Apr 292014

The other day, I watched a delightful 30+ year old movie that I never saw before, The World According to Garp. In one scene, the protagonist decides to buy a house after a small airplane crashes into it, explaining that it is unlikely to ever happen again; that house has been “pre-disastered”. (Yes, it’s a logical fallacy, but the scene was still funny.) I think it was this movie that inspired me today, when I finally managed to talk to a human representative at Scotiabank, after being endlessly and needlessly frustrated by a voice recognition answering system.

450px-Sony_Qrio_Robot_2Voice recognition systems infuriate me. I am not alone, and this should come as no surprise. The phenomenon when something that looks, feels (or in this case, sounds) almost, but not quite, human creeps out people is so well known, it even has a name: Uncanny Valley. I am perfectly comfortable with answering systems that ask me to make menu choices by pressing buttons on my phone. Yet I am filled with blind fury and rage by voice response systems that, usually in an overly friendly and syrupy-sweet voice, ask me to explain, in words, what I am calling about. “I WANT TO TALK TO A FREAKING HUMAN YOU STUPID MACHINE!”

Fortunately, my self-control prevailed this morning. When (after stabbing “0” more than a few times with my finger while shouting nonsense, finally convincing the voice recognition algorithm to give up) I was at last connected to an actual (very nice) human lady, I remained polite. However, at the end of our conversation, I could not refrain from asking her to please pass on my request to the Powers That Be at Scotiabank to get rid of this stupid voice recognition system. She agreed that indeed, many customers are annoyed like I was. I commented on the fact that it was usually people like her who become the victims of their callers’ anger… when they arrive, like I did, pre-high-blood-pressured. She laughed so hard… I think I made her day.

As I am writing this, I am thinking that there might be another way to climb out of the uncanny valley: better AI. This is, after all, 2014, the age of self-driving cars and Google Search that knows what you are about to type even before you do. I could easily imagine a voice recognition system that, instead of spoon feeding me instructions like I was mentally retarded, began a natural conversation: “Hello, this is the Scotiabank automated assistant. This call may be recorded for quality assurance. How can we help you today?” (Avoid talking like the caller was retarded. Avoid using “I” because you are not a self-aware person. Speak in a natural voice, not like you were talking to someone hard of hearing, not unless they indicate that they are, in fact, hard of hearing.) If this system could actually carry out a decent conversation instead of being a poorly thought-out replacement of a touchtone menu system, it might work a lot better… and, for that matter, may even reduce the need for human operators as I bet it could respond to many inquiries successfully without human intervention.

 Posted by at 9:09 pm
Apr 272014

Someone called it “thinly veiled racism” but I think it is blatant and overt racism, this flyer that was circulated in Brampton, Ontario in the past few days.


Many prominent Canadians spoke up against this flyer, and I agree with them wholeheartedly. As Justin Trudeau observed, Canada is stronger not despite the country’s diversity but because of it.

That said, some are calling for prosecution, alluding to Canada’s hate speech laws. To these people, I say, back off. You cannot suppress hatred with oppression. Or to put it in other words, we must prevail on the basis of the strength of our ideas, not the strength of our police force.

 Posted by at 8:30 am
Apr 172014

If I had to move to a deserted island with only a dozen or so books for the rest of my life, one of them almost certainly would be 100 Years of Solitude, by Nobel prize winning Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I first read this book in the 1970s and it’s one of those books that I have re-read from cover to cover, once every decade or so, ever since. It is an absolutely remarkable, unique, wonderful story.

Alas, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is no longer with us. Less than an hour ago, a breaking news e-mail from CNN informed me that he passed away after having been hospitalized for a lung and urinary tract infection. He was 87.

I admit the news brought a tear to my eye.

May he rest in peace, perhaps joining the Buendia family in Macondo. Adios, Gabo.

 Posted by at 5:26 pm
Apr 162014

Am I the only one who feels that the way the situation is escalating in Ukraine is eerily reminiscent of 1980s vintage TV movies depicting the events leading up to WW3?

Probably not.

