Feb 262017

In many ways, this is the most disturbing story I read in recent… days? Months? Maybe years?

The title is (relatively speaking, in this day and age) innocuous enough (if perhaps a little sensationalist): “Revealed: how US billionaire helped to back Brexit“. Yeah, sure. Billionaires are evil SOBs, we knew that already, and now a bit of investigative journalism dug up another reason why we should hate them. Big deal… you could be forgiven if you moved on to read something else, maybe the bit about Trump snubbing the White House Correspondence Dinner or Fox News using a phony “Swedish defense advisor” to curry favor with the President.

But if you choose to read this article, it reveals something else. It reveals how the Leave campaign in the Brexit vote received assistance provided by artificial intelligence software to build profiles of up to a million voters and create highly targeted campaigns on social media.

Back when the nightmare of the machines taking over was first discovered in the science fiction literature, it was usually envisioned as a clean break: First the humans are in charge, but then comes Judgment Day and the machines take over.

Reality is a lot messier, for both humans and machines. There is no clean break. The ever increasing power of the machines is harnessed by ever more reckless humans, manipulating humanity in unexpected ways. Machines manipulating elections or referenda at the bidding of sinister humans… in many ways, that is the worst of possible worlds.

It makes you feel helpless, for one: You realize that nothing you can do on social media, nothing you can say in your blog will amount to one iota, as the machines have an infinitely greater capacity to analyze data and assess outcomes.

And it also makes you fearful. AI (for now) has no compassion or conscience. It will lie or make up “fake news” without remorse. It will (for now) do its masters’ bidding, even if those masters are sociopaths.

So no, folks, don’t delude yourselves. Judgment Day may already be here. It’s just coming one little data point, one neural network, one deep learning algorithm at a time.

 Posted by at 9:03 am
Feb 022017

“After a second notices he ran it on db1 instead of db2″… This sentence (somewhat shortened, to make a fitting title) describes the beginning of a colossally effed up night at GitLab.com.

In response to a spike in system load, which resulted in lag on a replication server, the operator thought that maybe restarting the replication server with a clean slate is a good idea. So he decided to wipe the replication server’s data directory.

Unfortunately, he entered the command in the wrong window.

I feel his pain. I did make similar mistakes before, albeit on a much smaller scale, and the memories still hurt me, years later.

I have to commend GitLab for their exceptional openness about this incident, offering us all a valuable lesson. I note that others also responded positively, offering sympathy, assistance, and useful advice.

I read their post-mortem with great interest. In reaction, I already implemented something that I should have done years ago: changing the background color of some of the xterm windows that I regularly open to my Linux servers, to distinguish them visually. (“Create issue to change terminal PS1 format/colours to make it clear whether you’re using production or staging”).

Of course similar incidents and near misses also changed my habits over the years. I rarely delete anything these days without making a backup first. I always pause before hitting Enter on a command that is not (easily) reversible. I have multiple backups, and tested procedures for recovery.

Even so… as Forrest Gump says, shit happens. And every little bit helps, especially when we can learn from the valuable lessons of others without having to go through their pain.

 Posted by at 10:13 am
Nov 172016

It is rare these days that a piece of spam makes me laugh, but today was an exception. After all, it is not every day that I receive an e-mail notice, pretending (kind of) to be from UPS, informing me that my “crap” has been shipped:

Still trying to figure out though if the language was intentional, or simply a mistake made by a non-native English speaker unfamiliar with certain, ahem, idioms.

 Posted by at 1:16 pm
Sep 142016

Hey, I am getting famous again!

For the second time, Quora decided to feature one of my answers on their Forbes blog site. This one was in response to the question, “Is Theoretical physics a waste of resources”? I used the example of Maxwell’s prediction of electromagnetic waves to turn the question into a rhetorical one.

