Oct 112015

I recently came across some frightening images on the Interwebs: Frames from a 2000 episode of The Simpsons (Trumptastic Voyage) lined up with real-life images of Donald Trump.

The similarities are uncanny.

Just what did the creators of The Simpsons know back in 2000? Is it just coincidence? Do they have a time machine? And how many of their other predictions will come true in the years to come?

 Posted by at 10:09 am
Jul 092015

In the past couple of days, I heard several commentators on CNN lament on the fact that China’s debt-to-GDP ratio is much higher (“three times” higher) than that of the US, and that this may be behind the current volatility of the Chinese stock market.

This, of course, is blatant nonsense. China’s government debt-to-GDP ratio is much lower than that of the US. It is in the low twenties, compared with over 100% in the United States. Here is a crude plot (crude because I graphically edited together two plots, but I had to change the vertical scale of one) that shows the two in comparison.

No, China doesn’t have a problem with government debt. China does have a problem with private debt. Look at this monstrous chart:


What this chart shows is alarming. No, still not three times the US private debt-to-GDP ratio (that factor of 3 only happens if you compare China’s total debt to US government debt, which is of course comparing apples to oranges), but it is significantly higher than that of the US. What’s worse is that China is still an emerging economy: in addition to the prosperous middle class of places like Shanghai, there are still close to (or more than?) a billion people in that country who live in third world poverty. (China’s per-capita GDP is $6,800; in the US, the figure is $53,000, nearly eight times higher.)

The wisdom I’ve been reading online is that an emerging economy just cannot afford to have the same level of private indebtedness as an advanced economy.

To be honest, I don’t know if it is true. For all I know, much of China’s debt is held by those who can actually afford it, the prosperous middle class with their SUVs and air conditioned homes in Shanghai or Guangzhou. Indeed, if we split China into two countries, one prosperous and one poor, the prosperous one may well qualify as an advanced economy, and it may be holding most of the debt.

Or not. But whatever the debt situation is in China or its impact on the stock market, it is still no excuse for CNN to keep babbling nonsense.

 Posted by at 10:09 am
May 212015

Local signal substitution or simultaneous substitution is when a cable company replaces the signal of a US station with that of a local Canadian station when the two broadcast the same show.

The idea is to give local stations a chance to earn more advertising revenue. A great idea when it works, but an absolute annoyance when it is done improperly.

Like tonight… when I am staying up late for the sole purpose of watching the very last David Letterman show.


The show runs longer than usual… not surprising.

What is also, sadly, not surprising, but annoying like hell, is when Rogers Cable rather inconsiderately cuts off the CBS signal at 12:37 AM, because in their book, Letterman should have shut up by then, and if he didn’t it’s his problem, not theirs, and according to their schedule, it’s now time to substitute another signal.

I so, so, so hope that one of these days, the CRTC will tell these buggers to bugger off and stop messing with the signal.

Then again, it probably won’t happen before this whole conventional television thing becomes entirely irrelevant anyway… and good riddance, too.

Fortunately, I was able to watch the rest of Letterman’s final show on another channel, the signal of which was not messed up by our favorite idiotic cable company. It did mess up my attempt to record the final show, though. And to think that they have the audacity to complain that the CRTC ended simultaneous substitution for the Super Bowl.

(I notice that in the meantime, somebody came to their frigging senses at Rogers, and the CBS signal is restored. Bravo. Better late than never, I suppose.)

 Posted by at 12:53 am
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
Feb 172015

Today, I successfully hacked one of my Rogers cable decoder boxes. No, not to do anything illegal, just to get composite video and demultiplexed stereo audio out of them, to make them more usable with the dual-tuner TV card that is in my desktop workstation.


This is the first time ever that I used the services of a custom printed circuit board manufacturer. My design worked on the first try. I am mighty proud of myself.

 Posted by at 7:57 pm
Feb 132015

Canadian liberals, rejoice: The network often dubbed “Fox News North” is no more. Reportedly, Sun News Network will stop broadcasting as early as 5 AM Eastern time this (Friday) morning.

