Nov 072018

It was a last minute decision, but my wife was once again accepted as an artisan vendor, featuring her beautiful knitted hats, mittens and other things, at the Glebe Community Center’s annual Christmas Craft & Artisan Fair. She attended this fair every year for more than twenty years. I hope she will do well again this year.

I also hope that the Glebe Community Center will forgive my little Photoshopping efforts here, as I decided to copy-and-paste one of Ildiko’s designs onto their card advertising the Fair.

 Posted by at 9:03 pm
Nov 072018

A little over two years ago, I made a decision to stick with Google-branded smartphones running unmodified versions of the Android operating system. I got fed up with brand-name phones that rarely, if ever, received even important security updates and were often hopelessly behind Google releases even when they were brand new on the market.

Our Nexus 6P phones served us well, but recently, first in mine then in my wife’s phone, the battery started to lose charge much too rapidly. This, apparently, is a known and common problem with these Huawei-made phones. Given that Google’s support for the Nexus 6P was coming to an end this month anyway, I decided to look for new phones. I was hoping to get another zero-dollar deal from Rogers, which is how we got those two 6P’s in the first place.

What a disappointment. Sure, the Rogers Web site does show certain phones available at a deep discount, even at $0. But they are available only with certain plans. And the cheapest such plan that I could find would increase our combined phone bill by a whopping $35 (plus tax) per month. No matter how I look at it it seems like a ripoff. Thanks but no thanks. I might as well just go out and buy a pair of unlocked phones, I figured, instead of signing up for these ridiculously expensive plans.

So I started looking, and soon enough my attention was focused on phones produced under Google’s Android One program. This program makes it possible for manufacturers to produce phones that run unmodified (or minimally modified) versions of Android, with the same monthly security updates and same system update schedule that Google-branded phones enjoy.

And that’s when I stumbled upon the Nokia 6.1, also known as Nokia 6 (2018), a supposedly entry-level phone at the ridiculously low price of 320 Canadian dollars.

Nokia, you ask? Indeed, the Nokia brand is still alive, or perhaps coming back to life is a better way to describe it. Microsoft purchased Nokia’s devices business years ago, but in 2016, it sold the Nokia-branded feature phone business back to a newly formed Finnish company founded by former Nokia folks. It is this company that has since created a range of beautiful, low-cost, entry-level smartphones.

Well, the phone may be entry level, but this particular model (TA-1068) still has an octacore processor, 4 GB of RAM, 64 GB of storage, not to mention that it’s an unlocked, dual-SIM phone (or alternatively, I can have an SD card in the second SIM slot.) And it still has features like a fingerprint reader and NFC, not to mention an FM radio. Solidly built, with an elegant design, it does not feel like a cheap phone at all, quite the contrary.

And so far, its battery life proved spectacular. Here is what it showed moments ago:

OK, it was a few hours less than 3 days, and spent mostly at home. But I use this phone a lot!

My only worry was that after a reliable series of monthly updates (which the phone dutifully downloaded after initial setup, necessitating several reboots) there was no October security update and October came to an end. I was guessing that it was because we were waiting for the Android 9 Pie update instead. My suspicion proved correct; the phone is downloading Android 9 right now.

This phone reminds me of my current travel laptop, which I purchased over three years ago I think. It was a kind of emergency purchase; my old laptop was “on the fritz”, and I did not want to spend a lot of money, so I ended up buying this lightweight ASUS laptop for just over 400 dollars. Best purchase ever! My previous laptops, always in the $2000+ price range, consistently proved disappointing. Not this one. Even three and a half years later, it remains snappy, eminently useful, capable of running even decent games on its dual core (four virtual cores) i3 CPU. It also has a touchscreen, handy at times, and something else that’s increasingly rare: plain VGA video output, which makes it much easier to use when I give a talk using older projection equipment. Once I realized how much better this laptop was compared to my expectations, I swapped out its 500 GB hard drive in favor of an SSD and that, of course, also significantly improved its performance. All in all, it does not feel “old” at all, quite the contrary, it is a decent, capable machine that is still a joy to use when I travel.

Of course in the smartphone era, we rely on our laptops less and less. With the ability to check my e-mail and social media accounts on the phone, I found that sometimes I would not even turn on my laptop for days while I am traveling, especially if I am not traveling on business.

 Posted by at 3:47 pm
Oct 182018

Just got back from The Perimeter Institute, where I spent three very short days.

I had good discussions with John Moffat. I again met Barak Shoshany, whom I first encountered on Quora. I attended two very interesting and informative seminar lectures by Emil Mottola on quantum anomalies and the conformal anomaly.

