Oct 282015

So here I am, listening to, not really watching CBC NewsWorld, when they briefly cut to a live picture from the International Space Station where a spacewalk is underway, and I hear this:


Yup, that’s what the anchorwoman said: Scott Kelly has two pair [sic!] of legs.

You’d think that such a scary, dramatic mutation would have received more coverage already. But what do we know? Must be another liberal mainstream media conspiracy, hiding the facts from people.

 Posted by at 8:28 am
Oct 212015

Oops! The DeLorean time machine has been recalled by Transport Canada.

The recall has since been canceled though. Apparently, Doc Brown was good on his word.

Or could it be that upper management at Transport Canada (or whichever department was responsible for this recall notice) decided that a sense of humor is incompatible with the Department’s mission?

 Posted by at 7:18 pm
Oct 212015

Today is the day when Marty McFly and the Doc find themselves in futuristic Hill Valley, trying to fix the future while accidentally messing up the past.


Too bad things are not quite as the film predicted. No flying cars powered by portable fusion generators running on garbage. No hoverboards either, nor free-floating holograms. No self-tying shoes, no self-adjusting, self-drying jackets either. And no weather service that can control the rain.

On the other hand… a Pepsi doesn’t cost $50. USA Today is still around and a newsstand copy costs “only” $2, not 6 dollars.

And while there is no Queen Diana, there may yet be a female President in the White House 15 months from now.

Oh, and while we don’t have a Scenery Channel on cable, we have three others in its place: a Fireplace Channel, a Sunset Channel, and an Aquarium Channel. All in glorious digital HD. Yay! Welcome to the future!

 Posted by at 5:27 pm
Oct 202015

The victory of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party last night was stunning, and defied statistical predictions.

The CBC’s poll tracker, last updated the day before the election, predicted a liberal minority government falling far short of parliamentary majority. The also provided a likely minimum-maximum range and a more extreme worst case/best case prediction:

The interesting thing is that the actual result for the Liberals came up just one seat short of the best case prediction:

And the election map reveals another thing: It appears that Canada now has its own Jesusland (albeit with colors reversed). Indeed, the Conservative Party only had solid results in Jesusland Canada and in the land of Ford Nation.

This, then, is one of Mr. Trudeau’s tasks: to show to people living in these blue ridings that he can indeed be the prime minister of all Canadians.

 Posted by at 10:13 am
Oct 192015

Once again, a Trudeau has been elected as Prime Minister of Canada. And not only is this the first time since 1925 that a third party leapfrogged ahead to win, but the Liberals won with a resounding majority, too.

I feel sorry for Tom Mulcair and the NDP. They had such high hopes! At one point during the campaign, even a majority NDP government was within sight.

I don’t feel sorry to see Mr. Harper go, even though it means that I can now retire catsforharper.ca.

Well, a new era dawns. Now let’s see what Mr. Trudeau does about Bill C-51, about the CBC, about two-tier citizenship, about the voting rights of expatriates, about the TPP, about Canadian scientists, about the long-form census, about Canada Post, about the handling of refugees, and about a whole host of other issues that were the reason why I was so hoping to see a change in government. I have high hopes. I hope sincerely that Mr. Trudeau will not disappoint us.

 Posted by at 11:44 pm
Oct 142015

Short answer to the question in the title: No.


It is eminently possible to discuss issues concerning immigration and refugees without resorting to racist, dehumanizing language. What are the problems that the refugees are facing? Where are they coming from? Where are they really coming from (in light of news about widespread forgery of Syrian passports)? Are they genuine refugees? What about the transit and host countries? How can they handle a flood of migrants Europe has not seen since the end of WW2? Was it wise for Angela Merkel to suggest that Germany will accept all refugees with open arms? Are European citizens really evicted from their homes or lose other forms of assistance as local governments rush to help refugees? Are EU nations that have no external borders hypocritical in their condemnation of countries on the front line, like Hungary?

All legitimate questions, which can be discussed using facts and rational arguments.

But that is something I rarely see.

Instead, I see photographs that show the refugees in the worst possible light, with accompanying language that implies that these pictures are representative. That this is a “horde” coming to “occupy Europe” as they yell “Allahu Akhbar”. That they are phony refugees because a real refugee does not want a better life. That they will destroy Christian civilization or European culture. That they are, simply put, dirty, smelly subhumans. Untermenschen.

To all my friends and family: If you use such language about your fellow human beings, I will not leave it unchallenged. I will not be a silent accomplice. If this means risking our friendship, so be it. There are times when decent human beings must speak up; not speaking up is not an option.

Meanwhile, I thank those friends of mine who have not abandoned their core values during this crisis from the bottom of my heart. Simply knowing you is a privilege.

 Posted by at 12:50 pm
Oct 142015

I finished this weeks ago but never had the time to post. My previous attempt to hack a Rogers cable decoder was only partially successful, so I gave it another try, with better results.

