Dec 302009

It’s just been a little over eleven months since my uncle Jóska died… and now it’s one of my aunt’s turn, aunt Zsóka (as a child, I called her Zsóka néni) died in her sleep this morning in Budapest.

I have Zsóka néni to thank for many things, most notably for improving my English. I was around 16 at the time, and I was complaining to her that despite my best efforts, my English is still not anywhere near where I think it ought to be. Her advice: go read a book or two. And don’t use a dictionary, figure it out yourself.

The first ever book I read in English was a gift from her: The Eagle Has Landed, by Jack Higgins. It took a year or so, and several false starts before I was able to get to the end. But my next book took only a few months; the next, just a few weeks; and after that, I was reading English almost as well as I was reading Hungarian.

Needless to say, a few years later when I came to Canada, near fluency in the English language was a tremendous asset. Instead of washing dishes or selling hamburgers, my first job in this country involved writing C-language driver code for a government client. Thanks in large part to Zsóka néni.

Who is no longer with us. She was 77, the oldest of four siblings; now only two of them remain, my mother and my aunt Edina. I hope both of them will remain with us, in good health and in good spirits, for many more years, never mind years, how about decades, to come.

 Posted by at 9:15 pm
Dec 292009

There is a fascinating book published by the RAND Corporation, available at Amazon for a mere 81 US dollars. I am tempted to buy it. It must be a fascinating read. Readers’ comments at Amazon are certainly encouraging; while the book has some minor flaws, despite the lack of serious proofreading it is guaranteed not to contain any errors, and it helped at least one reader get to meet the woman who eventually became his wife.

 Posted by at 3:42 pm
Dec 272009

The terrorists have won. We might as well all change religion right now, pledge our faith in Allah and His Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him), denounce reason, clad our women in burkas, and start learning all the Suras of the Koran.

All it takes is one disruptive passenger to keep a planeload of people stuffed in an airplane for hours, while idiotic security officers lay out all their luggage on the tarmac and do whatever else it is that they do, all the while treating free citizens as potential enemies. Meanwhile, 24-hour news channels provide uninterrupted coverage of the poor airplane sitting at a remote corner of an airfield as if this was the most important event happening on this planet.

The terrorists wanted to frighten me and they succeeded… I am terrified, actually. But no, I’m not terrified of madmen trying to blow up my plane (it might happen, but the probability remains extremely low), what I am terrified of is uniformed guardians of our collective  safety and security taking away my rights and my liberty, a threat I have to face every time I go near an airplane.

Twenty-three years ago, I escaped from Communism. I thought I was seeking political asylum. I didn’t realize that I’d end up in an insane asylum. What can I say… the Commies tried to warn me, I just didn’t listen.

 Posted by at 9:23 pm
Dec 262009

I found a Christmas message in my Gmail mailbox today, announcing that they have done “something a little different” this year. I clicked on the link out of curiosity; I expected some sort of lame attempt at holiday humor. Instead, I found an announcement from Google: a donation of $20 million to various charities, as a Christmas gift to all.

 Posted by at 1:17 pm
Dec 232009

In case anyone was under the impression that cultural vandalism, such as the blowing up of historical monuments that happen to stand in the way of someone’s ideology, is the monopoly of Islamic fanatics, think again. The other day, Georgia’s (the country’s, not the US state’s) democratically elected president ordered the destruction of a Soviet-era monument, ostensibly to make room for a new parliament building. Unfortunately for him (not that I care) and for two innocent spectators (that I do care about) the demolition was botched, and flying concrete killed these two people, a mother and her 8-year old daughter. As to the memorial… I may not have too many fond thoughts about the Soviet Union and the Red Army, but few things are less controversial than a memorial dedicated to a victory over fascism and the glory of what Russians call the Great Patriotic War… in which, incidentally, some 300,000 Georgians also happened to have lost their lives.

 Posted by at 3:04 pm
Dec 222009

I have done many things in my misguided past as a programmer, but strangely, I never did much work with XML. Which is why a recent annoyance turned into an interesting learning opportunity.

