Apr 302009

According to CNN, the government of Egypt began slaughtering pigs; according to RFE, Tajikistan banned the import of pork and poultry from certain countries.

Are these politicians really this bone dead stupid, or are they playing politics? Have they not heard that just because it’s swine flu, you a) cannot get it from eating pork, and b) it’s an imminent pandemic not because it’s carried by pigs (it isn’t, never mind the origin of the virus), but transmitted from human to human?

When an entire country acts in such a boneheaded way, I begin to wonder how long before a politician somewhere manages to make a really bad decision and wipes us all out. It might happen yet!

 Posted by at 7:29 pm
Apr 272009

It’s April 27, in Ottawa, supposedly the second (third? sixth?) coldest capital city in the world. The temperature outside is presently 30.5°C outside (30°C according to the Weather Network) and still rising. Weren’t we wondering this time last year (okay, maybe a little earlier, but just a little) whether or not we were going to break the all-time snowfall record?

 Posted by at 8:15 pm
Apr 272009

I’ve run the first realistic tests of the kind of computation that I am planning to perform on my new machine with the GPU “supercomputer” card. Here is a “before” picture:

Self-gravitating star cluster on the CPU

Self-gravitating star cluster on the CPU

And now, the exact same program running on the GPU:

Self-gravitating star cluster on the GPU

Self-gravitating star cluster on the GPU

I’d say that’s quite an improvement. To say the least.

The calculation in this case computed the self-gravitational forces in a cluster of 10,000 stars… it seems that the GPU can perform this computation at least 20 times a second. That’s quite remarkable.

 Posted by at 6:13 pm
Apr 262009

There is this on-going debate as to whether the Obama administration should or should not prosecute officials of the Bush administration who formulated “enhanced interrogation” policies. Some suggest that it is unfair to prosecute people who were merely performing their official duties.

Oh really? So why did we prosecute Nazis? Adolf Eichmann said it most eloquently in his memoirs: he was only following orders, and his desire in life was to perform his duties superbly and please his superiors. So why did we not give him a freaking medal instead of hanging him?

It might be politically expedient for Obama not to prosecute anyone. But don’t try to suggest please that somehow, it is the “right” thing to do. The only right thing to do is to hold people fully accountable for what they had done, especially people at the top who made key decisions. Like, people who authorized torture, people who asked for, and drafted, legal opinions that authorized torture in a language that would have made Orwell proud.

 Posted by at 2:13 pm
Apr 252009

Watching the outrage over the DHS memos that purportedly target all Americans on the political right as potential enemies of the state, I have come to the realization that a great many political conspiracy theories are based on a trivial error in formal logic: namely, that the implication operator is not commutative.

The implication operator, AB (A implies B) is true if A is false (B can be anything) or if both A and B are true. In other words, it is only false if A is true but B is false. However, AB does not imply BA; the former is true when A is false but B is true, but the latter isn’t.

Yet this is what is at the heart of many conspiracy theories. For instance, a DHS report might say, that those on the fringe of the political right are motivated by the Obama government’s more permissive stance on stem cell research. Some draw the conclusion that this report implies that all who are troubled by Obama’s stance on this issue must be right-wing extremists. I could write this symbolically as follows: we have

member(e, s) → prop(e, p)

where member(e, s) means that e is a member of set s, and prop(e, p) means that e has property p. This symbolic equation cannot be reversed: it does not follow that prop(e, p) → member(e, s).

A closely related mistake is the confusion of the universal and existential operators. The existential operator (usually denoted with an inverted E, but I don’t have an inverted E on my keyboard, so I’ll just use a regular E), E(s, p) says that the set s has at least one member to which property p applies. The universal operator (denoted with an inverted A; I’ll just use a plain A), A(s, p) says that all members of set s have property p. Clearly, the two do not mean the same. Yet all too often, people (on both sides of the political aisle, indeed a lot of the politically correct outrage happens because of this) make this error and assume that once it has been asserted that E(s, p), it is implied that A(s, p). (E.g., a logically flawless statement such as “some blacks are criminals” is assumed to imply the racist generalization that all blacks are criminals.)

One might wonder why formal logic is not taught to would be politicians. I fear that in actuality, the situation is far worse: that they do know formal logic, and use it to their best advantage assuming that you don’t.

