Jun 232018
 

I am reading a year-and-a-half old article in The Nation, written by Susan McWilliams about the prophecies of a 50 year old book coming true.

The book is Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.

The article makes a compelling argument that Thompson’s observations aptly describe the rise and reasons of success of “Trumpism”. As I was reading its paragraphs, I was reminded of conversations I had recently with supporters of Trump. The sentiment of “total retaliation” described in the article closely captures my experience. What I saw was an automatic, almost visceral distrust of anything “liberal”. Trump supporters embrace things like racism not because they are racist, but because it is a way to piss off, to troll “liberals”. They reject things like climate science mainly because it comes from a scientific establishment that is seen as liberal, hence inherently untrustworthy.

Most compellingly, my conversations confirm the article’s main point: Trumpists are not looking for solutions because they do not really believe that solutions exist. Hence the ethos of “total retaliation”: nothing matters anymore, so long as they can piss off those lefty liberals some more. Children in detention camps? Great, look how those nasty liberals are squirming. The First Lady wearing a jacket with a questionable message? Look, she is even better at trolling liberals than her husband! Self-defeating tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum? Excellent, that will really piss off that wacko commie Trudeau and his cult of personality in liberal haven Canada. Let our alpha male leader show that wimp who the boss is!

In short, there is no point being a good sport when the game is rigged against you. You might as well just piss on the playing field and storm off in anger. Punching a few random folks who stand in the way helps driving the point through.

Trump, Brexit, the rise of governments mistakenly labeled as “populist” in Europe, but which really distinguish themselves by being anti-science and anti-immigrant, presenting the media or human rights and antipoverty organizations, all perceived as bastions of the liberal world order, as the enemy; they all fit the picture drawn by McWilliams, base on the prophetic words of Thompson.

I never read Thompson’s book, but now I feel compelled to look for a copy.

 Posted by at 11:20 am
Jun 212018
 

Donald J. Trump is a very vain person. His vanity knows few limits.

He even had his properties decorated with a fake TIME magazine cover, featuring his image.

Therefore, he must feel very proud now that TIME decided to use his picture on the cover of next week’s issue.

Congratulations, Mr. Trump. You earned it.

 Posted by at 3:39 pm
Jun 202018
 

And in case anyone wonders why these “evildoers” from South America are ignoring American law and cross the border illegally…

They do so because they are prevented from legally presenting themselves at a port of entry by US border agents.

Today, I e-mailed our Member of Parliament, Mona Fortier, asking her to urge our government and our Prime Minister to suspend the “safe third country” agreement with the United States. A country that behaves in this manner is not a safe third country by any stretch of definition.

Dear Ms. Fortier,

As one of your loyal constituents, I’d like to urge you to press our Government and our Prime Minister to consider suspending the Safe Third Party agreement with Trump’s America. What is happening in the United States is unconscionable (and in a case of life imitating art, eerily resembling story elements from The Handmaid’s Tale) and now, especially with that country’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, I believe this step would not only be justified but outright necessary, in order to protect our Canadian values, which, I know, you, your party, and our Government strongly believe in.

Sincerely,

Viktor T. Toth

 Posted by at 4:47 pm
Jun 172018
 

Here is a sobering statistic based on some Gallup data. The only president ever who was more popular among same party followers than Trump was… George W. Bush.

Yes. More popular than JFK, Ike, Obama or Reagan, 500 days into the presidency.

Then again, this chart may reflect a disease that goes deeper than Trump: the continuing ideological polarization of America. Here are the same figures, this time in chronological order:

The trend seems unmistakable. After WW2, voters were, it appears, more skeptical. Presidents were approved based on their deeds more than their party affiliation. This appears to have changed in the past 70 years. Now, party affiliation matters more.

Then again… What if Truman, Ford, Carter, G. W. Bush are all outliers? After all, in all their cases the circumstances were unusual, exceptional even. Take them out and what we are left with is a pretty steady approval rating in the vicinity of 80%, give or take.

I don’t know. With a data set of only 13 data points, throwing four away as outliers is a bit excessive.

 Posted by at 9:52 am
Jun 172018
 

I decided to watch Fox News a little this morning.

