Sunday, March 28, 2010


... Kabul Dreams, Afghanistan's first rock band.

Hat tip to Alan Cross of The Edge.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Earth/Stupid Hour

Tonight is the night of Earth Hour. From 8:30pm-9:30pm we are asked to turn off all appliances other than essential ones like the refrigerator. That means that people will be turning off their lights. The thing is, however, that most of us enjoy the ability to see our way around after the sun goes down. In fact, even those who are participating in Earth Hour seem quite unwilling to give it up. Although people are planning to turn off the lights that are powered by public utilities, many of them are still planning to illuminate their way by other means.

They're going off the grid, but they're not going off the light, and quite a lot more often than not, their preferred light source is candles. In Canada, for example, some people are going to march on Parliament Hill, candles in hand. I can't think of a stupider way to participate, except perhaps to idle the car and use the headlamps for light.

In terms of the amount of light produced compared to energy expended and emissions produced, however, candles are probably the most energy inefficient and CO2/hydrocarbon producing light source currently available (except for things like head lamps on cars, whose primary purpose is something else other than providing illumination). One might object that the total amounts of light produced, energy expended, and emissions produced by candles tonight will be negligible. And I would agree. It will be. Candles will otherwise be used only for emergencies, and birthday cakes, romantic dinners and Christmas programs, and banning them for those uses won't solve any problems that carbon emissions cause. But it's not the emissions that I have a problem with.

Although participants might be under the impression that they're doing something good for the environment merely by participating, nobody organizing the event should be under any illusions that the whole world going off the grid for an hour is going to have a significant impact on righting environmental wrongs. There are 8760 hours in a year (8784 in a leap year). Having a single-digit percent reduction in power usage for one of those hours is, like candle emissions, negligible in the grand scheme of things.

The event is mostly symbolic. Thus it would make much more sense for the choice of off-the-grid light source, if one must be chosen at all, to be symbolic of their goals, namely reduced emissions and energy use. At the very least, the advocated light source shouldn't be a candle, which symbolizes the very things that they are against. I would suggest an LED flashlight, since LED lights are probably the most efficient light source currently available [1] (and I would suggest walking to the store to get it, for reasons that should be obvious to any environmentalist with a functioning brain). It is, after all, Earth Day, and not Live-in-the-past Day.

But even choosing to light the way by private means rather than public means has a slight scent of hypocrisy, regardless of the efficiency of that choice. We are told to shut out the lights that are plugged in, but almost encouraged to use other light sources that are not. Why should we draw the line between a power source whose usage can be detected by the gauges of the utilities providers and one that might only be detected by the profit margins of the businesses that sold us the flashlight and batteries to power it?

Even as as a symbol, I'm not really impressed with events like this, where people are called on to abstain from a certain activity for a specified period of time. That which is not spent on Buy Nothing Day will have been spent by that day, or will be spent some time after. Earth Hour fares just as well. One hour is not that long to go without light. Nobody is really making that much of a sacrifice, even if they choose, though very few will, to sit silently in the dark by themselves for that time. Most people who can bear the whole hour will are not likely to try and bear another, or even a whole evening, never mind a week, a year, or a lifetime.

The sacrifices that were made for an hour will not become lifestyle changes. They will not spend countless future evenings with a bare minimum of lighting. The power consuming activities that would normally have been done from the hours of 8:30-9:30 tonight will be done from 7:30-8:30 or 9:30-10:30 instead. Before 8:30 and after 9:30, life will otherwise proceed more or less as it always has, with a bit more squinting once 9:30 hits. People will feel good about themselves for a short while, but not long after the event has passed, the amount of change will be as negligible as the carbon output of a candle, and aside from scattered bits of sanctimony, nobody will notice the event took place, until it happens again next year.