I usually watch TV on my computer. (This is why I see more TV than many people I know… not because I am a TV junkie who really “watches” it, I am actually working, but I have, e.g., CNN running in the background, in a small window, and I do occasionally pay attention when I see something unusual. Or change to a channel with The Simpsons.) For years, I’ve been using various ATI All-In-Wonder cards. (No, I don’t recommend them anymore; whereas in the past, they used to attach a tuner to some of their really high-end cards, this is no longer the case, the base graphics hardware of their current crop of AIW cards is quite lame. Their current software sucks, too.) The old ATI multimedia program I am using, while far from perfect, is fairly robust and reliable, and among other things, it comes with a built-in program guide feature. A feature that downloads programming information from an online server.

Except that, as of last week, it was no longer able to do so; the server refused the request. Several customers complained, but to no avail; they were not even able to get through to the right people.

So what is a poor programmer to do? I have known about Schedules Direct, the fee-based but non-profit, low-cost replacement of what used to be a free service from Zap2It, providing the ability to download TV guide data for personal use. The information from Schedules Direct comes in the form of XML. The ATI multimedia program stores its data in a Paradox database. In theory, the rest is just a straightforward exercise of downloading the data and loading it into the Paradox tables, and presto: one should have updated programming information.

Indeed things would be this simple if there were no several hurdles along the way.

First, the Paradox database is password-protected. Now Paradox passwords are a joke, especially since well-known backdoor passwords exist. Yet it turns out that those backdoor passwords work only with the original Borland/Corel/whatever drivers… third party drivers, e.g., the Paradox drivers in Microsoft Access 2007, do not recognize the backdoor passwords. Fortunately, cracking the password is not hard; I used Thegrideon Software’s Paradox Password program for this purpose, and (after payment of the registration fee, of course) it did the trick.

Second, the Microsoft drivers are finicky, and may not allow write access to the Paradox tables. This was most annoying, since I didn’t know the cause. Eventually, I loaded the tables on another machine that never saw the original Borland Database Engine, but did have Access 2007 installed (hence my need for a “real” password, not a backdoor one), and with this machine, I was able to write into the files… not sure if it was due to the absence of the BDE, the fact that I was using Office 2007 as opposed to Office 2003, or some other reason.

So far so good… Access can now write into the Paradox tables, and Access can read XML, after all, Microsoft is all about XML these days, right? No so fast… That’s when I ran into my third problem, namely the fact that Access cannot read XML attributes, whereas a lot of the programming information (including such minor details like the channel number or start time) are provided in attribute form by Schedules Direct (or to be more precise, by the XMLTV utility that I use to access Schedules Direct.) The solution: use XSLT to transform the source XML into a form that Access can digest properly.

With this and a few lines of SQL, I reached the finish line, more-or-less: I was able to update the Paradox tables, and the result appears digestible to the ATI media center application… though not to the accompanying Gemstar program grid application, which still crashes, but that’s okay, I never really used it anyway.

And I managed to accomplish all this just in time to find out that suddenly, the ATI/Gemstar update server is working again… once again, I can get programming information from them. More-or-less… a number of channels have been missing from the lineup for a long time now, so I may prefer to use my solution from now on anyway. Perhaps when I have a little time, I’ll find out what causes the crash (I have some ideas) and the program grid application will work, too.

Needless to say, I know a lot more about XML and XSLT than I did 24 hours ago.

 Posted by at 7:41 pm
Dec 202009

Thank you, religious nuts, for many things, from the “clash of civilizations” to Creationism, or for something as mundane yet annoying and disgusting as your success at torpedoing the sequels to the film The Golden Compass. The book from which it was made is superb, the film was fine, and I’d have loved to see the sequels… alas, in the name of religious freedom and civil rights, the sequels won’t happen. So allow me to quote my favorite atheist author, Kurt Vonnegut, and tell you to go jump in a lake.

 Posted by at 4:52 am
Dec 172009

I’m reading an opinion piece in last week’s New Scientist, by Michael Le Page and Catherine Brahic. It’s titled, “Why there’s no sign of a climate conspiracy in hacked emails”. It is intended to reassure us that “Climategate” notwithstanding, we should trust the basic science. Yet I feel that it misses the point on all counts.

