Dec 142018
 

The news came a few days ago: Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig has been arrested in China, in apparent retaliation for the arrest of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

Michael WHAT, I asked? Kovrig? As in, K-O-V-R-I-G?

You see, Kovrig is not at all a common surname. And it so happens that my stepfather’s last name is Kovrig.

Not just that but… we know another Kovrig (no relation, none that we know anyway). My parents came to know this Kovrig as a result of a chance encounter, but ultimately, they helped him purchase an apartment in the same building where they live. So this Kovrig lives two floors above my Mom and my stepfather, in Budapest.

And Michael Kovrig, former Canadian diplomat, is his nephew.

A few years ago, I was about to be offered an opportunity to take part in a Chinese research effort. My participation would have involved access to data that Chinese authorities might have viewed as military secrets. I backed out for this very reason. The last thing I needed in my life was the possibility, however remote, that I would end up in Chinese custody, accused of espionage. Later, I was wondering if I simply made a fool of myself; Was there any real danger that I might get into trouble, or was I simply pretentious?

Kovrig’s arrest is a wake-up call. This time, lightning struck uncomfortably close. Much as I regret not taking part in that very interesting and promising piece of research (and it would have been an honor to be invited) I am glad I backed out.

I hope Kovrig is released soon. I hope his arrest helps others realize that beneath the spectacular economic growth and the undeniable successes, China is still fundamentally a communist police state, whose methods of choice are bullying and violence.

 Posted by at 5:07 pm
Dec 042018
 

Between the tragic, sudden loss of our cat Kifli and the unexpected arrival of our new cat Freddy, there is also our now oldest cat Rufus.

Rufus is a gentle giant. For a few days after Freddy’s arrival, he seemed a bit depressed, but I think he mostly got over it. (Just to be sure, we had his bloodwork done at the vet; there were no concerns.) Now that they’ve known each other for ten days or so, it seems that Freddy and Rufus are getting along quite well.

Incidentally, the shredded fabric that is seen in the lower left of this picture is fabric hanging from the edge of a sofa. A very comfortable piece of furniture, to be sure; sadly, also a cats’ favorite when it comes to regular claw maintenance.

 Posted by at 8:41 pm
Nov 292018
 

Supposedly, at one year and two months, a kittycat is fully grown.

But in case we mistook “fully grown” for “adult”, Freddy is here to remind us of our mistake.

I think this picture illustrates my point well. Although he isn’t actually misbehaving at the moment the picture was snapped, you can see it in his eyes. Something is about to happen. Soon, there will be a cat where no cat should be, or there will be things flying that were supposed to sit, undisturbed, on tables or shelves.

But this is why cats are so much fun.

 Posted by at 2:51 pm
Nov 232018
 

It all began with a short discussion after Kifli passed away. My wife was wondering if we’d ever find a pair of kittens like Kifli and Szürke.

On a whim, I decided to check out the Ottawa Humane Society’s adoption site. They have had littermates available for adoption in the past. Not this time, though.

However, I did stumble across a photo of Freddy, a 14-month old fawn tabby not unlike Kifli.

Silly, we said. You should not be thinking about adopting a cat less than 24 hours after you lost one, we said.

Nonetheless, we decided to check this cat out. And when he was out of his cage, first thing he did, he climbed onto my wife’s back, to perch there.

How can you say no to a cat like this?

So world, this is Freddy. Freddy, say hello to everyone. And we’re back to being a two-cat household. While we still grieve over the loss of Kifli, instead of crying, we smile as we endure this new cat’s antics, while he is discovering the house.

 Posted by at 7:44 pm
Nov 222018
 

About a week ago, our seventeen-and-a-half year old cat Kifli lost his appetite and started to have a bit of a diarrhea. Nothing too concerning, but we decided to take him to the vet come Monday.

Kifli in happier times sitting on top of a server he should not have been sitting on. May 2018.

By Monday morning, things were obviously more serious as Kifli stopped eating. He was still drinking though, so we were not too concerned. But an urgent visit to the vet was no longer merely optional. Still, our main concern at this time was to request the vet to clip Kifli’s claws, because he always managed to get them stuck in pieces of furniture (not to mention our own rather tender skin.)