[1] The only source that I can think of that might be more efficient is compact fluorescent lights. But there are environmental issues when it comes to their disposal. Besides, they usually require a connection to the grid.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Dear Google, Pt. II

In my last post, I complained about the apparent uselessness of setting a default location in Google Maps. The address I was looking for was in Hamilton, Ontario, which is also my default location. The address it gave me was in Atlanta, Georgia. (And not only was the location way off from the location I was looking for, but the street name wasn't even the same!) The next day, I was looking for another location in Hamilton. Having learned my lesson from the day before, I remembered to include the city in my search, although I neglected to include the province. This time, Google Maps sent me to Hamilton, New Zealand. Thus, by being more specific about my location, I've caused Google Maps to be less accurate, taking me to a different continent entirely! If I include the province next time, will it suggest an address on Mars? I guess if I want Google to show me the right location, I should just enter the street number and nothing else, not even the name of the street.

As far as I can tell, the only reason to set a default location is so that, when you load Google Maps, rather than showing you a map of the whole continent, it shows you your default location. This is really quite pointless, since your default location is one that you're likely very familiar with, and thus won't need Google Maps for at all.

[1] It doesn't say much for the city of Hamilton (Ontario, Canada) that Google Maps would think I was looking for an address in a smaller city, in a smaller country, located roughly on the other side of the planet from the one I was looking for. I knew that Hamilton has a bad reputation, but I didn't know it had gotten so bad that even a website wants to avoid it.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Dear Google

What's the point of having a "default location" in Google Maps if, when I search for an address without specifying the city, you suggest a location that is 1,567 kilometres away from the location with the same address in the default city, in a city that is not even in the same country as the default?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

May I make a suggestion to the IOC?

Regardless of what happens in the other events, Canada can be almost guaranteed to win a gold medal for shooting fish in a barrel women's hockey. And in the rare event that that does not happen, I can say with a very high degree of confidence that the gold would go to the US team, with Canada getting the silver.

Even most of the countries whose men's teams have prevented Canada from getting the gold, and sometimes any medal at all, do not have strong enough women's teams to be considered even remotely competitive with either the US or Canada. The exception is Sweden, who did give the US a run for its money in 2006.

Because of the highly lopsided nature of the competition in this event, there are really two competitions. One is to see whether or not this is the year where the US wins the gold and Canad silver, instead of vice versa. The other is to determine which of the remaining teams receive the bronze. All else leading up to the former competition is merely a formality, a set of large hoops to step through, which really means nothing in the end. The latter competition is really the only one that actually deserves to be called a competition, that is, where abilities of the teams are matched closely enough that the winner cannot be decided by checking to see whether the name on the jersey begins with "Canada" or "USA".

Given the imbalance, then, one wonders whether this should be an Olympic event at all. There are really only two good teams. The rest is facade, for the sake of making it look like a tournament of some sort. You couldn't cancel the event, however. First of all, Canadians need something to make them feel better about themselves when the men's hockey players that have the same citizenship as them don't acquire the medal they assume belongs to them. Second, the fans like it. That means TV ratings, which, in turn, means advertising dollars. And that means that the Olympics are less of a money-suck on the cities and countries that host them than they would be without women's hockey.

Now, Eddie the Eagle could be prohibited from participating in Olympic ski jumping because he wasn't embarrassingly bad, even though he was the best ski jumper of his country. On the flip side, though, it would hardly make sense to prevent either the US or Canada from participating because they're embarrassingly good [1]. Only picking the teams that could beat the US and Canada doesn't work either, because two teams does not an Olympic event make.

I can think of two ways to deal with this situation. Neither of these are perfect solutions, but I think both are better than the current system. The first is to simply give byes to the US and Canada until the final game where they compete for the gold and silver between them and have all of the other teams compete for the bronze. This has the benefit of sparing us from the slaughter by the North American teams, and therefore not exposing us to the currently blatant imbalance. The disadvantage is that, with all these byes, some might think it unfair that we would not be shown that the US and Canada deserve all these byes, even though we all know it to be true.

