Mar 272012

The sad story of Nortel’s demise is known to just about every Canadian. I know several people who were personally affected quite badly by Nortel’s bankruptcy.

What I did not expect is to meet a real, living, flesh-and-blood Nortel employee, but that’s just who I met tonight in the form of a lady who happened to be sitting across from me at a large dinner table. I thought Nortel employees were an extinct species… it turns out that although they are critically threatened and will go extinct soon, a few of them are still around.

Not for much longer, mind you. The lady told me that yes, she is still a Nortel employee… for three more days.

 Posted by at 11:42 pm
Mar 272012

The cover story in the March 3 issue of New Scientist is entitled The Deep Future: A Guide to Humanity’s Next 100,000 Years.

I found this cover story both shallow and pretentious. As if we could predict even the next one hundred years, never mind a hundred thousand.

They begin with an assurance that humans will still be around 100,000 years from now. They base this on the observation that well-established species tend to hang around much longer. True but… what we don’t have in the Earth’s prehistory is a species with the technological capability to destroy the Earth. This is something new.

So new in fact that we cannot draw far-fetched conclusions. Consider, for instance: nuclear weapons have been around for 67 years. In these 67 years, we managed not to start an all-out nuclear war.  Assuming, for the same of simplicity, that all years are created equal, the only thing we can conclude from this, if my math is right, is that the probability of nuclear war in any given year is 4.37% or less, “19 times out of 20” as statisticians sometimes say. Fair enough… but that does not tell us much about the “deep future”. Projected to 100,000 years, all we can tell on the basis of this 67-year sample period is that the probability of all-out nuclear war is less than 99.99……99854…%, where the number of ‘9’-s between the decimal point and the digit ‘8’ is 1941. Not very reassuring.

The authors of the New Scientist piece would probably tell us that even if nuclear war did break out, it would not wipe out humanity in its entirety, and they probably have a point, but it misses my point: namely the futility of making a 100,000-year prediction on the basis of at most a few thousand years of known history.

And while nuclear war may be a very scary prospect, it’s by far not the scariest. There are what some call technological singularities: developments in science and technology that are so profound, they would change the very basics of our existence. Artificial intelligence, for starters… reading about Google’s self-driving car or intelligent predictive search algorithms, about IBM’s Watson, or even Apple’s somewhat mundane Siri, I cannot help but wonder: is the era of true AI finally just around the corner? And when true AI arrives, how far behind is the nightmare of Skynet from the Terminator films?

Or how about genetically altered superhumans? They mention this, but only in passing: “unless, of course, engineered humans were so superior that they obliterated the competition.” Why is this scenario considered unlikely? Sometimes I wonder if we may perhaps be just one major war away from this: a warring party in a precarious situation in a prolonged conflict breeding genetically modified warriors. Who, incidentally, need not even look human.

I could go on of course, about “gray goo”, bioterrorism, and other doomsday scenarios, but these just underline my point: it is impossible to predict the course of history even over the next 100 years, never mind the next 100,000. This is true even from a mathematical perspective: exceedingly complex systems with multiple nonlinear feedback mechanisms can undergo catastrophic phase transitions that are almost impossible to predict or prevent. Witness the recent turmoil in financial markets.

Surprisingly, this overly optimistic New Scientist feature is very pessimistic on one front: space exploration. The first quote a figure of 115,000 years that would be required to reach Alpha Centauri at 25,000 miles an hour; this, of course, is a typical velocity for a chemically fueled rocket. The possibility of a better technology is touched only briefly: “Even if we figure out how to travel at the speeds required […], the energy required to get there is far beyond our means”. Is that so? They go on to explain that, “[f]or the next few centuries, then, if not thousands of years hence, humanity will be largely confined to the solar system”. Centuries if not thousands of years? That is far, far, far short of the 100,000 years that they are supposed to be discussing.

I called this cover feature shallow and pretentious, but perhaps I should have called it myopic. In that sense, it is no different from predictions made a little over a century ago, in 1900, about the coming “century of reason”. At least our predecessors back then had the good sense to confine their fortunetelling to the next 100 years.

 Posted by at 10:11 am
Mar 202012

I am holding in my hands an amazing book. It is a big and heavy tome, coffee table book sized, with over 600 lavishly illustrated pages. And it took more than 30 years for this book to appear finally in English, but the wait, I think, was well worth it.

The name of Charles Simonyi, Microsoft billionaire and space tourist, is fairly well known. What is perhaps less well-known in the English speaking world is that his father, Karoly Simonyi, was a highly respected professor of physics at the Technical University of Budapest… that is, until he was deprived of his livelihood by a communist regime that considered him ideologically unfit for a teaching position.

Undeterred, Simonyi then spent the next several years completing his magnum opus, A Cultural History of Physics, which was eventually published in 1978.

Simonyi was both a scientist and a humanist. In his remarkable, unique book, history and science march hand in hand from humble beginnings in Egypt, through the golden era of the classical world, through the not so dark Dark Ages, on to the scientific revolution that began in the 1600s and culminated in the discoveries of Lagrangian mechanics, thermodynamics, statistical physics, electromagnetism and, ultimately, relativity theory and quantum physics.

And when I say lavishly illustrated, I mean it. Illustrations that include diagrams, portraits, facsimile pages from original publications decorate nearly every single page of Simonyi’s tome. Yet it is fundamentally a book about physics: the wonderfully written narrative is well complemented by equations that translate ideas into the precise language of mathematics.