Forbes used a stock Getty image of some physicists in front of a blackboard to illustrate the blog post. Here, allow me to use the image of a bona fide blackboard, one from the Perimeter Institute, containing a few of the field equations of MOG/STVG, during one of our discussions with John Moffat.

Forbes used a stock Getty image of some physicists in front of a blackboard to illustrate the blog post. Here, allow me to use the image of a bona fide blackboard, one from the Perimeter Institute, containing a few of the field equations of MOG/STVG, during one of our discussions with John Moffat.

Anyhow, I feel honored. Thank you Quora.

Of course, I never know how people read my answers. Just tonight, I received a mouthful in the form of hate mail from a sarcasm-challenged defender of the US space program who thought that in my answer about astronauts supposedly having two shadows on the Moon, I was actually promoting some conspiracy theory. Duh.

 Posted by at 11:31 pm
Aug 252016

It was 25 years ago today that a Finnish chap by the name of Linus Torvalds made an announcement about a new operating system that he developed in the preceding few months. Nothing big and professional, he assured us, just a hobby project basically… but here it was, and he already got a command shell and the GNU C compiler working.

I have been using Linux for 23 of those 25 years. I became familiar with Linux when I took over sysop duties of the UNIX forum of the long defunct NVN (National Videotex Network).

I no longer have the original SLS (SoftLanding Linux) floppy images, though I am pretty sure even without checking they can be found in several archives online.

But I do have the announcement that I posted on the NVN UNIX forum page almost exactly 23 years ago, on September 1, 1993:

Welcome to the LINUX distribution on NVN!

The UNIX Forum data library now contains the complete set of files
making up the Softlanding Software (SLS) distribution of LINUX, the
popular *FREE* UNIX operating system clone.

The files are the most recent (version 0.99 patchlevel 12) as of
today, August 28, 1993.

The files were used by the UNIX SysOp to install a complete LINUX on
an 80386SX20 PC, with 4 Mb of RAM, a 68 Mb and a 42 Mb MFM hard disk
drive, an ATI VGAWonder super-VGA card with 512 kb video RAM, a
Microsoft mouse, a 5.25" high density floppy drive, and a 3.5" high
density drive, and an ATI2400etc/i internal modem. Brief assessment:
it works like a charm. So well, in fact, that I decided to keep it
and permanently convert my old 386SX to a LINUX host. I am already
using it as a dial-in system for my friends and business associates.

The files in this distribution are:

readme.sls this file
sls_info.zip miscellaneous text information files
rawrite.zip needed to create the A1 bootable LINUX disk
sls_a1_3.zip bootable floppy image for 3.5" 1.44 Mb drives
sls_a1_5.zip bootable floppy image for 5.25" 1.2 Mb drives
sls_a2.zip Minimum base system
sls_b1.zip Base system extras
sls_c1.zip Compilers
sls_d1.zip Documentation
sls_s1.zip Essential component source
sls_t1.zip TeX
sls_x1.zip X-Windows

All the files named sls_Sn.zip must be uncompressed under DOS and
copied onto separate floppies. The bootable LINUX floppy (disk A1)
can be created from sls_a1_3.zip or sls_a1_5.zip using the RAWRITE
program, supplied in RAWRITE.EXE.

It is suggested that you download sls_info.zip first, for additional
information. The files in this archive are text files readable under
DOS (lines end with CR/LF instead of LF only as they do under UNIX).

Please note that while the NVN UNIX does not (indeed, cannot) provide
support for LINUX, I will be glad to answer any of your questions. 
Also, if you are interested in a specific program, application, or
information file that is not included in the present distribution,
please let me know and I will see if I can obtain and upload it. If
you would like to run OSF/Motif on your LINUX system, you may not
have to wait too long; I am planning to try and obtain Motif in the
near future.

Good luck with your installation and I hope that the next time you
call, it will be with your LINUX system!


