Sep 242020
 

Reading about Trump’s refusal to commit to the peaceful transfer of power, I suddenly felt the urge to read up on the history of our Canadian provinces during the US Civil War.

As it turns out, Canadian provinces did well economically. And some of Canada’s enduring institutions, seemingly undemocratic yet serving as effective guarantees of political stability and safeguards against excessive partisanship, such as the appointed Senate, were born in the wake of the lessons of that conflict.

Even so, I worry about the future. US elections this November will be unlike any other in living memory, I fear.

 Posted by at 2:06 am
Sep 222020
 

My favorite Twitter accounts: @PossumEveryHour, @RaccoonEveryHr, @RatsEveryHour,@ekichoTAMA, @evilbmcats, @giantcat9. I also love the Facebook Bird Misidentification Page. I think I should limit my social media consumption to these groups. For mental health, you know.

 Posted by at 8:13 pm
Sep 122020
 

I have a travel radio.

It is a SONY ICF-SW1. It is an amazing little radio, probably the nicest radio ever made by anyone. It looks more like jewelry than a radio.

It is an immensely capable universal receiver, with continuous tuning in the AM band between 150 and 29995 kHz, and in the FM band between 76 and 108 MHz. About the only shortcoming that was mentioned by its critics is that it is a shame that such a radio does not offer the ability to selectively pick modulation schemes (e.g., narrowband FM, SSB).

I bought this radio maybe a quarter century ago, back in the 1990s. (So I guess it qualifies as an antique, despite the fact that there really are no comparable receivers out there that I know about.) I thought about buying one for quite some time but at first, I refrained as the radio was quite pricey. But one day, while waiting for my flight back home at Budapest Airport, I could not resist anymore: I saw the radio at the duty free shop and bought it.

Come to think of it, it must have been 1993 or earlier, because as I recall, the radio was already in my possession when I visited Beijing in the fall of ’93. As such, it began to show signs of age, its sound quality deteriorating because of aging electrolytic capacitors.

A few months ago, I purchased a capacitor kit off eBay, in the hope that I might be able to repair the radio. In fact, I began the repair job back in the summer, starting with taking the radio apart; not an easy task by itself, as it requires not just the removal of countless screws, not just carefully separating snap-together parts of the radio’s case without causing damage, but also desoldering several wires.

Back in the summer, I successfully replaced two capacitors but then I put the radio aside. It was hard work, and very easy to make irreversible mistakes working on submillimeter scale parts with a soldering iron. As I attempted to replace a third capacitor last night, I managed to rip up a small patch of the printed circuit board. I was able to repair the damage with a piece of wire, but this was the point when I said, enough is enough; “do no harm” should be my mantra, and I certainly do not wish to destroy this beautiful little device. So I decided to forego the rest, in the hope that the two largest capacitors that I replaced (the third was a backup capacitor for the microprocessor, to keep it powered while replacing batteries) would be sufficient. I did, however, replace the display backlight: the original backlight was a low-luminosity green LED, which I replaced with a modern, high-luminosity white LED that I received as part of the kit.

Putting everything back together was a challenge, too, and not just because the light didn’t work at first (bad soldering on my part). Ultimately I managed, though I ended up with four surplus screws with no place to go. (I think I know where they’re from, but they are redundant, and there’s no way I am going to take this radio apart again just to put those screws back in.) And much to my surprise, the radio works, and its sound quality indeed improved noticeably.

As I was studying the circuit diagram of the radio, I kept wondering what possessed SONY to produce a little marvel like this. This radio is insanely complex, with its multiple circuit boards in an absolutely tiny package. The number of distinct parts (each carefully labeled in the service manual with replacement order numbers) is astonishing. Was it a labor of love? Were they showing off? Probably both.

 Posted by at 12:20 pm
Sep 102020
 

We live in a blessed country. That doesn’t mean that it is a flawless country, not by any means. And we also have occasional cases of political corruption, such as when a leading politician uses his position for partisan advantage.