And of course it’s purely symbolic, but I keep reminding myself that this year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of The War to End All Wars…

 Posted by at 7:00 pm
Apr 102014

In light of the latest Internet security scare, the Heartbleed bug, there are again many voices calling for an end to the use of passwords, to be replaced instead by fingerprint scanners or other kinds of biometric identification.

I think it is a horrifyingly, terribly bad idea.

Just to be clear, I am putting aside any concerns about the reliability of biometric identification. They are not as reliable as their advocates would like us to believe, but this is not really the issue. I am assuming that as of today, biometric technologies are absolutely, 100% reliable. Even so, they are still a terrible idea, and here is why.

First, what happens if your biometric identification becomes compromised? However it is acquired, it is still transmitted in the form of a series of bits and bytes, which can be intercepted by an attacker. If this were a password, you could easily change it to thwart an attack. But how do you change your fingerprint? Your retina print? Your voice? Your heartbeat?

Second, what happens if you “lose” your biometric identification marker? Fingers get chopped off in accidents. People lose their eyesight. An emergency tracheotomy may deprive you of your normal voice. What then?

And what about privacy concerns? There have been rulings I understand, in the US and perhaps elsewhere, that imply that the same legal or constitutional guarantees that protect you from being compelled to reveal a password may not apply when it comes to providing a fingerprint, a DNA sample, or other biometric markers.

The bottom line is this: a password associating an account or a service to a unique piece of secret knowledge. This knowledge can be changed, passed on, or revoked, and owners may be protected by law from being compelled to reveal it. Biometric identification fundamentally changes this relationship by associating the account or the service with an unmalleable biometric characteristic of a person.

Please don’t.

 Posted by at 10:27 am
Apr 082014

winxp-supportMicrosoft officially ended support for Windows XP today.

I hope someone will sue the hell out of them.

To be clear, I understand why they are doing this: they don’t want to continue supporting forever an obsolete, 14 year old operating system.

But something like one quarter or so of the world’s computers continue running Windows XP. One can argue that Microsoft is not responsible for the behavior of system owners who, for whatever reason, choose not to update their systems. But what about those who do everything right and still become the victims of cyberattacks that utilize networks of unpatched Windows XP computers? The decision to terminate support makes Microsoft a de facto accomplice of these cybercriminals.

My fearless prediction is that within a few months, Microsoft will quietly start releasing high priority security patches for Windows XP again.

Meanwhile, Microsoft began releasing a significant update to Windows 8.1. I noticed that when I updated my Windows 8.1 laptop, it booted directly into the Windows desktop. Wow! Now all we need is a decent Start menu and the ability to perform basic system configuration tasks without going through the touch-optimized “Modern UI” and all will be bliss again. One of these days, I might even upgrade one of my development workstations to Windows 8.1!

 Posted by at 10:21 pm
Apr 082014

Quebec-CanadaYesterday, the good citizens of Quebec sent a clear message to the sovereignist Parti Quebecois: they said no to a possible referendum, and no to the divisive politics of the PQ’s proposed “charter of values”.

The day before yesterday, the good citizens of Hungary sent a clear message to the “Viktator”, Hungary’s autocratic Prime Minister Viktor Orban, about his nationalist politics, disastrous “unconventional” economic policies, and systematic abuse of his two-thirds constitutional supermajority to weaken Hungary’s fledgling democratic institutions. “More please,” was the message as voters gave Mr. Orban another strong mandate, possibly another supermajority.

What can I say? Je suis reconnaissant d’être Canadien. Even if my knowledge of French is shamefully limited.

 Posted by at 10:08 pm
Apr 072014

Remarkable news from Australia: a U.S. Navy ship* observed an acoustic signal for over two hours that appears to be from two separate “ping” transmitters. This would be consistent with a lost aircraft’s flight data and cockpit voice recorders, both with still operating acoustic transmitters.

This is amazing.

Speaking of pingers, yesterday the ridiculousness on CNN reached new limits. The pingers have batteries that are supposed to last approximately 30 days. The actual duration depends on the age of the battery, its maintenance and storage. And when the battery dies, the process may be a gradual process (i.e., the ping signal weakens but does not necessarily stop immediately.)

None of this prevented CNN from showing a countdown clock, accurate to the second, showing the remaining life of the pinger batteries.

