Nov 282009

The answer to my rhetorical question is clearly negative, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. Still, sometimes you have to wonder.

Like the other day, when our fearless guardians of Canadian sovereignty, our border guards, detained and questioned a US journalist for 90 minutes, apparently concerned that she might have something unpleasant to say about the upcoming Olympics.

I have no idea what they were thinking, but I am outraged. I never much liked the Olympics, but if this is the price we pay (not to mention Chinese mittens and incessant “I believe” television commercials that sound like they have more to do with televangelism than sport) I say, screw the Olympics, let them have it somewhere else, I don’t want it in my country, not even if it’s on the other coast, 3000 miles from here. It has a lot more to do with crass commercialism and performance enhancing drugs than true sportsmanship anyway.

And if border guards were concerned that an American journalist might damage Canada’s Olympic image… well, she doesn’t have to. Our border guards have done a splendid job already, thank you. I suppose if it were up to them, we’d have guard dogs, mine fields, and barbed wire, too, perhaps some second hand leftover from the Berlin Wall.

One of these days, I’m going to have another unpleasant encounter with them, and I am not looking forward to it. That is, one of these days, they’ll want to search my laptop, and I won’t be able to allow them to do so. That is because I will have taken the necessary precautions of carrying only a dysfunctional laptop with me, disabled by a password that I cannot retrieve. (This is necessary in order not to lie to them and to avoid not complying with their instructions.) No, I am not a kiddie porn smuggler, nor do I have any terrorist secrets or other unsavory stuff on the poor little machine. I just don’t accept the idea that a clueless border agent can rummage through my most personal material simply because I happen to be traveling internationally. To be rhetorical about it, this is not why I escaped from a Communist country 23 years ago.

 Posted by at 2:51 pm
Nov 252009

I’m still trying to digest this… the meaning of recently released e-mails that suggest, to put it mildly, questionable behavior on behalf of some of the world’s leading climate researchers.

One e-mail that’s most hotly debated is about this:


This plot contains two types of data: long-term reconstructed temperatures from the fossil record, and shorter term instrumental temperatures. Now the trouble is, the smoothed curve (green) based on the reconstructed temperatures alone points slightly downward… no dramatic warming trend. In contrast, the instrumental temperatures show an upward trend. This apparent disagreement is purely a mathematical artifact; anyone who ever attempted to fit, for instance, a polynomial curve to some data knows that the fit tends to diverge near the ends of the data interval. But it wouldn’t look good on a report that is designed to influence world opinion and global policy to show a downward trend, would it. So there’s a neat “trick”: the apparent downward trend can be eliminated by using the instrumental temperatures to pad the reconstructed temperature data set, and produce an upward trend.

Note that this doesn’t mean that there is a downward trend. The planet may very well be warming, due to what people are doing to it. Unfortunately, the information content of manipulated graphs is zero, or less than zero even… they can generate skepticism towards genuine future results and delay a necessary public response.

There are many other questionable e-mails in the lot, including e-mails that suggest the hiding of data from freedom-of-information requests, e-mails that suggest efforts to block the publication of research by climate change skeptics, and at least one eyebrow-raising comment cheering at the death of a climate change skeptic, leading to calls for a researcher to resign.

I’m still digesting this, but it reinforces my conviction that phrases like “standard model” or “scientific consensus”, far from reassuring, should be a clear indication that the science might be shaky, and that an attempt is being made to substitute authority in place of convincing data and firm logic.

 Posted by at 4:35 am
Nov 212009

I like good science-fiction.

Which is why a few years ago, I was about to give up on science-fiction in television. Star Trek: Enterprise was one of the last nails in the proverbial coffin, but my disenchantment probably began much earlier, with Star Trek: The Next Generation, describing a seriously damaged “Utopian” future in which the flagship of the United Federation of Planets is so screwed up, they need a psychiatrist on the bridge.

But then came shows the “re-imagined” Battlestar Galactica. Or Farscape. Or Lexx. Or Charlie Jade. Or even the awkwardly titled Total Recall 2070. Uniquely well done science fiction, which made television enjoyable again.