By “hack”, I don’t mean illegally obtaining cable signals or anything like. I was simply looking for a way to get composite video and stereo audio out of the “free” cable boxes that Rogers provides, as opposed to just a plain RF signal on channel 3. The reason is pretty mundane: I’ve been using a dual-tuner TV card in my computer for years, which allowed me to record one program while watching another. The transition by Rogers to full digital cable messed this up: the TV card has only one RF input, so it is impossible to attach two decoders that could supply two signals simultaneously. But the TV card does have two independent composite video inputs. So if only the decoders had the corresponding output…

Well, they do, sort of: the only problem was that the audio was an undecoded (multiplexed) stereo signal. To decode it, I first built a standard stereo decoder circuit, but that was before I learned that the NTSC standard for stereo also includes noise suppression.

Hence my second attempt, using an appropriate chip.

Once again, I used a custom printed circuit board of my own design, and once again, it worked like a charm. The only fly in the ointment is that this larger board no longer fits inside the original decoder casing without some “plastic surgery”; so chances are that if it ever comes to returning these boxes to Rogers, I’ll be paying for them instead. Oh well.

 Posted by at 12:38 pm
Oct 112015

I recently came across some frightening images on the Interwebs: Frames from a 2000 episode of The Simpsons (Trumptastic Voyage) lined up with real-life images of Donald Trump.

The similarities are uncanny.

Just what did the creators of The Simpsons know back in 2000? Is it just coincidence? Do they have a time machine? And how many of their other predictions will come true in the years to come?

 Posted by at 10:09 am
Oct 112015

Even as I hope that the wheels are indeed falling off Mr. Harper’s election bus, I am trying to do my part by listing more of the Harper government’s shenanigans on catsforharper.ca.

The idea is simple. Harper likes cats. He should have more time to play with cats. And he should atone for his political sins by adopting lots of shelter cats.

The site is growing, by the way; I still have a ways to go through my list of political sins so new topics are added daily, sometimes several times a day.

I am disappointed, however, with my Canadian friends: So few of you registered and “voted” on catsforharper.ca! I honestly hoped it would be more popular. But then, there is still time… 8 more days until Election Day. And I hope most sincerely that after October 19, I can safely retire the site, as Mr. Harper will no longer be in a position to do any more political damage.

 Posted by at 9:58 am
Oct 082015

I received a very polite invitation to be an “academic editor” to a scholarly journal.

Sounds good, right? To be sure, I am promised no monetary compensation, indeed, I’d still have to pay (albeit at a discount) to have my papers published in the same journal (not that I have any plans to do so). Still… it’s an honor, right?

Too bad it’s one of the many predatory journals of a predatory publisher. A journal that publishes just about anything so long as the author pays the (often hefty) publication fee. There are now thousands of such journals around the world, maintaining a parasitic existence, leeching off both crackpots and third-world researchers who don’t know any better and try to pad their resumes with a seemingly legitimate publication record.

So why am I ever so slightly hesitant? Well… on two (maybe three?) occasions in recent weeks, I received requests from the same journal to referee papers. I indicated that I was not available, but also that, judging by the abstracts that were shared with me, those papers should have been rejected by the editor and never sent out to referees in the first place.

And now here I am, being asked to work as a volunteer editor for the same journal. Should I accept it, in the hope that I would be given the editorial autonomy to reject papers up front, in the hope of improving the journal’s standards?

Probably a bad idea.

 Posted by at 9:35 pm
Oct 072015

It’s time for me to write about physics again. I have a splendid reason: one of the recipients of this year’s physics Nobel is from Kingston, Ontario, which is practically in Ottawa’s backyard. He is recognized for his contribution to the discovery of neutrino oscillations. So I thought I’d write about neutrino oscillations a little.

Without getting into too much detail, the standard way of describing a theory of quantum fields is by writing down the so-called Lagrangian density of the theory. This Lagrangian density represents the kinetic and potential energies of the system, including so-called “mass terms” for fields that are massive. (Which, in quantum field theory, is the same as saying that the particles we associate with the unit oscillations of these fields have a specific mass.)

Now most massive particles in the Standard Model acquire their masses by interacting with the celebrated Higgs field in various ways. Not neutrinos though; indeed, until the mid 1990s or so, neutrinos were believed to be massless.

But then, neutrino oscillations were discovered and the physics community began to accept that neutrinos may be massive after all.

So what is this about oscillations? Neutrinos are somewhat complicated things, but I can demonstrate the concept using two hypothetical “scalar” particles (doesn’t matter what they are; the point is, their math is simpler than that of neutrinos.) So let’s have a scalar particle named \(\phi\). Let’s suppose it has a mass, \(\mu\). The mass term in the Lagrangian would actually be in the form, \(\frac{1}{2}\mu\phi^2\).

Now let’s have another scalar particle, \(\psi\), with mass \(\rho\). This means another mass term in the Lagrangian: \(\frac{1}{2}\rho\psi^2\).

But now I want to be clever and combine these two particles into a two-element abstract vector, a “doublet”. Then, using the laws of matrix multiplication, I could write the mass term as


Clever, huh?

