Is your mother proud of you being a crook?

I have asked this question many times in recent months; basically, every time I receive a call from the “computer support department”, trying to tell me how my computer is full of viruses or whatever.

I usually don’t expect an answer; as a matter of fact, I usually just hang up, although more often than not, the other party hangs up first before I get a chance. Understandable… that’s what they are trained to do by their criminal masters.

Today, for some reason, I chose not to hang up. And the gentleman on the other and of the line asked me to repeat myself instead of hanging up on me. I obliged. After a moment of silence, I actually got an answer.

“Well, sir, I need the money.”

That was an unexpectedly candid admission, not that I was not aware of this basic truth. These callers, usually in boiler rooms somewhere in India or Pakistan, do this because they need to earn a living.

But it’s one thing to earn a living, it’s another to defraud vulnerable people, old ladies and whatnot. I told that much to this agent. He just repeated himself, defensively: “But I need the money.”

So I told him that I understand. That I, too, was a refugee once 30 years ago. (True.) But even when I had no money, I did not start defrauding people. I asked him to think about this, please; then thanked him and hung up.

Did I accomplish anything? I don’t know. Is it valid to compare my situation 30 years ago: granted, a refugee, but a refugee in a first world country (Austria) with no family to worry about and with guaranteed shelter and food at the Traiskirchen refugee camp, which I declined to take advantage of only because I found work (no fraud involved, but it’s true that I had no work permit) and I was able to afford better accommodations?

Yes, I read Les Misérables. No, I do not want the poor to be disproportionately punished, with no grace or mercy.

Still, I think there is an ethical line to be drawn here. No matter how great your need is, I still don’t think this moral justification applies when you work for a criminal enterprise, earning a living from defrauding vulnerable people halfway around the world.

Moments ago, Anderson Cooper made his opinion clear about a guest on his show who was defending Trump:

LOL. Well said, Anderson.

I am no photo artist, and my best camera is, well, my phone. That’s it.

Even so, a few minutes ago I felt compelled to take a couple of photographs. We are a few minutes away from sunset and a big storm just began. Then I looked out my window and I found the building across the street brighter than the sky above.

The light came from the other side of the sky. The Sun was not visible but the sky in that direction was bright enough to light things up.

Photographs (especially, photographs taken with a phone) really don’t do these sights justice. The contrasts were amazing.

In my copious amounts of free time (yeah, right) I’ve been playing with the second installment in the Metro 2033 game franchise, Metro Last Light. Like its predecessor, it is set in (or mostly, under) post-apocalyptic Moscow, in what remains of the tunnels of the Moscow Metro, with stations acting as city states, and the protagonist fighting mutants, aliens and human enemies alike.

My only complaint about these games is that the gameplay is very linear: you just advance the story, your actions do not alter it in any meaningful way, apart from contributing to the choice of ending that is shown after the final battle.

But the atmosphere of the game is brilliant. Brilliantly dark, that is. And the game is beautifully crafted.

Here is one example: midway through the game, you find yourself in a station named Venice, so called because it is half-flooded. (Or was it the station under the Bolshoi Theatre? Not sure.) As you wonder around, you encounter… a shadow play artist, entertaining a small group of children, showing shadows, some of which are quite recognizable as the monsters of the game.

This character plays no role in the story. You do not interact with it. It does not advance the game in any which way. It’s just… there. Because… well, what would a post-apocalyptic subway station be like without a shadow play artist?

It was when I encountered this scene that I became fully hooked by the atmosphere of the Metro games. This is no more just entertainment… this is a form of art.

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, is in Washington today.

Reacting to a shouted question by a journalist, he felt it was appropriate to respond with a joke:

I am not even sure what words to use to characterize it. I think the video speaks for itself. Очень смешно, министр.

Not only is there severe flooding in our region (I’ve lived in Ottawa for nearly 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything remotely like this) but this “spring” weather is anything but.

In fact, yesterday CTV News almost apologized for their forecast:

And the saddest part? They were not wrong. I see flurries outside.

Fortunately, the flooding doesn’t affect us, despite our proximity to the Rideau River.

One of the major events during last year’s presidential campaign was the hacking of e-mails of the Democratic National Congress. In particular, the hacking of the e-mails of campaign chairman John Podesta.

How it happened is simple. Podesta received a bogus e-mail, purportedly from Google, that there was an unauthorized attempt to log in to his account, and that he should change his password. A helpful link in the form of a button was provided.