I also gave a brief talk about our research with Slava Turyshev on the Solar Gravitational Lens. I was asked to give an informal talk with no slides. It was a good challenge. I believe I was successful. My talk seemed well received. I was honored to have Neil Turok in the audience, who showed keen interest and asked several insightful questions.

 Posted by at 11:53 pm
Sep 202018

There is a white rabbit who set up residence near my wife’s allotment garden.

This is obviously not a wild animal. He may be okay for now, but for how long? How long before either a predator finishes it off, or bad weather sets in?

In short, I think it needs a home. I have no idea what to do with a rabbit and we have two cats already. But perhaps a good soul sees this post…

 Posted by at 12:29 am
Sep 192018

Outraged over ever increasing phone bills, today I decided to cancel our second landline.

We used to use this line a fair deal. It was, back in the days of dial-up modems, my phone line for incoming dial-up calls (e.g., when I was traveling) and also a means to maintain a backup, low-speed Internet connection. It was occasionally used by my wife, as it was the line to which a dual-mode Skype-and-landline phone was connected.

And, of course, it was used for that miracle of 20th century technology: facsimile transmissions.

Of course, this is 2018 now, and I have not used a dial-up data connection in at least a decade. No travel computer of mine had a modem, in fact, since the early 2000s. My old travel kit, containing various country-specific phone plugs, even a screwdriver and alligator clips, lies on a shelf, forgotten. And Skype? Microsoft betrayed many Skype users, myself included, when they irreversibly changed the Skype protocol, rendering old Skype-compatible hardware useless. Yes, I feel a bit bitter about it… I liked that Skype phone, I even fixed it once when its original microphone died and had to be replaced. Now it’s just another worthless piece of junk electronics. And once the Skype phone was no longer useful for, well, Skype, my wife also stopped using it as a landline phone, opting instead to use her mobile phone for local calls.

As for faxes… How quaint. Faxes. When was the last time you sent a fax? Or received one? I cannot remember.

To make a long story short, this second line has remained pretty much unused for the past year or two. Yet Bell kept ratcheting up the price. My most recent monthly phone bill for the two landlines reached $125, and that’s where I decided to draw the line. I called up Bell in the hope that they might have a decent offer for a long-time customer but no, nothing. In fact, it almost felt as if they wanted me to get rid of that second line. (Makes you wonder what the hell is going on there.) So… the second line has been terminated.

Well, supposedly anyway. It was at least six hours ago that Bell told me that the line would be deactivated within 15-120 minutes… but it still gives a dial tone, and I can still ring it. Go figure. I suspect the line will be dead tomorrow anyway.

 Posted by at 5:19 pm
Aug 212018

I have Google ads enabled on this site. Not really worth the effort; my blog site generates mere cents of revenue on a good day.

More recently, I noticed that Google started placing ads between paragraphs inside articles. I would like this if it improved the site’s profitability. But it didn’t.

And those ads are very disruptive, even when (or perhaps especially when) the ad is closely related to the content. Recently, I found myself apologizing more than once when I showed a blog post to someone, because of the silly, disruptive ads in the middle.

What can I say? I turned these ads off. I like Google ads as a source of revenue, but this was taking it one step too far.

 Posted by at 8:38 pm
Aug 212018

Yesterday, I received a nice surprise via e-mail: A link to a new article in Astronomy magazine (also republished by Discover magazine) about our efforts to solve the Pioneer Anomaly.

I spent several years working with Slava Turyshev and others on this. It was a lot of very hard, difficult work.

As part of my (both published and unpublished) contributions, I learned how to do precision modeling of satellite orbits in the solar system. I built a precision navigation application that was sufficiently accurate to reconstruct the Pioneer trajectories and observe the anomaly. I built a semi-analytical and later, a numerical (ray-tracing) model to estimate the directional thermal emissions of the two spacecraft.

But before all that, I built software to extract telemetry from the old raw data files, recorded as received by the Deep Space Network. These were the files that lay forgotten on magnetic tape for many years, eventually to be transferred to a now obsolete optical disc format and then, thanks to the efforts of Larry Kellogg, to modern media. My own efforts, to make sense of these telemetry files, is what got me involved with the Pioneer Anomaly project in the first place.

These were fun days. And I’d be lying if I said that I have no tinge of regret that in the end, we found no anomalous acceleration. After all, confirmation that the trajectories of these two Pioneers are affected by an unmodeled force, likely indicating the need for new physics… that would have been tremendous. Instead, we found something mundane, relegated (at best) to the footnotes of science history.

