Jul 132012

Just heard this while listening to the evening jazz program Tonic on CBC Radio 2: a Texas man, whose Austin-Healey convertible was stolen in 1970, found it listed on eBay 42 years later! After a bit of a hassle (mainly because the vehicle’s VIN was misfiled in the FBI’s database) he was able to reclaim it, no doubt much to the distress of the California car dealer who may have bought it in good faith.

 Posted by at 9:49 pm
Jul 122012

A while back, I ran into a problem with WordPress, the blogging software that I use. I was unable remove posts from categories. In particular, blog posts that were not explicitly added to any category were automatically added to the “Uncategorized” category; it was impossible to remove them afterwards even as I added categories to the post. Unchecking a category made no difference.

Now I know why. For some reason, the WordPress account on my MySQL server lost table lock and (more importantly) delete privileges.

USE mysql;
UPDATE db SET Delete_priv='Y' WHERE User='wordpress' AND Delete_priv='N';
UPDATE db SET Lock_tables_priv='Y' WHERE User='wordpress' AND Lock_tables_priv='N';

I really like it when I am able to resolve a long-standing problem with such little hassle. I just hope that this privileges issue did not corrupt the database in other ways, causing grief later on.

 Posted by at 1:28 pm
Jul 112012

The other day, I came across a picture of Kosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, a floating deep space tracking station operated by the Soviet space establishment in the 1970s. The picture was actually posted to Facebook by The Planetary Society. The source of the photograph is a book, Soviet Robots in the Solar System, published by Springer in 2011.

I felt compelled to buy this book. The Soviet space program always fascinated me. I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s behind the Iron Curtain; yes, we heard about Apollo, but we heard just as much about Soyuz, Vostok, Lunokhod, Venera, not to mention the innumerable spacecraft named Cosmos, followed by a three-digit (later, four-digit) number, whose missions remained shrouded in secrecy.

Of course we now know that many of those Cosmos craft were, in fact, failed missions, including failed missions to Mars and Venus. The Soviets tended to hide their failures and announce missions only when (at least partial) success was already assured.

But it’s not like they were unsuccessful. Sure, they never managed to land a man on the Moon (or even take a human beyond Low Earth Orbit); their attempt to build a launch vehicle comparable to America’s Saturn V, the N-1, failed miserably. But they did land not one but two teleoperated rovers on the Moon decades before the American Sojourner mini-rover arrived on Mars. They experimented with autonomous deep space navigation. They could also claim the first successful soft landing on the surface of Mars (although Mars-3 only remained operational for a few seconds after the landing).

And then there is their most spectacular success story: the Venera series of probes to Venus. Their persistence (and their willingness to tolerate early failures) paid off: Venera 7 successfully reached the Venusian surface, Venera 9 transmitted the first black-and-white images from the planet, followed by the spectacular color panorama captured by Venera 13 and 14.

The tragedy is what happened to this space program afterwards. The US unmanned space program carried on, budget cuts and failures notwithstanding; Voyagers 1 and 2 are still transmitting from the edge of the solar system, a rover has been operating on Mars for the past eight years with another on its way, a probe is en route to Pluto, others are in orbit around Mercury and Saturn. Meanwhile, by the late 1980s, the Soviet unmanned program became a shadow of its former self, only to disappear pretty much completely with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent failure of Mars-96. More recently, there was hope that the program would be revived with Phobos-Grunt (a hope echoed in the aforementioned 2011 book); alas, that was not to be, as Phobos-Grunt also failed to leave Earth orbit and eventually crashed back onto the Earth (no doubt in the old days, it would have earned another Cosmos designation).

Anyhow, the book by Huntress and Marov arrived in my mailbox today, and apart from what seems to be a higher-than-usual number of trivial typos (one example: “back-and-white”; publishers really had gotten lazy ever since authors started delivering manuscripts electronically) it is a quality book indeed, providing a reasonably complete account of these Soviet efforts. As I am flipping through its pages, I am reminded of those newspaper and magazine articles or the occasional television report (in glorious black-and-white, of course) that captivated me so much as a child.

 Posted by at 10:07 pm
Jul 102012

According to a recent survey, Hungarians believe they are a minority or threatened majority in their own country. They believe that Hungarians represent only 46-58% of the country’s population, with the rest being mostly Roma (14-21%), Jew (10-12%) or other foreign nationalities (10-11%).

In reality, according to the 2001 census (the latest available), the population of Hungary is 93.2% Hungarian. Roma represent 1.9%, the number of Jews is not known (Jew is not a recognized ethnicity in Europe) but the number of practitioners of Judaism is around 0.1%; and people of foreign nationality (e.g., Arab, Chinese) represent only 0.16%

It is not difficult to guess that quite likely, this cognitive dissonance is closely related to the alarming rise of right-wing nationalism in my country of birth.

