Nov 302012

An article we wrote with Slava Turyshev about the Pioneer anomaly and its resolution, at the request of IEEE Spectrum, is now available online.

It was an interesting experience, working with a professional science journalist and her team. I have to admit that I did not previously appreciate the level of professionalism that is behind such a “members only” magazine.

 Posted by at 3:22 pm
Nov 292012

OK, so there was hurricane Sandy, the “fiscal cliff”, the European debt crisis, Iranian nukes, the Gaza strip, Syria, and then of course the infamous Mayan calendar… and no, I was not the least bit worried that the world would come to an end in 2012.

But now I am reading that on Monday night, in New York City, there was no violent crime. No murders. No stabbings. No shootings. No slashings.

I feel scared.

 Posted by at 8:18 am
Nov 252012

The other day, I read about an interesting experiment: The Guardian solicited readers’ ideas to resolve the nuclear crisis at Fukushima. Predictably, the majority of the submitted ideas were dangerous nonsense.

Today, I ran across something on Facebook: an attempt to promote the Robin Hood tax, a tax on financial (e.g., Wall Street) transactions. The suggestion is that a tax of a mere 0.5% on Wall Street transactions would not only generate billions in revenue but also slow down algorithmic trading that can cause so much runaway damage. Wikipedia tells me that EU citizens overwhelmingly support such a tax.

The trouble is that Wikipedia also tells me the reasons why such a tax may not be a great idea after all, as well as past lessons from attempts to implement such taxes, e.g., in Sweden. These are the consequences that are left out of the populist rhetoric, and are usually only discussed by experts.

Should this mean that we should leave political and economic decision-making to experts? It has been tried before. It is called totalitarianism. So once again, I am reminded of Churchill’s words: “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.

Which is why the often quixotic fight of those who try to educate the public is both noble and essential.

 Posted by at 3:53 pm
Nov 202012

I like the CBC. CBC Radio 2 is pretty much the only radio station I listen to these days (though I admit I liked them a great deal more before they changed the station’s format and eliminated some unique programs, most notably Jurgen Gothe’s Disc Drive). In the evenings, I like to watch local news on CBC Ottawa. CBC Newsworld still has some excellent documentaries. And so on.

The CBC is about to have its licenses renewed. It is asking the CRTC for “more flexibility”, including permission to run commercials on Radio 2. And this makes me pause. Do we really need the CBC?

Yes, I think Canada needs a public broadcaster. One that is dedicated to provide Canadians with unbiased information; one that takes on a role of cultural leadership.

But no, we absolutely do not need an ill-managed private broadcaster that loses a billion dollars a year in public funds.

I have heard of the conspiracy theory that Stephen Harper’s government is purposefully allowing the CBC to be steered in this direction, as a means to devalue and, ultimately, destroy the CBC for ideological reasons. I don’t like conspiracy theories but I admit I sometimes wonder…

 Posted by at 8:43 am
Nov 192012

I am reading articles about the slow sales of Windows 8 and complaints about its user interface. All valid, I think. Indeed, there is an easy way to explain in two points why I would not recommend anyone to upgrade to Windows 8 on the desktop:

  1. Value added by Windows 8 over Windows 7 for the typical desktop user: None. (To be sure, there are some minor improvements, including speedups. But they are more than offset by the incomprehensible removal of the Start button and the equally incomprehensible move away from the Aero interface, which is actually quite nice.)
  2. Difficulties created by the schizophrenic nature of Windows 8 (“Modern” vs. “desktop”) and the cumbersome nature of a touch-oriented interface on a desktop computer: Lots.

In other words, you are paying a huge price (not the dollar cost of a Windows 8 license but price in the form of re-training yourself or your employees, and the inevitable productivity loss due to a very confusing schizophrenic interface) and you essentially get nothing in return.

Maybe Microsoft will fix all this with Windows 9. Maybe Ballmer has to go first.