I am certainly no fan of right-wing ideological propaganda and hatemongering, so it’s not like I will personally miss Sun News. But I still don’t cherish the idea that it was forced to close, after the CRTC denied it a license that would have granted the network a more lucrative spot on the cable dial. A core concept in a democracy is that even voices we despise can be heard. And if your views are based on real values, surely they would not be shaken by the fact that there was a news channel out there that occasionally challenged them.

To be sure, Sun News wasn’t exactly high quality television, but still… I don’t think their demise will make Canada a better place. Not to mention the 200+ jobs that are lost as a result.

 Posted by at 12:37 am
Jan 132015

The Moroccon-born, Muslim mayor of the city of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, has a message to Muslim extremists:

“But if you don’t like freedom, for heaven’s sake pack your bags and leave. If you do not like it here because some humorists you don’t like are making a newspaper, may I then say you can fuck off.”

He reportedly said this on live TV, and it wasn’t bleeped.

Thank you, Mr. Mayor.

 Posted by at 1:47 pm
Jan 072015

For years, I’ve been using the online TV guide provided by ZAP2IT to check what’s on TV. Generally speaking, I’ve been satisfied with their service.

Until last year, when they introduced a whole new layout. Which, in my considered opinion, was a significant downgrade (makes me wonder if they were perhaps inspired by Windows 8).

Today I noticed, to my considerable pleasure, that the old layout is back. I now have the option to “Switch to Classic View”. Which I promptly did, without hesitation and with no plans to change my mind.

Now I am no usability or ergonomics expert, but I do have 30-odd years of experience in IT, and I know a thing or two about user interface design. Here are two illustrations that show why, in my considered opinion, the old format is far superior to the new one. First, the new version, with some of its shortcomings highlighted:

And now here are the same shows, in the old format:

So much easier to view! So much easier to find things of interest!

When they switched to the new format, I wrote an e-mail to complain. I did not expect a meaningful response. Noticing the link today, inviting me to switch back to the old format, was a most pleasant New Year’s surprise. I wrote to them again, thanking them for making the old format available. I hope it stays that way.

I know, I know, let this be the biggest problem in my life, when people are suffering and dying in various corners of the world. For what it’s worth, I never for one moment forget how lucky I am to be able to enjoy the luxury of life in a country like Canada. But this stupid TV guide still bugged me :-)

 Posted by at 9:17 pm
Sep 232014

Dear CRTC: Please stop trying to protect us poor Canadians from evil companies like Netflix.

Video-on-demand is not broadcasting. The Internet is not the public airwaves. You have no business trying to bully companies just because they threaten the livelihood of lumbering, decrepit behemoths like Rogers.

I am a Rogers Cable subscriber. I have been a Rogers Cable subscriber ever since they purchased Ottawa Cablevision more than two decades ago.

What am I getting from Rogers? Here are a few examples:

  • Inept, sometimes openly contemptuous customer service (like, what kind of a backward moron am I for still wanting to use analog cable without a settop box?);
  • Technically substandard service (programs interrupted by local commercials that are inserted at the wrong time, substandard signal quality on some analog channels; an analog video frame that is reduced in size by a ratio of 59/60 for no apparent reason);
  • Overpriced, obsolete hardware and no opportunity to use non-Rogers equipment, e.g., with a subscriber identity card;
  • Unnecessary encryption on all digital channels (including local channels), which makes it impossible to use a TV without a settop box.

And you wonder why I am contemplating “cutting the cord”?

Instead of blaming Netflix, perhaps you can have a conversation with Rogers about addressing issues that alienate their customers. If you are not willing to do that, fine, then let the free market do its thing. But take your dirty regulatory paws off the Canadian Internet, please.

 Posted by at 10:18 am
Aug 132014

Last night, as I was watching the latest episode of Tyrant (itself an excellent show about a fictitious Middle Eastern dictatorship and its ruling family), I happened to glance at the TV during a commercial break just at the right split second to see this:

This was part of an ad, a Subway sandwich commercial, with an animated monkey handing this exam sheet back to a student (also a monkey). What caught my eye was the equation on this sheet. What??? Einstein’s field equations?