And then there was the Stargate franchise. I heard about the original movie, but never saw it. I only began watching Stargate SG-1 when it was into its sixth season. But, it didn’t take long to get hooked. Finally, science-fiction in which the protagonists are likable, intelligent professionals who act like rational human beings, not like messed up, spoiled brats. Stargate Atlantis, while less successful, continued in that tradition.

Now we have Stargate Universe. I’m still trying to like it, and it has its good moments. Few and far between, unfortunately. Meanwhile, we see messed up people engaged in gratuitous sex scenes, including sex while occupying someone else’s body. Yes. They’re billions of light years from the Earth, using unimaginably advanced alien technology to temporarily swap bodies with a terrestrial volunteer, to enjoy a few minutes with their friends and family back home… and then they promptly abuse the “loaner” body by getting drunk, engaging in sex (with partners who apparently don’t seem to mind that their loved ones look, smell, and sound like complete strangers) and even getting into fights, all with the tacit approval of the United States Air Force, which arranges these body-swapping visits.

Give me a break. I used to enjoy Stargate because, despite its flaws and sometimes (?) questionable science, it was fundamentally an intelligent show written for intelligent people. I’m still trying to find that spark of intelligence in Stargate Universe, but I may have to give up hope soon. At least I’ll be watching a little less television and have more time to do useful things.

 Posted by at 4:26 am
Nov 182009

Radio Free Europe (yes, they still exist) have an article on their Web site, about the threat to democracy represented by public cynicism and corruption. While I don’t expect democracy to collapse in Eastern Europe just yet, I can’t disagree with their concern. Curiously, a reader comment on the same Web site by a “Sergey” from New York (originally from Ukraine) provides, perhaps unwittingly, a perfect demonstration of the first point: Sergey writes that “there is no ‘democracy, market economy, and civil society’, not in EU, not in US”, calling democracy “just another utopia”, and questioning the wisdom of “supporting corrupt and malfunctioning ‘democracies’ in Ukraine and Georgia” (do I detect more than a tinge of Russian nationalism here?).

 Posted by at 12:42 am
Nov 172009

Concerned that Canada’s Conservative Party might win a clear majority in parliament in the next elections, some political commentators began offering ideas on how to prevent this from happening, how to defeat Stephen Harper and his government.

I am not interested in anyone telling me how I can stop the Conservatives. I don’t want to stop anybody. I want to vote FOR something, not against; I’d like to live in a country in which people from different political backgrounds can work together, as opposed to working to defeat one another. Let’s leave divisive partisanship to the Sarah Palins of this world.

What I’d like to be able to do is to vote for a party that tells me how they will actually govern and make things better. For instance, how they will:

  • Balance the need to balance budgets with the need to use public funds to help the economic recovery.
  • Formulate an intelligent policy concerning Afghanistan, not dogmatic deadlines (no “bring the troops home” populism but a policy that tells us what goals we’re trying to achieve there, why they’re achievable, and how they will be achieved).
  • Fix Canada’s broken immigration system before we have to institute visa requirements for everyone just in case they claim refugee status here and manage to stay in the country for years while they wade through an antiquated and underfunded process.
  • Examine the need for copyright reform (which may not even be necessary) that represents the interests of Canadians as opposed to secretly negotiated reforms like ACTA that are designed to turn everyone into a potential criminal for the sake of maximizing Disney’s profits.
  • Address those social issues that prevented Canada from staying on the #1 spot in the UN quality-of-life lists.
  • Address the need for a national infrastructure: for instance, an east-west electricity grid, an east-west highway network that is more appropriate for a first-world country (I just read an interesting article about this topic yesterday), and more domestic energy production, including a shift away from fossil fuels and towards nuclear, if necessary (I know my physics and I don’t duck-and-cover every time someone utters the word “uranium”).
  • Perhaps tax reform, considering the idea of eliminating the income tax in favor of an increase in the GST, since it’s fairer, can be graduated to reflect public policy (e.g., reduced GST on essentials, higher GST on luxury items or items with a high environmental cost), MUCH easier and cheaper to administer, and removes a gross intrusion into privacy that income tax returns represent.
  • Electoral reform that might include direct election of the head of government (like the US presidential elections; indeed, it’s not a shame to copy something if it happens to be a good idea), fully separating executive and legislative powers; no mandatory party-line votes, since MPs should represent their district, not their party leader; and runoff elections to prevent vote-splitting.
  • Last but not least, in this security-conscious high-tech era, strengthened guarantees of individual rights and freedoms, yes, even if it means taking some security risks, as I’d much rather be free than safe.