 Posted by at 3:33 pm
Jul 102012

I once had a profound thought, years ago.

I realized that many people think that knowing the name of something is the same as understanding that thing. “What’s that?” they ask, and when you reply, “Oh, that’s just the blinking wanker from a thermonuclear quantum generator,” they nod deeply and thank you with the words, “I understand”. (Presumably these are the same people who, when they ask “How does this computer work?”, do not actually mean that they are looking for an explanation of Neumann machines, digital electronics, modern microprocessor technology, memory management principles, hardware virtualization techniques and whatnot; they were really just looking for the ON switch. Such people form an alarming majority… but it took me many frustrating years to learn this.)

I am not sure how to feel now, having just come across a short interview piece with the late physicist Richard Feynman, who is talking about the same topic. The piece is even titled “Knowing the name of something“. I am certainly reassurred that a mind such as Feynman’s had the same thought that I did. I am also disappointed that my profound thought is not so original after all. But I feel I should really be encouraged: perhaps this is just a sign that the same thought might be occurring to many other people, and that might make the world a better place. Who knows… in a big Universe, anything can happen!


 Posted by at 9:05 am
Jul 092012

I didn’t realize that the first ever photograph of the Earth taken from space predates Sputnik by more than a decade.

This amazing picture is one of several frames shot by a camera on board a captured V-2 rocket, launched from the White Sands Missile Range on October 24, 1946. Almost 66 years ago.


 Posted by at 11:04 pm
Jul 052012

News flash this morning: the first (of hopefully many) Japanese nuclear reactor is back online.

On March 11, 2011, the fifth biggest earthquake in recorded history, and the worst recorded earthquake ever in Japan, hit the island nation. As a result, some 16,000 people died (the numbers may go higher as some are still listed as missing). Most were killed by the natural disaster directly, as they drowned in the resulting tsunami. Some were killed as technology failed: buildings collapsed, vehicles crashed, industrial installations exploded, caught fire, or leaked toxins.

None were killed by the world’s second worst nuclear accident to date, the loss of power and resulting meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Some of it was due, no doubt, to sheer luck. Some if it due to the inherent safety of these plants and the foresight of their designers (though foresight did not always prevail, as evidenced by the decision to place last-resort emergency backup generators in a basement in a tsunami-prone area). The bottom line, though, remains: no-one died.

Yet the entire nuclear power generation industry in Japan was shut down as a result. Consequently, Japan’s conventional emissions rose dramatically; power shortages prevailed; and Japan ended up with a trade deficit, fueled by their import of fossil fuels.

Finally, it seems that sanity (or is it necessity?) is about to prevail. The Ohi nuclear power plant is supplying electricity again. I can only hope that it is running with lessons learned about a nuclear disaster that, according to the Japanese commission investigating it, was “profoundly manmade”; one “that could have been foreseen and prevented”, were it not for causes that were deeply rooted in Japanese culture.

 Posted by at 8:35 am
Jul 042012

Sometimes one comes across Internet gems just as they are about to disappear.

Just south of Budapest, near the expressway that leads to Lake Balaton, there is a small village by the name of Tordas.

Tordas has had a small community radio station for the past 12 years. For the first decade, it was a pirate station, broadcasting without a license, but as of 2010, they are officially licensed to operate their 1 W (!) transmitter.

Alas, not for much longer. They are about to go silent this weekend, buried by bureaucratic requirements imposed by Hungary’s new media authority.

I read about this today and tuned into Radio Tordas over the Internet. I was in for a treat.

For instance, I heard a version of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, sung in Latin (!) by the late British MP Derek Enright.

I heard a cover of These Boots Are Made for Walkin’, sung by songwriter Lee Hazlewood, with alternate lyrics that end with the words, “this is the part of the record where the engineer Eddy Brackett said if we don’t fade this thing out, we’re all gonna be arrested”.

I heard an wonderful song, Guns of Brixton, by the French band Nouvelle Vague.

I heard a rather unusual and humorous cover (mostly vocals and acoustic instruments) of Jean Michel Jarre’s electronic composition Oxygen, by the Hungarian band Zuboly.

I heard an amazing cover of The Rolling Stones’ Play With Fire. I have no idea who was singing, which is a pity, because he almost sounded like Tom Waits. (No, I don’t think it was Tom Waits.)

I heard many other things, including two rather unusual children’s tales from the immortal Ervin Lazar, known in Hungary for, well, his rather unusual children’s tales.