But…

Here is this news item from The Globe and Mail‘s evening e-mail newsletter that caught my attention:

Morneau breached election laws by using ministerial role to promote Liberal candidates, watchdog says

Commissioner of Canada Elections Yves Côté has found former finance minister Bill Morneau violated federal election laws ahead of the 2019 election by using his government role to promote Liberal candidates.

The decision points to two examples in which Morneau visited Ontario ridings in his capacity as Minister of Finance, but used each visit to promote the local Liberal candidate.

The report determined that the “known quantifiable costs” associated with these events have a commercial value of $1,661. That amount has since been paid back to the government.

So here we have, ladies and gentlemen, a national political scandal, Canada style: it cost Canadian taxpayers the princely sum of $1,661, which has since been paid back to the government.

No, there is no need to remind me that there other, (much) bigger scandals afoot, WE charity and other things, but I still find it encouraging that an ethics lapse amounting to $1,661 is sufficient to rise to the level of national scandal in this country. It reflects a certain degree of innocence that, I hope, will remain a characteristic of Canada for many years to come.

 Posted by at 5:41 pm
Sep 102020
 

In the last few days, I was:

  1. scolded in one Facebook group, when I commented on a post and made a mention of other personalities (who are not directly connected to the topic of the group), intended to serve as examples showing that the issue being discussed was a much broader one;
  2. had a repost of mine of a funny image to a humor group unceremoniously deleted, for supposedly reposting “ad nauseam” something that I have not yet seen in that group since I became a member a few months ago.

Yes, I know, discussion group moderation is a thankless task. Been there, done that.

But, as I often reminded all-powerful witches and wizards in our favorite MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) games, there is no point overdoing the policing. It sucks away the fun for everyone. By all means, step in and police blatant violations… but also be wise and know when it is more appropriate not to notice things, even when they technically qualify as infractions. The goal, simply put, is to make things fun for everyone, not to enforce rules at all costs. In short, rules exist for our convenience, not the other way around.

If only people were this conscientious when it comes to pandemic-related rules for social distancing and wearing masks… Rules that are there, you know, because they actually save lives?

Oh well. Done ranting for the day.

 Posted by at 1:13 pm
Sep 042020
 

This is intriguing. Thanks to a recently published study, we may now know better why COVID-19 wreaks havoc with the human body, and perhaps know a little better how best to treat the illness.

I am generally wary when it comes to research that relies heavily on computer codes. I have zero experience in medicine or molecular biology, but when it comes to physics, I’ve seen unjustified reliance on computer programs that were treated as opaque black boxes and which, when I looked at the source code closely, turned out to contain code that was not particularly well written, difficult to decipher, and obviously not subjected to proper quality control by experienced IT professionals. I have no reason to believe that the situation is any better in other fields, such as medicine.

But in this case, the mechanism that they are uncovering actually makes sense. The “bradykinin hypothesis” basically amounts to the discovery that COVID-19 messes with the very receptors that allow it to enter the body in the first place: it hypersensitizes these so-called ACE2 receptors, which in turn suppresses the breaking down of bradykinin, a chemical that regulates blood pressure. The resulting runaway buildup, the “bradykinin storm“, causes blood vessels to leak, the lungs to fill up with fluid (gel-like, to make things worse, and to make ventilators less effective) and even lead to neurological effects, in part because of a breakdown of the blood-brain barrier.

All this sounds quite horrible, and it is, but understanding it can also lead to better treatment. Medications to deal with a bradykinin storm are readily available. And something as mundane as Vitamin-D can be immensely helpful.

Related to this, I read also that COVID-19 can mess with the thyroid gland. This is of obvious concern to me, as I’ve been taking thyroid medication for hypothyroidism for decades. I was relieved to learn that a pre-existing thyroid condition does not seem to cause complications.

 Posted by at 11:40 pm
Sep 032020
 

Tonight, Slava Turyshev sent me a link to an article that was actually published three months ago on medium.com but until now, escaped our attention.