Which is why I felt a sense of gratitude reading this article. It told me that our efforts have not been completely forgotten.

 Posted by at 8:05 pm
Jul 162018

MJ the cat has been a regular visitor in our neighborhood in the past 13 years. Spotting him on a bright March day was always regarded by us as the first sign of spring after a long, dark, cold winter.

Alas, MJ is about to depart this world. He was taken by someone to the Humane Society’s shelter a few days ago. He has since been reunited with his owner, but we learned the bad news: he is very ill, and he will be euthanized tonight.

Goodbye, MJ. The neighborhood will not be the same without you. I can only hope that spring will still come next year.

 Posted by at 1:01 pm
Jun 202018

And in case anyone wonders why these “evildoers” from South America are ignoring American law and cross the border illegally…

They do so because they are prevented from legally presenting themselves at a port of entry by US border agents.

Today, I e-mailed our Member of Parliament, Mona Fortier, asking her to urge our government and our Prime Minister to suspend the “safe third country” agreement with the United States. A country that behaves in this manner is not a safe third country by any stretch of definition.

Dear Ms. Fortier,

As one of your loyal constituents, I’d like to urge you to press our Government and our Prime Minister to consider suspending the Safe Third Party agreement with Trump’s America. What is happening in the United States is unconscionable (and in a case of life imitating art, eerily resembling story elements from The Handmaid’s Tale) and now, especially with that country’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, I believe this step would not only be justified but outright necessary, in order to protect our Canadian values, which, I know, you, your party, and our Government strongly believe in.


Viktor T. Toth

 Posted by at 4:47 pm
Jun 022018

World, meet MJ the cat:

MJ has been visiting us for many years. This is the fourteenth summer, as a matter of fact, that he shows up on our doorstep from time to time. He introduced numerous other cats from the neighborhood, including our beloved Pipacs whom we adopted 11 years ago.

We knew that MJ was alright, because we’ve seen him on his own front porch not too long ago. But we were wondering if this aging kitty would still feel sufficiently adventurous to visit us. Well… here he is again. I just hope that he is careful when crossing Cobourg Street. It’s wide, with plenty of bus traffic. I hope he has a safe journey home.

 Posted by at 1:06 am
May 242018

For years now, we’ve been insuring our cats with Trupanion. We picked this insurer because they offered something we actually wanted: insurance for catastrophic expenses. (We don’t need an insurer to cover routine exams and vaccinations.)

We expected professional and courteous service from Trupanion, and that’s what we always received. Even when specific claims were denied, the explanation was always clear, unambiguous, and consistent with their written policies. We never had any complaints.

What we did not expect was this level of personalized care: this postcard.

The back side, not reproduced here, contains several hand-written offers of condolences from Trupanion employees on account of us losing our kitty Pipacs.

If their intent was to generate goodwill towards the company and view them as something more than just a faceless corporation, but rather, as a group of caring people, they certainly succeeded. Thank you. I have a feeling that we are going to remain your loyal customers for years to come.

 Posted by at 1:09 pm
May 112018

This was our not quite 12-year old kitten, Pipacs, just over an hour ago, less than fifteen minutes before he was euthanized.

It appears that we picked the right time as it was the end of the line for him anyway. His bladder was now blocked by the bone tumor that he has been battling with so bravely for the past three years, beating all odds (and using up all nine of his lives) in the past three months in particular. So quite likely, he would have died a much more painful death soon, perhaps within the next 24 hours.

We are now a two-cat household. Good-bye, Pipacska. It was a privilege to have you for the past ten and a half years.

 Posted by at 1:25 pm
Apr 162018

Well, that would be Victor Gabriel Toth, not me, but nonetheless, it is still creepy to see an obituary in the Ottawa Citizen containing, albeit with a minor spelling variation, my name.

I never met this Victor Toth, even though at one point, I was told, I might have been working just two floors above him at the Nortel building on Merivale Road, a building in which several floors were rented by Canada Post.

Well, Victor Toth, you had a long life and, I hope sincerely, a happy one. I hope your family is not so much grieving as celebrating your long life.

Then again, I also sincerely hope that I won’t be following in your footsteps anytime soon, as I have plenty more to do in this world before it’s my time to depart.

 Posted by at 1:11 pm
Apr 142018

Yesterday, we said goodbye to our old car, a very nice Honda Accord that served us faithfully for four years.

