Dec 312011

For me, 2011 was not a particularly good year. In fact, business-wise it has been the worst in, literally, decades. We also lost our oldest cat, and indeed, cats all around us did not fare well: two strays, taken to the shelter on two separate occasions (once by us, once by neighbors of us) were killed by the Humane Society, another cat that belonged to a neighbor, one that we knew since 1997, succumbed to old age, as did the oldest cat of an American friend of mine just a few days ago. Yes, we’ve had happier years than 2011. But then again, we remain healthy, safe and secure, so we do count our blessings still.

What will 2012 bring? The collapse of the Euro? A major war in the Middle East, perhaps over the issue of the Strait of Hormuz? A Chinese economic meltdown, precipitating a worldwide crisis? More wars and suffering?

Or a strengthening of the Eurozone, with new institutions that will prevent similar crises in the future? Peaceful resolution of the issue with Iran, perhaps an end to the ayatollahs’ regime? Finally, full recovery from the economic woes of the past few years?

I remain cautiously hopeful.

 Posted by at 3:37 pm
Dec 302011

Looks like our experience with the Ottawa Humane Society is indeed not an outlier. There appears to be some outrage over the Arizona Humane Society’s decision to euthanize a recovering addict’s 9-month old injured cat, after he was unable to come up with $400 on the spot. (Ironically, the same Humane Society had no trouble finding the money to hire a professional publicist to deal specifically with this case.)

I understand that shelters, especially municipal shelters, must make unpleasant decisions every day about animals that cannot be rescued or are unadoptable. But these decisions should not be made callously and heartlessly. What is appalling is that in all these cases, there were people able and willing to care for the animal that was killed, but the humane society in question never gave them, or the cat, a chance.

 Posted by at 10:47 am
Dec 242011

In 1968, the crew of Apollo 8, for the first time in the history of humanity, disappeared behind another celestial body. When they re-emerged on the other side and saw the Earth rise over the lunar landscape, on much of the Earth it was Christmas Day.

And this is when they sent us Earthlings a Christmas message, which ended with the words, “And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”

You don’t need to be religious to find this moment awe-inspiring.

 Posted by at 9:14 am
Dec 212011

It almost sounds like some crude ethnic joke: how many rabbis fit into the basket of a cherry picker?

Lighting the nation's menorah in Washington

And the answer is, well, one fewer if you also include a photographer (who, presumably, is not himself a rabbi).

Happy Hannukah!

 Posted by at 8:19 am
Dec 202011

Years ago, when Bush’s stupid war in Iraq began, I started putting some statistics up on my then blog site. Statistics like this one:

  • Number of biological bombs in Iraq, according to Colin Powell: 400,
  • Number of biological bombs found in Iraq: 0,
  • Amount of anthrax in Saddam Hussein’s possession, according to Colin Powell: 16,000 kg,
  • Amount of anthrax found in Iraq: 0 kg,

and so on. Now that the Iraqi war officially came to an end, CNN provided some interesting statistics of their own:

So my question is… was it worth it? Even if we ignore the fact that Iraq may yet become a satellite state of an increasingly powerful Iran and as such, a worse security threat than Saddam Hussein has ever been, his evil sons and chemical attacks on civilians notwithstanding?

 Posted by at 9:19 pm
Dec 192011

An e-mail from someone reminded me that whereas I posted a comment here in my blog on the death on Kim Jong Il, I neglected to comment on the death of Vaclav Havel. Goes to show that notoriety is often a more direct route to greater fame than doing the right thing.

 Posted by at 4:32 pm
Dec 182011

I know it’s bad form to rejoice upon the death of a human being, but I cannot say that I have any inclination to shed a tear over the death of North Korea’s totalitarian dictator, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong Il.

 Posted by at 11:16 pm
Dec 142011

So I am reading details about the on-going search for the Higgs boson at the LHC. The media hailed the announcements this week as evidence that the hunt is nearing its goal… however, this is by no means conclusive, and instinctively, I’d be inclined to come to the opposite conclusion.