*Actually, a U.S. Navy device towed by an Australian ship.

 Posted by at 12:20 am
Apr 042014

A physics meme is circulating on the Interwebs, suggesting that any length shorter than the so-called Planck length makes “no physical sense”.

Which, of course, is pure nonsense.

The Planck length is formed using the three most fundamental constants in physics: the speed of light, \(c = 3\times 10^8~{\rm m}/{\rm s}\); the gravitational constant, \(G = 6.67\times 10^{-11}~{\rm m}^3/{\rm kg}\cdot{\rm s}^2\); and the reduced Planck constant, \(\hbar = h/2\pi = 1.05\times 10^{-34}~{\rm m}^2{\rm kg}/{\rm s}\).

Of these, the speed of light just relates two human-defined units: the unit of length and the unit of time. Nothing prevents us from using units in which \(c = 1\); for instance, we could use the second as our unit of time, and the light-second (\(= 300,000~{\rm km}\)) as our unit of length. In other words, the expression \(c = 300,000,000~{\rm m}/{\rm s}\) is just an instruction to replace every occurrence of the symbol \({\rm s}\) with the quantity \(300,000,000~{\rm m}\).

If we did this in the definition of \(G\), we get a new value: \(G’ = G/c^2 = 7.41\times 10^{-28}~{\rm m}/{\rm kg}\).

Splendid, because this reveals that the gravitational constant is also just a relationship between human-defined units: the unit of length vs. the unit of mass. It allows us to replace every occurrence of the symbol \({\rm kg}\) with the quantity \(7.41\times 10^{-28}~{\rm m}\).

So let’s do this to the reduced Planck constant: \(\hbar’ = \hbar G/c^3 = 2.61\times 10^{-70}~{\rm m}^2\). This is not a relationship between two human-defined units. This is a unit of area. Arguably, a natural unit of area. Taking its square root, we get what is called the Planck length: \(l_P = 1.61\times 10^{-35}~{\rm m}\).

The meme suggests that a distance less than \(l_P\) has no physical meaning.

But then, take two gamma rays, with almost identical energies, differing in wavelength by one Planck length, or about \(10^{-35}~{\rm m}\).

Suppose these gamma rays originate from a spacecraft one astronomical unit (AU), or about \(1.5\times 10^{11}~{\rm m}\) from the Earth.

The wavelength of a modest, \(1~{\rm MeV}\) gamma ray is about \(1.2\times 10^{-12}~{\rm m}\).

The number of full waves that fit in a distance of \(1.5\times 10^{11}~{\rm m}\) is, therefore, is about \(1.25\times 10^{23}\) waves.

A difference of \(10^{-35}~{\rm m}\), or one Planck length, in wavelength adds up to a difference of \(1.25\times 10^{-12}~{\rm m}\) over the \(1~{\rm AU}\) distance, or more than one full wavelength of our gamma ray.

In other words, a difference of less than one Planck length in wavelength between two gamma rays is quite easily measurable in principle.

In practice, of course we’d need stable gamma ray lasers placed on interplanetary spacecraft and a sufficiently sensitive gamma ray interferometer, but nothing in principle prevents us from carrying out such a measurement, and all the energy, distance, and time scales involved are well within accessible limits at present day technology.

And if we used much stronger gamma rays, say at the energy level of the LHC (which is several million times more powerful), a distance of only a few thousand kilometers would be sufficient to detect the interference.

So please don’t tell me that a distance less than one Planck length has no physical meaning.

 Posted by at 11:09 am
Apr 012014

I checked my Google AdSense report moments ago, and much to my delight I found that most of my earnings today were due to clicks from Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

What a nice surprise on the first day of a new month, April.

Wait a moment… First day? April???

 Posted by at 4:20 pm
Apr 012014

When the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known by its French acronym as CERN, presented their finding of the Higgs boson in the summer of 2012, the world was most impressed by their decision to show slides prepared using the whimsical Comic Sans typeface.

Emboldened by their success, CERN today announced that as of April 1, 2014, all official CERN communication channels will switch to use Comic Sans exclusively.

 Posted by at 11:12 am