Oct 312013

I just spent a small
Fortune at the vet,
And all I got to bring home
Is this lousy cat.

Our cat Szürke’s packed cell volume (PCV) is up this morning. A ray of hope. Dare we hope? Or is it just that roller coaster thing again, and his PCV might come crashing down over the weekend, as it did before? If that happens, we’re really out of options.

 Posted by at 12:20 pm
Oct 302013

My wife took the #7 bus yesterday on her way home from the Byward Market.

The bus had to take a detour, due to the ongoing construction on Rideau street.

Then it had to take a further detour, perhaps due to the construction, maybe some other reason (an accident?)

When I spoke to her, the bus was standing still on Chapel street, heading in the wrong direction.

Some 20 minutes later, when the bus was already on Laurier, I turned on continuous GPS tracking of her phone. Tracking information was collected roughly every minute.

All in all, it took her approximately 45 minutes to get home from the intersection of Chapel and Wilbrod streets.

According to Google Maps, the distance is 950 meters on foot, and it would have take 12 minutes to get home walking. Unfortunately, she had some heavy bags with her so walking was not really an option. Although, had she known what was about to happen, she could have gotten off the bus at Besserer and Chapel, only a 700 meter walk from home.

Construction season is so much fun.

 Posted by at 11:20 am
Oct 232013

Our second oldest cat, Szürke (his name means gray in Hungarian, as he is a gray tabby; but we often just call him Süsü, which means something like silly, because he’s a silly little lapcat), is gravely ill. (As is my bank account as a result of the veterinary expenses, but that is another story.)

Trouble is, we don’t know what’s wrong with him.

He has hyperthyroidism, that much we know; he has been getting medication for that for a couple of years already.

But most recently, he became severely anemic. The doctors at first suspected renal failure. But that does not seem to be the case. The problem is more acute, perhaps some gastrointestinal bleeding. Yet still, there is no obvious cause, hence no obvious treatment.

His red cell count keeps dropping. We visited him tonight in the veterinary hospital. We are prepared for the possibility that this was good-bye.

But we have not yet given up hope.

 Posted by at 12:21 am
Oct 112013

OPCW_logoFour years ago, the Nobel peace prize was awarded to Barack Obama, despite the fact that he was still at the beginning of his presidency and it was not at all clear yet what his legacy would be with respect to world peace. Some accused the Nobel committee of political activism.

Last year, the prize was awarded to the European Union. Many were appalled that a faceless organization received the prize, but at least arguably, this organization is indeed responsible for lasting peace among nations that were once bitter enemies and fought each other in two world wars.

But now, they awarded the prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Another faceless organization, whose efforts have yet to bear fruit in Syria.

I do not mean to belittle the efforts of the OPCW, but why did they not award the prize to an actual person, namely Malala Yousafzai? With her fight for girls’ education, and her exceptionally forgiving attitude towards those who tried to murder her, she is the embodiment of what fighting for a peaceful world really means: courage and grace, and wisdom well beyond her years.

I hope she’ll get another chance next year.

 Posted by at 10:09 pm
Oct 112013

Reader’s Digest recently conducted an interesting experiment: they “lost” 12 wallets, filled with about $50 worth of cash and sufficient documentation to locate the owner, in 16 cities around the world. The result: Finns in Helsinki are the most honest with 11 of the 12 wallets returned, whereas in Lisbon, Portugal, the sole wallet that was returned was, in fact, found by a visiting Dutch couple. Finns needless to say, are rejoicing: “we don’t even run red lights,” boasted a Helsinki resident.

So what can we conclude from this interesting experiment? Perhaps shockingly, almost nothing.

This becomes evident if I plot a histogram with the number of wallets returned, and overlay on it a binomial distribution for a probability of 46.875% (which corresponds to the total number of wallets returned, 90 out of 192), I get a curve that is matched very closely by the histogram. Unsurprisingly, there will be a certain probability that in a given city, 1, 2, 3, etc. wallets are returned; and the results of Reader’s Digest match this prediction closely.

So there is no reason for Finns to rejoice or for the Portuguese to feel shame. It’s all just blind luck, after all. And the only valid conclusion we can draw from this experiment is that people are just as likely to be decent folks in Lisbon as in Helsinki.

But how do you explain this to a lay audience? More importantly, how do you prevent a political demagogue from drawing false or unwarranted conclusions from the data?

 Posted by at 9:40 pm
Oct 112013

Is this a worthy do-it-yourself neuroscience experiment, or an example of a technology gone berserk, foreshadowing a bleak future?

A US company is planning to ship $99 kits this fall, allowing anyone to turn a cockroach into a remote controlled cyborg. Educational? Or more like the stuff of bad dreams?

For me, it’s the latter. Perhaps it doesn’t help that I am halfway through reading Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, sequel to Oryx and Crake, a dystopian science fiction novel set in a bleak future in which humanity destroys itself through the reckless use of biotech and related technologies.