OK, I’ll get off the pulpit now. The one thing I’m NOT interested in is defeating anybody. One defeats enemies, not fellow Canadians who happen to have a different opinion about some political topics.

 Posted by at 11:48 am
Nov 132009

13Unlucky Friday the 13th it is not, at least not for NASA; they just announced that the much maligned LCROSS impact mission has, after all, found water on the Moon.

Does this mean that I might yet live long enough to see a permanent manned lunar base come into existence?

 Posted by at 8:25 pm
Nov 132009

Following a discussion with a friend of mine, I did some crude statistics today. Perusing Wikipedia, I ranked the world’s religions in terms of the effectiveness with which they were able to commit mass murder between 1914 and the present day. I did not count “legitimate” victims of war. My statistics are necessarily crude, as I probably didn’t include all incidents, and I just used the concept of a “predominant religion” instead of researching the actual religious breakdown of perpetrators and victims. The figures themselves may also be in dispute.

Having said that, I calculated some percentages (normalized by dividing the number killed by the square root of the product of the populations of the perpetrators’ and the victims’ predominant religion) and arrived at this bleak ranking of our recent history:

Buddhist-on-Buddhist: 10%
Christian-on-Jew: 3%
Christian-on-Christian: 0.9%
Muslim-on-indigenous: 0.5%
Muslim-on-Christian: 0.2%
Muslim-on-Muslim: 0.1%
Buddhist-on-Hindu: 0.01%
Hindu-on-Christian: 0.006%
Christian-on-Muslim: 0.0006%

Muslim claims about evil Christians are clearly bogus, at least insofar as recent history is concerned; Christians were far more busy killing each other and killing Jews, and Muslims were certainly more efficient when it came to killing Christians than the other way around (mostly thanks to the efforts of the Ottoman Empire).

But no, I do not conclude from this that religion is inherently evil. About two thirds of all the killings listed here were, in fact, committed by states that were nominally atheist. Reason may lead one to atheism, but atheism certainly doesn’t guarantee reason…

 Posted by at 4:09 pm
Nov 122009

According to leaks, a secret meeting held in Seoul and led by the ever so vigilant champion of all that’s free, the United States, may lead to the most Draconian restrictions yet on Internet freedom. Under the pretense of fighting counterfeiting, the participants (which include the United States, Canada, and the EU) are really discussing copyright provisions, and are planning to agree on a series of measures that would make a Cuba or North Korea proud. These include giving new powers to border guards, extending controversial protection of copy protection measures, removing privacy protection such as the “safe harbor” status of ISPs, and mandating “three strikes and you’re out” laws.

The fact that such talks are held in near complete secrecy by itself speaks volumes. This is how an East Germany negotiated border control measures with other communist states, not how free states negotiate about the rights of their citizens.

Once I stop fuming, I’ll write a nice, polite e-mail to our esteemed Prime Minister and ask if he and his government are really planning to go completely mad. I’d rather not see another penny in my life as revenue from the software I develop than live in a country which thinks that such totalitarian measures are needed to protect corporate profits from unruly citizens.

Meanwhile, I just had an idea. I think it is time to organize massive civil disobedience campaigns. I doubt it’d be too difficult to convince millions, if need be, to make one illegal copy a day of a song, a video, or software, not for profit, not even for public distribution (I am, after all, respectful of intellectual property), just to make a point and break badly crafted, stupid, hostile laws that should, really, must, be repealed (or, in the case of Canada, not enacted in the first place.)

 Posted by at 12:31 am
Nov 112009

poppyThis is the sunniest, brightest Remembrance Day that I recall.