 Posted by at 12:27 pm
Apr 242009

I built a new computer. It is a fairly decent computer, but what makes it special is its video card: it is a card that, in addition to producing graphics, can also be used for numerical computations.

The raw speed of the card is one TFLOP. That is, one trillion (single-precision) floating-point instructions per second.

It wasn’t that long ago that not even the world’s biggest supercomputer came even close to this kind of computing power.

I wonder how many such GPU cards are presently being used in places like Iran’s or North Korea’s weapons laboratories. And it’s not like it’s easy to ban their exports to such countries… the card, while bearing the ATI/AMD logo, was nonetheless manufactured in China.

 Posted by at 11:51 am
Apr 212009

One issue repeatedly discussed by talking heads (including Dick Cheney) on CNN is whether or not torture works. As if the end, in this case, could justify the means.

Frankly, I don’t care if torture works. Civilized people don’t torture, period. Sure, it makes it harder to maintain security, just as other outdated ideas like freedom of speech or freedom of association make it harder to maintain security. But that is the price of liberty, as has been observed by many, including America’s Founding Fathers.

Incidentally, I can think of an exception. Suppose I am a NYC police officer and it comes to my knowledge that a terrorist in my custody has set up an atomic bomb in the city. I only have minutes. I beat him to a pulp, break a few bones and all that, and he tells me the location and deactivation code of the bomb. I save the city. Then, I might stand trial for torturing the terrorist, but receive a presidential pardon due to exceptional circumstances. Yes, I can imagine something like that.

What I cannot imagine is the government of a civilized country authorizing torture in advance, as a matter of policy. Civilized countries just don’t do this. It’s really that simple, and I don’t care what Dick Cheney thinks… indeed, maybe Obama is wrong and Cheney should stand trial and spend some quite time in jail, which would give him an opportunity to think and reconsider his stance.

 Posted by at 12:37 pm
Apr 202009

I am watchin Deep Impact tonight, a ten-year old film about a comet impacting the Earth. Why the Canadian History Channel is showing this film is a good question. Future history? Imagined history?

But putting that question aside, the movie made me go to Wikipedia again, and I ended up (re-)reading several articles there relating to the issue of global warming and controversies surrounding it.

One thing that struck me (and not for the first time) is this: criticism of global warming theories are often dismissed by the assertion that these go “against the mainstream” or are “not supported by scientific consensus.”

And global warming is by no means the only area of science where such arguments are frequently invoked. Take two topics that I have become involved with. There is scientific consensus that the inadequacy of Einstein’s theory of gravitation to explain the rotation of galaxies and large scale features of the universe is due to “dark matter” and “dark energy”. Even though no one knows what dark matter (or dark energy) is made of, and no one actually detected any dark matter or dark energy ever, the idea is treated as fact. True, dark matter theory can explain a few things and even made a few minor (but nonetheless impressive) predictions, but that doesn’t necessarily make it true, and it certainly doesn’t make the theory the only kid on the block worth considering. Still, try proposing an alternative gravity theory: no matter how firmly rooted in real physics it is, you will be fighting an uphill battle.

Or take the Higgs boson. This hypothetical particle (often along with the graviton) is often portrayed as if it has already been detected. It hasn’t. Indeed, the only thing experiments have accomplished to date is that they excluded the possibility that the Higgs boson exist at nearly the two-σ level. There are also significant unresolved issues with the Higgs boson that put the theoretical validity of the idea into question. Yet the “scientific consensus” is that the Higgs boson exists, and if you try to propose a quantum field theory without the Higgs, well, good luck!

Just to be clear about it, I am not saying that the climate skeptics got it right, and for all I know, maybe there is dark matter out there in abundant quantities, along with Higgs bosons behind every corner. But not because this is what the “scientific consensus” says but because the theory is supported by facts and by successful predictions. Otherwise, the theory remains “just a theory”, as the creationist crowd likes to say… neglecting the inconvenient fact that, of course, the theory of evolution is supported by an abundance of facts and successful predictions.

 Posted by at 2:55 am
Apr 192009

I’ve known the name of Eduardo Rozsa-Flores, as I’ve read his memoirs, published in the 1990s, about his participation in the Yugoslav war. He’s of Hungarian-Bolivian descent, described as an adventurer, writer, publicist, and journalist (among other things) by the Hungarian edition of Wikipedia.

