Jul 272013

I was watching RDI’s coverage of the memorial ceremony that was taking place last hour in Lac-Mégantic, the location of the horrific derailment a few weeks ago that claimed so many lives.

I was impressed by the size and beauty of Sainte-Agnés church where the mass was taking place, so I went to Google to find out more.

It was, of course, unsurprisingly difficult to find background material, as search results were dominated by recent articles about the disaster. But, after wading through some directory entries and such, I came across a true gem: the story of the “Electrical Priest”, Father Joseph-Eugene Choquette.

When he was not attending to his priestly duties, Father Choquette spent a fair bit of his time as an amateur scientist. And what an amateur he was!

Bringing a player piano to his church (and drawing the ire of his parishioners when they found out that it was not their vicar who was in secret a talented musician) was just one of his many pranks (perhaps an unintended one in this case). Apparently, he also liked to play with electricity, to the extent that visitors to his house were often shocked by a jolt of current when they touched a doorknob or sat down in a booby-trapped chair.

But Father Choquette was interested in more than mere pranks. He also experimented with telephony and electric lighting. Having installed a personal lighting system (powered by a dynamo hooked up to a windmill) that proved to be a success, he proceeded with a more ambitious plan: a generating plant to light the whole town. He remained directly involved with this project until his death; parishioners often found their vicar strapped to a pole 25 feet in the air, working on a faulty transformer.

When Father Choquette died, he left much of his equipment and collections to the Sherbrook and Saint-Hyacinthe Seminaries and to the Convent and College of Megantic. That was nearly a century ago. I wonder if any of his belongings still survive somewhere.

 Posted by at 1:10 pm
Jul 242013

I grumbled once in this blog already about the incessant Marineland commercials on most Canadian channels this time of the year.

I still hate (desperately hate! As in, hate more than the sound of a hundred piecees of chalk screeching on a hundred chalkboards) the song, but I was hesitant to give them more publicity in my blog.

Until I came across a story from last August about animal suffering at the park.

Not exactly unexpected, to be honest, though even the singer who sings that horrendous jingle found the accusations shocking. She’d now prefer to see the jingle’s tag line replaced with “All the whales haaaate Marineland!”.

And I do, too, now for more than one reason.

 Posted by at 8:20 am
Jul 212013

dementia-villageI was watching a report this morning by Sanjay Gupta on CNN about a unique Dutch facility caring for dementia patients.

Unofficially dubbed “dementia village“, the facility aims to provide a life for its residents that is as close to “normal” as possible.

Yet there is something creepy about a place that only has one way in and one way out, and it is locked and under surveillance. A place where freedom is illusory. Even Gupta could not resist making a comparison with The Truman Show: that the normalcy in “dementia village” is a fake, a deception.

True, it’s a deception that serves a noble purpose. Yet it reminded me of another fictitious facility: The Unit, as depicted in the eponymous novel by Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist, where people live out the last days of their lives while waiting to become organ donors.

 Posted by at 9:25 am
Jul 202013

I spent a part of yesterday afternoon speed-reading Konstantin Kakaes’s new e-book, The Pioneer Detectives. It’s a short book (still well worth the $2.99 Kindle price) but it reads very well and presents a fair picture of our efforts researching the origin of the anomalous acceleration of the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft.

Yes, I was one of those “detectives”. (In fact, I still consider myself one, as I don’t believe our job is quite done yet; we still owe the community a detailed account of our research and an update of our Pioneer Anomaly review before we can move on with a clean conscience.) So I have an insider’s view of this very intriguing story.

I had a chance to talk with Kakaes at length when he visited me here in Ottawa last year. Over the years, I learned to be apprehensive when talking to journalists; often, the words they put in your mouth bear little resemblance to what you actually said to them when interviewed. I was relieved that this was not the case now: at no time did I feel compelled to cringe while reading the book.

So I really enjoyed Kakaes’s telling of our story. Indeed, I think I learned a thing or two about presenting a complex subject to a non-specialist audience. Kakaes, an accomplished science journalist, manages to do so without dumbing it down with excessive oversimplifications.

One person whose views may not be as favorable is the original discoverer of the Pioneer anomaly, John Anderson. I am told that Anderson is not fond of our results. Kakaes believes that this is because Anderson is “blinded by his desire to believe in something new, in something unexplained. He wants so badly not to know.” Yes, scientists are people, too, and the prospect that a discovery you made, once thought profound, may just be an engineering fluke is not an easy one to swallow. Kakaes does what a responsible journalist must do: he tries to paint an objective picture, which sometimes includes unflattering bits. Yet I think that John Anderson has more scientific integrity than Kakaes gives him credit for.