Podesta’s assistant was suspicious and asked for expert help. The expert inadvertently described the e-mail as “legitimate” (presumably, he meant to write “not legitimate” or “illegitimate”) but advised that Podesta should change his password, and provided the correct (Google) link for password changes.

The assistant forwarded the e-mail to Podesta, adding in her own words that “The gmail one is REAL”. This prompted Podesta to change his password… using the fraudulent link provided to him in the original message. By doing so, Podesta inadvertently disclosed his e-mail password to Russian hackers.

How do we know that they are Russian? There are many reasons to believe this to be the case, but I just noticed another peculiarity. (It is possible that I am not the first to notice this, of course.) Look at the subject line of the Podesta e-mails:

Now try searching for the word “Someone” on this page using your Web browser’s built-in search feature (hitting Control-F activates this feature in most browsers). Can you see (or rather not see) how nothing in this Subject line is highlighted?

That is because several of the o’s in this subject line were typed on a Cyrillic keyboard, and they are Cyrillic characters. A Cyrillic ‘о’ appears very much the same as a Latin ‘o’, but it has a different code (hexadecimal 043e as opposed to 006f):

Funny thing is… I got this subject line straight from Wikileaks. You know, the same Wikileaks who are protesting high and low that the e-mail dump is not from Russia. Yet on their very own Web site, the e-mails that resulted in the Podesta hack contain Cyrillic characters. Go figure.

I am watching a live interview on CNN with Hillary Clinton.

As I am listening to her eloquently chosen words and watch her classy demeanor, I am reminded of the thin-skinned, narcissistic, pussy-grabbing (his own words, not mine!) boor who currently occupies the White House and feel compelled to ask again from my American friends, especially those who still think that this sad misogynist is going to make America great “again”: What the fuck is wrong with you?

I sometimes take pictures of our cats.

Very rarely, the pictures are actually interesting. (I am no photo artist.)

This morning, I snapped a picture of our cats Kifli and Rufus, as they found a place on top of some Amazon shipping boxes.

What I didn’t expect is the effect of light, filtered through the blinds, on their fur, especially Rufus’s.

Here is today’s gem of a survey question from CTV Ottawa:

My answer is greenish-pink, with whipped cream.

(To their credit, a corrected question appears on their Web site.)

Remember what radio used to be like, especially shortwave?

Many stations had an interval signal. This signal, usually just a few musical notes, was played whenever the station would otherwise be silent (e.g., between the end of a program and the time signal at the top of the hour.) I remember many an interval signal fondly.

But one of them, I just cannot identify. Namely this one:

Bugs the devil out of me.

My current phone is a Nexus 6P.

I picked this phone for one all-important reason: It is a “pure Android” phone, directly supported by Google. Which means that instead of being at the manufacturer’s mercy when it comes to updates, I receive monthly security updates from Google. In this day and age, this is a deciding factor for me.

I got the phone in September. Sometime in the winter, I noticed that a speck appeared in photographs taken by the phone’s main camera.

Its appearance suggests that it is a small dust particle stuck between the camera visor and the camera itself, or inside the camera optics perhaps. Others apparently encountered the same issue. Some were able to shake the phone until the speck vanished. I tried to do the same but to no avail. Obviously I do not want to damage or destroy the phone.

I was trying to decide whether or not to live with it. A friend of mine suggested that I should contact the manufacturer since the phone is under warranty. I decided to do just that. Here is the exchange of e-mails that followed:

From: Viktor T. Toth
Sent: Tuesday, April 4, 2017 10:24 PM
Subject: Nexus 6P warranty issue

Greetings,

I obtained a Nexus 6P from Rogers Canada in September 2016.

A few months ago, I noticed that its camera developed a speck (see attached, lower right corner; the picture is of a uniformly illuminated white sheet of paper). Researching online, I found out that it is not an uncommon problem, and may be due to a loose dust particle inside the camera. Some people had luck shaking the speck lose. I tried gently tapping/shaking the phone, to no avail.

I also learned that this issue may be covered under warranty.

Please enlighten me if this is the case and, if so, how the warranty process works.

Sincerely,

Viktor Toth

Attachment: IMG_20170404_221736.jpg

Sent: Wednesday, April 5, 2017 2:41 PM
To: Viktor T. Toth
Subject: Nexus 6P black spot

Dear Mr. Toth, receive a warm greeting.

We widely appreciate the information you provided us, and gladly inform you that on the attachment you can find information concerning your inquiry.

Best regards.
C.B.W.