Before making this announcement, I already set Linux up on an old 386SX desktop computer that I was no longer using. Within a few months, this computer began to play a permanent role as my Internet server. Although it went through several hardware and software iterations, its basic identity remains the same: it’s the very same server on which these words appear.

 Posted by at 10:20 pm
Jul 132016

Today, I took the plunge. I deemed my brand new server (actually, more than a month old already) ready for action. So I made the last few remaining changes, shut down the old server, and rebooted the new with the proper settings… and, ladies and gentlemen, we are now live.

Expect glitches, of course. I already found a few.

The old server, of which I was very fond, had to go. It was really old, the hardware about 7 years. Its video card fan failed, and its CPU fan was also making noises. It was ultra-reliable though. I never tried to make this a record, but it lasted almost three years without a reboot:

$ uptime
 12:28:09 up 1033 days, 17:30, 4 users, load average: 0.64, 0.67, 0.77

(Yes, I kept it regularly updated with patches. But the kernel never received a security patch, so no reboot was necessary. And it has been on a UPS.)

This switcharoo was a Big Deal, in part, because I decided to abandon the Slackware ship in favor of CentOS, due to its improved security and, well, systemd. I know systemd is a very polarizing thing among Linux fans, but my views are entirely pragmatic: in the end, it actually makes my life easier, so there.

Anyhow, the new server has already been up 13 minutes, so… And it is a heck of a lot quieter, which I most welcome.

 Posted by at 12:45 pm
Jun 092016

Dictatorships can be wonderful places, so long as they are led by competent dictators.

The problem with dictatorships is that when the dictators go bonkers, there are no corrective mechanisms. No process to replace them or make them change their ways.

And now I wonder if the same fate may be in the future of Singapore, described by some as the “wealthiest non-democracy”.

The Ministry of Information and the Arts

To be sure, Singapore is formally democratic, with a multi-party legislature. But really, it is a one-party state that has enacted repressive legislation that require citizens engaging in political discussion to register with the government, and forbids the assembly of four or more people without police permission.

Nonetheless, Singapore’s government enjoyed widespread public support for decades because they were competent. Competence is the best way for a government, democratic or otherwise, to earn the consent of the governed, and Singapore’s government certainly excelled on this front.

But I am beginning to wonder if this golden era is coming to an end, now that it has been announced that Singapore’s government plans to take all government computers off the Internet in an attempt to improve security.

The boneheaded stupidity of this announcement is mind-boggling.

For starters, you don’t just take a computer “off the Internet”. So long as it is connected to something that is connected to something else… just because you cannot use Google or visit Facebook does not mean that the bad guys cannot access your machine.

It will also undoubtedly make the Singapore government a lot less efficient. Knowledge workers (and government workers overwhelmingly qualify as knowledge workers) these days use the Internet as an essential resource. It could be something as simple as someone checking proper usage of a rare English expression, or something as complex as a government scientist accessing relevant literature in manuscript repositories or open access journals. Depriving government workers of these resources in order to improve security is just beyond stupid.

In the past, Singapore’s government was not known to make stupid decisions. But what happens when they start going down that road? In a true democracy, stupid governments tend to end up being replaced (which does not automatically guarantee an improvement, to be sure, but over time, natural selection tends to work.) Here, the government may dig in and protect its right to be stupid by invoking national security.

Time will tell. I root for sanity to prevail.

 Posted by at 1:45 pm
Jun 022016

This morning, Quora surprised me with this:

Say what?

I have written a grand total of three Quora answers related to the Quran (or Koran, which is the spelling I prefer). Two of these were just quoting St. Augustine of Hippo, an early Christian saint who advised Christians not to confuse the Book of Genesis with science; the third was about a poll from a few years back that showed that in the United States, atheists/agnostics know more about religion than religious folk from any denomination.

As to string theory, I try to avoid the topic because I don’t know enough about it. Still, 15 of my answers on related topics (particle physics, cosmology) were apparently also categorized under the String Theory label.