 Posted by at 8:57 pm
Nov 192012

One of the best known Russian science-fiction authors from the Soviet era, Boris Strugatsky, died today at the age of 79. Together with his brother Arkady (who died in 1991), they wrote some astonishing, unique novels, including some of my favorites: Monday Begins on Saturday and It’s Hard to be a God. But they are perhaps best known for the short story Roadside Picnic, immortalized in film by Andrei Tarkovsky under the title Stalker.

 Posted by at 5:10 pm
Nov 172012

The other day, creators of The Big Bang Theory (the television sitcom, not the cosmological theory) accomplished something astonishing.

They managed to replace in my mind the iconic number 42 (the answer to the Ultimate Question about Life, Universe and Everything, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams) with the number 43.

I am still reeling from the shock.

 Posted by at 12:03 pm
Nov 152012

The sordid saga around the resignation of Gen. Petraeus continues. It became such a tangled story, actually published a flowchart to make it easier to decipher.

Meanwhile, however, The Guardian raises some very troubling points:

  • In response to Ms. Kelley’s initial complaint about a vaguely offensive e-mail, the FBI devoted substantial resources and engaged in highly invasive surveillance for no reason other than to do a personal favor for a friend of an agent;
  • Without any evidence of an actual crime, and without a search warrant, they gained access to Ms. Broadwell’s e-mail account;
  • Again, without any evidence of any actual wrongdoing, they also got their hands on e-mails exchanged not only between Ms. Broadwell and Gen. Petraeus but also between her and Gen. Allen.

The Guardian comments about the “sweet justice” aspect of all of this: namely that America’s security surveillance system that is running amok is targeting the very people in charge of that system, such as the head of the CIA. However, I do not share their implied optimism; I don’t think the growth in surveillance will stop anytime soon. We are nowhere near close to anything like the McCarthy era’s pivotal “have you no sense of decency?” moment. For that, a lot more good people will have to be harmed a lot more gravely first.

 Posted by at 10:13 am
Nov 112012

Today is Remembrance Day. I find it appropriate that this country remembers the sacrifice of its veterans more than the glory of war.

Appropriately, I am reading the autobiography of Claude Choules, the last military veteran to die who served in both World Wars.

 Posted by at 6:14 pm
Nov 082012

Rudy Giuliani made an interesting comment on CNN yesterday. He ridiculed his own party by pointing out that they are all for states’ rights… except when they are not, such as when they are pushing to amend the federal constitution to define marriage. He pointed out that a conservative party that stays out of both people’s pocketbooks and their bedrooms would be a winning combination. I couldn’t agree more.

So how come I am in favor of Obamacare? Well… I also like highways. Some libertarians may argue that by building a highway, government restricts your freedom to drive where you want and forces you onto a narrow strip of asphalt. Technically true, but I still prefer to live in a place with a well-developed national infrastructure. These days, I consider a universal health care system just as important a part of that national infrastructure as highways, schools, or electrical networks.

 Posted by at 9:44 am
Nov 082012

Apparently, it’s real. Some Americans, bitterly disappointed with Obama’s re-election, are considering emigration. At first I didn’t want to believe this but I now personally heard about a medical professional from the southern United States who is contemplating moving to Canada.

Well, we are a big country, a welcoming and tolerant place. Still… are you sure you will fit in? I feel compelled to repost a picture I ran across on Facebook a day or two ago.

So you're moving to Canada if Obama gets reelected?  The country with the socialized healthcare, universally recognized gay marriage, ~45% atheist population, and where abortion has no time limit?  Yeah, I'm sure you'll fucking fit right in.

 Posted by at 9:37 am
Nov 072012

Obama won. He is not going to have an easy four years with an obstructionist Congress. And the route Republicans will chose in the wake of Romney’s defeat remains an open question. I hope they don’t turn further right; that would either marginalize them or lead a far-right candidate to the White House, and neither of those outcomes are pleasant to think about.

But the real winner of the night I think was Nate Silver of the The New York Times, who predicted the outcome with uncanny accuracy, state-by-state. The one state that has not been called yet by the networks? Florida, with Obama slightly in the lead. Nate Silver’s prediction? A 50.3% chance of Obama taking the state.