Attachment: Black spots on camara.pdf

From: Viktor T. Toth
Sent: Wednesday, April 5, 2017 3:17 PM
Subject: RE: Nexus 6P black spot

Dear Huawei support,

I thank you for your response but I find it quite unacceptable. If you had looked at the image that I sent to you, you would have seen that the “impurity spot” is actually about 100 pixels in diameter and very prominently noticeable in every picture that I take (attached enlarged, cropped image should also appear below):

If this is an acceptable impurity to you, I pity your customers. (This a crop from an actual photo of a white sheet of paper taken by the phone; I did not enlarge or manipulate it in any way.)

I also wonder if you perhaps misunderstood my inquiry and thought that I was referring to the display of the phone, as opposed to its main camera.

I’ll probably learn to live with this speck or attempt a repair. Your response as well as what I read online about your Canadian warranty support gives me little confidence that I can seek help from you.

However, I thank you for reminding me that when it comes to my next phone purchase, I should take into account the manufacturer’s support policy as well as the quality and capabilities of the device when I make my decision. The Nexus 6P may be a premium quality device, but your support perhaps isn’t.

Sincerely,

Viktor Toth

Sent: Wednesday, April 5, 2017 6:55 PM
To: Viktor T. Toth
Subject: Huawei Mail Support

Dear Mr. Toth.

We appreciate your preference, and deeply regret any inconvenience that you are experiencing with your Huawei device, however in order to correct this situation, in the attached file you will find a detailed answer to your question.

Best regards.
C.B.W.

From: Viktor T. Toth
Sent: Wednesday, April 5, 2017 8.02 PM
Subject: RE: Huawei Mail Support

I have not received an attachment in your response to my second inquiry.

Sincerely,

Viktor Toth

Sent: Thursday, April 6, 2017 12:43 PM
To: Viktor T. Toth
Subject: Huawei Mail Support

Dear Mr. Toth, receive a warm greeting.

We widely appreciate the information you provided us, and gladly inform you that on the attachment you can find information concerning your inquiry.

Best regards.
C.B.W.

Attachment: Service Center Information. Toth.pdf

Somehow, in light of this exchange, I do not feel particularly confident that it is a good idea to send in my phone for repair.

FYI, Huawei: The long-distance prefix in North America is 1, not 001.

I don’t often post pictures of my friends, but this time, I have my friend Perry’s permission.

Perry was flying west the other day. While waiting at the airport, he encountered a familiar face. The familiar face belonged to Canada’s Minister of National Defence, Harjit Singh Sajjan.

The Honourable Minister was probably flying back to his Vancouver riding, which he represents in Parliament.

Whatever the reason, the remarkable thing is this: Mr. Sajjan was traveling the same way most other Canadian would travel. On a commercial airliner, flying coach.

Let me repeat that, this time in boldface: Canada’s Minister of National Defence, traveling cross-country on a commercial airliner, flying coach.

I am so glad Mr. Sajjan allowed Perry to take this selfie, and that Perry kindly permitted me to repost it. This was not a moment designed for publicity. As far as I know, Mr. Sajjan does not publicize the manner in which he travels. He just… does the right thing.

And the other remarkable thing is that he can do this. It speaks volumes about our country and our government.

Donald Trump told us that if necessary, the US will act alone on North Korea.

In a discussion on this topic, a commentator on CNN remarked on the dangers of having to deal with a madman armed with nukes.

If I were in Kim Jong-un’s shoes, I’d worry about that, too.

Here is an old friend from the neighborhood that we have known for 12 years already, but whom we haven’t seen since October:

But today, he was outside, enjoying the warmth of the early spring sun.

Hello, MJ. It is so good to see you again.

Without further ado, this video sums up my thoughts for the day:

Retired counterintelligence officers rarely give interviews. It is even more unusual for them to do so without anonymity.

Yet this is exactly what Ferenc Katrein, a former Hungarian counterintelligence officer did, when he was interviewed by the independent Hungarian news portal index.hu.

The full interview is available in English.

Katrein tells us of a secret service offensive that is waged by Russia against the European Union. He speaks of a corrupt Hungarian leadership that offered an opportunity for many Russian citizens to enter and even settle in the country in return for a modest investment with little or no effective background checks. He speaks of the role of Russia in far right movements in Europe, and their campaigns of disinformation.

All in all, it is a rare glimpse into how a counterintelligence service works on the eastern fringes of the European Union, and the extraordinary challenges that Europe faces in light of an aggressive (and in many ways, unrestrained) Russian foreign policy agenda.

I saw this image of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un earlier today on CNN:

The joy on these faces seems genuine. To think that an officer so forgot himself in that moment of celebration, he actually jumped onto the shoulders of the country’s all-powerful leader!