The topic was the separation of children from their parents at the US border.

Here is what I learned: The problem is not new. And it is all about optics they tell me. That is to say, Barack Obama faced the same problem, his team even discussed the “zero tolerance” policy, but rejected it because it would have looked bad. In contrast, Donald J. Trump does not care about optics. He is willing to take the heat to do the right thing and enforce the law. He is a person who is seeking solutions instead of hiding from problems.

In short, when he institutes a policy to separate children from their parents, he is a hero who protects America’s core values better than his meek predecessor.

Mind you, I think Fox is wrong about optics. The optics were pretty bad during the Obama years, too. Here is a delightful picture of unaccompanied children sleeping on the floor of a border protection facility back in 2014.

Incidentally, the term I used as the title of this blog entry is wholly appropriate. The camps where these children are housed represent a textbook definition of concentration camps for children.

 Posted by at 8:27 am
Jun 162018
 

When I was a teenager, the classic novel, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, was one of my favorites.

And one of my favorite chapters in that book was a chapter with an uncanny (not to mention unusually long) title: “How a Gardener May Get Rid of the Dormice that Eat His Peaches”. In it, Dumas describes a classic hack: exploiting the human in the system. By bribing an operator of France’s early optical telegraph network, the book’s protagonist is able to plant a false message, which ultimately contributes to the downfall of one of his mortal enemies. In short: a targeted cyberattack on a telecommunications network.

What I did not know, however, is that this chapter may have been inspired by real life events. About ten years before Dumas published his novel, the brothers François and Louis* Blanc managed to hack the telegraph network in a manner even more sophisticated than the hack described in Dumas’s book. Yes, the real-life hack relied on bribing operators, too, but it also involved a case of steganography: inserting a coded message that would piggyback on the original telegraph transmission. Not only did the scheme succeed, like any good hack it remained in place and undetected for two years. And when it was finally detected, the Blanc brothers were charged but never convicted; there were, after all, no laws on the books back in the 1830s against misuse of data networks.


*Well, that’s what Wikipedia tells me. It appears that the twins are misidentified as Francois and Joseph in several English-language publications. Francois was later known as The Magician of Monte Carlo, a casino that he owned and where he first introduced the single-0 style roulette wheel.
 
 Posted by at 7:52 pm
Jun 112018
 

I admit I never expected to see this:

I admit I despise both gentlemen in this picture, albeit for different reasons.

However… if this meeting has a positive outcome, I will cheer when they are both awarded the Nobel peace prize.

 Posted by at 9:39 pm
Jun 102018
 

When Doug Ford won the provincial election a few days ago, I expressed my concern that this election (together with the elevation of the NDP to official opposition status and the collapse of the Liberals) was a victory of populism over the moderate center.

My concern, though far from gone, is somewhat alleviated today, not just by the premier-designate’s apparently competent transition team, but also by his reaction to Trump’s Twitter tirade against Justin Trudeau:

Thank you, Mr. Ford. It would have been easy to score populist brownie points with a disparaging tweet. I noticed that more than a few of your followers scolded you for not doing so. Instead, you opted for the high road. That gives me reason for cautious optimism.

 Posted by at 11:58 pm
Jun 102018
 

The other day, I came across a wonderfully false analogy from a conservative writer. In an attempt to explain why conservatives despise Planned Parenthood in the United States, he asked how people on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum would feel if gay conversion therapy was offered in publicly financed clinics throughout the country.

I felt compelled to respond. Because if “gay conversion therapy” actually worked, I personally would have absolutely no objections to such clinics being offered to any gay person wishing to change their sexual orientation, even funded by government.

As things stand, however, “gay conversion therapy” is bogus, junk science, as nonsensical as creationism or belief in a flat Earth, almost as harmful as anti-vaxxers. Its real purpose is not to “cure” gays (which it cannot do) but to perpetuate bigotry and the marginalization of homosexuals in certain religious communities.

For this false analogy to work, abortions would have to be junk science, too, with clinics not actually being able to terminate unwanted pregnancies, but successfully perpetuating bigotry and hatred towards women with such pregnancies. But that is not what abortion clinics do. Rather, for better or for worse, they deliver exactly what they promise: ending unwanted pregnancies. This may be found objectionable on moral or religious grounds, but again, to draw the proposed analogy you would have to show how folks opposed to “gay conversion therapy” actually want gays to remain gay against their will on moral or religious grounds.