And to be perfectly honest, I am also disappointed with our own results. When I first read about the Pioneer anomaly (as an outsider, long before my involvement) it seemed to fit perfectly into the big scheme: namely that perhaps the same physics that was responsible for significant deviations from Einstein’s and Newton’s predictions on cosmological and galactic scales might also be responsible for a small but measurable deviation here in the solar system. This was a fantastic prospect!

Sadly, it was not to be. What once seemed like a revolutionary, paradigm-shifting result has been reduced to a small footnote in the history of gravitational physics. Yet I think that our story is nonetheless intriguing. Kakaes seems to think so, too, judging by his book. A book that I am happy to recommend.

 Posted by at 6:55 pm
Jul 192013

The news was this morning that a fellow was momentarily richer than Bill Gates, by a cool factor of a million or so, thanks to a small accounting mistake by PAYPAL. His account was worth more than 5000 times the US national debt.

Indeed, in one interview I saw mentioned, he did say that had this been for real, he’d have paid down the US national debt.

Sounds good and patriotic, except… could he?

Suppose you come into possession of 92 quadrillion dollars. The 16 trillion dollar debt (and then some) of the United States is just small change for you. Paying it down basically means buying the debt from debtholders.

Well, first of all, what if they don’t want to sell? There is a reason why the US can borrow so cheaply: US government bonds are a good, safe, secure form of investment. People who put their money into bonds do so for a reason, and not because there isn’t a demand for the bonds they hold.

Creating demand would drive down interest rates even more. By making the bonds scarce, you’d encourage people to buy them even at 0 or negative interest rates. Which would only encourage the US government to borrow more.

The deficit problem, after all, isn’t solved: there is still a fundamental imbalance between the governent’s revenues and expenses.

Continuing issuance of bonds by the government leads to inflation. This is a good thing insofar as debt is concerned, as debt can be inflated away, but with so much money available (your 92 quadrillion dollars), the situation can quickly become unstable, and hyperinflation may set in.

Ultimately, your noble attempt to help the US out of its debt crisis will result in a worthless currency, a collapsed economy, and the remainder of 92 quadrillion in your pocket, which may not even be enough to buy a loaf of bread.

Perhaps it was a good thing, then, that this was just a quickly corrected accounting glitch.

 Posted by at 12:01 am
Jul 172013

I am reading an interesting analysis of the conundrum NSA leaker Edward Snowden finds himself in: namely that he is facing the prospect of an asylum-less world.

It’s not that there are no countries who would grant him asylum. It’s that there are very few countries that are actually capable of delivering on that promise.

Should Snowden move to, say, Ecuador, I wonder how long before he’d be “rendered” by American agents?

Even getting there may prove to be a difficult task. The mere suspicion that Snowden may be on board the presidential aircraft of Bolivian President Evo Morales was sufficient to force the plane to land in Vienna and be searched, in an almost unthinkable breach of diplomatic protocol. (Actually, we don’t exactly know what happened, as there are too many conflicting stories. The airplane may simply have landed for fuel. Why it needed to be searched, though, is a darn good question.)

Behind Snowden’s difficulties is the fact that we live in the era of a lone superpower. There are no checks and balances that would limit the United States’ use (or abuse) of its nearly limitless powers.

So then, perhaps Snowden did the smart thing, flying to Hong Kong first and then to Moscow, China and Russia being among the few countries that are beyond the reach of the CIA, where Snowden could still expect reasonably civilized treatment. (North Korea may also be beyond the reach of the CIA, but Snowden knew better than to go there.) Of course, there is something deeply hypocritical about a person who leaks documents in defense of free speech and individual rights, seeking asylum in the country that recently jailed members of a punk band. I hope once Snowden is granted asylum in Russia, he’ll take the time to visit the still jailed members of Pussy Riot in prison.

As to the rogue superpower… I keep asking myself if that is really such a bad thing. Two millennia ago, Roman hegemony resulted in a world that remained peaceful and prosperous for centuries. Pax Americana may not be perfect, but it may mean a decent and peaceful life for generations to come. Is this an acceptable moral compromise?

 Posted by at 6:35 pm
Jul 172013

The beauty of the picture is misleading.

By the 1980s, atmospheric nuclear tests were passe. To find out the effects of a low yield nuclear blast on newer military hardware, the US military resorted to the next best thing: a large conventional explosion, codenamed Minor Scale.