It is a very nice summary of the work that we have been doing on the Solar Gravitational Lens to date.

It really captures the essence of our work and the challenges that we have been looking at.

And there is so much more to do! Countless more things to tackle: image reconstruction of a moving target, imperfections of the solar gravitational field, precision of navigation… not to mention the simple, basic challenge of attempting a deep space mission to a distance four times greater than anything to date, lasting several decades.

Yes, it can be done. No it’s not easy. But it’s a worthy challenge.

 Posted by at 10:54 pm
Aug 302020
 

One thing follows another…

I’m listening to old MP3 files on my computer, one of which contains this once popular song by Paper Lace, The Night Chicago Died.

I once read that the band knew nothing about Chicago’s geography; I checked again on the Wikipedia page dedicated to this song.

The page mentions, among other things, how then Chicago mayor Daley hated the song. Daley? The same Daley who demolished Meigs Field airport, the island airport serving downtown Chicago that was the starting location of Microsoft Flight Simulator for many years?

Indeed. (Well, almost. There were two Daleys, father and son, Richard J and Richard M.) And Wikipedia tells me that the island has indeed since been turned into a park and nature preserve. But there are few pictures, so I figured I’d check it out using Google Maps.

So I typed Chicago into Google Maps and was greeted with this message in response:

I don’t know but this seems… a tad embarrassing isn’t it. Unless of course Chicago actually did die last night, and was promptly removed from Google Maps in response.

But no, Chicago is still there. The Google Maps thing was just a glitch. As is Northerly Island, which once hosted that ill-fated airport, its future as uncertain as it has always been in the past century or so.

 Posted by at 5:21 pm
Aug 292020
 

My mind just got blown.

The reason? Photographs like this one:

No, it’s not photoshop. Nor is it a movie prop.

Back in the 1950s, 1960s, early 1970s there really was regular bus service connecting the city of London, United Kingdom, with Calcutta (now Kolkata), India.

It really blew my mind. What a ride! Traveling through Belgium, West Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, West Pakistan (now Pakistan), and finally, India.

I think what really blew my mind was not that the roads were there. Of course. But that a bus, obviously from a Western capital, carrying unarmed passengers, could safely travel through this route. Sure, passengers needed a multitude of visas, even crossing the Iron Curtain (twice!) but nonetheless, the route had to be safe enough, roadside services had to be reliable enough, and the authorities along the route had to be trustworthy enough for a bus operator to be able to offer this regularly scheduled service.

Of course things didn’t stay that way. The India-Pakistan border has become less open each passing year. Afghanistan went to hell in a handbasket with the Soviet occupation, the Taliban, the American invasion in the wake of 9/11. Iran turned into a theocracy with the Islamic revolution. Yugoslavia went up in flames in a bloody civil war. Today, it would be quite impossible* to organize reliable bus service from London to Kolkata.

I cannot help but wonder what it must have been like, for a child in Kolkata, Kabul, Lahore or Tehran, looking at this bus and imagining that faraway, fabulous city of London. I used to feel that sense of awe a little when, as a child in behind-the-iron-curtain Budapest, I saw trains departing the railway station for faraway, magical places like Vienna or Paris; but those were a lot closer, a lot more accessible to us in Budapest than London must have been to a 6-year old on Kabul or Lahore in 1969.


*Or maybe not: Apparently there is an effort under way to establish a bus route, with a gigantic detour through Myanmar, Thailand, China and Russia. I wish them luck.

 Posted by at 1:34 am
Aug 252020
 

I keep reading about ancient Rome. Part of the reason, of course, is that every so often, looking in particular at American politics, I wonder if we are witnessing history repeating itself.

But there was a lot more to ancient Rome than politics and palace intrigue.

Take their roads. They knew how to build roads! Holy Roman macaroni, some of the roads built two thousands years ago are still in use!

I don’t know if Roman roads represented the first properly engineered road network in history, but they certainly were properly engineered.

And there were a lot of roads in ancient Rome. Apparently, they had some 80,000 km of paved roads, and several hundred thousand kilometers of additional roadways criss-crossing the realm.