Because that’s what abortion opponents want: They want pregnant women to remain pregnant against their will.

 Posted by at 3:19 pm
Jun 102018
 

I have now concluded that Donald J. Trump, the lawfully elected President of the United States of America, is a traitor to his country and a traitor to the West. Quite possibly, a true Manchurian Candidate.

It is not about left or right, not about liberals vs. conservatives. He is a traitor, pure and simple. He is doing immense damage to the Western alliance, and his actions will likely result in immense damage to America’s economy and political standing as well.


The dilettantism that characterizes his government (his State Department just mentioned D-day as an example of the long-running US-German relationship) is also reminiscent of the incompetence and dilettantism that plunged the world into more than half a century of chaos in 1914.

But openly snubbing the G-7, refusing to agree to the joint statement, and trash tweeting our Prime Minister goes beyond mere incompetence. This is treason. Forget Canada, forget the Western alliance, this is treason because of what it does to the United States of America and its standing in the world.

Some folks suggested that if Trump is impeached, Mike Pence would be worse. I beg to disagree. Mike Pence may be a hardline conservative, but he is no traitor. Mr. Trump, on the other hand, is a clear and present danger to everything the West stands for. I hope American lawmakers finally find the moral courage to remove this treasonous jackass from office. Before it is too late.

 Posted by at 1:25 am
Jun 072018
 

I am watching the CBC’s coverage of the Ontario elections, and I am reminded of the immortal Yeats poem from a century ago:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Well, Doug Ford, Donald Trump’s Ontario mini-me: it looks like the province is yours. May you wield your powers a little more wisely than the orange person south of the border.

 Posted by at 9:18 pm
Jun 032018
 

I am reading some breathless reactions to a preprint posted a few days ago by the MiniBooNE experiment. The experiment is designed to detect neutrinos, in particular neutrino oscillations (the change of one neutrino flavor into another.)

The headlines are screaming. Evidence found of a New Fundamental Particle, says one. Strange New Particle Could Prove Existence of Dark Matter, says another. Or how about, A Major Physics Experiment Just Detected A Particle That Shouldn’t Exist?

The particle in question is the so-called sterile neutrino. It is a neat concept, one I happen to quite like. It represents an elegant resolution to the puzzle of neutrino handedness. This refers to the chirality of neutrinos, essentially the direction in which they spin compared to their direction of motion. We only ever see “left handed” neutrinos. But neutrinos have rest mass. So they move slower than light. That means that if you run fast enough and outrun a left-handed neutrino, so that relative to you it is moving backwards (but still spins in the same direction as before), when you look back, you’ll see a right-handed neutrino. This implies that right-handed neutrinos should be seen just as often as left-handed neutrinos. But they aren’t. How come?

Sterile neutrinos offer a simple answer: We don’t see right-handed neutrinos because they don’t interact (they are sterile). That is to say, when a neutrino interacts (emits or absorbs a Z-boson, or emits or absorbs a W-boson while changing into a charged lepton), it has to be a left-handed neutrino in the interaction’s center-of-mass frame.

If this view is true and such sterile neutrinos exist, even though they cannot be detected directly, their existence would skew the number of neutrino oscillation events. As to what neutrino oscillations are: neutrinos are massive. But unlike other elementary particles, neutrinos do not have a well-defined mass associated with their flavor (electron, muon, or tau neutrino). When a neutrino has a well-defined flavor (is in a flavor eigenstate) it has no well-defined mass and vice versa. This means that if we detect neutrinos in a mass eigenstate, their flavor can appear to change (oscillate) between one state or another; e.g., a muon neutrino may appear at the detector as an electron neutrino. These flavor oscillations are rare, but they can be detected, and that’s what the MiniBooNE experiment is looking for.

And that is indeed what MiniBooNE found: an excess of events that is consistent with neutrino oscillations.