He was certainly a strange and colorful character, but nonetheless, I did not expect him to be shot dead by Bolivian police in an alleged plot to assassinate the Bolivian president, Evo Morales. Was Rozsa-Flores really an assassin, or is it just another sign of the deterioration of the Bolivian republic under the rule of an, ahem, colorful individual in the role of president? Maybe we will find out one day. I’m not holding my breath.

 Posted by at 2:44 am
Apr 172009

It is now official: the United States tortured suspected terrorists between 2001 and 2008.

President Obama wisely chose not to prosecute people. The purpose of bringing these memos to light was not to launch a witchhunt but the bring about a clean slate.

However, I am mildly amused (if that’s the right word) by the interpretation that I hear from some commentators: that CIA agents who engaged in torture should not be prosecuted since they acted in good faith, following the orders and explanations of their superiors.

But… during the Nurenberg trials, has it not been established that individuals cannot use this as their defense? That they are responsible for criminal acts even if they acted in good faith and under orders from their superiors?

 Posted by at 2:18 am
Apr 162009

I’m watching news coverage of these tax day protests in America, and I am appalled.

First, I find it curious that when the Bush government built up what was, up to that date, the biggest U.S. budget deficit in history, these protesters were silent. Of course, those taxes were needed to wage an unnecessary war. But now, that the Obama administration is piling up unprecedented amounts of debt to save the national economy, suddenly they’re protesting? Isn’t that a little hypocritical?

Another point, however, concerns the nature of the protests. The signs they’re holding up, accusing Obama of socialism or Marxism. Now pray tell me, exactly how’s that different from when left-wing extremists held up images of Bush with a swastika on his forehead?

The difference is that on the left, such extremism is not the mainstream. On the (American, though not only the American) right, it is part of the mainstream now.

I used to consider myself a conservative and I used to root for the right. Maybe one day I’ll do that again. But first, the right will have to redefine itself in terms of something other than what they hate.

 Posted by at 1:21 pm
Apr 122009

Once again, I clicked on a FOX News link from Google News, and I found a FOX News page that contained not just the Christian mom makes $5K/month ad that I lamented on previously, but also a link to a fake antivirus site… a link which Firefox promptly blocked, but still, what is such a link doing on a legitimate news network’s Web site? Am I seeing things here?

 Posted by at 2:33 pm
Apr 092009

If your job is security related, one particularly rapid way to find yourself unemployed is treating confidential material carelessly. This is true even if you happen to be Britain’s counter-terrorism chief… talk about an oops moment.

Bob Quick's documents

Bob Quick's documents

 Posted by at 8:02 pm
Apr 082009

I have no idea what Tamil protesters in downtown Ottawa want. Nor do I care.

But if they think that blocking traffic and effectively shutting down public transportation on a busy weekday afternoon in the middle of a spring snowstorm is a way to garner sympathy… well, perhaps it’s time to think again. Whatever their demonstration is for, I am against it.

 Posted by at 3:39 am
Apr 072009

Yes, according to CNN there are signs that an early and strong recovery may be on its way:

Signs of recovery

I tend to agree. I began to wonder weeks ago if things perhaps look a little bit brighter than the gloomy news suggest. I guess this will make Republicans unhappy… how can Obama fail if the economy recovers?

 Posted by at 3:09 pm
Apr 062009

I’ve been watching Obama speaking in Prague the other day, and the background was eye-popping. It almost looked like Obama was on a soundstage… in the foreground, everything looked crisp and sharp, but the city in the background just vanished in thick fog. It almost looked surreal (or like an alien planet in an old Star Trek episode.)

Obama in Prague Obama in Prague
 Posted by at 9:45 pm
Apr 052009

Whatever my opinion is of the “fair and balanced” editorial policies of FOX News, I had no reason to doubt that the company itself was a legitimate business.

Until now.

As I was searching for news on North Korea’s failed rocket launch, one link I clicked on was that of a FOX News posting on this story. The page came up, along with the usual series of ads… except that one of them looked more than a little unusual. Not the kind of ad you expect to see on a legitimate Web site.