But then, once the bloodwork came back on Tuesday, the vet told us that the symptoms were those of pancreatitis, quite possibly a result of lymphoma or some other form of cancer. The prognosis was poor.

An ultrasound exam was recommended. The ultrasound specialist was booked for Wednesday evening.

By Wednesday morning, Kifli was doing a lot worse, so I called the vet and took Kifli there in the morning, to make sure he is under proper medical care. He received some fluids. When I went to pick him up in the evening, his belly was shaved (for the ultrasound) and he was still very wobbly from the anesthesia. The vet, in fact, was concerned and recommended a stay at an overnight hospital nearby. However, when it became clear that the kitty may not live to see the morning, we opted to keep him home instead, closely monitoring him for signs of distress.

When we got home, Kifli was agitated. He released a few drops of urine. We presented him with a litterbox near his basket, but that was not good enough for him; though wobbly and groggy, he ambled and stumbled downstairs, to use the regular litterbox (more or less successfully.)

The night was uneventful. Kifli even seemed to recover a little. But in the morning, his condition was getting worse.

But then, a ray of hope! A cytology result arrived late in the morning, and it showed that the likely cause was a massive bacterial infection, not cancer. So suddenly, instead of planning for euthanasia, we were discussing a treatment plan with the vet. An aggressive plan involving multiple medications and a feeding tube (and no guarantee of success) but… well, a very thin, anemic ray of hope, but a ray of hope nonetheless. So I took Kifli to the vet again, to get him prepared for the mild anesthesia required to insert the feeding tube.

The call from the vet came much sooner than I expected. Not with good news. Kifli was collapsing. He already had a seizure, and he was now breathing pure oxygen, kept alive by a heated blanket as his heart rate and body temperature were dropping both. We knew what this meant. A final trip to the vet, from which we would come home with an empty cat carrier.

As we made our way through an unusually heavy traffic jam (a combination of afternoon traffic and a road closure), the vet called us again. “What would you like me to do in case Kifli goes into cardiac arrest?” His condition was that bad. I asked the vet to use her best medical judgment.

Kifli was barely alive when we got there, about ten minutes later. We had one final discussion with the vet and then agreed to the inevitable. My hand was on Kifli’s chest when he received the first injection. His little heart stopped instantly, without waiting for the second injection. It was truly his time.

What I feel right now is unbearable heartbreak, but I know that soon enough, I’ll be able to smile again as I recall his antics. He was… quite a cat, that’s all I can say.

Good-bye, Kifli. Jó éjszakát.

 Posted by at 4:06 pm
Nov 112018
 

One hundred years ago today, at 11 AM Paris time (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month), the War to End All Wars itself ended.

We know what happened in the century that followed. Communism. Fascism. Totalitarianism. Another World War. The Holocaust. Invasion and civil war in China. Nuclear bombs dropped in anger. The Cold War. Korea. Colonial and post-colonial wars like Vietnam.

Yet there is hope that we are becoming wiser. The world as a whole has been largely peaceful for 73 years. No more world wars, no more wars between major powers. Nuclear weapons, so far, proved to be peacemakers instead of annihilating civilization. More people live in peace, have their basic rights respected, have access to a basic education, safe drinking water, basic health care and sufficient nutrition than ever before.

But… When I was in my 20s, politicians in power were all leaders who have seen war. Leaders who were less interested in winning wars than in avoiding them. Put the likes of Kennedy or Khrushchev, Nixon or Brezhnev, even Stalin in a room, and while they might have disagreed on just about everything, they would have agreed on this one.

Not anymore. Our fearless leaders today have not experienced war. Therefore, they may no longer consider avoiding major war a supreme imperative. And when I listen to the rhetoric of Trump, Putin, even French President Macron when he speaks in favor of a joint European army, I realize that for these leaders, war is no longer something they fear, but rather, something they are confident they can win.

Which is why it is especially important to celebrate November 11, 1918, for what it really is: The end of a nightmare. A nightmare in which even the victors weren’t truly victorious, as they all lost a lot and gained very little. A nightmare that ended decades of peace and prosperity and plunged the world into decades of darkness. For the peace that followed was an uneasy one: instead of a safer world, communism was born and the seeds of fascism were sown in 1917-18.