But I fail to see how my contributions make me an expert on either Islam or String Theory.

 Posted by at 11:18 am
Apr 292016

When you contribute on Quora as I do, Quora may reward you by declaring you a “most viewed writer” in select topics.

What I didn’t realize is that Quora’s powers reach not only beyond planet Earth, but also beyond the boundaries of our physical universe.

A few months ago, Quora declared me most viewed not just in this universe but in parallel universes:

But if you thought this cannot be topped, here is the latest: I am now a most viewed writer in the whole multiverse!

Wow. I really feel special.

 Posted by at 11:13 am
Apr 152016

Not for the first time, one of my Joomla! sites was attacked by a script kiddie using a botnet.

The attack is a primitive brute force attack, trying to guess the administrator password of the site.

The frustrating thing is that the kiddie uses a botnet, accessing the site from several hundred remote computers at once.

A standard, run-of-the-mill defense mechanism that I installed works, as it counts failed password attempts and blocks the offending IP address after a predetermined number of consecutive failures.

Unfortunately, it all consumes significant resources. The Joomla! system wakes up, consults the MySQL database, renders the login page and then later, the rejection page from PHP… when several hundred such requests arrive simultaneously, they bring my little server to its knees.

I tried as a solution a network-level block on the offending IP addresses, but there were just too many: the requests kept coming, and I became concerned that I’d have an excessively large kernel table that might break the server in other ways.

So now I implemented something I’ve been meaning to do for some time: ensuring that administrative content is only accessible from my internal network. Anyone accessing it from the outside just gets a static error page, which can be sent with minimal resource consumption.

Now my server is happy. If only I didn’t need to waste several hours of an otherwise fine morning because of this nonsense. I swear, one of these days I’ll find one of these script kiddies in person and break his nose or something.

 Posted by at 11:50 am
Apr 102016

I’ve been encountering an increasing number of Web sites lately that asked me to disable my ad blocker. They promise, in return, fewer ads.

And with that promise, they demonstrate that they completely and utterly miss the point.

I don’t want fewer ads. I don’t mind ads. I understand that for news Web sites, ads are an essential source of revenue. I don’t resent that. I even click on ads that I find interesting or relevant.

So why do I use an ad blocker, then?

In one word: security.

Malicious ads showed up even on some of the most respectable Web sites. Ad networks have no incentive to vet ads for security, so all too often, they only remove them after the fact, after someone complained. And like a whack-a-mole game, the malicious advertiser is back in no time under another name, with another ad.

And then there are those ads that pop up with an autostart video, with blaring sound in the middle of the night, with the poor user (that would be me) scrambling to find which browser tab, which animation is responsible for the late night cacophony.

Indeed, it was one of these incidents that prompted me to call it quits on ads and install an ad blocker.

So sorry folks, if you are preventing me from accessing your content because of my ad blocker, I just go elsewhere.

That is, until and unless you can offer credible assurance that the ads on your site are safe. I don’t care how many there are. It’s self-limiting anyway: advertisers won’t pay top dollar for an ad on a site that is saturated with ads. What I need to know is that the ads on your site won’t ruin my day one way or another.

 Posted by at 9:19 am
Feb 212016

Last night, when I almost managed to kill my server, I was playing with a service that I just discovered: Weather forecast in ASCII.

Well, almost ASCII. UTF-8 characters, to be precise. (And it was while messing with those xterm settings that I managed to enter a command using the wrong syntax.)

Still, it’s a nicely formatted three-day forecast suitable for text terminals. And it has pretty thorough world coverage.

I just hope the forecast holds up for Tuesday, as I’ll have quite a few errands to run that day and I’d prefer not to get stuck in a snowstorm.

