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/.

Jun 052019
 

And before I forget: Last week, wearing my release manager hat I successfully created a new version of Maxima, the open-source computer algebra system. As a result, Maxima is again named one of SourceForge’s projects of the week, for the week of June 10.

The release turned out to be more of an uphill battle than I anticipated, but in the end, I think everything went glitch-free.

Others have since created installers for different platforms, including Windows.

And I keep promising myself that when I grow up, I will one day understand exactly what git does and how it works, instead of just blindly following arcane scripts…

 Posted by at 1:50 pm
May 312019
 

Here is a thought that has been bothering me for some time.

We live in a universe that is subject to accelerating expansion. Galaxies that are not bound gravitationally to our Local Group will ultimately vanish from sight, accelerating away until the combination of distance and increasing redshift will make their light undetectable by any imaginable instrument.

Similarly, accelerating expansion means that there will be a time in the very distant future when the cosmic microwave background radiation itself will become completely undetectable by any conceivable technological means.

In this very distant future, the Local Group of galaxies will have merged already into a giant elliptical galaxy. Much of this future galaxy will be dark, as most stars would have run out of fuel already.

But there will still be light. Stars would still occasionally form. Some dwarf stars will continue to shine for trillions of years, using their available fuel at a very slow rate.

Which means that civilizations might still emerge, even in this unimaginably distant future.

And when they do, what will they see?

They will see themselves as living in an “island universe” in an otherwise empty, static cosmos. In short, precisely the kind of cosmos envisioned by many astronomers in the early 1920s, when it was still popular to think of the Milky Way as just such an island universe, not yet recognizing that many of the “spiral nebulae” seen through telescopes are in fact distant galaxies just as large, if not larger, than the Milky Way.

But these future civilizations will see no such nebulae. There will be no galaxies beyond their “island universe”. No microwave background either. In fact, no sign whatsoever that their universe is evolving, changing with time.

So what would a scientifically advanced future civilization conclude? Surely they would still discover general relativity. But would they believe its predictions of an expanding cosmos, despite the complete lack of evidence? Or would they see that prediction as a failure of the theory, which must be remedied?

In short, how would they ever come into possession of the knowledge that their universe was once young, dense, and full of galaxies, not to mention background radiation?

My guess is that they won’t. They will have no observational evidence, and their theories will reflect what they actually do see (a static, unchanging island universe floating in infinite, empty space).

Which raises the rather unnerving, unpleasant question: To what extent exist already features in our universe that are similarly unknowable, as they can no longer be detected by any conceivable instrumentation? Is it, in fact, possible to fully understand the physics of the universe, or are we already doomed to never being able to develop a full picture?

I find this question surprisingly unnerving and depressing.

 Posted by at 1:37 am
May 152019
 

Technology changes. Things that were once revolutionary and new eventually become obsolete.

Sometimes with surprising rapidity.

Which is how I ended up, years ago, buying things that were ultimately not only never used, but were never even taken out of shrink wrap.

Take this 3-pack of high quality SONY 90-minute audio cassettes. When I bought them, I had little doubt that they would be used, and soon, and that future purchases would follow. Never happened.

Or how about this answering machine tape? Back then, I needed them. After all, you never want to be without a spare tape for your answering machine. Except… Well, never mind.

Perhaps a little more surprising is this box of blank DVDs. I have several more boxes of different types, but they have been opened and at least a few disks were put to use. But this box? Completely unused, in the original shrink wrap. Not too long ago, burning a CD or a DVD was something I did almost daily. But when I built new computers a couple of years ago, I no longer even bothered putting DVD drives in them. I have an external USB drive that works fine for software (mostly operating system) installations. And I can still use it, e.g., to rip a CD. But burning one? What for? My USB dongle on my key chain has many times the capacity of a DVD.

I still have never-used floppy disks, too, but not in unopened, shrink-wrapped packages.

Looking around, I am trying to guess what technology will be next, going the way of the dodo. Hard drives, perhaps? Sure they’re being replaced by SSDs but they still offer a price advantage and better reliability as long-term storage. Desktop computers? Unlikely, for content creators or developers like myself. Or maybe things are settling down a bit? I don’t know.