I don’t usually like national holidays and such. This, however, is an exception. The way it is celebrated, especially here in Canada, it’s not about glory, not about victory… it’s about the memory of those who died. As such, it is an inclusive celebration. You can take part regardless of your nationality; it doesn’t matter what uniform your father or grandfather might have been wearing, what is being remembered is that he served and suffered. (Fortunately, nobody from my immediate family fell or was wounded in war. My maternal grandfather served briefly in the Hungarian army in 1942 or thereabouts, as an engineer… fortunately, he returned to Hungary before the disastrous collapse of Hungary’s Second Army at the Don River. My great Uncle Bela served in WWI, on the Russian front I believe. He, too, survived.)

 Posted by at 4:33 pm
Nov 082009

If you’re watching Canadian TV these days, chances are you’ve seen the ad for a pair of Vancouver 2010 red mittens ($10/pair, net proceeds go toward supporting Canadian athletes, etc.) Now I may not be an expert when it comes to knitted mittens, but my wife certainly is, and we knew right away that $10 a pair can mean only one thing: Made in China. A suspicion that was promptly confirmed when I found some blog postings from people who bought a pair.

Which forces me to refrain from asking the rhetorical question, “Am I the only one?…” since obviously I’m not the only one troubled by the fact that we outsource the making of maple leafs to China, but I have yet to see either a journalist or a politician comment.

And no, I don’t want to start a populist, protectionist tirade, since I despise populism and protectionism. And yes, the Olympics  is supposed to be international in spirit and all that. Still, I do think it’d have been appropriate to have those mittens made in Canada. Sure, it’d have been more expensive. But, it’d have helped not only Canadian athletes, but also Canadian communities harmed by the recession. Or how about having some of them made in Canada, a “special edition” if you wish, sold at a higher price to those who want them and who think it’s proper to pay workers at (minimum) Canadian wages? As things stand, you can’t even compete with the Chinese imports even if you wanted to… the Olympic logo is a fiercely protected trademark.

 Posted by at 2:01 pm
Nov 062009

I was channel hopping a little this morning, which is how I happened upon a health news segment on CBS, “CBS Healthwatch”, and caught this sentence as part of a discussion about headache triggers:

“Anything that’s not… American cheese that you can by right over the counter.”

I didn’t realize that in the US, one needs a prescription to buy some blue cheese or Camembert.

 Posted by at 12:52 pm
Nov 062009

I just added some new calculators to my ever growing online museum. Two of them are programmables: an Aurora SC-180 and a Casio FX-770P. I also added several non-programmables to the “photo album“: a Btech fx-82LB scientific model (obviously, a Casio clone), a Canon P3-DII, a Cedar CD-420, a Corvus 322 (this is a real vintage machine), a Lloyd’s Accumatic 310 (similar to my first ever calculator), a Sharp EL-531RH, and an Underwood 340 (this is a really ancient machine, printer only, no display). I also added two calculator-like non-calculators: an “RV Special” databank and a handheld Sudoku game.

 Posted by at 1:57 am
Nov 042009

Here’s another fine example of a somewhat Orwellian interpretation of Draconian copyright laws: according to Texas Instruments, hacking your own pocket calculator is illegal.

Recently a friend of mine, responding on the bureaucratic nightmare surrounding the H1N1 flu shots, remarked that “it’s enough to turn one into a Republican”. What can I say? Acts like those of Texas Instruments are, on the other hand, enough to turn one into a commie. After all, when corporations treat their own customers as the #1 enemy, what is the customer to think?

 Posted by at 5:17 pm
Nov 032009

Some Romanians are planning to fly a balloon to the Moon. OK, to be more precise, what they’re planning is the use of a stratospheric balloon as a launch platform for their attempt to win Google’s Lunar X Prize. It’s not as crazy as it sounds… the disadvantages of launching from an unstable platform like a balloon may be more than offset by the advantages of launching from an altitude that is above most of the Earth’s atmosphere.

 Posted by at 3:03 pm
Nov 032009

It looks like the Mythbusters tend to ignore air resistance.

In a recent episode, they claimed to have demonstrated that a horizontally fired bullet and a bullet that is simply dropped fall to the ground in the same amount of time. They were wrong. What they actually demonstrated is that air resistance causes the fired bullet to hit the ground more slowly.