 Posted by at 9:24 am
Jan 282016

There is an interesting paper out there by Guerreiro and Monteiro, published a few months ago in Physics Letters A. It is about evaporating black holes. The author’s main assertion is that because of Hawking radiation, not even an infalling ray of light can ever cross the event horizon: rather, the event horizon evaporates faster than the light ray could reach it, neatly solving a bunch of issues and paradoxes associated with black holes and quantum physics, such as the problems with unitarity and information loss.

I find this idea intriguing and very appealing to my intuition about black holes. I just read the paper and I cannot spot any obvious errors. I am left wondering if the authors appreciated that the Vaydia metric is not a vacuum metric (indeed, it is easy to prove that a spherically symmetric time-dependent solution of Einstein’s field equations cannot be a vacuum solution; there will always be a radial momentum field, carrying matter out of or into the black hole) but it has no bearing on their conclusions I believe.

Now it’s a good question why I am only seeing a paper that is of great interest to me more than six months after its publication. The reason is that although the paper appeared in a pre-eminent journal, it was rejected by the manuscript archive, arxiv.org. This is deeply troubling. The paper is certainly not obviously wrong. It is not plagiarized. Its topic is entirely appropriate to the arXiv subject field to which it was submitted. It is not a duplicate, nor did the authors previously abuse arXiv’s submission system. Yet this paper was rejected. And the most troubling bit is that we do not know why; the rejection policy of arXiv is not only arbitrary, it seems, but also lacks transparency.

This manuscript archive is immensely valuable to researchers. It is one of the greatest inventions of the Internet era. I feel nothing but gratitude towards the people who established and maintain this repository. Nonetheless, I do not believe that such an opaque and seemingly arbitrary rejection policy is justifiable. I hope that this will be remedied and that arXiv’s administrators will take the necessary steps to ensure that in the future, rejections are based on sound criteria and the decisions are transparently explained.

 Posted by at 5:51 pm
May 152015

Whenever I travel, I think a lot about Internet security. For purely selfish reasons: I do not wish to become a victim of cybercrime or unnecessarily expose my own systems to attacks.

The easiest way to achieve end-to-end encryption is through a virtual private network (VPN). Whenever possible, I connect to my own router’s VPN service here in Ottawa before doing anything else on the Interwebs. The connection from my router to the final destination is still subject to intercept, but at least my connection from whatever foreign country I am in to my own network is secure.

A VPN has numerous other advantages, not the least of which is the fact that to the outside world, I appear to have an Ottawa-based IP address; this allows me, for instance, to use my Netflix subscription even in countries where Netflix is not normally available.

The downside of the VPN is that I am limited by the outgoing bandwidth of my own connections. But in practice, this does not appear to be a serious limitation. (I was able to watch Breaking Bad episodes just fine while in Abu Dhabi.)

Unfortunately, a VPN is not always possible, as some providers, for reasons known only to them, block VPNs. (I can think of a few workarounds, but I have not yet implemented any of them.) Even in this case, I remain at least partially protected. I have set up my mail server such that both incoming (IMAP) and outgoing (SMTP) connections are fully encrypted. This way, not only are my messages secure, but (and this was my main concern) I also avoid leaking sensitive password information to an eavesdropper.

When it comes to Web sites, I use secure (HTTPS) connections whenever possible, even for “mundane” stuff like innocent Google searches. I also use SSH if necessary, to connect to my servers. These days, SSH is an absolute must; the use of Telnet is just an invitation for disaster.

But of course the biggest security risk while one is on the road is the use of a public Wi-Fi network anywhere. Connecting to an HTTP (not HTTPS) server through a public Wi-Fi network and logging in with your password may not be the exact equivalent of telegraphing your password to the whole wide world, but it comes pretty darn close. Tools that can be used to scan for Wi-Fi networks and analyze the data are readily available not just for laptops but even for smartphones.

Once an open Wi-Fi network is identified, “sniffing” all packets becomes a trivial exercise, with downloadable tools that are readily available. Which is why it is incomprehensible to me why, in this day and age, most providers (e.g., hotels, airports) that actually do require users to log in use an unsecure network and just intercept the user’s first Web query to present a login page instead, when the technology to provide a properly secured Wi-Fi network has long been available.

