifax, NS, also known as the location where the last body form the explosion was recovered two years later.

By the time it was all over, nearly 2,000 people were dead with many more injured. A large number of people lost their eyesight, as they were watching the harbor from indoors through glass windowpanes. These were shattered by the supersonic shock front of the explosion, the shards turning into shrapnel.

A Mi’kmaq community across the harbor was also destroyed, never to be rebuilt. Many of the residents were killed, while others were housed in segregated shelters, and ultimately dispersed throughout the province.

 Posted by at 10:52 am
Dec 052017
 

Our townhouse was built in 1981 or 1982. It came with a washer and a drier installed. When we moved in, just over 20 years ago, those machines were already nearly 15 years old, but still working flawlessly.

Many years later, the washer developed a problem: A pressure regulator valve in it failed. A technician temporarily fixed it by bypassing the valve and just turning the shutoff valve to reduce the pressure. He didn’t even charge us for this work; he said he’d be back once he had a chance to order the right replacement part. He never did, and as he was one of several technicians I called from the Yellow Pages that evening, I could not even remember who he was. So I never got a chance to thank, not to mention pay, him for his labor.

The temporary solution then became permanent. The washer worked well for many more years. Until Saturday morning. Just as my wife, on her way to a craft show, was trying to wash a few freshly knitted hats, the washer refused to spin and refused to drain the tub.

I was somewhat hopeful that the cause was just a bad interlock switch, which is designed to prevent the washer from operating with the lid open. This switch stopped functioning a while back; the washer ran always, lid or no lid. But who knows, perhaps now the switch failed in the open position? I opened up the old beast, located and removed the switch and bypassed it.

It could have worked. In fact, it almost did. With the switch bypassed, the washer was no longer completely silent when it was in the spin/drain position. The motor buzzed.

But only buzzed. That angry, 60 Hz buzz that you hear when a motor is seized. And sure enough, after about 15 seconds I began to smell, and then see, acrid smoke.

This was the moment when I knew that after a remarkable 35-year run, this old White–Westinghouse washer had its last wash. It was, unfortunately, finished.

So then came the annoying task of having to find a new washer. Fortunately, I was prepared, as I already contemplated the possibility that our old washer might die (35 years!) Lately, I stumbled upon a brand: Speed Queen. It appears that they mostly make commercial washers, for laundromats and other commercial installations. But they do have a few home models.

Oh, they are pricey. More than two and a half times as expensive as the cheapest washer that you can find. Still… based on the reviews I read, I thought that it might be worth the price. When I make a purchase, I either buy cheap (and then I know that I am buying cheap) or buy quality. Now quality is not always available. And often, reputable brand names turn out to be just pretty labels attached to the same cheap, er, excrement that is sold under other names at half the price.

So Sunday, we went to see this washer in person, at a local appliance store that carries the brand. The comparison was convincing. The weight difference alone between the Speed Queen and other washers was revealing. And of course it was a top loader with mechanical controls, a rarity nowadays, but the kind of machine that is precisely my wife’s preference when washing freshly made wool hats, mittens and such in her own special way.

So we opted to buy the Speed Queen, and it was delivered earlier today. Installation was my job. It’s not very hard; you hook up the hot and cold water, install the drain hose, level the machine and power it up. It powered up nicely, and the first test wash went like a charm.

So here we are, with a brand new, yet very conventional, high quality washer installed right next to a 35-year old clothes drier that still works reliably, and now that I cleaned it, looks almost new.

What can I say… apart from the damage to my wallet, it was a fun day. I am glad it happened now, not a few weeks ago when I was struggling to meet some deadlines, having freshly recovered from the flu.

Will this machine last 35 years? Who knows. But I certainly hope that we won’t have to worry about buying another washer for a long time to come.

Oh, and the package contained an interesting surprise: An order sheet for the parts manual and service manual for this model. I think I will buy those. I hope the machine will never need repairs, but if it does and it’s no longer under warranty, maybe I can fix it. Often the hardest bit is knowing what to do, and that’s where a factory service manual can be of immense help.

 Posted by at 10:00 pm
Nov 302017
 

Here is a short segment from a piece of music that I am trying to identify:

For the life of me, I cannot. It is especially annoying because I heard this piece of music on SiriusXM Symphony Hall earlier this morning, but I didn’t get the title and cannot find a playlist.

This music was played during the end credits of the main evening newscast in the 1960s, perhaps the early 1970s, on Hungary’s state owned television network.

Update (Dec 3, 2017): Mystery solved. It is the Scherzo from Schumann’s 2nd symphony:

 Posted by at 1:01 am
Nov 282017
 

The other day, I bought a cantaloupe for my wife.

Today, as she was about to cut it in half, she noticed that it had two sticker labels. Not only that, but held just the right way, the thing looked just like a character from South Park:

Bon appétit.

 Posted by at 9:58 pm
Nov 272017
 

Recently, I was looking at the registration of sci-hub.io in light of a recent US court decision, and the well-known Russian pirate site hosting illicit copies of millions of scientific papers was still working fine.

Not anymore. That address appears to have been taken down, but an alternative seems to be working fine:

$ nslookup sci-hub.bg
Server: 127.0.0.1
Address: 127.0.0.1#53

** server can't find sci-hub.bg: NXDOMAIN

$ nslookup sci-hub.bz
Server: 127.0.0.1
Address: 127.0.0.1#53

Non-authoritative answer:
Name: sci-hub.bz
Address: 104.28.21.155
Name: sci-hub.bz
Address: 104.28.20.155

Wonder how long before they take the .bz address down, too.