Yup, that’s exactly what I saw there, the equation \(G_{\alpha\beta}=\dfrac{8\pi G}{c^4}T_{\alpha\beta}\). General relativity.

Other, easily recognizable equations on the sheet included an equation of the electrostatic Coulomb force, the definition of the quantum mechanical probability amplitude, and the continuity equation.

What struck me was that all these are legitimate equations from physics, not gibberish. And all that in a silly Subway commercial. Wow.

 Posted by at 4:48 pm
Mar 232014

For the past week or so, CNN has been blabbering about the presumed fact that the pilots of the vanished flight, MH370, programmed a new route into the flight computer at some time between 1:07 and 1:19 AM.

This was, even according to one of their own experts, blatant nonsense. Wherever this information came from, it did not jive with the known facts. Namely that the ACARS system in board would not transmit a yet-to-be-executed flight plan to the ground even if they subscribed to the transmission of navigational data (which they didn’t.) And that the ACARS system on board was not scheduled to make another transmission until 1:37 AM, at which time it was no longer functional.

It became kind of obvious from sporadic comments that this “fact” was nothing but speculation, based on the presumed smooth turn the aircraft executed shortly after the last voice transmission; someone must have concluded that such a smooth turn was done by the flight computer, and thus it had to be entered into the flight computer, presumably after the last (1:07 AM) ACARS transmission.

None of this made any sense to me, and today, CNN confirmed my suspicions: Malaysian authorities assert that no air-to-ground transmission indicated a route change.

In response to this, CNN quickly presented the straight facts. Or they tried, anyway:

But… exactly where did they get the idea from that the last transmission showed normal routing all the way to Beijing? According to their own words, what Malaysian authorities said was that the last transmission did not show a preprogrammed turn. From this, you cannot conclude anything as to what it did show, especially given the fact, reported earlier, that the airline’s ACARS subscription did not cover navigational data in the first place.

Exactly what would it take for CNN to present the facts correctly, just once, without adding their own bits of creative fiction?

Update (2014/03/23): It appears that CNN is blameless at this point. The piece of creative fiction (if that’s what it is) apparently comes directly from Malaysia’s transportation ministry. That does not make it more believable, though, in my opinion.

 Posted by at 3:35 pm
Jan 132014

There are few things (OK, well, apart from most sports) that interest me less than Hollywood awards.

Nonetheless, tonight I was rooting for Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany, who pulled off an incredible feat in this remarkable sci-fi series, playing as many as seven (eight, by some count) totally different, fully developed characters.

At least she lost to an actress that I also like and respect, Robin Wright, known as Jenny from Forrest Gump, among other roles.

Still… I am upset.

 Posted by at 12:29 am
Oct 052013

One of my favorite programs on CNN is Reliable Sources, the channel’s press/media backgrounder. It used to be hosted by Washington journalist Howard Kurtz, who recently moved to Fox News, however, to host a similar program (Mediabuzz) there.

Since then, CNN has been using invited guest hosts to host the program. One of those guest hosts, Brian Stelter, appeared for the second time this past Sunday.

Near the end of his program, he delivered a scathing (well-deserved, but scathing) criticism of CNN itself, about the way the channel bent disclosure rules to accommodate hosts and guests on the new program Crossfire.

I wonder if they will invite him back. (Or maybe he doesn’t want to be invited back?)

 Posted by at 11:34 am
Jul 242013

I grumbled once in this blog already about the incessant Marineland commercials on most Canadian channels this time of the year.

I still hate (desperately hate! As in, hate more than the sound of a hundred piecees of chalk screeching on a hundred chalkboards) the song, but I was hesitant to give them more publicity in my blog.

Until I came across a story from last August about animal suffering at the park.

Not exactly unexpected, to be honest, though even the singer who sings that horrendous jingle found the accusations shocking. She’d now prefer to see the jingle’s tag line replaced with “All the whales haaaate Marineland!”.

And I do, too, now for more than one reason.