What they were celebrating was the successful test firing of a new rocket engine.

But what this picture reveals, the genuine joy on these faces, suggests something much worse: namely that North Korea’s leaders may truly believe their own propaganda. They may truly believe that governing via a totalitarian regime is the right thing to do. That sinking money into a gigantic but, in many ways, very backward military is the right thing to do. That pissing off the United States is the right thing to do.

And thus, self-fulfilling prophecies are born. North Korea may think that it is defending itself from US aggression. But they do not seem to realize that it is precisely their stance and their weapons program that make them a subject of US threats and sanctions.

And they especially don’t seem to realize that with a genuinely unhinged leadership in the White House, further provocation may achieve the exact opposite of what they want: Instead of being able to preserve the regime, they might see it come to an hasty end as Washington decides to intervene after all, leading to a tremendous loss of life no matter the outcome.

Recently, I answered a question on Quora on the possibility that we live in a computer simulation.

Apparently, this is a hot topic. The other day, there was an essay on it by Sabine Hossenfelder.

I agree with Sabine’s main conclusion, as well as her point that “the programmer did it” is no explanation at all: it is just a modern version of mythology.

I also share her frustration, for instance, when she reacts to the nonsense from Stephen Wolfram about a “whole civilization” “down at the Planck scale”.

Sabine makes a point that discretization of spacetime might conflict with special relativity. I wonder if the folks behind doubly special relativity might be inclined to offer a thought or two on this topic.

In any case, I have another reason why I believe we cannot possibly live in a computer simulation.

My argument hinges on an unproven conjecture: My assumption that scalable quantum computing is really not possible because of the threshold theorem. Most supporters of quantum computing believe, of course, that the threshold theorem is precisely what makes quantum computing possible: if an error-correcting quantum computer reaches a certain threshold, it can emulate an arbitrary precision quantum computer accurately.

But I think this is precisely why the threshold will never be reached. One of these days, someone will prove a beautiful theorem that no large-scale quantum computer will ever be able to operate above the threshold, hence scalable quantum computing is just not possible.

Now what does this have to do with us living in a simulation? Countless experiments show that we live in a fundamentally quantum world. Contrary to popular belief (and many misguided popularizations) it does not mean a discretization at the quantum level. What it does mean is that even otherwise discrete quantities (e.g., the two spin states of an electron) turn into continuum variables (the phase of the wavefunction).

This is precisely what makes a quantum computer powerful: like an analog computer, it can perform certain algorithms more effectively than a digital computer, because whereas a digital computer operates on the countable set of discrete digits, a quantum or analog computer operates with the uncountable infinite of states offered by continuum variables.

Of course a conventional analog computer is very inaccurate, so nobody seriously proposed that one could ever be used to factor 1000-digit numbers.

This quantum world in which we live, with its richer structure, can be simulated only inefficiently using a digital computer. If that weren’t the case, we could use a digital computer to simulate a quantum computer and get on with it. But this means that if the world is a simulation, it cannot be a simulation running on a digital computer. The computer that runs the world has to be a quantum computer.

But if quantum computers do not exist… well, then they cannot simulate the world, can they?

Two further points about this argument. First, it is purely mathematical: I am offering a mathematical line of reasoning that no quantum universe can be a simulated universe. It is not a limitation of technology, but a (presumed) mathematical truth.

Second, the counterargument has often been proposed that perhaps the simulation is set up so that we do not get to see the discrepancies caused by inefficient simulation. I.e., the programmer cheats and erases the glitches from our simulated minds. But I don’t see how that could work either. For this to work, the algorithms employed by the simulation must anticipate not only all the possible ways in which we could ascertain the true nature of the world, but also assess all consequences of altering our state of mind. I think it quickly becomes evident that this really cannot be done without, well, simulating the world correctly, which is what we were trying to avoid… so no, I do not think it is possible.

Of course if tomorrow, someone announces that they cracked the threshold theorem and full-scale, scalable quantum computing is now reality, my argument goes down the drain. But frankly, I do not expect that to happen.

Chemistry is weird. Even in inorganic chemistry, there are some really strange compounds. There is, for instance, phosphotungstic acid: $${\rm H}_3{\rm P}{\rm W}_{12}{\rm O}_{40}$$. Never heard of it until today.

And then there is this one (if it exists at all):

Somebody posted this on Google+. They wanted to know what its properties are. And now, so do I. There are a few tungsten compounds listed in online databases, but this is not one of them. Does it even exist? I don’t know. For some reason, I expect it to have properties not unlike those of tungsten carbide, but I could be completely off the mark.