 Posted by at 11:36 am
Nov 072018
 

It was a last minute decision, but my wife was once again accepted as an artisan vendor, featuring her beautiful knitted hats, mittens and other things, at the Glebe Community Center’s annual Christmas Craft & Artisan Fair. She attended this fair every year for more than twenty years. I hope she will do well again this year.

I also hope that the Glebe Community Center will forgive my little Photoshopping efforts here, as I decided to copy-and-paste one of Ildiko’s designs onto their card advertising the Fair.

 Posted by at 9:03 pm
Nov 072018
 

A little over two years ago, I made a decision to stick with Google-branded smartphones running unmodified versions of the Android operating system. I got fed up with brand-name phones that rarely, if ever, received even important security updates and were often hopelessly behind Google releases even when they were brand new on the market.

Our Nexus 6P phones served us well, but recently, first in mine then in my wife’s phone, the battery started to lose charge much too rapidly. This, apparently, is a known and common problem with these Huawei-made phones. Given that Google’s support for the Nexus 6P was coming to an end this month anyway, I decided to look for new phones. I was hoping to get another zero-dollar deal from Rogers, which is how we got those two 6P’s in the first place.

What a disappointment. Sure, the Rogers Web site does show certain phones available at a deep discount, even at $0. But they are available only with certain plans. And the cheapest such plan that I could find would increase our combined phone bill by a whopping $35 (plus tax) per month. No matter how I look at it it seems like a ripoff. Thanks but no thanks. I might as well just go out and buy a pair of unlocked phones, I figured, instead of signing up for these ridiculously expensive plans.

So I started looking, and soon enough my attention was focused on phones produced under Google’s Android One program. This program makes it possible for manufacturers to produce phones that run unmodified (or minimally modified) versions of Android, with the same monthly security updates and same system update schedule that Google-branded phones enjoy.

And that’s when I stumbled upon the Nokia 6.1, also known as Nokia 6 (2018), a supposedly entry-level phone at the ridiculously low price of 320 Canadian dollars.

Nokia, you ask? Indeed, the Nokia brand is still alive, or perhaps coming back to life is a better way to describe it. Microsoft purchased Nokia’s devices business years ago, but in 2016, it sold the Nokia-branded feature phone business back to a newly formed Finnish company founded by former Nokia folks. It is this company that has since created a range of beautiful, low-cost, entry-level smartphones.

Well, the phone may be entry level, but this particular model (TA-1068) still has an octacore processor, 4 GB of RAM, 64 GB of storage, not to mention that it’s an unlocked, dual-SIM phone (or alternatively, I can have an SD card in the second SIM slot.) And it still has features like a fingerprint reader and NFC, not to mention an FM radio. Solidly built, with an elegant design, it does not feel like a cheap phone at all, quite the contrary.

And so far, its battery life proved spectacular. Here is what it showed moments ago:

OK, it was a few hours less than 3 days, and spent mostly at home. But I use this phone a lot!

My only worry was that after a reliable series of monthly updates (which the phone dutifully downloaded after initial setup, necessitating several reboots) there was no October security update and October came to an end. I was guessing that it was because we were waiting for the Android 9 Pie update instead. My suspicion proved correct; the phone is downloading Android 9 right now.

This phone reminds me of my current travel laptop, which I purchased over three years ago I think. It was a kind of emergency purchase; my old laptop was “on the fritz”, and I did not want to spend a lot of money, so I ended up buying this lightweight ASUS laptop for just over 400 dollars. Best purchase ever! My previous laptops, always in the $2000+ price range, consistently proved disappointing. Not this one. Even three and a half years later, it remains snappy, eminently useful, capable of running even decent games on its dual core (four virtual cores) i3 CPU. It also has a touchscreen, handy at times, and something else that’s increasingly rare: plain VGA video output, which makes it much easier to use when I give a talk using older projection equipment. Once I realized how much better this laptop was compared to my expectations, I swapped out its 500 GB hard drive in favor of an SSD and that, of course, also significantly improved its performance. All in all, it does not feel “old” at all, quite the contrary, it is a decent, capable machine that is still a joy to use when I travel.