An Internet data scientist and cartographer, Sasha Trubetskoy, created a fantastic map of the major Roman roadways in the style of modern subway maps.

It truly is amazing that two thousand years ago, it was possible to circumnavigate the Mediterranean via paved roads and regular service stations, making it possible for a determined traveler to travel several hundred kilometers in a day.

 Posted by at 4:15 pm
Aug 162020
 

Moments ago, as I was about to close Microsoft Visio after editing a drawing, I was confronted with the following question:

Do you want to save earth?

Needless to say, I felt morally obliged to click Save.

In case you are wondering, yes, the file was indeed named earth.vsdx.

 Posted by at 10:32 pm
Aug 132020
 

There is a new, popular meme on the Interwebs showing how supporters of the Republican Party twist and distort the political positions of Democrats. The meme is not wrong. In fact, on many of the issues it is spot on. Nonetheless, as a friend of mine to whom I forwarded it pointed out, it is rather one-sided.

My friend has a point. It is not a false equivalency. Positions that Republicans hold dear are distorted just as often by their political opponents. Here is my version of the original meme along with my attempt to create its “mirror universe” variant:

My point with this is not that one side is superior to the other. Not even that a moral equivalency exists between the two. It is simply to stress how badly American politics embraced the tactic of demonization and how, from either side’s perspective, their political opponents now represent a greater threat to life, liberty and the American way of life than Kim from North Korea, the ayatollahs of Iran, Daesh, Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China and the COVID-19 pandemic combined.

Which, of course, is nonsense. People can be patriots and hold different political opinions, both in the United States and elsewhere.

 Posted by at 12:50 pm
Aug 082020
 

A popular Internet meme these days is to present an arithmetic expression like, say, 6/3(4−2) and ask the poor souls who follow you to decide the right answer. Soon there will be two camps, each convinced that they know the truth and that the others are illiterate fools: According to one camp, the answer is 4, whereas the other camp will swear that it has to be 1.

In reality it is neither. Or both. Flip a coin, take your pick. There is no fundamental mathematical truth hidden here. It all boils down to human conventions. The standard convention is that multiplication and division have the same precedence and are evaluated from left to right: So 6/3×(4−2) is pretty unambiguous. But there is another, unwritten convention that when the multiplication sign is omitted, the implied multiplication is assumed to have a higher precedence.

Precisely because of these ambiguities, when you see actual professionals, mathematicians or physicists, write down an expression like this, they opt for clarity: they write, say, (6/3)(4−2) or 6/[3(4−2)] precisely so as to avoid any misunderstanding. Or better yet, they use proper math typesetting software such as LaTeX and write 2D formulas.

 Posted by at 5:46 pm
Aug 062020
 

I know, I know, the idea is far from original, and I feel compelled to apologize for turning tragedies into a form of dark humor but still, this calendar that I made last night accurately sums up how I feel about this glorious year of 2020:

And I didn’t even include everything (e.g., BLM protests and accompanying riots). But then, there are nearly five more months to go… plenty of time for more stuff to happen, even without aliens or killer asteroids. Or a massive second wave of COVID-19 infections.

Yes, let’s just say, I am mildly concerned.

 Posted by at 5:29 pm
Aug 052020
 

A tragedy took place in Beirut yesterday.

The actual power of the massive explosion is yet to be estimated accurately (probably not quite as large as the largest non-nuclear, accidental explosion that took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia 103 years ago though it comes close), but the images and videos are horrifying.

Reportedly, windows were shattered as far as 25 kilometers away from the epicenter.

The audio on one of the many videos showing the moment of the explosion accurately captures the event: “What the actual fuck?” asks a woman’s voice incredulously.

In light of the scope of the disaster, I expect that the final death toll will far exceed the 78 deceased that we know about for now.

It now appears that it was an industrial accident: welding work setting off a fire that in turn spread to a warehouse where thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate was stored.

