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You Have to Be Living on a Different Planet to be a Climate Change Denier

May 11, 2013

Oh the arrogance. “We should be able to do whatever we want to do.” “Freedom means free to change the world in any way we want.” “Scientists are just trying to scare us”. Well, now it’s official, the scientists who know about this stuff are scared. We have failed miserably at reduced emissions of carbon dioxide and related global warming gases. We are now seeing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that haven’t been seen in over 3 million years. And there is no sign that this is going to slow down any time soon.


The following charts were presented in the New York Times. Have we passed a point of no return? No one knows. Are we gambling with the future of the planet and our children and their children. Definitely.

The following chart (gained through ice samples I believe) shows the carbon dioxide concentration over the past few hundred years. It’s a band between 200 and 300 parts per million. In the past few decades we’ve broken out of that band with extremely fast growth.



This chart shows the steady increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 50 years. The really scary thing is that we don’t know how bad things will get at 400 parts per million and there are no policies in place to prevent these levels from going way, way higher in the future.




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Is Your Audience Looking? Audience Measurement Using Intel AIM Suite

May 10, 2013

On Friday May 10 at 4:10pm there will be a talk on measuring audiences for large digital displays.
The speaker is Dr. Abhishek Ranjan from Intel, and the talk will be held at the University of Toronto (MC 331).

Information dissemination using large digital displays and digital signage networks is getting increasingly popular. With such displays being ubiquitous, a question naturally arises: are people actually paying attention to the information being shown on those displays? Traditionally, finding an answer to this question has been a lengthy and onerous process including observational studies, interviews, and relevant data correlation. Recent advancements in Computer Vision and computing power of processors have made it possible not only to simplify and automate this process, but also to provide rich audience information that would have been unfeasible to gather using traditional means. In this presentation, I will talk about Intel AIM Suite, a Computer Vision based audience measurement system, and discuss some interesting implications of this novel audience measurement technology.

Speaker Bio:

Abhishek Ranjan is a Senior Software Engineer at Intel Corp. Prior to joining Intel, he was one of the lead engineers at a Toronto start-up CognoVision Solutions Inc (acquired by Intel). He holds a Ph.D. and M.S. in Computer Science from University of Toronto. His primary research interests lie in the fields of applied Computer Vision and intelligent interfaces. He has authored numerous papers in HCI and Computer Vision conferences and journals.
A campus map is shown below. The Mechanical Engineering building is marked as MC, near the corner of Kings College Road and College Street.

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Search Engine Optimization I: Introduction

April 13, 2013

“The Internet is not a thing, a place, a single technology, or a mode of governance. It is an agreement. ” – John Gage
You know, it wasn’t meant to be this way. When Vannevar Bush envisioned his version of the World Wide Web in the 1940s, it was called the Memex and it was a vast network with all kinds of paths running through it like trails in a park.

He even envisioned a new profession of trailmakers  who would make paths through the hypertext that everyone could use. Imagine a path, for instance, that linked all articles relating to Human Evolution in the Wikipedia into a nice linear story about issues relating to human evolution in a nice coherent sequence. Well, I think you know that trail making really hasn’t happened on a large scale. Perhaps it was never practical. There just weren’t enough reference librarians in the world to blaze all the trails that were needed, and neither browsers nor websites were designed with trail making in mind.

But the Web is awfully big….”The Web universe is constantly expanding, so its size is unknowable. In 2008 Google noted that it had identified (but not actually indexed) over a trillion (1012) distinct URLs (Web addresses), and that several billion (109) new webpages appear daily (Alpert & Hajaj, 2008). Estimates suggest that Google indexes about 40 billion webpages” (Fletcher, W. H. (2012). Corpus analysis of the world wide web. The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics.).

40 billion unique pages, 50 billion unique pages? It depends on how you count them. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked for a mismatched sock in a sock drawer, but finding just the right information amongst billions of Web pages should be a lot harder.
So how on earth can we use the Web effectively? You know the answer. It’s search. It used to be that search was for specially trained librarians who would use special knowledge and complicated Boolean search queries to find stuff. But something remarkable happened in the 1990s, Ordinary people learned to use search engines. And search engines, particularly Google, learned how to give people pretty good answers, even if people weren’t generating particularly good queries. So it was a matter of figuring out what people were actually searching for based on the the words that people put into in the query. And by giving lists of search results, even if the one at the top wasn’t a good guess, people could just scan down to find something like what they were looking for. Amazingly the system worked. Almost everyone could type words into a search engine text box and get back stuff that they find interesting. Unbelievable. If you’d gone to a conference on information retrieval in the 1980s and told them this was going to happen they would have thought you were high on paint thinner.