Of course in the smartphone era, we rely on our laptops less and less. With the ability to check my e-mail and social media accounts on the phone, I found that sometimes I would not even turn on my laptop for days while I am traveling, especially if I am not traveling on business.

 Posted by at 3:47 pm
Oct 282018
 

The other day, a conservative friend of mine sent me a link. It was to a paper purportedly demonstrating that conservatives were more ideologically diverse than their liberal counterparts.

I found this result surprising, rather striking to be honest, and contrary to my own experience.

The study, as it appears, has not been published yet but it is available in an online manuscript archive. It certainly appears thorough. So how could it come to its striking conclusions?

I think I figured out the answer when I looked at the appendices, which provide details on how the research was conducted. Here is a set of questions that were used in two of the four studies discussed in the paper:

  1. It is the responsibility of political leaders to promote programs that will help close the income gap between the rich and the poor.
  2. There is no “right way” to live life; instead, everyone must create a way to live which works best for them.
  3. Spending tax dollars on “abstinence education” rather than “sex education” is more effective in curbing teen pregnancy.
  4. The more money a person makes in America, the more taxes he/she should pay.
  5. The use of our military strength makes the United States a safer place to live.
  6. America would be a better place if people had stronger religious beliefs.
  7. The traditional (male/female) two-parent family provides the best environment of stability, discipline, responsibility and character.
  8. America’s domestic policy should do more to ensure that living and working conditions are equal for all groups of people.
  9. Flag burning should be illegal.
  10. Our society is set up so that people usually get what they deserve.
  11. Taxation should be used to fund social programs.
  12. Gay marriage threatens the sanctity of marriage.

When I look at this list, it is clear to me that questions 1, 2, 4, 8 and 11 are standard “liberal” pushbutton items, whereas the rest are “conservative” in nature.

But look more closely. Items 1, 2, 4, 8 and 11 are, insofar as liberal views are concerned, very mild and mainstream. Closing the income gap? Taxing income? (Not even a mention of progressive taxation.) Social programs? I know of no liberal who would disagree with these broad concepts. In fact, I can think of many conservatives who would readily subscribe at least to some of these ideas.

Now look at the conservative questionnaire items. Flag burning? A great many conservatives in the US believe firmly that this right is strongly protected by the First Amendment. Gay marriage? Sure, it’s an issue for some, but for many conservatives, it’s either something that they are neutral about (or may even support it) or often, it’s an issue that comes up more as a matter of states’ rights vs. the federal government, without a priori opposing the idea.

In short, when I looked closely I realized that whereas the “liberal” questions accurately reflect the liberal mainstream, the “conservative” questions are more representative of a liberal caricature of what conservatives are thought to be. By way of example, the “liberal” analog of some of these “conservative” questions would be something like, “Research that demonstrates differences on the basis of gender or race should be banned”, or some similar conservative caricature of liberal “identity politics” or “social justice warriors”.

The results, therefore, are not surprising after all. Since most liberals agree on mainstream liberal ideas, the liberal side comes across as ideologically monolithic; and since many conservatives take issue with narrowly defined, often religiously motivated line items, they come across as more diverse, more heterogeneous.

Ironically, then, the liberal bias of the researchers resulted in a paper that, contrary to their expectations, appeared to show that the conservative side is more ideologically tolerant than their liberal counterparts. In reality, though, I think the paper merely demonstrates the garbage-in-garbage-out principle that is so well known in computer science: when your research is flawed, your results will be just as flawed.

 Posted by at 5:11 pm
Oct 282018
 

Allow me to preface this post with the following: I despise Donald J. Trump, the infantile, narcissistic, racist, misogynist “leader of the free world” who is quite possibly a traitor and may never have become president without help from his Russian buddy Putin. Also, when it comes to matters that I consider important, I am a small-l liberal; I support, for instance, LGBTQ rights, the right to have an abortion, or the legalization of cannabis, to name a few examples. I celebrate the courage of #MeToo victims. I reject racism and misogyny in all forms, open or covert.