The Higgs boson, if exists as predicted, can decay into many things. It can decay into two photons. Just such a decay, consistent with a Higgs particle that is about 130 times heavier than a proton, was in fact observed by two of the LHC’s detectors, CMS:

and Atlas:

So far so good, but these signals are weak, far from conclusive. Never mind, both CMS and Atlas observed another slight peak. A Higgs particle can, in principle, also decay into two Z-bosons. Indeed, such a decay may be indicated by CMS (that ever so small bump near the extreme left of the plot):

and again, Atlas:

And on top of that, there is yet another decay mode, the Higgs particle decaying into a pair of W-bosons, but it is very difficult to see if anything exists at the extreme left of this plot:

So why does this leave me skeptical? Simple. First, we know that the ZZ and WW decay modes are far more likely than the diphoton (γγ) decay.

So naively, I would expect that if the signal is strong enough to produce noticeable bumps in the diphoton plot, very strong peaks should have been observed already in the ZZ and WW graphs. Instead, we see signals there that are even weaker than the bumps in the diphoton plots. While this is by no means rock solid proof that the Higgs does not exist, it makes me feel suspicious. Second… well, suppose that the Higgs does not exist. We always knew that it is the low energy region, namely the region that is still under consideration (the possibility of a Higgs that is heavier than 130 GeV is essentially excluded) where the Higgs search is the most difficult. So if no Higgs exist, this is precisely how we would expect the search to unfold: narrowing down the search window towards lower energies, just as the data becomes noisier and more and more bumps appear that could be misread as a Higgs that’s just not there.

Then again, I could just be whistling in the dark. We won’t know until we know… and that “until” is at least another year’s worth of data that is to be collected at the LHC. Patience, I guess, is a virtue.

 Posted by at 9:02 pm
Dec 112011

Former Bush speechwriter David “axis of evil” Frum’s name is well known and widely despised among liberals. What is perhaps a little less well known is that he is not exactly well liked these days in conservative circles either. For what it’s worth, I have come to admire his intellectual honesty that led him to write, among other things, the following about present-day conservative media and conservative thinking:

“Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics. Outside this alternative reality, the United States is a country dominated by a strong Christian religiosity. Within it, Christians are a persecuted minority. Outside the system, President Obama—whatever his policy ­errors—is a figure of imposing intellect and dignity. Within the system, he’s a pitiful nothing, unable to speak without a teleprompter, an affirmative-action ­phony doomed to inevitable defeat. Outside the system, social scientists worry that the U.S. is hardening into one of the most rigid class societies in the Western world, in which the children of the poor have less chance of escape than in France, Germany, or even England. Inside the system, the U.S. remains (to borrow the words of Senator Marco Rubio) ‘the only place in the world where it doesn’t matter who your parents were or where you came from.'”

There is only one observation I’d add to Frum’s comments. The people he speaks of… they’re not “conservatives”. They abandoned conservative ideals when they jumped on the radical right-wing agenda of the tea party movement or started parroting the radical right-wing trash coming from talk show hosts like Limbaugh.

 Posted by at 1:27 pm
Dec 032011

A while back, I wrote an e-mail to James Moore, Minister of Heritage, expressing my concern that the proposed new copyright legislation (Bill C-32) is going to turn me into a de facto criminal for the mere act of copying legally purchased DVDs to my computer’s hard drive for easy viewing.

Yesterday, much to my surprise, I received a reply. In his reply the Minister explains, among other things, that “copyright owners may decide whether to use technological protection measures for their content and consumers whether to pay for such content”.

In other words, screw me, it’s laissez faire capitalism. (In fact, he’s preaching to the choir: I stopped purchasing software like computer games eons ago because I despise Activation-type technologies.) Except that… our Minister and his government already decided that it is NOT laissez faire capitalism since government intervention (in the form of criminal sanctions, no less!) is required to protect the interests of copyright owners. The Minister’s reply is also representative of this government’s very callous attitude towards culture in general: by stating that “Copyright is a marketplace framework law”, the Minister makes it clear that they see intellectual property only as marketable products, and the consumption of culture as merely a voluntary consumer activity. I wonder if they maintain the same attitude towards, say, food or health care: in the marketplace, after all, consumers have a choice whether or not to purchase foodstuffs, right?

Their plans concerning copyright law was one reason why I did not vote Conservative this time around, and it seems that my concerns were well justified. Now my hope is that as this legislation passes, its ridiculousness will eventually become evident, and either the Supreme Court will step in or a successive government will make the necessary changes.

 Posted by at 9:42 am