How large? About 4.2 kilotons of TNT equivalent. Or roughly 30% of the Hiroshima bomb.

The resulting fireball may look like some wildflower at first sight, but the 19-meter long airplane in the foreground of the picture (just barely visible) helps put things into perspective.

Reassuringly, the US military stated that “Minor Scale” would not be followed by an even bigger, “Major Scale” test explosion.

 Posted by at 6:13 pm
Jul 172013

Browsing the Web this morning, I ran across a reference to a Judge A. Sherman Christensen, also known as the “sheep case” judge, who tried a case in 1955 when Utah ranchers sued the federal government for the death of much of their livestock due to radioacive fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests conducted in Nevada.

Christensen, relying on evidence offered by government expert witnesses, ruled against the ranchers.

Astonishingly, 23 years later Christensen set aside his own judgment, having become convinced that fraud was committed in his courtroom by the Federal government.

Even more astonishingly, an appeals court rejected Christensen’s findings. The ranchers never had a chance. Neither did their sheep.

 Posted by at 4:58 pm
Jul 152013

What an ugly word: monetization. Never liked it.

I especially do not like it when it comes to games.

When it comes to computer games, my age shows I guess. The first computer game I ever played was an arcade version of Pong. And the first multiplayer world I participated in was British Legends, the Compuserve implementation of the original MUD, or Multi-User Dungeon. Eventually, I started hosting MUD’s successor, MUD2, and when CompuServe shut down British Legends, I began hosting my own port of MUD1 here as well. And for a while, I did charge MUD2 users a subscription fee but that’s just not a viable business model for a small gaming site these days, so eventually we dropped all such fees.

In any case, subscription fees are not what come to my mind when I think about game monetization. It is more insidious ways to compel players to cough up hard earned money.

And now I came across an intriguing article that offers a thorough review of several monetization tricks and schemes. The basic idea is to compel players to purchase in-game add-ons, “power-ups” and other improvements, and pay ever greater amounts as they progress through the game.

Of course it cannot be done as blatantly as that. As the article explains, a good monetization scheme does not destroy the player’s illusion that the game is skill-based. Paying may help a little, or help a player avoid losing prior achievements, but the player’s perception remains that the game is fundamentally rewarding skill, not big spending. Which, of course, is untrue, but the most successful monetization schemes can liberate hundreds of dollars from the pockets of devoted players each month.

I don’t like these schemes. They feel… dishonest. I do purchase the occasional game, both for my phone and for my PC (thanks to GOG.COM and DOTEMU.COM who offer great titles free of DRM). But I never pay for in-game features or upgrades as a matter of principle, and a good thing, too: as the article explains, once you pay, you end up paying more, in part to protect the investment you made earlier by paying real money to help your progress.

 Posted by at 12:42 pm
Jul 152013

The NSA engaged in domestic surveillance on a massive scale. It collected information on both foreign nationals and US citizens. It collected large amounts of data indiscriminately. It did so in secret, with little oversight. It did so with the collaboration of major telecommunication companies.

Sounds familiar? Perhaps. But what I am describing is project SHAMROCK, an NSA program terminated in 1975 that collected telegrams sent to or from the United States.

Arguably, the situation is somewhat better today, as the NSA is now under Congressional oversight and it has (supposedly) internal procedures in place to prevent the unlawful use of data that they collect. That is, if you believe their statements. But then, they made similar reassuring statements back in 1975, too, before details about SHAMROCK came to light.

The bottom line, it seems to me, is that governments have the technological means, the capacity, and the willingness to engage in large-scale surveillance of their own citizens. No guarantees against an Orwellian nightmare can come from futile attempts to limit these capabilities. The genie cannot be put back into the bottle. Only the openness and transparency of our political institutions can guarantee that the capabilities will not be abused.

 Posted by at 12:02 pm
Jul 032013

Fundamental rights in Hungary

Yesterday, the European Parliament discussed a report by the EU’s Civil Liberties Committee on fundamental rights in Hungary.


The report was accepted today with 370 votes for, 249 against.

The result was dismissed in advance by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who basically claimed that this was a vote by “socialists, liberals and greens”, “against Hungary”.

It wasn’t. It was a vote of concern regarding the policies of Orban’s government and party. Mr. Orban should know better and remember how it was a habit of the communist leaders that he so despises to dismiss criticisms of their regimes as the work of enemies of their nation.

 Posted by at 10:35 am