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.

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.

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.

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.

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 :-)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

I 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.

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.

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…

The other day, creators of The Big Bang Theory (the television sitcom, not the cosmological theory) accomplished something astonishing.

They managed to replace in my mind the iconic number 42 (the answer to the Ultimate Question about Life, Universe and Everything, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams) with the number 43.

I am still reeling from the shock.

Obama won. He is not going to have an easy four years with an obstructionist Congress. And the route Republicans will chose in the wake of Romney’s defeat remains an open question. I hope they don’t turn further right; that would either marginalize them or lead a far-right candidate to the White House, and neither of those outcomes are pleasant to think about.

But the real winner of the night I think was Nate Silver of the The New York Times, who predicted the outcome with uncanny accuracy, state-by-state. The one state that has not been called yet by the networks? Florida, with Obama slightly in the lead. Nate Silver’s prediction? A 50.3% chance of Obama taking the state.

And the real losers were Fox News, I believe. Rather than facing the facts, they decided to question the wisdom of their own “decision desk”, live on the air. What a sad (not to mention ridiculous) moment.

Today, I was waiting for Fareed Zakaria’s GPS on CNN in vain. I had no idea at first why the program was preempted, but then on Reliable Sources, Howard Kurtz explained: Zakaria was was suspended by both Time and CNN for plagiarism.

Zakaria was caught by the conservative news watchdog site Newsbusters, for writing the following:

Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed: Indiana in 1820, Tennessee and Virginia in 1838, Alabama in 1839 and Ohio in 1859. Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

This was supposedly plagiarized from a New Yorker article by Jill Lepore, who wrote this:

As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed: Indiana (1820), Tennessee and Virginia (1838), Alabama (1839), and Ohio (1859). Similar laws were passed in Texas, Florida, and Oklahoma. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, the “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder. To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.”

Zakaria admitted making a “terrible mistake” and apologized. But wait a cotton-picking minute. What exactly happened here?

Lepore found some relevant data in a book by Adam Winkler. Most of the paragraph in question is just a summary of facts obtained from Winkler’s book, and a direct quote. Zakaria presumably found out about this book from Lepore’s article, and reprinted the same facts. But plagiarism? It’s not like the Lepore paragraph was full of original thoughts. Indeed, if I take the list of states and dates and the direct quotes out, very little original text remains:

Adam Winkler, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, documents the actual history in Gunfight […]. Guns were regulated in the U.S. from the earliest years of the Republic. Laws that banned the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813. Other states soon followed. As the governor of Texas (Texas!) explained in 1893 […]

Zakaria’s version:

As Adam Winkler, a constitutional-law scholar at U.C.L.A., demonstrates in a remarkably nuanced new book, “Gunfight” […], firearms have been regulated in the United States from the start. Laws banning the carrying of concealed weapons were passed in Kentucky and Louisiana in 1813, and other states soon followed. As the governor of Texas explained in 1893, […]

Perhaps it might have been wise for Zakaria to mention that this paragraph was based on Lepore’s article. But then, unlike papers written for scientific journals, newspaper articles are rarely sourced.

In any case, I just don’t see how this warrants a suspension and a public humiliation of a journalist who is respected around the world. Not to mention giving an undeserved opportunity for right-wing nuts who find even Zakaria’s centrist views much too liberal for their taste to rant again about the “liberal bias” of the “mainstream media”. A prime example comes from the blog site American Thinker: “wouldn’t it be prudent to cut him and let him paste away elsewhere? I mean, I know you have a Muslim quota to fill, but I’m sure there’s an acceptable replacement you could poach from Al Jazeera.” Huh? Yes, I know Zakaria was born a Muslim, but he is no more a practicing Muslim than I am a practicing Catholic. I guess these are the same “American thinkers” who cannot tell the difference between a Muslim and a Sikh when going on a murderous rampage. But then, who cares about such nuances when you can spew hate?