 Posted by at 10:38 am
Nov 262017
 

OK, so today was a Sunday, I have recently finished some projects, so I had a bit of time to work on long overdue things around the house. Actually, it had to do with an attempt to repair an old TV, which needed to be vacuumed first, as it contained more than two decades’ worth of accumulated dust. But quickly, my attention turned to our vacuum cleaner instead.

It is a Kenmore vacuum cleaner, one of the house brands of soon-to-be-defunct Sears Canada. It is reasonably decent. But…

Well, it has a HEPA filter. It is supposed to filter the exhaust of the vacuum, to ensure that it contains no microscopic particles. The HEPA filter is a small rectangular piece made of cardboard and other materials that fits behind a cover on the back of the vacuum. The vacuum was barely a few weeks old when this cover first fell off. Putting it back on didn’t help; it fell off increasingly often. Taping it on didn’t do the trick either. Eventually, I affixed it with two screws, and it seemed to hold afterwards. Even then though, I had a nagging suspicion that there is something odd about this vacuum cleaner…

But first, let me digress. Let me mention a building, a six-story apartment building in the Hungarian city of Pécs, which is the building where my wife grew up. This building is odd, as its stairwell and elevator shaft are housed in an entirely separate building, connected to the main building on each level by a hanging corridor. Rumor has it that the original architect simply forgot to include a stairwell and elevator shaft in the design. Kind of hard to believe but…

Anyhow, back to my vacuum cleaner. My nagging suspicion was this: after the air goes through the HEPA filter, where does it go? It is surely not going to exhaust through the solid plastic filter cover (the one that kept falling off.)

Lately, our vacuum cleaner was making weird noises. When I looked at it more closely today, I noticed that one of the screws that I used to affix the HEPA filter cover was gone, and that the filter cover was slightly off. The weird noise was the air whistling through the resulting gap. Well… this did it. Hard as it is to believe, I was forced to conclude that whoever designed this vacuum cleaner forgot to include an exhaust in the design.

Out came my trusty drill (bought at a Sears store eons ago when Sears was still the best source for quality tools) and a few minutes later, the filter cover had a bunch of holes in it:

I put the cover back on, affixed it with screws again, and tested the vacuum cleaner. It was working just fine, running more smoothly than ever, and significantly cooler to the touch than ever before. And when you put your hands over the holes that I made, you could feel the tremendous outrush of air… air that previously had no place to go other than exhausting through cracks between plastic bits. No wonder the pressure was high enough to push off the HEPA filter cover even when screws were holding it in place.

Before writing this blog entry, just to be sure, I double checked. I don’t want to make a fool of myself after all. But no… there truly is no exhaust, none whatsoever, on this vacuum cleaner.

What engineer in his right mind designs a vacuum cleaner with no exhaust?

Hmmm. Maybe an engineer from the same school that trained the architect who designs buildings without stairwells.

 Posted by at 11:03 pm
Nov 262017
 

Yesterday, I went grocery shopping.

I came home with groceries and a TV.

You see, Loblaws was selling cheap 32″ smart TVs at the checkout counter. Only 150 dollars (Canadian), and they even paid the sales tax.

We were in need of a TV. The TV that we have in the bedroom (rarely used, but good to have; it’d have been nice earlier this month, when I spent a few extra hours in bed on account of feeling miserably sick) is old, useless and broken. Useless because it’s an analog TV, and there is no analog service anymore, nor do we have an extra settop box for upstairs. And broken because… well, even when it was still actively in use, we needed to whack it every so often, as after it warmed up a little, its picture became elongated and discolored… but a good, well-aimed whack fixed it. Lately though, the picture was permanently distorted and in addition, the TV made a horrible, rattling, buzzing sound (and no, it didn’t come from its speakers.)

Anyhow, we now have a new TV in the bedroom. It picks up OTA digital channels just fine using a small antenna, and it works well with Netflix and YouTube. Perfect. And I managed to haul the old TV downstairs this morning. (It’s incredible just how heavy these larger old CRT televisions are.)

Before throwing it out, I decided to open it up. Who knows, maybe I can fix it and in that case, it can still have a second life at the Salvation Army or whatever. The later it becomes landfill, the better for all of us. So I decided to check this old beast’s innards. Which, in case anyone is wondering, looks like this (yes, I took several pictures just in case I disconnect something that needs to be reconnected the right way):

After removing the back cover and then vacuuming out a few pounds of accumulated dust, I powered it on, listening for the buzz. I also looked at the circuit board using my IR camera. My attention was quickly drawn to the left side, where there are some rather hot parts, but that turned out to be a bit of a red herring: the hottest part is a high-wattage resistor that is meant to shed a lot of heat. Next to it though… what I thought was an inductor turned out to be a relay. And that’s what appears to be rattling!

I checked online. Surprisingly, this is a standard part, not model-specific, still being sold. But the first price I saw was something like $12.50 US plus shipping. Way too much to invest into a 23 year old CRT television set. But then… I found an offer from China for the princely sum of 75 US cents, plus 35 cents shipping. $1.10 in total. Of course I ordered it.

So now I wait. When the part arrives, I’ll attempt surgery. If it fixes the TV, we’ll find a good home for it. If not… landfill, landfill, here we come.

Incidentally, this television set was assembled in Canada. How about that. I don’t think there are many television sets assembled in Canada these days.

 Posted by at 10:45 pm
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 sci-hub.io
104.31.86.37
104.31.87.37
$ traceroute sci-hub.io
[...]
 9 206.223.119.180 (206.223.119.180) 46.916 ms 44.267 ms 66.828 ms
10 104.31.87.37 (104.31.87.37) 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.

From http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.3847/2041-8213/aa91c9

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