The lease expired, so we opted to lease a new one. Another Honda Accord. (Incidentally, 2018 marks the 30th year that I’ve been purchasing Hondas, from this very same dealership.)

The old car was nice. The new car… Well, it’s amazing what even four years can mean these days when it comes to vehicle automation.

The level of automation in this vehicle is amazing. It can start itself, it can steer itself. It has full situational awareness, with radar all around. Apparently, it even monitors the driver for alertness (I’ll have to read up on exactly how it accomplishes that.) During the short drive home, it once applied the brakes when its adaptive cruise control was on and someone moved into the lane ahead of us. It was braking a little harder than I’d have preferred, though. And at one point, as the lane markings were a little ambiguous, it gently resisted my attempt to depart from what it thought was the correct lane.

In principle, it appears, this car has all the components for it to be fully autonomous, except that perhaps its array of sensors is not sufficient for it to be fully safe. But really, the only thing missing is the software. And even the way it is, it is beginning to feel more like a partner in driving than a dumb machine; a partner that also has a well-developed instinct for self-preservation.

Welcome to the future, I guess.

 Posted by at 9:54 pm
Mar 202018

Our kitty Pipacs is still doing okay.

Today, he managed to show the oddest of faces when my wife attempted to take a picture:

Don’t worry, he was just yawning.

What we haven’t seen is any poop from him in the past 36 hours or so, and he seemed to be a bit under the weather at times. I hope it doesn’t mean that his bowel is obstructed again. We know he’s living on borrowed time, but we hope that there is still a little bit more time out there for him to borrow.

 Posted by at 8:57 pm
Mar 182018

Anybody interested in hiring a competent TV repairman?

No, just kidding. Nobody makes a living from TV repair anymore. (On the other hand, if you are interested in hiring a competent IT contract professional… but I digress.)

Still, I have this compulsion, trying to repair broken things even when they have little or no practical utility. So it came to be that I felt compelled to repair this old SANYO AVM-2664U analog 26″ CRT TV, with a circuit board that was buzzing louder than a hive of angry wasps, as shown in this thermal infrared video which I made while I was hunting for possible hotspots on the circuit board:

Eventually, I managed to track down the problem: One lousy little capacitor.

As I told my wife, it would be fun, doing this for a living. Unfortunately, nobody is likely to pay hundreds, maybe even thousands of dollars to repair an old television set that not even thrift stores want anymore (too heavy, too obsolete). Yet another perfectly useless skill in the year 2018.

 Posted by at 5:57 pm
Mar 102018

There is a very interesting concept in the works at NASA, to which I had a chance to contribute a bit: the Solar Gravitational Telescope.

The idea, explained in this brand new NASA video, is to use the bending of light by the Sun to form an image of distant objects.

The resolving power of such a telescope would be phenomenal. In principle, it is possible to use it to form a megapixel-resolution image of an exoplanet as far as 100 light years from the Earth.

The technical difficulties are, however, challenging. For starters, a probe would need to be placed at least 550 astronomical units (about four times the distance to Voyager 1) from the Sun, precisely located to be on the opposite side of the Sun relative to the exoplanet. The probe would then have to mimic the combined motion of our Sun (dragged about by the gravitational pull of planets in the solar system) and the exoplanet (orbiting its own sun). Light from the Sun will need to be carefully blocked to ensure that we capture light from the exoplanet with as little noise as possible. And each time the probe takes a picture of the ring of light (the Einstein ring) around the Sun, it will be the combined light of many adjacent pixels on the exoplanet. The probe will have traverse a region that is roughly a kilometer across, taking pictures one pixel at a time, which will need to be deconvoluted. The fact that the exoplanet itself is not constant in appearance (it will go through phases of illumination, it may have changing cloud cover, perhaps even changes in vegetation) further complicates matters. Still… it can be done, and it can be accomplished using technology we already have.

By its very nature, it would be a very long duration mission. If such a probe was launched today, it would take 25-30 years for it to reach the place where light rays passing on both sides of the Sun first meet and thus the focal line begins. It will probably take another few years to collect enough data for successful deconvolution and image reconstruction. Where will I be 30-35 years from now? An old man (or a dead man). And of course no probe will be launched today; even under optimal circumstances, I’d say we’re at least a decade away from launch. In other words, I have no chance of seeing that high-resolution exoplanet image unless I live to see (at least) my 100th birthday.

Still, it is fun to dream, and fun to participate in such things. Though now I better pay attention to other things as well, including things that, well, help my bank account, because this sure as heck doesn’t.

 Posted by at 12:59 pm