May 312014

Yesterday, around 7:17 AM in the morning Eastern time, I took a look at the new NASA site that is streaming Earth-observing video live from the ISS.

While I looked, I noticed a strange plume. It was barely visible, but it was definitely there. As I watched, it was quickly fading away/disappearing behind the horizon, so I was barely able to get a screen capture.

An asteroid impact? A secret nuclear test? Alien invasion? Who knows.

 Posted by at 6:33 pm
May 292014

So I recently spent ten days in the United Arab Emirates.

Ten very busy days. I left on a Tuesday night, flying through London, only to arrive in Dubai late Wednesday night local time. This allowed me to have a workday, Thursday, before the Muslim weekend (Friday and Saturday) began. Then, a full work week, another weekend, and one more workday (a Sunday) before I headed back home.

I am still digesting the memories. This was my first time ever, anywhere in the Middle East. It was a very busy time, to be sure, and I didn’t take many pictures; some of the most interesting places that I saw, courtesy of my hosts, are not the kind of places where a visitor, especially a foreign national, is supposed to take pictures.

But, I did take a few pictures elsewhere. Not very good ones (taken with my phone), but pictures anyway.

For starters, here is the world’s tallest building:

And here is a view of downtown Dubai, as seen while standing right underneath the world’s tallest building:

At the foot of the world’s tallest building is the world’s largest shopping mall. Inside that shopping mall, if not the world’s largest then one of the world’s largest aquariums, with thousands of fish and other sea creatures. The pictures I took were not very good ones (for starters, there were these reflections of the lights of a shop right behind me) but that giant ray in the upper left was something to behold:

If I wanted to sum up my impressions of the UAE with one picture, it would be this one, the entrance of the “Pork Shop” section inside a supermarket within the Dubai Mall:

This picture captures the essence of the UAE: a (so far remarkably successful) attempt to reconcile deeply conservative Muslim values with a cosmopolitan, multicultural 21st century society. All the more astonishing when one considers that this grand experiment is taking place in a country that is not a representative democracy but a constitutional union of seven absolute monarchies.

Indeed, this newspaper article, though somewhat propagandistic (and lest we forget, the press in the UAE is at best “partially free”), demonstrates just how proud they are of their tolerance:

Of course what I was there about was not to judge the cultural tolerance of the UAE but to work on a specific project that had more to do with this:

More about it later, as things unfold.

I only spent a few days in Dubai; most of the time, I was in the fine capital city of Abu Dhabi:

Inside an Abu Dhabi shopping mall, I found a skating rink. Yes, it was 40 C outside (not too warm, I was told; it was still springtime, it would get a lot warmer in the summer) but people were skating. I am not into skating myself so I don’t know for sure, but I don’t believe you can skate anywhere in Ottawa in May.

Being there on business, however, I spent most of my time in offices. In a specific office, to be precise. So most of what I saw of Abu Dhabi was from the office window. Namely a highway:

and a parking area and some more office buildings:

I arrived in Abu Dhabi after three days in Dubai, and I thought I was done with jet lag. But then… on my first night in Abu Dhabi, I noticed that overnight, they were doing work on a metal roof some four stories below my hotel window. The noise didn’t help as I was struggling to fall asleep, but eventually, I managed. I did not sleep very well. On the second night, there was no noise yet I slept even worse. But it was the third night that was like real hell. I went to sleep at around midnight, only to be woken up some half an hour later by the sound of a buzz saw being used to cut sheets of corrugated metal. I phoned the front desk and complained. The sawing stopped, and I was assured that the maintenance work was finished, but that was not the case: work continued on the roof under a portable light, complete with some yelling and clanging as pieces of corrugated metal were being thrown around. At 4:30 AM, I phoned the front desk again. A few minutes later, as I was struggling to go to sleep, they phoned me back (!), asking if a manager and an engineer could come up to my room. I screamed “NO! It’s four thirty in the morning and I am trying to sleep, not have a conference with a manager and an engineer!”

To their credit though, the next day they gave me another room that did not overlook the aforementioned roof. The room was an upgrade, and by the evening, I found a nice bowl of fruit on my table along with a letter from the hotel manager apologizing for that very bad night. I have to say… this was old school classy. (Arguably, not having such noisy work done during the night would have been even classier but still. This was a classy apology.)

From my new hotel room, I could see the freeway bridge that leads to Dubai:

On my last full day in Abu Dhabi, I managed to catch a beautiful sunset from a hotel window. The picture does not give it justice… the sunset was really spectacular.

Then, it was all over and I was on my way back to Dubai, on a highway complete with roadside signs, strip malls and the like, which (apart from the prevalence of Arabic script) could have been anywhere in North America:

There was one thing I saw along the route that I could not figure out. A giant parabolic antenna. It seemed much too large for communication with Earth-orbiting satellites, but if that’s not what it was, then what was it? Radio astronomy? Didn’t look like the right place for it (much too populated, too much radio noise). Deep space communications? I’m not aware of a deep space station in the UAE. So perhaps it was just a high bandwidth satellite communication station. Still… I am curious.