Yet I am appalled by some of the things that happened lately in academic circles, sadly justifying the use of the pejorative term “SJW” (social justice warrior) that is so popular on the political right. A few specific cases:

  1. Last month, the European nuclear research institution CERN held a workshop with the title, High Energy Physics and Gender. One of the speakers was the Italian physicist Alessandro Strumia. Strumia offered a semi-coherent presentation, whimsically titled Experimental test of a new global discrete symmetry. In it, Strumia argued that men are over-represented in physics because they perform better. In the presentation, he offered some genuine data, but he also offered what may be construed as a personal attack, in the form of a short list of three names: those of two women who were hired by Italy’s nuclear research institute INFN, along with Strumia’s, who was rejected despite his much higher citation count. Strumia’s research is questionable. His conclusions may be motivated by his bitterness over his personal failures. His approach may be indefensible. All of which would be justification to laugh at him during his presentation, to not accept his work for publication in the workshop proceedings, and perhaps to avoid inviting him in the future.

    But CERN went a lot further. They retroactively removed Strumia’s presentation altogether from the conference archive, and have since administratively sanctioned him, putting his future career as a physicist in question. When this response was questioned by some, there came the retroactive justification that his one slide containing the three names constitutes a “personal attack”, violating CERN policy.

    I don’t agree with Strumia. I don’t like him or respect his research. But I have to ask: If he is not allowed to offer his views at a conference dedicated to “high-energy physics and gender” without fear of severe repercussions, where can he?

    Now you might ask why he should be given a platform at all. Because this is (supposedly) science. And science thrives on criticism and controversial views. If we only permit views that preach to the choir, so to speak, science dies. I’d much rather risk getting offended by clowns like Strumia from time to time.

  2. Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, we learned of Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian, who prepared and submitted 20 completely bogus papers to reputably social science journals. Here are a few gems:
  • The paper titled Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity in Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon argues that dog parks are “rape-condoning” places of rampant “canine rape culture”. Accepted, published and recognized for excellence in the journal Gender, Place and Culture.
  • The paper, Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use argues that heterosexual men should practice anal self-penetration using sex toys in order to decrease transphobia and increase feminist values. Accepted and published in Sexuality & Culture.
  • The paper, An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant demonstrates how papers, even when they rely on made-up bogus data, are accepted when they problematize the attraction of heterosexual males to women. Accepted and published in Sex Roles.
  • The paper with the ominous title, Our Struggle is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism was accepted for publication in the journal Affilia, despite the fact that it is just a paraphrasing of Adolf Hitler’s opus Mein Kampf (My struggle), with feminist and grievance-related buzzwords replacing Nazi hate terms.
  1. How could such nonsensical papers be accepted for publication? Perhaps because life, in this case, imitates art: because of papers like those written by Rochelle Gutiérrez, who apparently believes that mathematics education as currently practiced is just a vehicle to spread white supremacism. In her paper, When Mathematics Teacher Educators Come Under Attack (published by the journal Mathematics Teacher Educator of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) she argues (citing her earlier work) that there exists “a direct link between White supremacist capitalist patriarchy and mathematics”. In an earlier paper, she introduces her invention, “Mathematx” (supposedly an ethnically neutral, LGBTQ-friendly alternative to the white supremacist term “mathematics”), with the intent to “underscore with examples from biology the potential limitations of current forms of mathematics for understanding/interacting with our world and the potential benefits of considering other-than-human persons as having different knowledges to contribute.” The reader might be forgiven if they thought that these were just further hoax papers by Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian, but nope; these papers are for real, penned by an author who plays an influential role in the shaping of mathematics education in the United States.
  2. Meanwhile, another paper has been “disappeared” in a manner not unlike how persons were “disappeared” in communist or fascist dictatorships. Theodore P. Hill’s paper, An Evolutionary Theory for the Variability Hypothesis, discusses the mathematical background of what has been known as the “greater male variability hypothesis”: an observation, dating back to Charles Darwin’s times, that across a multitude of species, males often show greater variability in many traits than females. (Simply put, this may mean that a given group of males may contain more idiots and more idiot savants than an equal size group of females.)

    Unlike Strumia, Hill does not appear to have a personal agenda. The stated goal of the paper was neither to promote nor to refute the idea but to see whether a simple mathematical basis might exist that explains it. After being rejected (even following initial acceptance) by other journals, it was finally published in the New York Journal of Mathematics, only to be taken down (its page number and identifier assigned to a completely different paper) three days later after the editors received a complaint and a threat of losing support.