MiniBooNE detects electron neutrinos. These can come from all kinds of (background) sources. But one particular source is an intense beam of muon neutrinos produced at Fermilab. Because of neutrino oscillations, some of the neutrinos in this beam will be detected as electron neutrinos, yielding an excess of electron neutrino events above background.

And that’s exactly what MiniBooNE sees, with very high confidence: 4.8σ. That’s almost the generally accepted detection threshold for a new particle. But this value of 4.8σ is not about a new particle. It is the significance associated with excess electron neutrino detection events overall: an excess that is expected from neutrino oscillations.

So what’s the big deal, then? Why the screaming headlines? As far as I can tell, it all boils down to this sentence in the paper: “Although the data are fit with a standard oscillation model, other models may provide better fits to the data.”

What this somewhat cryptic sentence means is best illustrated by a figure from the paper:

This figure shows the excess events (above background) detected by MiniBooNE, but also the expected number of excess events from neutrino oscillations. Notice how only the first two red data points fall significantly above the expected number. (In case you are wondering, POT means Protons On Target, that is to say, the number of protons hitting a beryllium target at Fermilab, producing the desired beam of muon neutrinos.)

Yes, these two data points are intriguing. Yes, they may indicate the existence of new physics beyond two-neutrino oscillations. In particular, they may indicate the existence of another oscillation mode, muon neutrinos oscillating into sterile neutrinos that, in turn, oscillate into electron neutrinos, yielding this excess.

Mind you, if this is a sign of sterile neutrinos, these sterile neutrinos are unlikely dark matter candidates; their mass would be too low.

Or these two data points are mere statistical flukes. After all, as the paper says, “the best oscillation fit to the excess has a probability of 20.1%”. That is far from improbable. Sure, the fact that it is only 20.1% can be interpreted as a sign of some tension between the Standard Model and this experiment. But it is certainly not a discovery of new physics, and absolutely not a confirmation of a specific model of new physics, such as sterile neutrinos.

And indeed, the paper makes no such claim. The word “sterile” appears only four times in the paper, in a single sentence in the introduction: “[…] more exotic models are typically used to explain these anomalies, including, for example, 3+N neutrino oscillation models involving three active neutrinos and N additional sterile neutrinos [6-14], resonant neutrino oscillations [15], Lorentz violation [16], sterile neutrino decay [17], sterile neutrino non-standard interactions [18], and sterile neutrino extra dimensions [19].”

So yes, there is an intriguing sign of an anomaly. Yes, it may point the way towards new physics. It might even be new physics involving sterile neutrinos.

But no, this is not a discovery. At best, it’s an intriguing hint; quite possibly, just a statistical fluke.

So why the screaming headlines, then? I wish I knew.

 Posted by at 9:58 am
Jun 022018
 

World, meet MJ the cat:

MJ has been visiting us for many years. This is the fourteenth summer, as a matter of fact, that he shows up on our doorstep from time to time. He introduced numerous other cats from the neighborhood, including our beloved Pipacs whom we adopted 11 years ago.

We knew that MJ was alright, because we’ve seen him on his own front porch not too long ago. But we were wondering if this aging kitty would still feel sufficiently adventurous to visit us. Well… here he is again. I just hope that he is careful when crossing Cobourg Street. It’s wide, with plenty of bus traffic. I hope he has a safe journey home.

 Posted by at 1:06 am
May 292018
 

There is an excellent diagram accompanying an answer on StackExchange, and I’ve been meaning to copy it here, because I keep losing the address.

The diagram summarizes many measures of cosmic expansion in a nice, compact, but not necessarily easy-to-understand form:

So let me explain how to read this diagram. First of all, time is going from bottom to top. The thick horizontal black line represents the moment of now. Imagine this line moving upwards as time progresses.

The thick vertical black line is here. So the intersection of the two thick black lines in the middle is the here-and-now.

Distances are measured in terms of the comoving distance, which is basically telling you how far a distant object would be now, if you had a long measuring tape to measure its present-day location.

The area shaded red (marked “past light cone”) is all the events that happened in the universe that we could see, up to the moment of now. The boundary of this area is everything in this universe from which light is reaching us right now.