But now… let us suppose that there is also an interaction between the two fields. In the Lagrangian, this interaction would be represented by a term such as \(\epsilon\phi\psi\). Putting \(\epsilon\) into the “0” slots of the matrix, we get


And here is where things get really interesting. That is because we can re-express this new matrix using a combination of a diagonal matrix and a rotation matrix (and its transpose):


which is equivalent to




which tells us that \(\tan\theta=2\epsilon/(\rho-\mu)\), which works so long as \(\rho\ne\mu\).

Now why is this interesting? Because we can now write


What just happened, you ask? Well, we just rotated the abstract vector \((\phi,\psi)\) by the angle \(\theta/2\), and as a result, diagonalized the expression. Which is to say that whereas previously, we had two interacting fields \(\phi\) and \(\psi\) with masses \(\mu\) and \(\rho\), we now re-expressed the same physics using the two non-interacting fields \(\hat\phi\) and \(\hat\psi\) with masses \(\hat\mu\) and \(\hat\rho\).

So what is actually taking place here? Suppose that the doublet \((\phi,\psi)\) interacts with some other field, allowing us to measure the flavor of an excitation (particle) as being either a \(\phi\) or a \(\psi\). So far, so good.

However, when we attempt to measure the mass of the doublet, we will not measure \(\mu\) or \(\rho\), because the two states interact. Instead, we will measure \(\hat\mu\) or \(\hat\rho\), corresponding to the states \(\hat\phi\) or \(\hat\psi\), respectively: that is, one of the mass eigenstates.

Which means that if we first perform a flavor measurement, forcing the particle to be in either the \(\phi\) or the \(\psi\) state, followed by a mass measurement, there will be a nonzero probability of finding it in either the \(\hat\phi\) or the \(\hat\psi\) state, with corresponding masses \(\hat\mu\) or \(\hat\rho\). Conversely, if we first perform a mass measurement, the particle will be either in the \(\hat\phi\) or the \(\hat\psi\) state; a subsequent flavor measurement, therefore, may give either \(\phi\) or \(\psi\) with some probability.

In short, the flavor and mass eigenstates do not coincide.

This is more or less how neutrino oscillations work (again, omitting a lot of important details), except things get a bit more complicated, as neutrinos are fermions, not scalars, and the number of flavors is three, not two. But the basic principle remains the same.

This is a unique feature of neutrinos, by the way. Other particles, e.g., charged leptons, do not have mass eigenstates that are distinct from their flavor eigenstates. The mechanism that gives them masses is also different: instead of a self-interaction in the form of a mass matrix, charged leptons (as well as quarks) obtain their masses by interacting with the Higgs field. But that is a story for another day.

 Posted by at 9:47 pm
Oct 052015

I am reading the latest “alternate history” book by Harry Turtledove: Bombs Away, which describes a world in which President Truman accepts the advice of general MacArthur in 1951 and responds to the Chinese invasion of Korea by deploying nuclear weapons. With predictably disastrous consequences for the whole world.

On account of this book, I looked up historical figures of nuclear stockpiles on Wikipedia, and happened upon a chart that I decided to call the chart of hope.


It depicts the number of warheads owned by the two major nuclear powers. (Other countries are not listed; their combined stockpiles never reached 1,000 warheads, so their contributions are too small to appear on a plot like this.)

Although the more than 10,000 warheads that currently exist are still more than enough to destroy much of human civilization (and arguably, the reduction is due partly to more reliable, more accurate delivery systems), just a few decades ago, the number was in excess of 60,000. A ray of hope, perhaps, that sanity might just prevail. One thing is certain: Back in my high school years in the 1970s, very few people believed that we would live to see 2015 without experiencing the horrors of a thermonuclear war.

 Posted by at 9:19 pm
Oct 022015

Today, I left the “Atheist” group on Google+.


Not really sure why I joined the group in the first place. I do not believe in supernatural friends. It is not the wrath of a make-believe entity that makes me refrain from doing evil. I am not necessarily happy about, but I am comfortable with the thought of a finite lifespan, followed by the same oblivion that also preceded my existence. I grieve for lost loved ones but I do not feel compelled to imagine that they are somewhere in a “better place”.

That said, while I reserve the right to mock religion (even as I feel it is my duty to defend, risking life and limb for if necessary, the rights of others to believe!) I certainly do not go out of my way to offend the faithful.

Nor do I need peer support to maintain my convictions. My conclusions concerning the existence of deities are a result of a great deal of thought and I feel secure in my views without the need to have them affirmed by others.

And I most certainly do not need to equate specific religions with the worst stereotypes, nor do I feel compelled to call religious people “religitards”, “fucktards” or other, even more obscene epithets that are used routinely in the aforementioned Google+ group.

Indeed, reading some of the conversations there I was suddenly reminded of a dystopian vision of the future that once was shown in the South Park cartoon series: centuries from now, a devastating world war being waged between the Unified Atheist League and the United Atheist Alliance… (who are then both attacked by the Allied Atheist Alliance of sentient sea otters.)

 Posted by at 8:54 pm