Take the title, for starters. While I am sure there are conspiracy nuts out there who view the hacked e-mails as a smoking gun, I think many more people see a more nuanced picture: the e-mails prove no conspiracy, but they do demonstrate contempt towards dissenters and the general public, not to mention the scientific process, and they do raise questions about the validity of the so-called “scientific consensus” on climate.

But it’s not just the title that’s deceptive. The authors raise five points, in the form of questions and answers. At least that’s how the article appeared in print; on-line, two of the questions were turned into unambiguous statements, according to which we are “100% sure” that the world is getting warmer and it’s because of greenhouse gases as the main cause. No, we are not 100% sure. If you want to assign a percentage, then take the data, fit the models, and show us a covariance matrix that tells us exactly how sure we are that a long-term trend is present. Leave this “100%” nonsense to political activists.

The print edition stuck to the question-and-answer form. “How can we be sure that the world really is warming?” they ask, but it’s a misleading question: of course the world is warming, the real question is, how much of that warming is due to short/medium/long term natural periodicities, and how much of it is due to a more sudden (e.g., linear, exponential, etc.) trend that may be due to human activity. Do we have enough data to distinguish unambiguously (never mind 100%, 1-sigma can do nicely) natural fluctuations from more direct trends?

Then they ask, “How do we know greenhouse gases are the main cause?”, and assure as that “The physics is clear: carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, greenhouse gases warm the atmosphere, and CO2 is accumulating in the atmosphere.” This is pure nonsense of course, since I could just as well say something like, “urine is a liquid, adding a liquid to the oceans increases ocean volume, I keep peeing into the ocean, hence cities will be swallowed by rising sea levels”. Their answer sounds more like an attempt to divert attention away from genuine questions, such as those concerning the effectiveness of CO2 as a greenhouse gas (CO2 is a very weak greenhouse gas; for instance, if rising CO2 levels somehow reduced the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, the net effect would be global cooling), the accuracy of models describing the effects of CO2 in the atmosphere (I’ve read a paper, for instance, that questions the ability of widely used physics models to deal properly with the discontinuity of the atmosphere-surface boundary), or the “chicken-and-egg” question concerning the climate record, namely the extent to which CO2 caused warming trends or rising temperatures caused an increase in CO2 during past warm periods.

Their third question reads, “So why are scientists ‘fixing’ temperature data?”, which they answer by explaining that raw data almost always has to be manipulated to correct measurement problems or reconcile measurements made in different ways. True. But that is no excuse to discard the raw data. Not to mention that the data manipulation that caught so many people’s attention in the Climategate e-mails was not about fixing up raw data… it was about using two incompatible sets of data to change the appearance of a fitted curve, lest it gives the wrong impression to a scientifically illiterate audience. They do address this issue separately in the on-line version, but the explanation they offer raises its own questions: for instance, they say that “there has been no attempt to conceal this”, but how does that reconcile with the phrase, “hide the decline”, quoted from the hacked e-mails?

Lastly, their final two questions are about the attempts to suppress skeptical papers and attempts to prevent data from being released. We’re told that an independent inquiry is still ongoing, and in any case, the scientists may not have had the right to release the data. That’s a non-answer. You don’t need an independent inquiry to explain how it is acceptable to “redefine the peer review process” just to keep skeptical papers out, and as to the data, how about answering the question insofar as it concerns data that they did have the right to release?

All in all, I could have come up with much better arguments myself… instead of attempting to side-step the questions, I’d have tried to address them. Data were manipulated because a fit indeed gave a curve that would give the wrong impression to the uninitiated, and adding the instrumental data to the fossil temperature record seemed like an honest “trick” to avoid this. Skeptical papers were suppressed because those involved may genuinely believe in their science, may genuinely believe that many of the skeptics are motivated by something other than pure scientific curiosity (especially if they happen to be financed by, say, a friendly neighborhood oil company), and may genuinely believe that we just don’t have time for this nonsense while the planet is heading towards a global disaster. Data were withheld because otherwise, all the time in the world would not be enough to deal with clowns who take that data, ignorantly (or nefariously) manipulate it, and come up with nonsense conclusions. These explanations may not justify the actions taken, but they might be closer to the truth in the end… and supposedly, truth and integrity are the only real currencies that science has at its disposal. Currencies which will be needed badly in the coming decades, in order to convince the inhabitants of Earth not to trash their planet beyond repair… regardless whether or not CO2 leads to global warming.