    One of the justifications for this paper’s removal (and for these types of actions in general) is that such material may discourage young women from STEM fields. Apart from the intellectual dishonesty of removing an already published paper due to political pressure, I think this is also the ultimate form of covert sexism. The message to young women who are aspiring engineers and scientists is, “You, womenfolk, are too weak, too innocent to be able to think critically and reject ideological bias masquerading as science. So let us come and defend you, by ensuring that you are not exposed to vile ideas that your fragile little minds cannot handle.”

I call these incidents “irritants” when it comes to free speech.

On the one hand, publications dedicated to social science and education publish even the most outrageously bogus research so long as it kowtows to the prevailing sociopolitical agenda.

On the other hand, obscure research is thrust into the spotlight by intolerant “SJW”-s who seek to administratively suppress ideas that they find offensive. While this goal is technically accomplished (Strumia’s presentation and Hill’s paper were both successfully “unpublished”), in reality they achieve the exact opposite: they expose these authors to a much greater audience than they otherwise would have enjoyed. The message, meantime, to those they purportedly protect (e.g., women, minorities) is one of condescension: these groups apparently lack the ability to think critically and must be protected from harmful thoughts by their benevolent superiors.

Beyond all that, these actions also have negative consequences on academic life overall. In addition to suppressing controversial research, they may also lead to self-censorship. Indeed, I am left to wonder: Would I have the courage to write this blog entry if I myself had an academic career to worry about?

Last but not least, all this is oil on the fire. Those on the right, fans of Jordan Peterson and others, who are already convinced that the left is dominated by intolerant “SJW”-s, see their worst fears confirmed by these irritants, and thus their hostility increases towards the scientific establishment (including climate science, political economics, genuine social science research on refugees and migration, health, sexual education, etc.) with devastating consequences for all of us living on this planet.

If we truly believe in our small-l liberal values, it includes defending free speech even when it is vile speech. It also includes respecting others, including women and minorities, not misguidedly protecting them from hurtful ideas that they are supposedly too weak and fragile to handle. And it includes defending the freedom of scientific inquiry even if it is misused by self-absorbed losers. After all, if we can publish the nonsensical writings of Gutiérrez, surely the world won’t come to an end if Hill’s paper is published or if Strumia’s presentation remains available on the CERN workshop archive.

 Posted by at 5:09 pm
Oct 282018
 

I admit that until today, I have not even heard of gab.com. Or if I have, it escaped my attention.

Today, I visited the site, and I was taken aback by the amount of vile hate, white supremacist and anti-Semitic garbage, lunatic right-wing conspiracy theories, falsified history, and yes, even calls for violence.

Unfortunately, gab.com shares the fate of vixra.org, the uncensored/unmoderated alternative to the Internet physics manuscript archive arxiv.org: instead of a credible, balanced alternative, it became a fringe magnet.

That said, the imminent shutdown of gab.com is precisely the wrong response, for way too many reasons to count. First, free speech is worthless if we don’t tolerate speech that offends us. Second, it plays right into the hands of the lunatic right-wing fringe, confirming their worst conspiracy theories and affirming their views of leftist intolerance. Third, in the era of the Internet, it is really not possible to shut a site or a service down (witness sci-hub, by way of example.) At best, it’s a whack-a-mole game.

If we don’t stand up to support gab.com’s right to exist today, we give up a very important right. Those who think censorship is the answer will not stop here. Martin Niemöller’s poem (First they came…) applies. They will come for others, in the name of all that’s good and decent, until the only voices that remain are those bland, compliant ones that the powers-that-be consider acceptable.

 Posted by at 2:26 pm
Oct 252018
 

I just came across this picture of a newly built bicycle path in Hungary, complete with signs marking its beginning and end, as well as a stop sign instructing bicyclists coming off the path to yield to oncoming traffic:

I don’t think I can add any meaningful comments, other than perhaps that this bicycle path may yet find its way into the Guinness book of world records, albeit not necessarily for the right reasons.

 Posted by at 11:53 pm
Oct 182018
 

Just got back from The Perimeter Institute, where I spent three very short days.