A cockroach may not be a beloved animal. Its nervous system may be too small, too simple for it to feel real pain. Nonetheless, I feel there is something deeply disturbing and fundamentally unethical about the idea of turning a living animal into a remote control toy.

To put it more simply: it creeps the hell out of me.

 Posted by at 11:49 am
Oct 112013

Hungary once had a proud national airline, MALÉV. I once worked for MALÉV, at least indirectly, when I built software simulators to calculate take-off distances and later, CO2 emissions for MALÉV’s fleet of Tu-154 aircraft. Sadly, MALÉV is no more: in early 2012, after the European Union declared that MALÉV received illegal subsidies from the Hungarian government, the airline went bankrupt and was liquidated.

Earlier this year, we saw some encouraging news: a private group of investors were trying to create a new national airline, designed to compete at the high end of the market. Their initial announcements were received with hope by some, with skepticism by others. The airline hit some bureaucratic hurdles as it was trying to get its newly leased small fleet of used 737s off the ground; their inaugural flights were repeatedly postponed.

But now, we learn that a prospective investor from the Middle East withdraw from the project, and as a result, the airline is unable to pay the salaries of its 70-odd employees for the month of September. In other words, for all practical intents and purposes, it is bankrupt. And this is probably a world first: a national airline that goes bankrupt without ever getting a single scheduled flight off the tarmac.

 Posted by at 11:37 am
Oct 112013

I just finished reading a fascinating book: Command and Control, by Erich Schlosser.

The subtitle may be somewhat more revealing: “Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety”.

It is a book about the safety (or lack thereof) of America’s nuclear weapons. And it was an eye-opening read.

Yes, I knew that there were some incidents in the past during which nuclear weapons were lost, damaged, or destroyed. Yes, I knew that there were incidents of false alarm, when early warning systems in the United States or the Soviet Union indicated an attack even though no such attack was under way.

But like many, I assumed that the weapons themselves were designed to be inherently safe. That by design, the weapons were secure against accidental detonation (even during a serious accident such as the crash of a bomber aircraft) or unauthorized use.

What I did not expect to read about were weapons that could be detonated by a stray electrical signal. A military leadership that resisted anything that could stand in the way of successful deployment of a weapon, including the installation of coded devices (“permissive action links”.) Or even when such coded devices were ultimately installed, in effect sabotaging them by using the code “00000000” everywhere. What I did not expect to read about were accidents involving nuclear weapons where only a single switch, prone to failure, stood between the world and an accidental thermonuclear explosion.

The book uses a specific incident, the in-silo explosion of a Titan II missile in 1980, as a framework to tell its story. I was shocked by the events leading up to the accident as well as the chaotic, panicky reaction afterwards (including pathetic attempts to hide systemic errors by trying to blame low-ranking airmen for the accident).

The book is mostly about America’s weapon systems, but it is not meant to imply that foolish attitudes towards the deadliest weapon ever invented by humanity are uniquely American. A famous line in the movie classic, Dr. Strangelove, is when Dr. Strangelove yells at the Soviet ambassador in frustration, “Yes, but the… whole point of the doomsday machine… is lost… if you keep it a secret!” In the 1980s, the Soviet Union finished construction of the Perimeter system, an automated system designed to respond with a massive nuclear strike automatically in case the Soviet leadership was incapacitated and the system detected nuclear explosions on Soviet soil. In other words: a doomsday machine. The system is believed to remain operational to this date.

And they kept it a secret.

 Posted by at 11:01 am
Oct 052013

Here is an interesting theory: that the shutdown of the US government was, at least in part, caused by remarks made by Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

To be sure, Harper and his Foreign Minister, John Baird, said a lot of weird things recently, on Iran and other topics, earning Canada the distinction of being labeled a “right-wing gas bag” by The Huffington Post.

But it was Harper’s “we don’t take no for an answer” comment concerning the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that prompted Tom Steyer, a liberal-leaning San Francisco billionaire, to suggest that it may have played a part in the US government shutdown. The pipeline, after all, was one of the items on the original Tea Party laundry list of conditions for approving a continuing resolution.

 Posted by at 11:53 am
Oct 052013

One of my favorite programs on CNN is Reliable Sources, the channel’s press/media backgrounder. It used to be hosted by Washington journalist Howard Kurtz, who recently moved to Fox News, however, to host a similar program (Mediabuzz) there.

Since then, CNN has been using invited guest hosts to host the program. One of those guest hosts, Brian Stelter, appeared for the second time this past Sunday.

Near the end of his program, he delivered a scathing (well-deserved, but scathing) criticism of CNN itself, about the way the channel bent disclosure rules to accommodate hosts and guests on the new program Crossfire.

I wonder if they will invite him back. (Or maybe he doesn’t want to be invited back?)

 Posted by at 11:34 am