It said, “Christian Mom Makes $5k/M”. And sure enough, it’s a scam. The Web site, registered in December 2008, just reeks of fakeness; fake life story, fake testimonials, further postings “disabled due to spam”. Not to mention that what it actually sells, the so-called “Google Home Business Kit”, is not worth anything… you can make money with Google (google.com/adsense) but you don’t need to buy any “home business kits” to do so, and you’re unlikely to make $5,000 or even $500 a month.

So perhaps FOX was duped when they accepted the ad of a scamster? I was tempted to give them the benefit of the doubt but then I scrolled to the bottom of the page where this ad was repeated along with two other advertisements. One was titled “I’m Happy I Lost My Job”. Same idea: fake Web site, fake testimonials, $5,000/month, Google Home Business Kit. The person this Web site supposedly belongs to claims to have come from the Ottawa area. Does this mean that the ad was, in fact, geographically targeted because my IP address puts me in Ottawa, and any scamster knows that I am more likely to believe an ad if it comes from my local neighborhood? I have a proxy server in the US, so I tried reaching the FOX Web site through that server with a different Web browser. Same result, same three ads. I even tried to run the browser on that remote server (painfully slow, through an X-Window connection) and still, the same ads came up. So the Ottawa thing is perhaps just a coincidence.

Compared to these two ads, the third link, which was for a teeth whitener ranked #1 by Rachel Ray (presumably I’m supposed to know who Rachel Ray is; hmmm, let me check, Rachel Ray is the title of a novel by 19th century English novelist Anthony Trollope, but there is a television personality named Rachael Ray, presumably that’s who they meant) almost seems legitimate. (Of course if it had been authorized by the real Rachael Ray, they’d presumably have spelled her name correctly.)

So what does this tell us? I can think of several possibilities, most quite unflattering to FOX News and their viewers. For instance:

  • FOX News are scamsters, working together with other Internet con artists, ripping people off;
  • FOX News don’t care where their money comes from and accept ads without screening from Internet con artists;
  • FOX News accept ads specifically targeted at people colloquially described by the derogatory term “white trash”.

But the real question is, what does this say about the quality of the news they deliver?

 Posted by at 12:49 pm
Apr 042009

The gravitational theory that I’ve been working on for some time with John Moffat is called STVG, or Scalar-Tensor-Vector Gravity. It grew out of Moffat’s investigation of Nonsymmetric Gravity.

There is also a phenomenological formula called MOND (MOdified Newtonian Dynamics) that effectively flattens out the acceleration curve at high radii from a point source. MOND is nothing more than a formula designed by its creator, Mordechai Milgrom, to solve a specific problem, namely the rotation curves of galaxies. It is not rooted in any theory, and in fact, it is known to contradict some; for instance, it violates the law of conservation of energy and momentum. This is why Jacob Bekenstein endeavored to create a relativistic theory called TeVeS, which fixes MONDs problems, while still gives the approximate MOND acceleration formula in the case of weak fields.

Both STVG and TeVeS are gravity theories, and both happen to incorporate tensor, vector, and scalar fields. Beyond that, however, there’s nothing in common between the two theories.

Unfortunately, many Wikipedians don’t know this, and try from time to time to merge the STVG and TeVeS articles. Hopefully not any longer… I just posted a long, fairly complete description of STVG on Wikipedia.

 Posted by at 11:48 pm
Apr 022009

They did a group photo at the G-20 and our very own Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, was missing. According to a Canadian television channel, he was busy engaged in a discussion with an official. According to the BBC, he was in the toilet.

Stephen Harper

Stephen Harper

So they redid the group photo. Or tried to, anyhow. This time around, Berlusconi appeared to be missing… there was no word why.

Nonetheless, signs are that the G-20 meeting was (at the very least) not a failure, and perhaps even a modest success. I guess we’ll know in the next couple of days. But, if it is not just wishful thinking and real, meaningful decisions were made, then perhaps this is where the world changes to a track different from the one followed in the 1930s… instead of choosing protectionism, leading to a collapse of international trade, we’re choosing to keep the system of international trade robust and intact.

The BBC just updated their story: quoting a Harper press secretary, they’re now saying that Harper was indeed engaged in a conversation with an aide, he was not in the washroom.

 Posted by at 12:24 pm