For what it’s worth, I also have a record player and a VCR next to my desk. The VCR was a super-expensive, top-of-the-line VCR that can handle all TV standards, which is why I bought it. I used it to digitize many tapes, including PAL/SECAM tapes from Europe. I have not used that VCR in many years; not even sure it still works. Its display does show the time, but it is very faint. The record player, however, is relatively new. Vinyl has made a comeback of sorts, so record players are being made again. I didn’t buy into the new (retro?) vinyl craze, but we did have a few older records that we liked very much, and which were not readily available on CD, so the player was needed to digitize them as well.

 Posted by at 12:50 pm
May 132019
 

I have learned to love the voice of Doris Day.

Her version of No Moon At All is one of my all-time favorites.

Early this morning, I found out that she passed away. May she rest in peace.

 Posted by at 12:53 pm
May 082019
 

The Globe and Mail managed to publish today one of the saddest editorial cartoons I ever saw:

There really is nothing that I can add. The cartoon speaks for itself.

 Posted by at 11:42 am
May 082019
 

Today was a most unpleasant day for a whole host of reasons, so by the time I finished my dinner, I needed a distraction.

And then I recalled: Just the other day, I read that China’s most successful sci-fi blockbuster to date, The Wandering Earth, is now on Netflix.

So it was time for movie night. I watched it. And it was… fun.

It is not a flawless movie by any means. And the so-called “science” is as warped, as bogus as the science behind any Hollywood blockbuster.

But it was fast-paced, visually stunning, engaging, and occasionally even had sparks of genuine humor, just in the right quantities.

In short, it is on par with any A-rated sci-fi blockbuster from Hollywood.

One suggestion: Watch it with subtitles in the original Mandarin. This is not meant to be a criticism of the voice actors of the English-language dubbed version. It just… didn’t feel authentic. And you might miss out on subtleties, such as (ok, this is one of the less subtle subtleties, I admit) when one character: a blonde, mixed-race Chinese-Australian man from Beijing who speaks Mandarin as a native throughout the film, suddenly shouts “Fuck this shit! No fucking way!” in unaccented English when he makes an uncharacteristically self-sacrificing move, risking his own life.

 Posted by at 12:51 am
May 052019
 

There is this wonderful Tom Waits song (Waits may be the only artist I know who presents cacophonic noise as “music” and yet the result is something I don’t hate), Earth Died Screaming. The title is borrowed from The Earth Dies Screaming, a 1964 British film, scenes from which are used in the Tom Waits music video.

The British movie is about an alien invasion. But a friend of mine used this phrase a lot lately as he is posting about environmental disasters, such as the ever growing islands of plastic in the ocean, the rapid, wholesale disappearance of species, or the still callous attitude of greedy humans who continue to engage in wanton destruction.

And then there are the bugs.

It wasn’t that long ago that I read somewhere online the observation that nowadays, when you go on a highway drive on a summer evening, your windshield no longer gets covered with bugs. Sure, some of it might be explained by the more streamlined shape of automobiles, allowing laminar airflow and letting the bugs escape… but it isn’t a very convincing explanation and I, too, noticed that the bugs are no longer a major problem.

And then, I read about vanishing insect populations in National Geographic.

Here are a couple of sentences worth quoting:

“In October 2017 a group of European researchers found that insect abundance (as measured by biomass) had declined by more than 75 percent within 63 protected areas in Germany—over the course of just 27 years.” Or that “within a relatively pristine rainforest in Puerto Rico, the biomass of insects and other arthropods like spiders had fallen between 10- and 60-fold since the 1970s.”

If this doesn’t scare the bejesus out of you, maybe it should.

 Posted by at 11:26 pm
May 052019
 

I just finished reading Miranda Carter’s superb book, George, Nicholas and Wilhelm, about the three royal cousins who, often unwittingly, helped pave the road to WWI.

Though the book was written many years before Trump ascended to the White House, the parallels between Wilhelm and Trump are frighteningly inescapable.

What this means for the future, I don’t know. Like Trump, Wilhelm was at least as much a symptom as he was a cause: A symptom of a society with deep divisions and unresolved problems. Like the war that began in 1914, a future conflict may end up destroying the fruits of an unprecedented era of prolonged prosperity and progress, leading to chaos and disaster instead. And given the advances in technology and the proliferation of weaponry, including nuclear weapons, a future conflict will be much, much worse than anything the world has seen, including the horrors WWII.