The second is to invent two new medals that the US and Canada would inevitably compete for. Platinum is more valuable than gold these days, so a platinum medal makes sense. Also, I've seen enough movies involving bomb plots to know that plutonium is also a very valuable element. It's radioactive, mind you, which may require shorter podium celebrations, which may prove unpopular. In that case, other precious metals, such as rhodium or palladium, are good candidates to name a medal after. Both of these metals can fetch prices comparable to that of gold, yet clearly, as you've never heard of them, they aren't as popular as these prices suggest they deserve to be. In addition to solving the hockey problem, popularizing one of these metals would be an added benefit. Having invented these two medal categories for the US and Canada, the remainder of the teams could then play for the gold, silver, and bronze, in something that actually resembles a true competition.

Are you listening IOC?

[1] It's not actually embarrassing that they're good. The embarrassment is the extent to which they trounce their competitors.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Mission Accomplished

Well, now that we've finally achieved that goal, can we start liking ourselves too, for reasons other than "free" health care, without being required to by the CRTC? That'd be nice.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Self-fullfilling Cryptography

One of the courses I'm teaching this term is cryptography, which is, roughly speaking, the study of sending secret messages. At first glance, one wouldn't expect that very much mathematics would be involved, but even the simple schemes that I found in my children's activity books when I was young can be phrased in mathematical terminology.

Conversely, at first glance, one wouldn't expect that the mathematics involved could ever be used for cryptography. The first time I learned about the relevant mathematics, I was not aware of its application to cryptography. It was merely presented to me, like most of the math I learned, as a series of interesting and confusing but mostly useless results. In fact, when I first saw this material, it seemed to be just about the most useless and abstract math I had ever learned.

The fact that it didn't appear to have any use was not a deterrent for me. I still wanted to study it. Yet I was often asking myself "So what? Who cares about greatest common divisors and all that, other than mathematicians?" So one of my motivations when I decided I wanted to teach this course was to learn about the different ways in which this seemingly useless mathematics could be used to solve so-called "real life" problems. So here I am, teaching cryptography.

Recently I handed out on assignment, which was due this past Wednesday. I took a cursory glance at one of the assignments that was handed in and noticed a strange solution to one of the questions. But as I looked more carefully, I saw that he had done everything right.

In preparing this assignment, there were some other questions for which I needed to encode substantially large pieces of text, so I wrote some short programs to assist me. After, I saw the student's strange but correctly obtained answer, I re-examined my code. It turns out I made two small errors. In one case, I misinterpreted a command, which almost did what I wanted it to, but in the reverse order that I needed it to. In the other case, I used the wrong scheme for representing text numerically. It's more natural to represent letters A,B,...,Z by the numbers 1,2,...,26, but in cryptography, we represent A,B,...,Z by the number 0,1,...,25. I used 24 to represent the letter X, according to the more natural scheme, when I should have used 23, as any good cryptographer would. The answer that the students would come to, after doing everything as I told them to, was

ihavf nui bffn sucyfxyaseull.

Kudos to you if you could have figured out what that's supposed to say. The message that they should have gotten, had I not made those errors, is
I have not been successful.

Indeed, I have not.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Buzz is Wearing Off

Well that didn't last long. In my previous post, I expressed my discomfort with Google's practice of automatically selecting my followers without my permission, thus allowing some people access to information about me that I would not like to share with those people. The simple fact that a person emails me a lot is not an indicator that I want them to know what I'm up to, if I actually decided that Buzz would be the conduit through which people find out what I'm up to, which I haven't and very likely won't. But regardless of the presumptuous practices of Google, I don't see Buzz catching on.

Perhaps gmail users who have been resistant to the pressures of joining Facebook will be tricked into using social media by the new Buzz. For those people, Buzz will be like those freebies they give out at Starbucks if you sit there long enough. Most people take the little sample of an item, but very few actually go and buy the item itself.

Non-gmail users who aren't using social media yet, but might, would be better off going to Facebook, which is open to gmail and non-gmail users alike and probably already has most of their friends on it, than starting up a gmail account and starting from scratch. Unlike regular gmail users, they wouldn't even have the benefit, if it can be called such, of an automatically generated list of followers and followees, since those lists are based on gmail activity, which would not yet exist in a new gmail account. On the other hand, if they want to, new users to Facebook can ask it to scour their email accounts (gmail or otherwise), for email contacts (gmail or otherwise) who are already on there.