Naturally, it didn’t prevent America’s “stable genius” from talking about an “attack”. When asked, he even referred to his “generals” who, according to him, told him that it was likely an attack.

I have no doubt that he made it all up on the spot. But his pronouncement had predictable consequences. It was like pouring oil on the fire, as it gave an excuse for every closet antisemite to come out and spread the conspiracy theory that it was an attack by Israel. Twitter accounts spreading this inflammatory nonsense include a Robert de Niro parody account; for a brief moment, I thought it was the real Robert de Niro, which would have been terribly disappointing.

Wildfires in Australia, locusts in Africa, a global pandemic, widespread racial riots in the United States, “murder hornets” spreading in North America… The Internet was already full of joke calendars for this year with disaster memes, as well as speculation that perhaps that infamous Mayan calendar was misinterpreted, as it referred to 2020, not 2012. In light of this catastrophe in Beirut, I am inclined to ask, what next? Alien invasion? The Yellowstone caldera? Global thermonuclear war? Giant asteroid impact? I won’t even try to guess, just note that we still have nearly five months left of this year.

 Posted by at 1:30 am
Aug 022020
 

For years now, Microsoft’s support site, answers.microsoft.com, has been annoying the hell out of me.

It’s not that they aren’t trying. Their intentions are, well… how does the saying go about the road to hell?

Take today, for instance, when Windows Update gave me an error message that I have never seen before: “We could not complete the install because an update service was shutting down”. What the bleep? Why causes this? How do I fix it?

A quick Google search led me to the aforementioned Microsoft support site. I was, of course, hoping to see a solution there.

A volunteer moderator offers a marginally useful reply: Check if the Windows Update service is set to automatic, and/or try to manually install the update in question.

An independent advisor asks what version of Windows caused the issue.

Another independent advisor, who sounds like a bot, advises several methods: 1) run the Windows Update troubleshooter, 2) download the latest service pack manually, 3) download the latest updates manually, 4) fix file corruption, or 5) in-place upgrade Windows from a DVD.

Needless to say, I wasn’t planning to run manual updates or reinstall Windows. I was simply hoping to see if perhaps there was an explanation of what might have caused this error and any specific recommendations, before taking the one obvious step that was not mentioned by any of the responders: open the Task Manager, click the Services tab, right-click the Windows Update service (wuauserv) and click Restart.

Why is it so hard to, you know, refrain from answering a question unless you actually know the bleeping answer?

Reminds me of why I never really liked unmoderated Usenet newsgroups. At least on answers.microsoft.com, you don’t get answers like “what kind of an idiot still uses Windows” or “you must be a fool, installing updates”.

 Posted by at 7:21 pm
Jul 312020
 

A few weeks ago, Christian Ready published a beautiful video on his YouTube channel, Launch Pad Astronomy. In this episode, he described in detail how the Solar Gravitational Lens (SGL) works, and also our efforts so far.

I like this video very much. Especially the part that begins at 10:28, where Christian describes how the SGL can be used for image acquisition. The entire video is well worth seeing, but this segment in particular does a better job than we were ever able to do with words alone, explaining how the Sun projects an image of a distant planet to a square kilometer sized area, and how this image is scanned, one imaginary pixel at a time, by measuring the brightness of the Einstein-ring around the Sun as seen from each pixel location.

We now understand this process well, but many more challenges remain. These include, in no particular order, deviations of the Sun from spherical symmetry, minor variations in the brightness of the solar corona, the relative motion of the observing probe, Sun, exosolar system and target planet therein, changing illumination of the target, rotation of the target, changing surface features (weather, perhaps vegetation) of the target, and the devil knows what else.

Even so, lately I have become reasonably confident, based on my own simulation work and our signal-to-noise estimates, as well as a deconvolution approach under development that takes some of the aforementioned issues into consideration, that a high-resolution image of a distant planet is, in fact, obtainable using the SGL.

A lot more work remains. The fun only just began. But I am immensely proud to be able to contribute to of this effort.

 Posted by at 7:41 pm