So there we were in the late 1990s, and people were happy using search engines to find stuff on the Internet. And people were also figuring out lots of neat new ways to make money off the World Wide Web. In retrospect, what happened next wasn’t so surprising, but I’d be lying if I said I had seen it coming.
The Age of Google! There, I said it. Forget about the Anthropocene, whoever owned search on the Internet had just got an amazing franchise. And Google took over search in what seemed like a blink of an eye. And suddenly it was like a vast turnstile that went “click” every time someone wanted to find something on the Web. And if you wanted people to find your stuff when they were looking for stuff, then you had to persuade Google to put your stuff as close to the top of their search engine results as you could. And Google would help you, for a price, and after a while other people too. And all at once the noble science of search engine optimization was born.


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Web 2.0 is Getting Whipped by the Big Five when it comes to Online Display Advertising

April 11, 2013


Who’s making money on the Internet? There are is a lot of Web 2.o publishing out there. Wouldn’t it be nice if the little guys were beating up on the big guys?

Internet Retailer ( recently cited a market research report finding that U.S. marketers spent around $15 billion on Internet display ads last year, an increase of over 20% from the previous year. With another 20% jump expected in online display ads in 2013, this form of advertising is rapidly becoming a big business. While there is as yet no dominant player in this market (remember that we are not include the search engine advertising monster here), Google was essentially tied with Facebook in the leadership position, each with an approximately 15 percent market share of the online display advertising pie.

The image below comes from
Yahoo! had a close to 10 percent market share (in third place) while fourth and fifth place went to Microsoft and AOL respectively (both with under 5 percent market share. These top five companies accounted for around half of the online display ad spending. Google’s market share was largely driven by YouTube, which had 163.2 million unique visitors in February, making it the fourth most-popular site on the web, according to Who know that storing and showing videos for free could be so lucrative?
As far as marketing goes it certainly helps to have a dominant platform. According to, YouTube’s closest online video platform, Hulu, has less than one tenth the number of unique visitors.
Bottom line? For all the excitement about Web 2.0, don’t expect to see a lot of little guys getting rich off online display advertising. The big five companies are sucking up half of the revenues and that seems unlikely to change in the next little while. Given the year on year 20% growth in online display ad spending that’s good news for Google et al.


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Magnus Carlsen: Chess Prodigy

April 8, 2013

At 22, Magnus Carlsen has been a recognized chess prodigy for a decade. He is reported to be earning over a million dollars a year. But he didn’t graduate from high school. He’s getting a different sort of education than most of us get.

He is the most highly rated chess player of all time. Higher than Kasparov at his peak. Chess is just as much about understanding the psychology of the opponent as it is about the pieces on the board.


Carlsen is from Norway, and he is the first Western chess player to have the number one rating since Bobby Fischer had it back in the 70s. Fischer was also a chess prodigy.
According to the New York Times (, Magnus Carlsen is being shrewdly marketed. Here he is at a 2011 fashion show with Liv Tyler.
We seem to live in a world where being really good at something opens the doors to everything. Where we care more about the opinions and actions of stars than we do about lesser beings like the rest of us.
Carlsen’s current rating is 2872. Viswanathan Anand, a Bollywood-level celebrity back home in India and the current world champion, has a rating of 2784. So it is not just Carlsen who is trading on his chess expertise.Carlsen will be challenging Anand in the next World Chess Championship, to be played in the fall. It should be a blockbuster. One wonders if there will be a movie in it.Carlsen says he turns down things he finds boring, but according to the New York Times article he seems to get a kick out of the group chess matches in which his nonexpert opponents sit in horseshoe-shaped configurations and he goes from board to board, beating them. At recruiting fairs, he has been pitted against crowds of law students applying for jobs.“At one event the company said that if anyone beat him, they’d get all their student loans paid for,” one observer said, “which was kind of sadistic.”

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Pregnant Royal Clotheshorse Still Looks Like a Thoroughbred

March 5, 2013

The Duchess of Cambridge is in the sixth month of her pregnancy, but you’d hardly know it from her recent outing (


Maybe the photographers chose just the right angles, but the royal bump was hardly to be seen.
Here’s a picture of her wearing a coat from last year.
And here’s the same coat worn on the recent trip. The big heels are still there and the tummy is not looking a lot bigger. But maybe she has more of a glow.
I’m not a big fan of royalty but I’m starting to think that I’ll have to make an exception for the Duchess. She certainly has a lovely smile.
And it seems that others have the Duchess bug far worse than I do. The last time the Duchess wore this coat it sold out within one hour on the Hobbs website. Let’s hope the royal bump gets a little bigger before the land of hope and former glory gets its new heir to the throne.