So just for fun, let us pick an object at a comoving distance of 30 gigalightyears (Gly). Look at the dotted vertical line corresponding to 30 Gly, halfway between the 20 and 40 marks (either side, doesn’t matter.) It intersects the boundary of the past light cone when the universe was roughly 700 million years old. Good, there were already young galaxies back then. If we were observing such a galaxy today, we’d be seeing it as it appeared when the universe was 700 million years old. Its light would have spent 13.1 billion years traveling before reaching our instruments.

Again look at the dotted vertical line at 30 Gly and extend it all the way to the “now” line. What does this tell you about this object? You can read the object’s redshift (z) off the diagram: its light is shifted down in frequency by a factor of about 9.

You can also read the object’s recession velocity, which is just a little over two times the vacuum speed of light. Yes… faster than light. This recession velocity is based on the rate of change of the scale factor, essentially the Hubble parameter times the comoving distance. The Doppler velocity that one would deduce from the object’s redshift yields a value less than the vacuum speed of light. (Curved spacetime is tricky; distances and speeds can be defined in various ways.)

Another thing about this diagram is that in addition to the past, it also sketches the future, taking into account the apparent accelerating expansion of the universe. Notice the light red shaded area marked “event horizon”. This area contains everything that we will be able to see at our present location, throughout the entire history of the universe, all the way to the infinite future. Things (events) outside this area will never be seen by us, will never influence us.

Note how the dotted line at 30 Gly intersects this boundary when the universe is about 5 billion years old. Yes, this means that we will only ever see the first less than 5 billion years of existence of a galaxy at a comoving distance of 30 Gly. Over time, light from this galaxy will be redshifted ever more, until it eventually appears to “freeze” and disappears from sight, never appearing to become older than 5 billion years.

Notice also how the dashed curves marking constant values of redshift bend inward, closer and closer to the “here” location as we approach the infinite future. This is a direct result of accelerating expansion: Things nearer and nearer to us will be caught up in the expansion, accelerating away from our location. Eventually this will stop, of course; cosmic acceleration will not rip apart structures that are gravitationally bound. But we will end up living in a true “island universe” in which nothing is seen at all beyond the largest gravitationally bound structure, the local group of galaxies. Fortunately that won’t happen anytime soon; we have many tens of billions of years until then.

Lastly, the particle horizon (blue lines) essentially marks the size of the visible part of the universe at any given time. Notice how the width of the interval marked by the intersection of the now line and the blue lines is identical to the width of the past light cone at the bottom of this diagram. Notice also how the blue lines correspond to infinite redshift.

As I said, this diagram is not an easy read but it is well worth studying.

 Posted by at 8:35 pm
May 292018
 

And now I am rooting for Andrea Horwath.

No, I won’t be voting NDP in the upcoming Ontario election. I live in a strongly Liberal riding (it is said that if the Liberals win one seat in this election, it will be this one), and I am actually quite pleased with our MPP, Nathalie Des Rosiers. The NDP in this riding is a distant third in the polls.

But throughout the province, support for the Liberal Party collapsed, and populist Doug Ford, heading the Progressive Conservatives, seems poised to become the province’s next Premier.

The CBC’s Ontario Poll Tracker

Unless Andrea Horwath and the NDP can stop him.

To be sure, I don’t really like the NDP. I like some of their ideas, but on many things, they are too far to the left for me to feel comfortable. I fear that their policies will have a negative impact on the province: higher taxes, a more business hostile climate. I lived in Ontario a generation ago when Bob Rae led the last NDP government, and while it was no disaster, it was not too good either.

But we survived. And policy mistakes are one thing… ignorant alpha-male populism is in another league altogether.

So do I look at Horwath as the lesser of two evils? Not really. I don’t consider Horwath evil. At worst, the NDP are misguided. But they seem like reasonable folks, willing to listen to the facts. Which means that, more than likely, once they are in power, they will actually disappoint some of their most ardent followers as they moderate their views and adjust to the realities of everyday governing.

Ford, on the other hand, is likely to do far more damage. Reckless tax cuts combined with a march toward balanced budgets will lead to catastrophic cuts in public services, with damage likely lasting generations. OHIP, public transport, potholes, the energy infrastructure… all of that and much more are on the line. Then there are those campaign promises (such as new hospital beds) that have not been budgeted for, and in my opinion, will never be, as these are empty promises with no real intent to follow through, once elected.

