Sep 162023

My friend John Moffat has a finite quantum field theory that, I think, deserves more attention than it gets.

The theory is nonlocal (then again, so is quantum physics to begin with). However, it does not violate causality. So its nonlocality is a mathematical curiosity, not a physical impossibility.

The essence of the theory is present in the form of its “nonlocal field operator”. Given, e.g., a scalar field in the form \(\phi(x),\) the field is transformed as

$$\tilde\phi(x)=\int d^4x’f(x-x’)\phi(x’).$$

Now if we just used the Dirac delta-function \(f(x-x’)=\delta^4(x-x’),\) we’d get back \(\phi(x).\) But what if we use some other function, the only restriction being that \(f(x)\) must be an entire function, which is to say, unambiguously defined without poles or singularities over the entire complex plane?

Well, then, assuming again that \(f(x)\) is an entire function, we can integrate iteratively in parts, until we arrive at an expression in the form,

$$\tilde\phi(x)={\cal F}(\partial_x)\phi(x),$$

where \({\cal F}(\partial_x)\) is a derivative operator, typically some power series in the form \(\lambda_i\partial_x^i\), acting on \(\phi(x).\)

Why is this good for us? Because this field redefinition can suppress high-energy divergences in the theory, essentially doing away with the need for renormalization, which, of course, is a Big Claim indeed but I think John’s theory works.

John’s first substantive papers on this topic were titled Finite quantum field theory based on superspin fields (J. W. Moffat, Phys. Rev. D 39, 12 (1989)) and Finite nonlocal gauge field theory (J. W. Moffat, Phys. Rev. D 41, 4 (1990)). Unfortunately these papers predate so only the paywalled versions are available. They are beautiful papers that deserve more recognition. More recently, John wrote another paper on the subject, collaborating with a student. One of these days, I’m hoping to spend some time myself working a bit on John’s theory because I believe it has merit: The theory appears to remain causal despite the nonlocal operator, and by doing away with the need for renormalization, it makes canonical quantization almost trivially possible. I keep wondering if there is, perhaps, a catch after all, but if that’s the case, I have yet to find it.

 Posted by at 1:37 pm
Sep 122023

Yes, that’s me. At least according to The Political Compass.

It does not surprise me much, mind you. While I am not a wild-eyed, “woke”, progressive “social justice warrior” (in fact, I am increasingly a deeply fed up with the “woke” lot), many of my views tend to align broadly with the traditional left. I also reject authoritarianism in all forms, and while I don’t endorse unconstrained freedom (e.g., in the economy), I largely view constraints as a necessary evil, not as a universal solution.

And, of course, I absolutely, strongly, vehemently reject any and all forms of personality cults.

So here, then, is my question: Given the direction our societies are heading, will there be room for left-wing libertarians like me in the future? Authoritarianism seems to be so much in vogue these days, be it the culture of intolerance in the name of tolerance as practiced by the woke left, or the more traditional authoritarianism of the nationalist right. The common theme that unites them is their rejection of liberal democracy’s core systems of institutions.

To offer an idea of what the four quadrants represent: Left-wing authoritarians (red, upper left) include Stalin and Mao. Joe Biden and Donald Trump both qualify as right-wing authoritarians (blue, upper right) according to the Compass, though I am sure not nearly as extreme as Pinochet or Mussolini, also in the same quadrant. Hegel or Ayn Rand along with von Mises are right-wing libertarians (purple, lower right). The green quadrant (lower left), where I found myself, apparently includes Gandhi, Mandela and Noam Chomsky. Urgh. I so disagree with Chomsky on many things. Oh well, these are big quadrants.

 Posted by at 11:11 pm
Sep 122023

In his “1984”, Eric Arthur Blair, better known under the pen name George Orwell, at one point has the protagonists reading a book about the history of oligarchical collectivism, the dominant ideology of the totalitarian “IngSoc” regime of Oceania. They read,

Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low […] The aims of these three groups are entirely irreconcilable. The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. […] For long periods the High seem to be securely in power, but sooner or later there always comes a moment when they lose either their belief in themselves or their capacity to govern efficiently, or both. They are then overthrown by the Middle, who enlist the Low on their side by pretending to them that they are fighting for liberty and justice. As soon as they have reached their objective, the Middle thrust the Low back into their old position of servitude, and themselves become the High.