And this radio station is about to go off the air for good. Perhaps they’ll survive on the Internet. If so, they’re on my list of stations worth listening to.

 Posted by at 4:49 pm
Jul 042012

I got up early this morning, so I had a chance to study the results from LHC, namely the preliminary publications from the ATLAS and CMS detectors.

According to the ATLAS team, the likelihood that the event count they see around 126 GeV is due purely to chance is less than one in a million. The result is better than 5σ, which makes it almost certain that they observed something.

The CMS detector observed many possible types of Higgs decay events. When they combined them all, they found that the probability that all this is due purely to chance is again less than one in a million… in their case, an almost 5σ result. Once again, it indicates very strongly that something has been observed.

But is it the Higgs? I have to say it’s beginning to look like it’s both quacking and walking like a duck… but CERN is cautious, and rightfully so. Their statement is that “CERN experiments observe particle consistent with long-sought Higgs boson”, and I think it is a very correct one.

 Posted by at 7:30 am
Jul 032012

It appears that CERN goofed and as a result, the video of the announcement planned for tomorrow has been leaked. (That is, unless you choose to believe their cockamamie story about multiple versions of the video having been produced.)

The bottom line: there is definitely a particle there with integer spin. Its mass is about 125 GeV. We know it decays into two photons and two Z-bosons. That’s about all we know.

The assessment is that it is either the Higgs or something altogether new.

 Posted by at 6:17 pm
Jul 022012

The Tevatron may have been shut down last year but the data they collected is still being analyzed.

And it’s perhaps no accident that they managed to squeeze out an announcement today, just two days before the scheduled announcement from the LHC: their observations are “consistent with the possible presence of a low-mass Higgs boson.”

The Tevatron has analyzed ten “inverse femtobarns” worth of data. This unit of measure (unit of luminosity, integrated luminosity to be precise) basically tells us how many events the Tevatron experiment produced. One “barn” is a whimsical name for a tiny unit of area, 10−24 square centimeters. A femtobarn is 10−15 barn. And when a particle physicist speaks of “inverse femtobarns”, what he really means is “events per femtobarn”. Ten inverse femtobarns of “integrated luminosity”, then, means a particle beam that, over time, produced ten events per every 10−39 square centimeters.

Now this makes sense intuitively if you think of a yet to be discovered particle or process as something that has a size. Suppose the cross-sectional size of what you are trying to discover is 10−36 square centimeters, or 1000 femtobarns. Now your accelerator just peppered each femtobarn with 10 events… that’s 10,000 events that fall onto your intended target, which means 10,000 opportunities to discover it. On the other hand, if your yet to be discovered object is 10−42 square centimeters in size, which is just one one thousandths of a femtobarn… ten events per femtobarn is really not enough, chances are your particle beam never hit the target and there is nothing to see.

The Tevatron operated for a long time, which allowed them to reach this very high level of integrated luminosity. But the cross-section, or apparent “size” of Higgs-related events also depends on the energy of the particles being accelerated. The Tevatron was only able to accelerate particles to 2 TeV. In contrast, the LHC is currently running at 8 TeV, and at such a high energy, some events are simply more likely to occur, which means that they are effectively “bigger” in cross section, more likely to be “illuminated” by the particle beam.

The Tevatron is not collecting any new data, but it seems they don’t want to be left out of the party. Hence, I guess, this annoucement, dated July 2, indicating a strong hint that the Higgs particle exists with a mass around 125 GeV/c2.

On the other hand, CERN already made it clear that their announcement will not be a definitive yes/no statement on the Higgs. Or so they say. Yet it has been said that Peter Higgs, after whom the Higgs boson is named, has been invited to be present when the announcement will be made. This is more than enough for the rumors to go rampant.

I really don’t know what to think. There are strong reasons to believe that the Higgs particle is real. There are equally strong reasons to doubt its existence. The observed events are important, but an unambiguous confirmation requires further analysis to exclude possibilities such as statistical flukes, events due to something else like a hadronic resonance, and who knows what else. And once again, I am also reminded of another historical announcement by CERN exactly 28 years prior to this upcoming one, on July 4, 1984, when they announced the discovery of the top quark at 40 GeV. Except that there is no top quark at 40 GeV… their announcement was wrong. Yet the top quark is real, later to be discovered having a mass of about 173 GeV.

Higgs or no Higgs? I suspect the jury will still be out on July 5.

 Posted by at 5:48 pm
Jul 012012

Happy 145th birthday, Canada!

I am not much of a fan of patriotic displays and whatnot, but this country certainly has reasons to celebrate. I hope we can keep it this way for many years to come.

 Posted by at 1:30 pm