I once read this book, my wife’s well worn copy, from cover to cover, back in the mid 1990s. I feel that it played a very significant role in helping me turn back towards physics.

Simonyi’s book has seen several editions in the original Hungarian, and it was also translated into German, but until now, no English-language translation was available. This is perhaps not surprising: it must be a very expensive book to produce, and despite its quality, the large number of equations must surely be a deterrent to many a prospective buyer. But now, CRC Press finally managed to make an English-language version available.

(Oh yes, CRC Press. I hated them for so many years, after they sued Wolfram and had Mathworld taken off-line. I still think that was a disgusting thing for them to do. I hope they spent enough on lawyers and lost enough sales due to disgusted customers to turn their legal victory a Pyrrhic one. But that was more than a decade ago. Let bygones be bygones… besides, I really don’t like Wolfram these days that much anyway, software activation and all.)

Charles Simonyi played a major role in making this edition happen. I guess he may also have spent some of his own money. And while I am sure he can afford a loss, I hope the book does well… it deserves to be successful.

For some reason, the book was harder to obtain in Canada than usual. It is not available on; indeed, I pre-ordered the book last fall, but a few weeks ago, Amazon notified me that they are unable to deliver this item. Fortunately, CRC Press delivers in Canada, and the shipping is free, just like with Amazon. The book seems to be available and in stock on the US Web site.

And it’s not a pricey one: at less than 60 dollars, it is quite cheap, actually. I think it’s well worth every penny. My only disappointment is that my copy was printed in India. I guess that’s one way to shave a few bucks off the production cost, but I would have paid more happily for a copy printed in the US or Canada.

 Posted by at 4:38 pm
Mar 182012

The Weather Network has this neat plot every ten minutes, showing the anticipated minimum and maximum temperatures for the next two weeks.

The forecast for Wednesday is off the chart. It is going to be so much hotter than the two-week average, it did not fit into the plot area.

Of course it could be just nonsense. They did predict 7 degrees Centigrade as the overnight low. It went down to 2 in foggy areas (most of Ottawa, I guess). Then again… even if it turns out to be 10 degrees colder than the predicted 24, it’s still a remarkably mild winter day. March 21, after all, is supposed to be the last day of winter. And I may have to fire up the A/C.

And it’s not just Ottawa. For Winnipeg (Winnipeg, for crying out loud!) today’s forecast is 28. A once in a thousand years event, says The Weather Network. Either that or the new norm, if global warming is to be believed. (Not necessarily bad news for many Canadians.)

 Posted by at 8:53 am
Mar 172012

I have been exchanging e-mails with a friend. We discussed, among other things, Rush Limbaugh’s now infamous comments on Sandra Fluke.

In response to comparisons of Limbaugh to some of the vile comments made by left-wing personalities like Bill Maher in the past (who called, for instance, Sarah Palin a ‘cunt’), I said this:

“I also note that Limbaugh’s rant went way beyond the use of an offensive word: he discussed Susan [sic!] Fluke’s sexual habits repeatedly and in detail, and once he was done demonstrating his complete ignorance on the topic of birth-control drugs (no, the amount of birth control pills consumed is not related to the amount of sex a person has, he must have confused it with the pills he takes for sex; and no, Fluke was not discussing recreational use of birth control pills but specifically their widespread use to treat serious gynecological conditions) he actually asked her publicly to make a porn video of her sexual activities. And, unlike the liberal comedians mentioned (who are, after all, comedians) Limbaugh did this in all seriousness. If I had been in Fluke’s place, I’d have called Limbaugh a lecherous, drug-addled dirty old pig. Fluke was more of a lady than I am a gentleman, I guess.”

And then I realized that I should not be ashamed of my words. Instead of saying what I should do in Fluke’s place, let me just do it, plain and simple:

In my opinion, Limbaugh is a lecherous, drug-addled dirty old pig.

 Posted by at 11:00 am
Mar 112012

I have been meaning to write about this since last month, when news photographer Damir Sagolj won a World Press award for his photograph of a North Korean building complex with the well lit picture of Kim Il-Sung highlighting a wall:

I think it’s an amazing shot. All those drab buildings with their dark windows, and the single source of light is the portrait of the Great Leader represent North Korean society in a way words cannot. I can almost visualize this image as part of some post-apocalyptic computer game.

 Posted by at 11:09 pm
Mar 012012

Someone sent me this link (

It’s a talk about the growing prevalence of Internet content providers to present content that they presume you want to see. You go to Google News and the news you find is the kind of news Google thinks you like. You go to Facebook and the comments you see are the kind of comments Facebook believe you like. Comments from friends you were less likely to click on slowly vanish from sight… and you end up in a bubble of like-minded people, increasingly unaware of things that might challenge your thinking.

This is very bad. Indeed, I am beginning to wonder if perhaps the emergence of such information bubbles may be somewhat responsible for the increasing polarization in politics in many Western societies.

 Posted by at 11:36 am
Mar 012012

Maxima is an open-source computer algebra system (CAS) and a damn good one at that if I may say so myself, being one of Maxima’s developers.

Among other things, Maxima has top-notch tensor algebra capabilities, which can be used, among other things, to work with Lagrangian field theories.

This week, I am pleased to report, SourgeForge chose Maxima as one of the featured open-source projects on their front page. No, it won’t make us rich and famous (not even rich or famous) but it is nice to be recognized.

 Posted by at 9:35 am