 Posted by at 8:20 am
May 252013

As I was watching the news unfold about the gruesome court case of an Ottawa husband who is accused of first abusing and then torturing his wife to death by scalding her and then denying her medical treatment, I was reminded of an award-winning Hungarian commercial about spousal abuse.


There are uncanny similarities between some of the details of the Hutt case and this commercial.

 Posted by at 11:54 am
May 072013

When I decided to visit London, I secretly hoped that if I am lucky, I’d spot the TARDIS, Dr. Who’s infamous “bigger on the inside than on the outside” time machine.

Thanks to Richard Bartle, my quest was not in vain. The TARDIS, as it turns out, is sitting quietly just outside one of the exits of the Earl’s Court Underground station.

Except that…  well, it’s not the real TARDIS. Instead, it’s just an ordinary blue police box, just like the one the TARDIS mimics, but unlike the TARDIS, this one is decidedly not bigger on the inside than on the outside. Still, it was fun to find.

 Posted by at 2:38 pm
Feb 152013

Chances are that if you tuned your television to a news channel these past couple of days, it was news from the skies that filled the screen. First, it was about asteroid 2012DA14, which flew by the planet at a relatively safe distance of some 28,000 kilometers. But even before this asteroid reached its point of closest approach, there was the striking and alarming news from the Russian city of Chelyabinsk: widespread damage and about a thousand people injured as a result of a meteor that exploded in the atmosphere above the city.

What I found rather distressing is just how scientifically illiterate the talking heads proved to be on television. First, it was CNN’s turn to be ridiculed after their anchor, Deborah Feyerick, actually asked the astonishing question, “Is this an effect of, perhaps, of global warming, or is this just some meteoric occasion?”

But then came the rest. I think it was on the Canadian network CTV (but I might be misremembering) where an anchor announced that an asteroid “the size of Texas” is about to fly by the Earth. Well… 2012DA14 is not the size of Texas, not unless Texas has shrunk a great deal since the last time I visited the Lone Star State (which was just a few weeks ago); the asteroid was only about 50 meters across.

And then the impact event in Russia. Initial estimates that I heard indicated an object weighing a few tons, traveling perhaps at 30 km/s; that’s still a significant amount of kinetic energy, maybe about a quarter or half of a kiloton if I am not mistaken. But then, a later and apparently more reliable estimate said that the object was perhaps 15 meters in diameter, traveling at 18 km/s. That, depending on the density of the object, is consistent with another estimate that I heard, 300 kilotons of energy released. If this latter estimate is valid, this means the biggest event since the Tunguska impact of 1908.

So where does the illiteracy come in?

One CNN anchor, describing the event, mentioned that thankfully, it occurred over a sparsely populated area, and the outcome would have been much worse had it occurred over a major population center. I wonder if residents of Chelyabinsk, a city of well over a million people, are aware that they qualify as a “sparsely populated area”.

And then there were the completely inconsistent size and mass estimates. A release by The Planetary Society spoke of an object 15 meters in diameter and weighing 8 tons. Say what? That’s just four times the density of air. The object in question actually weighed more like 8,000 metric tons.

Another CNN anchor was interrogating a physicist, wondering what causes these meteors to explode. The physicist was unable to explain coherently, and the anchor was unable to comprehend, the concept that it is just the kinetic energy of a very rapidly moving object that gets converted into heat pretty much instantaneously, heating up the air, which then rapidly expands and creates a shock wave. Come on guys, this is really not that hard!

Later in the afternoon, 2012DA14 finally did make its closest approach, as harmlessly as predicted, but there was obvious confusion in the news media about its visibility; yes, it was over the Indian Ocean at the time, but no, even there nobody could see it with the naked eye, much less find it “spectacular”.

I don’t think I am needlessly pedantic, by the way. On the contrary, I find it alarming that in our world which relies on increasingly sophisticated technology, people who are entrusted with the task of keeping us informed are this illiterate on matters of science and technology. Or even geography.