Carter seems to have the same sense of apprehension, if her article published in The New Yorker last year is any indication. And she warns, rightfully in my opinion, that just as it was the case with Wilhelm, the real consequences may only come long after Trump is gone in the White House.

Oh well. To cheer myself up, I began reading Mary Beard’s SPQR instead, a modern history of ancient Rome. Oh wait… the Rome that transitioned from a popular republic to an autocratic empire? Yes, the very same.

 Posted by at 11:20 pm
May 022019
 

I meant to post this yesterday, but I didn’t have the time. Besides, it is not something you post without permission from the other party involved. The other party being my beloved wife Ildiko, that is.

You see, yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of us meeting, on a cloudy, rainy May 1 in the town of Győr, Hungary, where we were both attending a national high school chemistry competition.

And it so happened that a short while (maybe just a few weeks?) later, our high school class had a day trip to the fine town of Pécs, Ildiko’s hometown, so she and I had a chance to meet again. And one of my friends had a Polaroid camera:

Darn, I was so much thinner than today.

Ildiko, on the other hand, looks just as beautiful now as she did on that late spring day in 1979.

 Posted by at 5:56 pm
Apr 092019
 

My research is unsupported. That is to say, with the exception of a few conference invitations when my travel costs were covered, I never received a penny for my research on the Pioneer Anomaly and my other research efforts.

Which is fine, I do it for fun after all. Still, in this day and age of crowdfunding, I couldn’t say no to the possibility that others, who find my efforts valuable, might choose to contribute.

Hence my launching of a Patreon page. I hope it is well-received. I have zero experience with crowdfunding, so this really is a first for me. Wish me luck.

 Posted by at 11:09 pm
Apr 012019
 

Dear Google+: It was a pleasure and a privilege knowing you. This will be my last blog post that will be shared on Google+.

Sure, I used you mostly just to view cute cats (Caturday, Cats of Google) and occasionally, interesting news on Linux and Android, but still.

It was on Google+ that I earned my most famous follower. I never bragged about it as quite probably it was just a staff mistake, but even so, it was nice to count you among my friends, Mr. Obama.

And the site had so much potential. The potential to become a more intelligent, less gossipy social network, dominated by meaningful discussion, not fake news.

Oh well. It was nice while it lasted. All good things do come to an end eventually. Thanks for the memories.

 Posted by at 8:54 pm
Mar 302019
 

Content management software that I use, Joomla! and WordPress in particular, have been complaining for a while now that the PHP version that runs on my servers is outdated and potentially unsecure. Not exactly true, as PHP 5.4 remains part of the official Red Hat/CentOS release, but it would certainly be prudent for me to attempt an upgrade.

I tried to do just that last night, on a test server. And it was a miserable failure, a waste of many hours that I will never get back, to make no mention of the heightened risk of cardiovascular disease due to my elevated blood pressure caused by all that frustration.

The relatively easy part? PHP 7 complaining that its just-in-time compilation feature ran out of memory. Easy-peasy, I can disable JIT. Check.

But then: several of my Joomla! sites refused to run, with a cryptic and ultimately meaningless error message and nothing in the logs. And at least one Joomla! site just got itself into an infinite redirect loop. But why?

I tried many things. I kept looking for answers on Google. Nothing worked. Eventually I took two of my Joomla! sites that are very similar in nature, and began comparing their settings, side-by-side. One worked, the other didn’t. Why?

I then stumbled upon a custom Joomla! module, one that I wrote to support some ads that appear on my sites. This module was installed on the site that failed, but not used on the other. I disabled the module and, presto, the site was working with PHP 7. I re-enabled the module and the site was dead again. So… why?

Well, the module contains some PHP code. Which, after some preamble that allows it to connect to the internal data structures of Joomla!, begins the real work by accessing the MySQL database that contains the actual ads:

$conn = mysql_connect("localhost");
mysql_select_db("www");
$res = mysql_query("SELECT PAGEID,ADTEXT FROM ...