And then it was all over. I next spent 14 hours inside a 777, flying direct from Dubai to Washington. Something I never experienced before was multiple layers of security, namely an extra screening station at the gate, and a procedure that required all passengers to be screened and the entrance to the gate waiting area closed before the corridor to the airplane was opened. While on board that 777, I thought about the poor souls on an identical plane, MH370, whose fate still remains unknown. I survived the long trip in part because I avoided eating too much. I skipped dinner. After I ate my breakfast with gusto many hours later, a very kind stewardess remarked that she was relieved to see me eat; after I skipped dinner and didn’t eat anything, she was worried about me! It’s rare to see that kind of personal attention on an airplane these days.

Changing planes in Washington was less stressful than I expected (having a Nexus card certainly helped) and I arrived home in due course without trouble. And as I was able to sleep on the flight, although I was  tired for the next few days, jet lag was not bothering me badly.

In all likelihood, I’ll go back to the UAE again soon. Although I hate to be away from home, I found the place fascinating and the people I had the good fortune to work with very pleasant, highly capable professionals, so I have reasons to look forward to another trip.

 Posted by at 11:09 pm
May 282014

A few months ago, I upgraded my rooted Samsung Galaxy S3 (SGH-I747M) smartphone. In the process, I lost root, which was rather annoying. I was able to re-root the phone using CF-Auto-Root, but only after decrypting its memory first. When I tried to re-encrypt the phone afterwards, the process failed. The log (adb logcat) showed that it was unable to unmount the /data partition.

I have since tried several approaches to encrypt the phone while retaining root, but to no avail. Here are the things I tried over the past few months:

  • Temporarily disabling SuperSU;
  • Disabling SuperSU using Triangle Away;
  • Wiping the phone (factory reset) while retaining root;
  • Turning off SuperSU logging;
  • Booting into Safe Mode;
  • Manually unmounting /data and most other partitions;
  • As above, in Safe Mode;
  • Unrooting, encrypting, and then rooting using Kingo Android Root (supposedly worked for some people; didn’t root the phone for me).

OK, I give up. I don’t really need to encrypt the stupid phone.

 Posted by at 9:12 pm
May 222014

Arguably America’s most prestigious (but certainly the oldest; it’ll turn 150 next year) weekly newsmagazine, The Nation, published a lengthy article titled Hungary and the End of Politics. The topic is the state of politics in Hungary in view of the recent electoral victory of the ruling FIDESZ party and the authoritarian tendencies of said party and its leader, Viktor Orban.

Beyond describing the steps taken by Orban’s government in the last four years to solidify and entrench itself by building a de facto one-party state, the lengthy article (12 printed pages, as printed from the Web site) also puts Hungary’s political transformation into a European and geopolitical context.

Orban's soccer academy in his birthplace of Felcsút, Hungary. The marker indicates the location of Mr. Orban's residence.

Soccer academy in Orban’s birthplace of Felcsút, Hungary. Marker indicates Orban’s residence.

If I have any complaints about the article, it’s that it does not go far enough. For instance, it did not even mention Orban’s pet project, a soccer “academy”, complete with multiple regulation-size soccer fields and a new $17 million stadium with a capacity of 4000, built literally just a few yards from the home of Mr. Orban in his birthplace, a village of only 1800 inhabitants. Or the recent de facto nationalization of tobacco shops which eliminated the livelihood of scores of small tobacconist businesses, while handing these concessions to loyal FIDESZ supporters. Or implementing a degree of central control over the education system that was unheard of even under communism, where school principals no longer have the authority over petty cash to purchase extra chalk or a spare lightbulb.

No doubt this article, like most others published in the Western press, will be met with a well-organized attempt to discredit it. Its minor inaccuracies (e.g., it mentions Hungary’s nuclear power plants, whereas there is only one) will be portrayed as evidence of journalistic ignorance. Its overall tone will be attributed to the systematic “anti-Hungarian” efforts of liberals (or Jews!) bent on destroying Hungarian nationhood.

Nonetheless, no matter how FIDESZ’s loyal supporters manage to fool themselves, it does not change the fact that under the guise of anti-communism and Christian nation-building, a thoroughly corrupt, oligarchic autocracy is being constructed in the heart of Europe. Twenty-five years ago, Hungarians were proud to live in the “merriest of barracks”, the most liberal state behind the Iron Curtain, which found itself at the forefront of democratic transition as the Soviet empire collapsed. Today, all I can hope for is that Hungary’s example will not be followed by other European nations.

 Posted by at 7:33 pm
May 162014

So here I am, sitting in a hotel room in the 21st century city of Abu Dhabi. After a long day in front of my laptop, I spent some more time with said laptop, this time watching a movie. I bought the DVD of Cloud Atlas a few months ago, but I never had the time to watch it… until now.

All I can say is… Wow. If you give this movie the attention it deserves, it is immensely rewarding. Cinematic science fiction at its absolute best. A movie that borrows some elements from other works, e.g., Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey, or Soylent Green, or The Fifth Element… but it is an absolutely original, astounding tale or rather, six interwoven tales set in the past, present and future, forming a true cautionary tale in the best traditions of classic science-fiction.

I know I’ll watch this movie again… probably many times. For me, it’s going to be one of those movies that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Oh… and the movie should have received an award, if only there was one, for the most creative cinematic use of a cat. I laughed so hard, I almost had an unfortunate accident involving pants and other unmentionables.

 Posted by at 6:26 pm