Their argument would apply perfectly in a vacuum, as on the surface of the Moon, but not here on the Earth, where the bullet’s motion is governed not just by the laws of gravity, but also by the laws of a non-conservative force, namely air resistance. (Why is it non-conservative? Some of the bullet’s kinetic energy is converted into heat, as it travels through the air at high speed. Unless we also include the thermodynamics of the air into our equations of motion, the equations will not conserve energy, as the amount of kinetic energy converted into heat will just appear “lost”.)

The bullet’s velocity, v, can be written as v2 = vh2 + vv2, where vh is the horizontal and vv is the vertical component. The initial horizontal velocity is v0. The initial vertical velocity is 0.

Air resistance is proportional to the square of the bullet’s velocity. To be precise, acceleration due to air resistance will be

aair = κv2,

where κ is an unknown proportionality factor. (To be more precise, κ = ½cAρm, where c is the dimensionless drag coefficient, A is the bullet’s cross-sectional area, ρ is the density of the air, and m is the bullet’s mass.) The direction of the acceleration will be opposite the direction of the bullet’s motion.

The total acceleration of the bullet will have two components: a vertical component g due to gravity, and a component aair opposite the direction of the bullet’s motion.

The resulting equations of motion can be written as:

dvh/dt = –κvvh,
dvv/dt = g – κvvv.

Right here we can see the culprit: air resistance not only slows the bullet down horizontally, it also reduces its downward acceleration.

This is a simple system of two differential equations in the two unknown functions vh(t) and vv(t). Its solution is not that simple, unfortunately. However, it can be greatly simplified if we notice that given that vv << vh, vvh, and therefore, we get

dvh/dt = –κvh2,
dvv/dt = g – κvvvh.

This system is solved by

vh = 1/(κt + C1),
vv = vh[(½κt2 + C1t)g + C2].


v0 = 1/(κt0 + C1)

we have

C1 = 1/(v0 – κt0),

which leads to

vh = v0/[κ(tt0)v0 + 1],

or, if we set t0 = 0,

vh = v0/(κtv0 + 1),

Similarly, given vv(0) = 0, we get C2 = 0, thus

vv = gtv0t + 2)/(2κv0t + 2).

The distance traveled horizontally (sh) and vertically (sv) between t0 = 0 and t1 can be obtained by simple integration of the respective velocities with respect to t between 0 and t1:

sh = log(κv0t1 + 1)κ,
sv = g[κv0t1v0t1 + 2) – 2log(κv0t1 + 1)]/(2κv0)2.

The claim by the Mythbusters was that the time it took for the fired bullet to hit the ground was only ~40 ms more than the time it took for a dropped bullet to fall, which is a negligible difference. But it is not! Taking g ≅ 10 m/s2, it is easy to see that the time it takes for a bullet to fall from a height of 1 m, using the well-known formula ½gt2, is 447 ms; the difference measured by the Mythbusters is nearly 10% of this number!

Not only did the fired bullet take longer to hit the ground, the Myhtbusters’ exquisite setup allows us to calculate the bullet’s initial velocity v0 and drag coefficient κ. This is possible because the Mythbusters conveniently provided three pieces of information (I am using approximate numbers here): the length of the path that the bullet traveled sh ≅ 100 m), the height of the bullet at the time of firing (sv ≅ 1 m), and the time it took for the fired bullet to hit the ground. Actually, what they provided was the difference between the time for a fired vs. a dropped bullet to hit the ground, but we know what it is for the dropped bullet (and because it is never moving very rapidly, we can ignore air resistance in its case), so t1 = 447 + 40 = 487 ms. The solution is given by

κ = 0.0054 m–1,
v0 = 272.3 m/s.

Given a bullet cross-sectional area of A = 2 cm2 = 2 × 10–4 m2, an approximate air density of ρ = 1 kg/m3, and a bullet mass of m = 20 g = 0.02 kg, the dimensionless drag coefficient for the bullet can be calculated as c = 2κmAρ = 1.08, which is not at all unreasonable for a tumbling bullet. Of course the actual values of A and m may differ from the ones I’m using here, resulting in a different value for the dimensionless drag coefficient c.

 Posted by at 12:39 am