Time To Use Open Access Already

Plenty of high school discussions are easily forgotten, but I was just reminded of one from 2007. A bunch of us knew we would soon be taking science courses in university, but we were asking whether it was best to stay in the field or move onto something more applied. One thing I said was "I will keep doing research as long as I can put all my articles online for free." A friend of mine who has always been very well informed replied with "don't count on that." At the time, it was not clear whether a scientific career could reasonably follow that philosophy. But now I am thankful to say that it can. The friend I mentioned and I are both contributing papers to Open Access repositories and millions of people have joined this movement in recent years.

Last month, my campus had a symposium on some of the Open Access efforts happening in the surrounding area. I signed up as soon as I saw that it was kicking off with a documentary on Aaron Swartz. When people there heard that I was one of the school's physicists, they applauded us for being early adopters. This is a clear reference to the arXiv — the primary source for everyone in my field, which has turned publication into a pure formality. I cannot really imagine only learning what an author has been up to after peer review has finished. Another physics success story (ranked surprisingly highly for something I only learned about two years ago) is Living Reviews in Relativity.

But of course the talks did more than just suck up to these projects and bash Republicans. They taught me a few things about the journal ecosystem including areas where physics is no longer in the lead.

A Few Lifehacks

There might be other people like me who get nothing out of forecasted temperatures like 21°C, 28°C or 35°C. Do I look at weather often enough to know what 28°C feels like? Of course not. The temperatures I really want to see are relative ones: 2 degrees warmer than yesterday, 6 degrees colder than last Thursday and so on. The problem is that most weather sites blindly assume that future dates are the only interesting ones. They completely erase past dates that you could use for points of comparison. So I went looking for a site that "back-casted" and found Weather Underground. This is a site that I will return to because it has archives of temperatures for many locations. This got me thinking about other hackish things that I do. Maybe someone will find these useful.

Podcast Cameo

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.

2014 Cheekiness

Last year, I had two occassions to spend too much of the department's money within the same month. I would guess that the month was either March or April because I had just started playing 2048. And the 2048 craze happened after the Winter Olympics but before the World Cup. On that note I should pause to say that 2014 was a great year especially for a Canadian. I already can't wait until 2018.

A 2048 board showing the 4096 tile.

Anyway, the fun happened with prospective grad students who were considering UBC physics. During a visit like this, the department pays for a group of grad students to take the visitor out for lunch. With two of these emails that appeared, my reply was in the first batch.

Thank-You VLC

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!

Fun With Enforcers

I need to mention a fun thing that I did almost exactly when this site went offline. I signed up to volunteer in an RCMP training exercise scheduled for June 18, 2013. At the information session, the head of Risk Management UBC told us that one could either get up at 8am to play a regular hostage or get up at 6am to play a hostage wearing bullet hole makeup. I chose the former.

RCMP officers at UBC.

The RCMP officers tried to keep their techniques as secret as possible. I got this picture before the hostages went to their assigned buildings, but I didn't take any once I was inside. I don't think anyone else did either, for fear of being kicked out. The closest thing we have to a picture of the actual rescue comes from an article in The Ubyssey.

Things That Shouldn't Get Wet

A painting of Spider-Man that I made. I started thinking about memorable events from the last year and came up with a painting session that people had at my residence. Actually two of them. At the first one, I painted Spider-Man, but it took such a long time that I didn't get to put anything in the background. Because of this, I suggested another painting session to the soon-to-be Residence Association President as he was campaigning door-to-door. I'm pretty sure they would've held one anyway. At the second one, I completed the scene by painting some upside-down buildings. Both events had a great turnout... probably because of the ample supply of paint, canvases and wine. I only have a picture of Spider-Man, but it was great to see what pictures other people came up with. When some one was painting a landscape, I said it looked like something by the Group of Seven. This turned out to be true, since the guy said he had a painting by A. Y. Jackson in mind when he started it.

Back With A Vengeance

My site has been down since mid-2013 but I finally got it back up about a week ago. Much has happened in that time (such as starting a new degree) and I plan to post some random anecdotes from the past year as if the down-time never happened. If you are worried about the site going down again, don't be. I am now paying $10 per month to Linode which is very organized. To make a long story short, Justin Hayes stuck it out well all this time, but after high school, most people just have too much uncertainty in their lives to be reliable web hosts.

So I Felt Like Solving Zombie Dice

There is a party game called Zombie Dice where you roll dice and try to get as many points as you can without losing all of your health and dying. Green dice make points more likely than death, red dice make death more likely than points and yellow dice are neutral. I played it with some friends awhile ago and realized that it was probably simple enough for me to come up with the optimal strategy. Three of the dice from the game

Just about every game is solvable in principle, but it is very easy to make a game that would take longer than the age of the universe to solve. The prototypical solved game is tic-tac-toe. The prototypical game that is still a long way from being solved is chess. An xkcd comic lists a bunch of solved games so let's see how we can add Zombie Dice to this list.

This Clock Is Ghetto

Gaze upon my newest creation. This setup is probably the first of its kind. The black clock showing 2:17 is a digital alarm clock. It sits on top of a clear box holding a circuit board that I made. The white clock showing the wrong time is an analog alarm clock. I can confidently say that when the digital clock reaches the alarm setpoint, the mechanical bells on top of the analog clock will ring.

Front view of the setup with two alarm clocks wired together.
Even though I study theoretical physics I am very happy to be in the same department as people who are well versed in machining, robotics and other useful endeavours. There is something very satisfying about sitting down to make a device that serves a particular purpose and seeing it through to the end.

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