In short, in Horwath I see a responsible leader committed to some leftist ideas that I am not unduly fond of. In Ford, I see a naked hunger for power, reckless populism, ignorance, irresponsibility.

So for the first time in my life, I am actually rooting for the NDP.

 Posted by at 10:13 am
May 242018
 

For years now, we’ve been insuring our cats with Trupanion. We picked this insurer because they offered something we actually wanted: insurance for catastrophic expenses. (We don’t need an insurer to cover routine exams and vaccinations.)

We expected professional and courteous service from Trupanion, and that’s what we always received. Even when specific claims were denied, the explanation was always clear, unambiguous, and consistent with their written policies. We never had any complaints.

What we did not expect was this level of personalized care: this postcard.

The back side, not reproduced here, contains several hand-written offers of condolences from Trupanion employees on account of us losing our kitty Pipacs.

If their intent was to generate goodwill towards the company and view them as something more than just a faceless corporation, but rather, as a group of caring people, they certainly succeeded. Thank you. I have a feeling that we are going to remain your loyal customers for years to come.

 Posted by at 1:09 pm
May 112018
 

This was our not quite 12-year old kitten, Pipacs, just over an hour ago, less than fifteen minutes before he was euthanized.

It appears that we picked the right time as it was the end of the line for him anyway. His bladder was now blocked by the bone tumor that he has been battling with so bravely for the past three years, beating all odds (and using up all nine of his lives) in the past three months in particular. So quite likely, he would have died a much more painful death soon, perhaps within the next 24 hours.

We are now a two-cat household. Good-bye, Pipacska. It was a privilege to have you for the past ten and a half years.

 Posted by at 1:25 pm
May 052018
 

In the late 1960s, early 1970s, Hollywood responded to social upheavals and perceived lawlessness by creating a series of renegade, vigilante cops, played by the likes of Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood.

Today, perceived changes, threats to “us”, fear from “them”, seem to be bringing about another result: the rise of political strongmen around the world. This is the topic of a new article in TIME, also featured on the cover of their upcoming issue.

Pictured are Putin, Duterte of the Philippines, Orban of Hungary and Erdogan of Turkey. Not shown but extensively covered in the article are Xi Jinping, Egypt’s al-Sisi, and, of course, Donald Trump. Other strongmen are also mentioned.

What is this world coming to? Why are people who benefited the most from liberal democracy so keen to reject its values?

And in particular, why do we let the free Internet, one of the greatest inventions of liberal democracy, become a tool of state propaganda, a conduit for fake news? Why do we let the powers-that-be censor it or, worse yet, use it as a tool of oppression, as a means to build a totalitarian surveillance state?

Nor do I believe that Canada is immune. We are about to elect our very own strongman here in the province of Ontario. Doug Ford, brother to the scandal-plagued former mayor of Toronto, the late Rob Ford, is destined to become the next premier of this province. And who knows what will happen next… I am sure Doug Ford’s ambitions do not end with Queen’s Park.

In the end, it becomes a test of the strength of democratic institutions. In the US, Trump cannot ignore the courts, and may soon face a hostile legislature. In Canada, the Prime Minister may control Parliament, but the court system is strong and the press, too, remains independent. Even so, I’d rather not stress-test our democracy.

 Posted by at 3:10 pm
Apr 232018
 

Stephen Hawking passed away over a month ago, but I just came across this beautiful tribute from cartoonist Sean Delonas. It was completely unexpected (I was flipping through the pages of a magazine) and, I admit, it had quite an impact on me. Not the words, inspirational though they may be… the image. The empty wheelchair, the frail human silhouette walking away in the distance.

 Posted by at 5:23 pm
Apr 172018
 

This stunning young lady is none other than future First Lady of the United States, Barbara Bush, back in 1943.

Alas, Barbara Bush is no more. She passed away today after a prolonged illness.

She was genuine, she was funny, and she was noble. Her husband for more than 70 years, George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush were clearly a loving couple until the very end.

And she even appeared on The Simpsons.

May she rest in peace.

 Posted by at 8:10 pm