 Posted by at 2:43 pm
Dec 132009

In case there are still doubts, here’s another fine example demonstrating that our fearless guardians of freedom, liberty, and all that’s sacred to life at the US-Canada border might consider fascism as the preferred form of society: apparently, science-fiction authors have nothing better to do with their time than to assault hapless border guards. I have often said that my experiences on the border between Hungary and Ceaucescu’s Romania back in the 1980s were significantly less unpleasant than many of my crossings of the US-Canada border… the one thing I fail to understand is why, in these supposedly free societies, we don’t just fire these “public servants” en masse, why we allow them to treat us the way they do.

 Posted by at 3:46 am
Dec 072009

41,000 tons of CO2 is the amount of “CO2 equivalent” that the Copenhagen climate summit is expected to produce. No, it’s not the amount produced by Switzerland in a year, even though CNN’s Jack Cafferty said so, probably missing the phrase, “thousands of” in the column heading of Wikipedia’s statistics. But it IS the amount of CO2 some smaller or less developed countries, e.g., Slovenia, Lithuania, or Kenya produce in a day. Another way of looking at it is that during its 12 days, the climate summit will be responsible for about 0.004% of the entire world‘s CO2 output.

No need to worry, I am sure there is a neat “trick” that can be used to “hide” this embarrassing little data point, too, lest it dilutes the message about the coming climate disaster.

 Posted by at 9:32 pm
Dec 072009

I’m done reading The Soviet-Afghan War by Grau and Gress (eds.) The final paragraph of the book, which was prepared just before the US invasion of Afghanistan, is prescient: “It is easy to dismiss the Soviet failure in Afghanistan, but it is not wise. Armies seldom get to choose the wars in which they fight and this type of difficult war is as likely a future conflict as a war involving high-technology systems in which the sides seldom get close enough to see each other. Russia continues to fight guerrilla wars. Other nations may also have to.”


 Posted by at 3:16 pm
Dec 052009

Vyacheslav Tikhonov is not exactly a household name in the English-speaking world, but to most Russians and many East Europeans, especially if they’re of my age or older, he is well-known as the Soviet-era actor who played Standartenführer Stirlitz, perhaps the greatest of all fictional spies, and protagonist of the 1973 black-and-white television series Seventeen Moments of Spring. A series that, incidentally, I recently purchased on DVD, and I was surprised to find that it remains highly enjoyable; not only is it light on communist ideology, it also manages to portray the German enemy as humans, which is somewhat unusual for films of this era.

Anyhow, the sad news is that Tikhonov has died.

 Posted by at 12:34 am
Dec 022009

While I was never overly fond of Stephen Harper’s brand of Canadian conservatism, I was reasonably comfortable with him leading a minority government.  I might have preferred, though, a Liberal minority. I supported Stéphane Dion’s coalition idea, and I was appalled by the way the Conservatives delayed, and eventually avoided, the confidence vote.

None of this seems to matter anymore. Ignatieff, who was expected to bring charisma where Dion supposedly had none, not only failed to do so, he seems hell bent on leading his party into ritual suicide. Take this harmonized sales tax business in Ontario and BC. While it may be the technically sensible thing to do (indeed, that’s the way the sales tax should have been done, would have been done back when the GST was introduced were it not for provincial opposition to the idea), many argue that it’s precisely the wrong thing to do at the time of a recession, especially as the provinces are unwilling to lower the provincial rate at the same time, which means that harmonization will turn into a sizable tax grab. But even if none of that is true, the HST is quite unpopular… and now Ignatieff’s federal Liberals are supporting it.

If I were Stephen Harper, I’d engineer an election in the near future. I think a majority Conservative government is all but guaranteed this time.

 Posted by at 12:48 pm