Oops.

You see, mysql_ calls have been deprecated and REMOVED from PHP starting with version 7.

And I have hundreds, if not thousands of lines of legacy code* (including, e.g., my calculator museum at rskey.org) that rely on this old library.

So I guess that PHP 7 upgrade will have to wait a while longer. Looks like I have no choice but to rewrite the affected pieces of code everywhere, as there is no other long-term solution. (Even if I find a third-party PHP plugin that re-enables mysql_ codes, how long will that continue to work? How reliable will it be?)

What a muckup. Grumble. And I do have other work to do.

 Posted by at 10:40 am
Mar 292019
 

Listening to Donald Trump again and again reminds me of the late days of the Roman Republic, notably Octavius, also known as Augustus, first Roman emperor.

Here are a few interesting, especially relevant passages from the Wikipedia article on Augustus.

Recall the debate about whether or not a sitting president can be indicted? “Octavian had the Senate grant him, his wife, and his sister tribunal immunity.

Or how about the funding of Trump’s wall? “Octavian made another bold move in 44 BC when, without official permission, he appropriated the annual tribute that had been sent from Rome’s Near Eastern province to Italy.

Last but not least, all those concerns about the “deep state”, and all those uncanny conspiracy theories promoted mostly by folks who are the most likely to be hurt by, and least likely to benefit from Trump’s authoritarian ambitions: “Many of the political subtleties […] seem to have evaded the comprehension of the Plebeian class, who were Augustus’ greatest supporters and clientele. This caused them to insist upon Augustus’ participation in imperial affairs from time to time. Augustus failed to stand for election as consul in 22 BC, and fears arose once again that he was being forced from power by the aristocratic Senate.

So there you have it: when the people believe that a dictator protects them against their own representative government, when the people believe that the dictator is above the law, when the people believe that the dictator has legitimate powers to appropriate public funds, democracy is under an existential threat.

 Posted by at 5:47 pm
Mar 292019
 

Today in the morning news, I heard about an Ottawa bartender was is about to stand trial for criminal negligence because two years ago, some young hockey players who got drunk at her bar ended up dead in a tragic car accident.

Later in the same newscast, I heard about plans by the Ontario government to start selling alcoholic beverages in more supermarkets, big box stores, and convenience stores.

In exactly what insane asylum do these two news items in the same newscast make any sense?

On the one hand, dragging a bartender, one who probably never earned much over minimum wage, to criminal court with the very real prospect of a prison term; on the other hand, making it easier for people to obtain one of the most potent psychoactive drugs known to humanity? Because, you know, the bartender is responsible for what her patrons do after they leave the establishment, but the provincial government bears no responsibility at all for making alcohol more readily available?

The mind boggles.

 Posted by at 3:03 pm
Mar 282019
 

Even as Facebook is battling white supremacism and fighting accusations of racial profiling, there is more nonsense going on.

In the past few days, I received several Facebook requests from accounts purportedly owned by young women, whose profiles contain sexually explicit, rather pornographic images and videos.

Here is one of the mildest ones (the majority of the images in this and other accounts from which I received friend requests were far, far more explicit in nature, including images depicting intercourse):

I do not wish to be a prude here; I am, after all, a middle aged male in relatively good health, and certainly not immune to, ahem, shall we say, visually stimulating images (though I admit I was never a fan of hard-core pornography. Not my cup of tea.)

But these Facebook accounts are obviously not accounts owned by bona fide young women trying to seduce older, happily married males like myself. They are probably overweight middle-aged male scam artists doing their shady business from their parents’ basements. Or worse yet, organized crime operating out of shady boiler rooms somewhere in Eastern Europe or Asia.

Thanks but no thanks. I have presently no desire to break my marital vow, but even if I did, there are better, safer ways.

As for these friend requests, I just block them and report the accounts to Facebook.

 Posted by at 2:08 pm
Mar 272019
 

It was just three days ago that I boldly predicted that either after a successful, orderly Brexit or a cancellation of the Article 50 letter, Theresa May will resign. This prediction just came true, with the announcement that this is indeed Theresa May’s intent.

Here I am, hoping that the rest of my predictions also come true: that there will now be an orderly process one way or another, and that over time, people will come to recognize her efforts to make it happen.