And the real losers were Fox News, I believe. Rather than facing the facts, they decided to question the wisdom of their own “decision desk”, live on the air. What a sad (not to mention ridiculous) moment.

 Posted by at 11:32 am
Nov 052012

It appears that there is middle ground after all between pro-nuclear complacency and anti-nuclear alarmism.

Evan Osnos, writing for The New Yorker, points out that “America’s hundred-and-four nuclear reactors handled hurricane Sandy with far less trouble than other parts of the power grid”. But he goes on to note that a higher storm surge could have caused grave trouble, just as the tsunami did in Japan. He quotes a former nuclear engineer who said that complacency “is precisely that kind of closed or narrow mindedness that allowed Fukushima to happen.” The United States has a significant number of vulnerable plants. Whereas in Japan, the history of the island is known going back well over a thousand years (a history, specifically the history of the tsunami of 869, that Fukushima’s designers chose to ignore, with tragic consequences.) In the US, records only go back a little over three centuries, so if anything, more caution should be warranted.

But Osnos is not advocating shutting down the industry. “the key is not to pretend that the nuclear industry is a house of cards,” he writes, “but to prevent a non-disaster from becoming a disaster.”

Unfortunately, our memory for disasters tends to be alarmingly short. Osnos points out that after a flood wreaked havoc with New York’s subways in 2007, some 30 million dollars were spent on flood protection… and that’s it. Then it was all forgotten. One can only hope that Sandy will leave a more lasting impression when it comes to disaster preparedness, especially when nuclear plants are concerned.

 Posted by at 7:40 am
Nov 022012

I am reading some very interesting statistics. It is a survey of Muslims in the United States.

Wenzel strategies is a partisan public opinion firm associated with the US Republican Party. Nonetheless, while their ideology may be reflected in their choice of questions, I have no reason to believe that the statistical integrity of their survey is compromised. There may be some shenanigans not uncommon when partisan pollsters are involved (for instance, how did they select their respondents?) that may skew the results somewhat, but I don’t think they would alter the outcome dramatically. In other words, I don’t think this is islamophobe fodder.

The picture painted by the survey is complex. A small but not insignificant percentage of the respondents (almost all of whom are US citizens who are registered to vote) clearly have extremist views: for instance, 12% of the respondents think that those who criticize Islam or Mohammed should be put to death, with a further 9% unsure. On the other hand, defying stereotypes, only about 16% think that Israel has no right to exist, and only 7% think Sharia law should take precedence over the US constitution (with a further 20% unsure). And a surprising 30% think it’s okay for US citizens to evangelize Muslims, with a further 28% unsure.

In the data set, I don’t see much by way of significant differences among demographic groups. One exception is the support for the death penalty for those who offend Islam: younger responders were much more inclined to agree (19%) than the older generation. Similarly, younger responders were much less likely to support Israel’s right to exist (31% disagree with that right).

Overall, if the survey results are valid, they are troubling. While the majority tends to have moderate views, an alarming minority (and in some cases, even a majority) expressed views that are fundamentally incompatible with liberal Western principles. For instance, as many as 58% do not believe that the First Amendment of the US constitution should protect criticism of Islam or Mohammed. And the fact that younger Muslims tend to have more extremist views may mean nothing (younger people are generally more receptive to radical ideas) but may also indicate an alarming trend.

One conspicuously missing demographic question is the one about immigration status: how many of the respondents were born in the US, immigrated as children, or arrived as adults? Perhaps accompanied even by a breakdown by country or region of origin. That is because I would not be surprised at all if the more extremist views were held by recent immigrants from countries with strong tribal traditions. I wonder why these immigration questions were omitted from the survey.

Immigration status and partisan views notwithstanding, I find it deeply disturbing that, at least according to this one survey, as many as one in five young American Muslims think I should be put to death if I were to make my critical views on Islam or Mohammed public.

 Posted by at 3:53 pm