I had good discussions with John Moffat. I again met Barak Shoshany, whom I first encountered on Quora. I attended two very interesting and informative seminar lectures by Emil Mottola on quantum anomalies and the conformal anomaly.

I also gave a brief talk about our research with Slava Turyshev on the Solar Gravitational Lens. I was asked to give an informal talk with no slides. It was a good challenge. I believe I was successful. My talk seemed well received. I was honored to have Neil Turok in the audience, who showed keen interest and asked several insightful questions.

 Posted by at 11:53 pm
Oct 022018
 

I just watched a news conference held by the University of Waterloo, on account of Donna Strickland being awarded the Nobel prize in physics.

This is terrific news for Canada, for the U. of Waterloo, and last but most certainly not least, for women in physics.

Heartfelt congratulations!

 Posted by at 7:49 pm
Sep 252018
 

Michael Atiyah, 89, is one of the greatest living mathematicians. Which is why the world pays attention when he claims to have solved what is perhaps the greatest outstanding problem in mathematics, the Riemann hypothesis.

Here is a simple sum: \(1+\frac{1}{2^2}+\frac{1}{3^2}+…\). It is actually convergent: The result is \(\pi^2/6\).

Other, similar sums also converge, so long as the exponent is greater than 1. In fact, we can define a function:

$$\begin{align*}\zeta(x)=\sum\limits_{i=1}^\infty\frac{1}{i^x}.\end{align*}$$

Where things get really interesting is when we extend the definition of this \(\zeta(x)\) to the entire complex plane. As it turns out, its analytic continuation is defined almost everywhere. And, it has a few zeros, i.e., values of \(x\) for which \(\zeta(x)=0\).

The so-called trivial zeros of \(\zeta(x)\) are the negative even integers: \(x=-2,-4,-6,…\). But the function also has infinitely many nontrivial zeros, where \(x\) is complex. And here is the thing: The real part of all known nontrivial zeros happens to be \(\frac{1}{2}\), the first one being at \(x=\frac{1}{2}+14.1347251417347i\). This, then, is the Riemann hypothesis: Namely that if \(x\) is a non-trivial zero of \(\zeta(x)\), then \(\Re(x)=\frac{1}{2}\). This hypothesis baffled mathematicians for the past 130 years, and now Atiyah claims to have solved it, accidentally (!), in a mere five pages. Unfortunately, verifying his proof is above my pay grade, as it references other concepts that I would have to learn first. But it is understandable why the mathematical community is skeptical (to say the least).

A slide from Atiyah’s talk on September 24, 2018.

What is not above my pay grade is analyzing Atiyah’s other claim: a purported mathematical definition of the fine structure constant \(\alpha\). The modern definition of \(\alpha\) relates this number to the electron charge \(e\): \(\alpha=e^2/4\pi\epsilon_0\hbar c\), where \(\epsilon_0\) is the electric permeability of the vacuum, \(\hbar\) is the reduced Planck constant and \(c\) is the speed of light. Back in the days of Arthur Eddington, it seemed that \(\alpha\sim 1/136\), which led Eddington himself onto a futile quest of numerology, trying to concoct a reason why \(136\) is a special number. Today, we know the value of \(\alpha\) a little better: \(\alpha^{-1}\simeq 137.0359992\).

Atiyah produced a long and somewhat rambling paper that fundamentally boils down to two equations. First, he defines a new mathematical constant, denoted by the Cyrillic letter \(\unicode{x427}\) (Che), which is related to the fine structure constant by the equation

$$\begin{align*}\alpha^{-1}=\frac{\pi\unicode{x427}}{\gamma},\tag{1.1*}\end{align*}$$

where \(\gamma=0.577…\) is the Euler–Mascheroni constant. Second, he offers a definition for \(\unicode{x427}\):

$$\begin{align*}\unicode{x427}=\frac{1}{2}\sum\limits_{j=1}^\infty 2^{-j}\left(1-\int_{1/j}^j\log_2 x~dx\right).\tag{7.1*}\end{align*}$$

(The equation numbers are Atiyah’s; I used a star to signify that I slightly simplified them.)