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Our Changing World: The Lost Art of Cooking from Scratch

March 5, 2013

When I was 15 my mother taught me to back a cake. And after that I was hooked.


I used to do quite a bit of baking. The peak of my baking career came when I made two large christmas cakes for a musical society’s Christmas party. They were pretty good if I do say so myself. I am probably still carrying some of the marzipan from them around my waist. And maybe there are not many people living and remembering the event to contradict my rose tinted view of those cakes at this point.

Over the years, my enthusiasm for baking waned, or maybe I just got busy, and by my thirties I was pretty much down to making chocolate chip cookies using a killer but easy recipe. Sadly I don’t think I even have it any more.

In addition to baking, I had to learn how to cook main courses after I left home on my 19th birthday. I learned how to make Inidian curries and a whole lot of other stuff. For me it was never about making fine cuisine, or something that looked good, but simply something that tasted ok and was recently healthy. I could never be a chef.

When I was young, people didn’t eat out a lot, at least not the sort of people I knew. And eating out in New Zealand in the 60s and 70s was generally not an exercise in fine dining. I remember going to a Chinese restaurant in Hamilton New Zealand once. They served a plate of bread and butter with the metal (no it wasn’t foccacia!) and when we asked for tea it was English tea, with milk, in a cup and saucer. Ah, the good old days!

These days, there is so much processed food and pre-cooked dinners. A lot of people seem to rely on the microwave for most of their cooking, when they are not using takeout or going to a restaurant. There are now websites devoted to cooking from scratch (e.g.,


I can remember when we used to cook from scratch. And there were even home economics classes in school. Yes, it was a bit sexist (the girls did Home Ec and the boys did metal working) but at least someone learned how to cook.

These days the hipster idea of cooking seems to be buying a store-made cupcake, dumping some frosting on it, making a smiley face with a chopstick, adding some sprinkles, and then taking a picture with the iPhone and uploading it onto the Facebook page for all one’s friends to comment on what an act of genius it is.

You know that something fundamental has changed when cooking from scratch is the exception rather than the rule. Even the language has changed. Now they are calling it “scratch cooking” (call in the language police!). Here is how Wiki answers defines scratch cooking (

‘from scratch’ cooking which means taking ingredients that aren’t previously prepared and adding them together to create a dish. For example, biscuits made from Bisquick are not from scratch but biscuits where I measured out the flour, baking powder, etc. are.

So there you have it. Now it is official. Cooking from scratch has now become a quaint curiosity with the new special moniker “scratch cooking”.
For all this convenience, is the world becoming a better place?
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The Jane Austen Society is Hooping it up for the Bicentennial of Pride and Prejudice

March 5, 2013

I’m not a coffee drinker, but I spend a surprising amount of time in meetings in coffee shops. And I’m not the only one. I was in a Starbucks in Toronto this morning and it was completely crowded. Some of them were students between lectures, but for the rest of them I have no idea why they were there on a Tuesday morning. We live in a wonderful world if large segments of people can sit around in coffee shops for long stretches of time don’t you think? Of course some of them were probably using the place as office space, but still, there is a lot of sitting around and drinking coffee going on.
As I was picking up my tea (I can never remember to say Venti instead of large) I noticed a poster on the wall about a Jane Austen Festival. A Jane Austen Festival! Visions of Brigid Jones and her diary came flooding back. Perhaps the next best thing for a reluctant bachelor after attending numerous showings of chick flicks would be to spend a weekend in Toronto in regency attire waiting to be mistaken for Mr. Darcy by some impressionable young woman lost in Ms. Austen’s confections.
Well fear not lonely Mr. Darcy’s your time has come! On the weekend of April 19-21 the recently formed Jane Austin Society ( will be holdinging a Jane Austen weekend in Toronto, and Regency attire is encouraged. Will a horde of cosplay enthusiasts from Harajuku show up to drive lovers of both anime and Jane Austen absolutely crazy?
And it’s not just the Toronto folks who should rejoice. Porter Airlines is assisting the Jane Austin deprived of Eastern North America with a seat sale, according to the Jane Austen Society website.
Of course prospective Mr. Darcy’s are more likely to sweep a Jane Austin heroine of her feet if they know how to dance regency style. Unfortunately the special introductory lessons was on February 18. Perhaps the Jane Austen society will offer further lessons if there is enough demand.
I’m a bit beyond my Mr. Darcy prime, but I’m wondering if I should attend as a portly vicar or something, just in case the girls from Harajuku show up and I can  watch the mashup of cultures.
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Remembering C. Everett Koop and his Campaign to Stub out Cigarettes