And I doubt that many people will switch to Buzz from from its intended rivals, Twitter and Facebook. It offers fewer features than Facebook, and perhaps a few more than Twitter (which I don't use, so I don't know). Facebook users complain when the menu on the bottom right gets moved to the top left, so I doubt they'll be happy with a potential replacement that doesn't offer the menu at all. And Twitter, like blogging, is a very public thing, whereas email is private [1]. To use Buzz like Twitter, then, they would need to turn something private into something public. But why would they give up that privacy when they already have Twitter? Besides, if they really really want to use their gmail accounts for Facebook and/or Twitter, they can.

[1] I.e. although the email address might be public, if we assume that passwords have not been compromised, then only I can write to someone from my account, only they can read what I wrote to them, and vice versa.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Not what I think of when I say I'm into photography

Having discovered this site, I'm glad that I'm usually the one behind the camera. Furthermore, a greater amount of kicking and screaming will be involved in the future than there has been in the past if anybody in my family ever decides to have another family photo done. Actually, I might have some material the site could use....

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Buzz Cut

Yesterday, when I loaded gmail, it asked me whether or not I wanted to use their new "Buzz" service. It's their latest attempt to ride the social media wave [1], currently led by facebook and twitter. Not knowing what it was and being impatient to see if I had any new email, I clicked "no". When gmail loaded, I noticed that there was a link to "buzz" on the gmail menu, along with a coloured icon to distinguish it from the other links.

After reading my new emails, I clicked the link hoping to satisfy my curiosity and find out what this new "Buzz" thing was. Find out, I did not. I was brought to what I'm guessing is the main Buzz page, where I discovered that I was already "following" 13 people and 4 people were already "following" me, meaning, I guess, that I can find out what 13 people are doing with Buzz, and 4 people can find out what I'm doing on Buzz, if they're so inclined.

Obviously, I never chose either my followees or my followers. Google did that for me, based solely on the numbers of emails between me and other gmail users (non-gmail users are excluded, apparently). Presumptuous as it is, the fact that Google decided which people I would follow is not so worrisome for me (although it might be for those people, depending on their opinion of me). However, I wasn't comfortable at all knowing that people would have access to information about me, without having given them my permission. I looked around for a way to remove certain followers from my list, people with whom I prefer to share little or no information. I tried, right clicking, left clicking, mousing over, but nothing worked. I suspect, though I'm not sure, that the reason for this is that these people haven't started using Buzz yet, but when they do, they will be following me. So not only did I not choose these future followers, I didn't appear to have any way of preventing them from following me if they ever do get Buzzed.

This is just one privacy issue that I've found regarding people I actually know. Those more knowledgeable than I about privacy on the internet have found their own issues about privacy regarding what information Buzz makes available, by default, to the general public.

Facebook has its own privacy issues. But at least you make the decision to sign up for it yourself, rather than have Google sign you up for it without your asking (or rather, despite your declining the invitation), and you choose your friends rather than Google making them for you. Not only that, but, even though it takes a bit of work to find and wade through facebook's privacy settings, if you're willing to root around on the menus for a few seconds, you can find them. With Buzz, there isn't a link to settings, or even to the help section for that matter.

After a bit of googling (ha), though, I managed to find the Buzz help pages. It turns out that they're embedded into the gmail help pages. I did find instructions for removing or blocking followers, but after some unsuccessful attempts at using those instructions, I decided it was best to ditch Buzz altogether.

The instructions for that are simple, if not obvious. Just look for the "turn off buzz" link in the tiny letters at the bottom of the gmail page. They're effective too. I was successful on my first attempt.

[1] They have something called "Orkut" which is also considered social media, but nobody seems to know about it outside of Iran (Really. I don't remember how I heard about it the first time, but the only people I know of who use Orkut are from Iran, where it is, apparently quite popular. But it's no facebook).