In the future, no doubt I’ll have to take even stronger measures to maintain data security. For instance, the simple PPTP VPN technology in my router has known vulnerabilities. Today, it may take several hours on a dedicated high-end workstation to crack its encryption keys; the same task may be accomplished in minutes or less on tomorrow’s smartphones.

So there really are two lessons here: First, any security is bettern than no security, as it makes it that much harder for an attacker to do harm, and most attackers will just move on to find lower hanging fruit. Second, no measure should give you a false sense of security: by implementing reasonable security measures, you are raising the bar higher, but it will never defeat a determined attacker.

 Posted by at 2:46 pm
Mar 312015

Social networking sites know a lot about you, and LinkedIn is no exception.

The other day, I noticed a cute tool (for all I know, it was around for years; I don’t visit LinkedIn that often) that graphically summarizes my LinkedIn connections. Here it is:

I was a bit surprised by the number of connections I seem to have from the San Francisco Bay area. I am also wondering about the correct interpretation of the Seniority plot. If you have a lot of senior connections, is it because of your own seniority, or is it because these were all your would-be bosses, but you were never able to find a good position and form good relationships with co-workers?

Then again, as far as I can determine, others may not even be able to view this graphic. That is, unless you are silly enough to post it to your blog for the world to see! Oh… what?!

 Posted by at 5:06 pm
Mar 272015

In an interview with Radio Free Europe, a former employee reveals what is a de facto Orwellian Ministry of Truth operated by Putin’s regime in Russia.

In St. Petersburg’s Internet Research center, professional Internet trolls are employed who post comments on various social media sites. The operation is sophisticated: employees play different roles, creating an impression of genuine debate in which, of course, the government line always prevails. Their activities sometimes become surreal, described as a parody of Orwell’s novel. But wait a cotton-picking minute… wasn’t it Orwell’s novel that was supposed to be the parody? What a strange world we live in.

 Posted by at 10:49 am
Mar 252015

Curse my suspicious nature.

Here I am, reading a very nice letter from a volunteer who is asking me to share a link on my calculator museum Web site to cheer up some kids:


And then, instead of doing as I was asked to do, I turned to Google. Somehow, this message just didn’t smell entirely kosher. The article to which I was supposed to link also appeared rather sterile, more like an uninspired homework assignment, with several factual errors. So I started searching. It didn’t take very long until I found this gem:

Then, searching some more, I came across this:

Or how about this one:

Looks like Ms. Martin has been a busy lady.

So no, I don’t think I’d be adding any links today.

 Posted by at 7:33 pm
Mar 232015

Emmy Noether… not exactly a household name, at least outside of the community of theoretical physicists and mathematicians.

Which is why I was so surprised today when I noticed Google’s March 23 Doodle: a commemoration of Emmy Noether’s 133rd birthday.

Wow. I mean, thank you, Google. What a nice and deserving tribute to one of my heroes.

 Posted by at 11:36 pm
Mar 142015

I hate software upgrades.

It is one of the least productive ways to use one’s time. I am talking about upgrades that are more or less mandatory, when a manufacturer ends support of an older version. So especially if the software in question is exposed to the outside world, upgrading is not optional: the security risk associated with using an unsupported, obsolete version is quite significant.

Today, I was forced to upgrade all my Web sites that use the Joomla content management system, as support for Joomla 2.5 ended in December, 2014.


What can I say. It was not fun. I am using some custom components and some homebrew solutions, and it took the better part of the day to get through everything and resolve all compatibility issues.

And I gained absolutely nothing. My Web sites look exactly like they did yesterday (apart from things that might  be broken as a result of the upgrade, that is.) I just wasted a few precious hours of my life.

Did I mention that I hate software upgrades?

 Posted by at 7:30 pm