Atiyah claims that this sum is difficult to calculate and then goes into a long-winded and not very well explained derivation. But the sum is not difficult to calculate. In fact, I can calculate it with ease as the definite integral under the summation sign is trivial:

$$\begin{align*}\int_{1/j}^j\log_2 x~dx=\frac{(j^2+1)\log j-j^2+1}{j\log 2}.\end{align*}$$

After this, the sum rapidly converges, as this little bit of Maxima code demonstrates (NB: for \(j=1\) the integral is trivial as the integration limits collapse):

(%i1) assume(j>1);
(%o1)                               [j > 1]
(%i2) S:1/2*2^(-j)*(1-integrate(log(x)/log(2),x,1/j,j));
                                  log(j) + 1
                                  ---------- + j log(j) - j
                   (- j) - 1          j
(%o2)             2          (1 - -------------------------)
                                           log(2)
(%i3) float(sum(S,j,1,50));
(%o3)                         0.02944508691740671
(%i4) float(sum(S,j,1,100));
(%o4)                         0.02944508691730876
(%i5) float(sum(S,j,1,150));
(%o5)                         0.02944508691730876
(%i6) float(sum(S,j,1,100)*%pi/%gamma);
(%o6)                         0.1602598029967022

Unfortunately, this does not look like \(\alpha^{-1}=137.0359992\) at all. Not even remotely.

So we are all left to guess, sadly, what Atiyah was thinking when he offered this proposal.

We must also remember that \(\alpha\) is a so-called “running” constant, as its value depends on the energy of the interaction, though presumably, the constant in question here is \(\alpha\) in the infrared limit, i.e., at zero energy.

 Posted by at 12:27 pm
Sep 232018
 

It is not every day that you see devastation on this scale in our fine city:

That happens to be the Merivale electrical substation. What can I say… looks “previously owned, slightly used”. No wonder substantial chunks of the city are still without power, two days after the tornado hit.

 Posted by at 6:05 pm
Sep 202018
 

There is a white rabbit who set up residence near my wife’s allotment garden.

This is obviously not a wild animal. He may be okay for now, but for how long? How long before either a predator finishes it off, or bad weather sets in?

In short, I think it needs a home. I have no idea what to do with a rabbit and we have two cats already. But perhaps a good soul sees this post…

 Posted by at 12:29 am
Sep 192018
 

Outraged over ever increasing phone bills, today I decided to cancel our second landline.

We used to use this line a fair deal. It was, back in the days of dial-up modems, my phone line for incoming dial-up calls (e.g., when I was traveling) and also a means to maintain a backup, low-speed Internet connection. It was occasionally used by my wife, as it was the line to which a dual-mode Skype-and-landline phone was connected.

And, of course, it was used for that miracle of 20th century technology: facsimile transmissions.

Of course, this is 2018 now, and I have not used a dial-up data connection in at least a decade. No travel computer of mine had a modem, in fact, since the early 2000s. My old travel kit, containing various country-specific phone plugs, even a screwdriver and alligator clips, lies on a shelf, forgotten. And Skype? Microsoft betrayed many Skype users, myself included, when they irreversibly changed the Skype protocol, rendering old Skype-compatible hardware useless. Yes, I feel a bit bitter about it… I liked that Skype phone, I even fixed it once when its original microphone died and had to be replaced. Now it’s just another worthless piece of junk electronics. And once the Skype phone was no longer useful for, well, Skype, my wife also stopped using it as a landline phone, opting instead to use her mobile phone for local calls.

As for faxes… How quaint. Faxes. When was the last time you sent a fax? Or received one? I cannot remember.

To make a long story short, this second line has remained pretty much unused for the past year or two. Yet Bell kept ratcheting up the price. My most recent monthly phone bill for the two landlines reached $125, and that’s where I decided to draw the line. I called up Bell in the hope that they might have a decent offer for a long-time customer but no, nothing. In fact, it almost felt as if they wanted me to get rid of that second line. (Makes you wonder what the hell is going on there.) So… the second line has been terminated.

Well, supposedly anyway. It was at least six hours ago that Bell told me that the line would be deactivated within 15-120 minutes… but it still gives a dial tone, and I can still ring it. Go figure. I suspect the line will be dead tomorrow anyway.

 Posted by at 5:19 pm