 Posted by at 10:44 pm
Jan 122013

I only noticed it in the program guide by accident… and I even missed the first three minutes. Nonetheless, I had loads of fun watching last night a pilot for a new planned Canadian science-fiction series, Borealis, on Space.

Borealis 24

The premise: a town in the far north, some 30 years in the future, when major powers in the melting Arctic struggle for control over the Earth’s few remaining oil and gas resources.

In other words, a quintessentially Canadian science-fiction story. Yet the atmosphere strongly reminded me of Stalker, the world-famous novel of the Russian Strugatsky brothers.

I hope it is well received and the pilot I saw last night will be followed by a full-blown series.

 Posted by at 12:41 pm
Dec 252012

Deforest_Kelly_Dr_McCoy_Star_TrekI am so not into “franchise” novels, novels that are written-to-order, set in the universe of an established franchise like Star Trek. Like franchise computer games, franchise novels tend to be hollow, weak, transparent attempts to capitalize from the success of the original work.

I like Star Trek. Over the years, I did read the occasional Star Trek “franchise” story, but they did not leave much of an impression. So I was not particualrly motivated to read another.

That said, when I recently read about Provenance of Shadows by David R. George III, a franchise novel written to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the series, for reasons I can no longer recall I became sufficiently intrigued to read the sample chapters on Google Books. They were enough to get me to buy the book. I do not regret doing so.

Spoiler alert

This book tells the story of an alternate timeline. Namely, the alternate timeline created by the events in the famous Star Trek episode “The City at the Edge of Forever”, in which Dr. McCoy finds himself in 1930 and, as we later learn, by preventing the death of a social worker, gravely alters history. The social worker, Edith Keeler, is a devoted pacifist; in the alternate timeline, she launches a pacifist movement that becomes powerful enough to delay the entry of the United States into World War II. This gives Hitler a chance to achieve victory on the Eastern Front, Japan a chance to conquer much of the South Pacific including New Zealand and parts of Australia, and most alarmingly, gives the Nazi atomic bomb project a head start.

I find this “alternate history” timeline compellingly believable. We tend to think that the defeat of the Nazis was a historical inevitability but it was by no means preordained. Suppose the United States adopts a different posture in the Pacific in the late 1930s and early 1940s, so that Japan has easier access to raw materials and oil, and feels less threatened by the US Navy. Suppose this convinces Japan that defeating the US is not a priority. No Pearl Harbor in 1941 means no opportunity for Stalin to move a huge, well-equipped and experienced winter fighting force from Siberia to Moscow, and the first successful Soviet counteroffensive never happens. There is a good chance, then, that Hitler would have captured Moscow in early 1942 and after that, Stalin’s government may have collapsed. With the resources of the Soviet Union secured, Hitler would have finished “pacifying” Western Europe, including Great Britain. Had this happened, the world in which we live would be a very different place today.

McCoy’s struggles to avoid altering history and later, to understand how he altered history, and his struggles to come to term with his own demons both in this alternate history and also, back in the 23rd century in the original timeline, make this book a compelling read. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

 Posted by at 2:58 pm
Nov 202012

I like the CBC. CBC Radio 2 is pretty much the only radio station I listen to these days (though I admit I liked them a great deal more before they changed the station’s format and eliminated some unique programs, most notably Jurgen Gothe’s Disc Drive). In the evenings, I like to watch local news on CBC Ottawa. CBC Newsworld still has some excellent documentaries. And so on.

The CBC is about to have its licenses renewed. It is asking the CRTC for “more flexibility”, including permission to run commercials on Radio 2. And this makes me pause. Do we really need the CBC?

Yes, I think Canada needs a public broadcaster. One that is dedicated to provide Canadians with unbiased information; one that takes on a role of cultural leadership.

But no, we absolutely do not need an ill-managed private broadcaster that loses a billion dollars a year in public funds.

I have heard of the conspiracy theory that Stephen Harper’s government is purposefully allowing the CBC to be steered in this direction, as a means to devalue and, ultimately, destroy the CBC for ideological reasons. I don’t like conspiracy theories but I admit I sometimes wonder…

 Posted by at 8:43 am