 Posted by at 2:40 pm
Mar 252019
 

The other day, I started listening to Google Music’s personalized music stream.

I am suitably impressed. The AI is… uncanny.

Sure, it picked songs that I expressed a preference for, such as songs from the golden age of radio that I happen to enjoy. But as I continue listening, it is presenting an increasingly eclectic, enjoyable selection. Some of it is quite new, from artists I never heard about, yet… it’s music I like. For some reason (maybe because I am in Canada? Or because it knows that I am trying to improve my French? Or was it a preference I once expressed for Édith Piaf?) it started presenting a whole bunch of French music, and again… some of it is quite likable. And now that I purposefully sought out a few classical composers, the AI realized that it can throw classical pieces at me as well, which is how I am suddenly listening to Schubert’s Ave Maria.

As a matter of fact, the eclectic choices made by Google’s AI remind me of two radio programs from the CBC’s past, long gone, long forgotten by most: Juergen Goth’s Disc Drive and Laurie Brown’s The Signal. Both these shows introduced me to music from excellent artists that I would otherwise never have heard about.

And now Google’s AI is doing the same thing.

I am also getting the sense that the more I listen, the bolder the AI becomes as it makes its choices. Instead of confining me to a bubble of musical genres of my own making, it is venturing farther and farther away from my presumed comfort zone.

Which is quite impressive. But also leaves me wondering how long before our machine overlords finally decide to take over.

 Posted by at 7:27 pm
Mar 252019
 

The other day, before the Mueller report came out, I described the political present throughout the Western world by comparing it to “history flashback” chapters in dystopian science-fiction novels.

But then, the next day, I saw someone present a Venn-diagram not unlike this one:


Apparently I am not the only one with this concern.

Then the Mueller report came, exonerating Trump at least on the issue of collusion. Not unexpected. I may have hoped for a different outcome but really, it wasn’t in the cards. Trump wasn’t conspiring to become president: he was conspiring to get a Trump Tower built in Moscow. He is not Putin’s co-conspirator; he’s at best Putin’s pawn.

But that’s the least of America’s problems, when the US Senate is increasingly behaving like another senate two millennia ago: the Senate of the Roman Republic, when it (for various reasons, all having to do with the politics of the day) became the enabler of Gaius Julius Caesar and his successor, Gaius Octavius Thurinus.

As the US Senate basically let Trump get away with usurping their power, allocating funds for his phony wall emergency, a line in the sand was crossed. This is precisely the Roman prescription: Using a variety of real or phony emergencies, the leader of the Republic first acquires and then holds on to an ever increasing number of emergency powers, until one day, he becomes emperor in all but name. Even if he is then assassinated, the new reality becomes normalized, and one of his successors will eventually declare himself ruler for life. The process may take decades, but the outcome is the end of democracy.

Any American who thinks it “cannot happen here” needs to be mindful of the fact that Romans were just as proud of their republican traditions as Americans today.

The crisis goes beyond the United States. Liberal democracy is in trouble throughout the Western world. Take Europe: Brexit, the rise of the far-right on the western side of the continent, the emergence of semi-authoritarian governments on the eastern flanks make one wonder if Europe can both remain united and retain its liberal democratic values.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, Democrats are drawing precisely the wrong lesson. Instead of working to preserve rational, fact-based governance, they decided that their problem has been all along that they are not ideological enough! And sadly, opposition forces throughout the Western world are following suit.

But ideology will not solve rising inequality, the stagnation of the middle class, the re-emergence of blatant racism. Excessive political correctness is no solution either. The antidote to rigid ideology is not more, or more rigid, ideology.

Recently I saw someone on Facebook describe the state that the world is in as an “extinction level event” threatening liberal democracy. And that’s precisely what I fear.

 Posted by at 1:10 am
Mar 242019
 

Yes, it can get cold in Toronto. Usually not as cold as Ottawa, but winters can still be pretty brutal.

But this brutal, this late in the season?

Yes, according to The Weather Network earlier this morning, the temperature overnight will plummet to -59 degrees Centigrade next weekend.

Yikes. Where is global warming when we need it?

 Posted by at 7:01 pm