There's a "podcast" I listen to called The Biggest Problem In The Universe which is full of useful information, in addition to politically incorrect humour. It is hosted by two satirists Maddox (George Ouzounian) and Dick Masterson (Dax Herrera) who bring in perceived problems with society and put them on a list. At the time of writing, the top problems are Slacktivism and the epidemic of FGM. The two things least likely to be considered a problem are Tesla Motors and Maddox himself.
Dick and Maddox regularly play voicemail from fans so I decided to contribute one three weeks ago. Just when I thought they had decided not to use it, I heard my own voice on the air when I listened to the end of episode 45. I left a voicemail mocking a self-righteous pansexual hoping that they would touch on this problem.
Something that caught me by surprise was the release of libbdplus which happened almost exactly one year ago. This filled a gap in the free software community that had been open since 2007 when the first BD+ discs came out.
The story here is that Bluray discs won the format war against HD-DVD because they don't just encrypt their files with AACS. They include a diabolical piece of self-modifying code called BD+ which gained an early reputation for thwarting decryption efforts. For many years, open source Bluray decryption tools only existed for discs that were BD+ free. Those cracking tougher nuts had to use MakeMKV and AnyDVD which kept the source code hidden thereby making important knowledge vulnerable to censorship.
In 2009, when I first heard about VideoLAN's plan to develop libbdplus, the lack of a git repository was suspicious. Why would a group known for prompt code releases in all of their other projects suddenly decide to develop one behind closed doors? Especially the most anticipated advancement since libdvdcss. Years went by and rumours of an imminent release became less frequent. Not only that, but other BD+ projects ceased development because they saw no need to duplicate effort. By 2013, I was not just accusing the developers of changing their minds, but causing outright damage to free software in the process. The end of December 2013, when they released libbdplus after all, was the time for me to take it all back. But hey, it's Christmas... a time to be pleasantly surprised!
Sorry that the site was down for over a month - my host was being bullied by his ISP. But now that the problem is over, I will make the post that I would've made at the end of March - about a protest that I tried to organize. Right now I am at the University of British Columbia and I live on campus in a residence called Marine Drive. I have quite enjoyed this place: the buildings are new, there aren't any first years around and for this particular building, I don't have to move out at the end of the year - I can keep staying as long as I keep paying. The rent includes all the necessities like a network connection which is very fast and has unlimited bandwidth (thanks to MAC address spoofing). So it would be a good idea for me to keep paying rent.
At the end of March, people in my residence and other residences put on a production of Rent. Close to the date of the performance, I was disappointed to see that the musical would in fact be the school edition. The program included the fine print: "With the permission of the Jonathan Larson Estate, this version of RENT has been adapted for use in schools and other producing organizations. While retaining the dramatic intent of this groundbreaking musical, minimal changes have been made to language and one song ["Contact"] has been deleted." They say that the changes are minimal. My ass. But the biggest lie they tell is that their censored musical retains the dramatic intent of the late Jonathan Larson. He died before the school edition existed and yet MTI presumes to know what his opinion of it would be. Did Larson just decide to put drug references in the script for the hell of it? Because he didn't think they were important to the show? I highly doubt it. You are either being true to an artist's vision or you're not.
It was frustrating to see that a university would be putting on this version of Rent even though it was designed for high schools. I think UBC should be more like Hollywood High School which performed the full version of Rent in 2010. The Wikipedia article says it was the first high school to do so - I am amazed it took this much time for one to act sensibly. However, I suspect that UBC's decision to use the school edition was made for financial reasons. It costs less to license the school edition - something else that bothers me because it has a chilling effect on the feasibility of performing the real show. I take some solace in the fact that the version performed was somewhere in between Rent: School Edition and Rent. The cast restored the swearing and other things, so I think they reverted the changes whenever it was easy to do so. The word "fuck" does not appear in the school edition but it was definitely in the play I saw. I was actually surprised to see that the full script only includes it six times because it seemed like I was hearing it a lot more. Anyway, everyone in the production was wonderful so this is not what I felt I had to do something about.
What's a fun thing to do when you learn a less than intuitive concept? Searching the web to find another person's opinion of it! I recently learned about Grassman numbers and my search turned up a blog post by a professor named Luboš Motl who makes some pretty debatable claims. After reading the post, I found out that he is actually quite famous. So yes, he probably knows much more than me about the subject, but I must still object to how complacent he is with using an object and not defining it.
There are plenty of cases where a proof written down by a physicist is worse than a proof written down by a mathematician, but this is a particularly bad one. In one of my courses, we got to derive the Dirac matrices, which are instrumental in describing spin 1/2 particles. These four matrices are written as with an index. One definition of them says that they should satisfy the anti-commutation relations of the Clifford algebra:
where is the Minkowski metric from special relativity.
How big do our matrices have to be in order to satisfy this? They obviously cannot be 1x1 matrices because these are just numbers that commute. It turns out that they have to be at least 4x4 but all published sources I have seen fail at explaining why. I will go through the physics proof that is often given and then set the record straight by writing a real proof. If it appears nowhere else, let it appear here!
Normally when I see an article about numerology, astrology or homoeopathy, I don't give it the time of day. But this one is interesting because it sounds like the author actually made an honest effort to read up on the science related to the fine structure constant and just got it horribly wrong.
The article is The Mystery of 137 and it lives on a site dedicated to the new age philosopher Ken Wilber. Who would've guessed that a site like that would actually have a correct equation that comes up all the time in quantum electrodynamics?
I'm finding it hard to believe that it has already been three weeks since I graduated from Queen's. My favourite part of the ceremony by far, was the speech by Emeritus Professor of physics, William McLatchie. This is not just because he mentioned a former student of his, Ted Hsu, the only politician who has ever made me feel thrilled about voting. His speech was unconventional by many standards.
First off, I would expect many graduation speeches to be congratulatory in nature. His was far from it - in fact he said that "mathematics acts as a diode." A much debated claim is that it is easier for the mathematically inclined to follow non-mathematical pursuits than it is for others to do the reverse. But his point was that PhDs who spend their days filling chalk boards with Greek letters - despite their desire to treat non-academics as equals - are regarded by the public as an out-of-touch, nerdy elite. The number of graduands who were on the path to receive a PhD in a quantitative science was rather high, so he felt compelled to tell us what may be a sad truth - that the degrees we would be getting would stigmatize us for the rest of our lives.
Maybe when I have a PhD, no one will want to believe the things I blog about. They might think I'm corrupt enough to put my research before the good of the world. When I try to defend my arguments, they might accuse me of using my academic super-powers to confuse and intimidate. Before that happens, there's something very important that I should mention to you. Even though I am known as quite a stubborn person, I can think of three major topics about which science has convinced me to change my mind:
I want to talk about the last one.