March 4, 2013

C. Everett Koop died last week at the age of 96. Here’s the summary from his Wikipedia page. (

Charles Everett Koop, MD (October 14, 1916 – February 25, 2013) was an American pediatric surgeon and public health administrator. He was a vice admiral in the Public Health Service Commissioned Corps,[1] and served as the 13thSurgeon General of the United States under President Ronald Reagan from 1982 to 1989.[3] According to the Associated Press, “Koop was the only surgeon general to become a household name”.

He worked tirelessly to turn the United States into a smoke-free society but at the time of his death about 20% of Americans are still smoking ( But that’s a lot better than half of the population smoking, which is how it used to be. Smoking continues to be the largest preventable health problem in most societies, including North America. It is estimated that cigarettes continue to kill more than 400,000 Americans a year, which is an amazing figure.
Here is an excerpt from a report that the Centers for Disease Control put out a few years ago. (

“During 2000–2004, smoking resulted in an estimated annual average of 269,655 deaths among males and 173,940 deaths among females in the United States (Table). The three leading specific causes of smoking-attributable death were lung cancer (128,922), ischemic heart disease (126,005), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (92,915). Among adults aged >35 years, 160,848 (41.0%) smoking- attributable deaths were caused by cancer, 128,497 (32.7%) by cardiovascular diseases, and 103,338 (26.3%) by respiratory diseases (excluding deaths from secondhand smoking and from residential fires). Smoking during pregnancy resulted in an estimated 776 infant deaths annually during 2000–2004. An estimated 49,400 lung cancer and heart disease deaths annu- ally were attributable to exposure to secondhand smoke. The average annual SAM estimates also included 736 deaths from smoking-attributable residential fires.”

The following photo is from a page of photos of kids smoking. (
In view of this public health disaster, it is difficult to understand why cigarettes continue to be sold legally. It is hard to imagine the totality of illegal drugs ever doing as much damage as is done by nicotine. And yet there is a war fought on every drug except nicotine. The stated goal is to prevent young people from smoking, but the tobacco industry knows that it has to get people while they were young. The teenage brain is low on executive functioning and impulse control and kids that age are hardly thinking about health problems that may hit them in their fifties or beyond. I remember a heavy smoking colleague that I knew in the 1980s and his argument was “I don’t want to die as a beautiful corpse”. But then I also remember Gerald Salton, a pioneer in the field of information retrieval, publicly regretting his smoking habit a few months before he died of smoking related causes.
Of course gaming (gambling) is another activity that is hard to justify from a public health perspective. There are many problem gamblers out there, and the idea of getting free money by chance doesn’t seem to go with ethical ideas of people getting what they deserve. Yet both smoking and gambling are tolerated and perhaps even encouraged because of the large sums of money that they bring to government coffers. With governments worldwide struggling to balance the books, taxes on cigarettes, alcohol, and gambling have become the lifeblood of many governments. Which is ironic. Governments use the profits from destroying lives to fund a system that is meant to be providing services to those same systems. It’s easy to see that this is a huge conflict of interest. We need stronger auditing of government that’s four sure. Auditing by electorate is not adequate. Can you imagine forensic accounting of large corporations being carried out by popular vote?
Let’s finish with a quick summary of Koop’s campaign against smoking (I’m grateful to his Wikipedia page for supplying the information). It can be argued that Koop did more than anyone else to lower smoking rates. That’s a little ironic because he was actually appointed as surgeon-general by President Reagan because of this anti-abortion views. Reagan and the other conservatives were expecting Koop to right damning reports about the medical consequences of abortion, but instead, as a good physician he went after what he saw as the bigger medical problem which was smoking. He was still very strongly opposed to abortion, but he saw it as a moral, rather than a medical problem. Koop was surgeon general for most of the 1980s (it was a time of big hair, as his photo above shows). Here’s an excerpt from his wikipedia page that summaries some of his key activity as surgeon general.
“In his 1988 Report of the Surgeon General, it was reported that nicotine has an addictiveness similar to that of heroin or cocaine. Koop’s report was somewhat unexpected, especially by those who expected him to maintain the status quo in regard to his office’s position on tobacco products. During his tenure, in 1984, Congress passed legislation providing for new, rotated health warning labels on cigarette packs and required advertising to include the labels. Those labels remain unchanged today. New labels containing graphic depictions of smoking-caused illness and death have been announced by the FDA, but are on hold pending the outcome of tobacco industry legal challenges. Koop issued a challenge to Americans in 1984 to “create a smoke-free society in the United States by the year 2000.” As Surgeon General, he released eight reports on the health consequences of tobacco use, including the first report on the health consequences of involuntary tobacco smoke exposure. During Koop’s tenure as Surgeon General, smoking rates in the United States declined significantly from 38% to 27%.
Will we see a smoke-free society any time soon? I don’t think so. There are too many people making large sums of money from cigarettes, and especially governments. Gold, diamonds, ivory, coffee, alcohol, gambling, nicotine, oil, they all generate far too much cash. They are strong temptations that distort the actions of people and governments. Often we know what should be done, but we fail to act because in doing so it would be necessary to oppose powerful interests. Paraphrasing from memory it was Oscar Wilde who said “I can resist anything except temptation”. And so it is with governments.
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Downton Abbey to get a Musical Guest, and my Brush with Wagner

March 3, 2013

I got to see half of Parsifal yesterday.


It was Wagner’s last opera. I guess it wasn’t the Ring Cycle that killed him. Apparently it is said to be the most spiritual of Wagner’s operas. It was a different take on the Holy Grail legend than the Monty Python movie. And these guys actually had the Grail, although they had foolishly lost the Holy Spear. I’m not sure if they still had the holy knife and fork from the last supper, but I hear that they still had the holey sieve (groan).


I had enough time for three hours of viewing, but it took six hours, complete with intermissions. The First act alone took close to two hours. So I had to leave early in the second act. Still, half of a spiritual Wagnerian loaf is better than none, and especially when it comes to a performance of that quality. It was a great production, staged at the Met in New York. But I was in Toronto and I was watching a Live at the Met performance. I hear that things really pick up in Act 2. I had to leave just after we saw the evil wizard scooping up a river of blood and pouring it over his head. You get the idea. And speaking of all the blood, I missed the part of Parsifal (Percival in English) surrounded by the pretty, but probably evil girls. You can tell the girls are evil because they have diaphanous clothing, really long hair and they are standing in blood. Plus they have really evil looks on their faces. I wonder if they had vampire fangs as well. At least the folks at the Met will have something to wear at Halloween.


The theatre had a huge screen and while there is nothing like being there, I really liked the live at the met experience. For someone like me, who doesn’t like to rattle his jewelry, the more down to earth Live at the Met experience is pretty good, and the viewing is a lot better than what you can see from the nose-bleed seats I can normally afford if I go to live opera. Am a fan of Live at the Met? Yes I am. I’ve never seen a Met performance before, but after seeing Parsifal yesterday I am hooked. I’ve seen opera in Helsinki, Vienna, Budapest and Toronto, but Parsifal was probably the most lavish performance I’ve yet seen. The Met is doing a great job with Wagner this year, with the Ring Cycle still to come. Unfortunately the Ring Cycle won’t be shown in HD (i.e., we won’t be able to see it on Live at the Met in Toronto). But don’t despair if you can’t go to the Met to see opera in person. There are still two more HD performances this season and they both look pretty interesting. One is Handel’s take on Julius Caesar, and the other is Francesca, which is a love triangle where the two lovers get killed. Sorry I spoiled the ending for you, but hey, it’s opera and people have to die. The full schedule is shown below.


But let’s get back to Downton Abbey. It seems that Dame Kiri Ti Kanawa, New Zealand’s greatest opera singer, who retired from opera in 2009, is looking for another gig. And maybe the folks at Downton Abbey were looking for a new twist to keep the show fresh. So voila, Dame Kiri shows up as a musical guest and performs a song on the show. I wonder if Dame Kiri will be singing something from a musical or broadway show (maybe comforting the kids in thunderstorm with “My Favorite Things”?).


And it is not just Dame Kiri freshening up the show ( ). “Other new actors joining the cast include veteran actress Harriet Walter, who recently played Brutus in an all-female production of Julius Caesar, and former EastEnders star and theatre actor Nigel Harmon.”

An all-female production of Julius Caesar? Women at a toga party? I doubt that George Frideric could Handel that (another groan). I hope that this doesn’t mean that Downton Abbey will be turning into a frat house next season. And if they do they definitely shouldn’t invite those evil girls from Parsifal to the parties or they might lose their holy spears.
High class opera, and high class soap opera. Will Dame Kiri be just the start of a new wave of aging opera stars adding soap opera appearances to their resumés?



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