So here is the thing: Liberal democracy is an aberration. An outlier. A period in history with no real “High”. We have no emperors, Kaisers, Caesars or Sultans. Monarchs, maybe, but mere figureheads in constitutional monarchies, not tyrants. In places like Canada, the United States, Western Europe and many other parts of the world, only the Middle and the Low exist. To be sure, the Middle can still be pretty darn powerful: political dynasties, tycoons and captains of industry, even public figures like media personalities wield substantial power. But their might is constrained by the system of institutions that we call liberal democracy: rule of law, freedom of enterprise, freedom of conscience, civil liberties or the separation of powers among them.

But this is not good enough, just not good enough for many among the elites of the Middle. They want more. Always more. And they fight. Throughout much of history, their enemy was the High. But in a liberal democracy, it is now the system of institutions that they fight against. Yet the tactics are the same. They enlist the Low. Don’t trust the system, they tell the Low. Elections are fake. Judges are corrupt or biased. Government lies to you. The rule of law is “weaponized”, they assert. Whatever it takes… but the real objective is to abolish the very constraints that prevent the Middle from becoming the new High.

And they are succeeding. Just look at the range of countries that are now on lists characterizing their retreat from democracy. Look at all the populists who are systematically undermining key pillars of liberal democracy, such as freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, even the electoral process. Will they succeed? I’d argue that they already succeeded in a number of countries and they are well on their way to success in many other places.

Liberal democracy, after all, is not a normal state of affairs for humanity. It’s an exception. It is no accident that some of the greatest 20th century writers of science-fiction, such as Isaac Asimov or Frank Herbert, did not envision a democratic future. Asimov’s future in Foundation was a monolithic Galactic Empire that persisted for well over 10,000 years. Herbert’s Dune similarly envisioned a feudal society.

And if history is any guide, when the would-be tyrants succeed, they all too often will continue to maintain a semblance of democracy. After all, for centuries following the demise of the Roman Republic, emperors continued to issue decrees and coins bearing the acronym SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, falsely suggesting that Rome is still governed by a Senate that answers to the people, not by an all-powerful emperor. But this is just a cheap conjurer’s trick to assure the masses, the Low: All that is being done is done for them, and in their name.

Here’s My Brightest Diamond, singing about High Low Middle. Not sure if they were inspired by Orwell, but it’s strangely appropriate.

 Posted by at 3:58 am
Sep 122023

I gave a talk on the Solar Gravitational Lens in Montreal back in July, using the above title.

Video of the talk is now available online, courtesy of the Interstellar Research Group.

I just listened to it myself and I didn’t cringe too much hearing my own voice or watching myself, which is probably a good sign?

 Posted by at 12:31 am
Sep 052023

It is unfair! How dare social media companies and search engines profit from taking Canadian news content!

Fear no more: Bill C-18 is enacted and from now on, these evildoers will be mandated to pay for any news content they republish.

Oops, but there’s a fly in the proverbial ointment. It appears nobody asked the simplest of questions: What if they don’t?

Not “what if they don’t pay” but rather, “what if they don’t republish?”

This is capitalism after all. These companies are free to choose what purchases they make, what services they buy. Or, as the case might be, what services they opt not to buy.

“Unfair!” came the outcry. “A disaster for Canadian news providers!” Or even, “Irresponsible!” during some natural disaster or other emergency.

Wait. I thought what social media companies were doing was, ahem, bad for you? So you wanted them to either cease and desist or pay up?

Now you are telling me that all along, you were benefiting from social media and the traffic they directed to your content sites, and you don’t want to lose this?

Oh, but you also wanted some extra dough. Well, guess what. As the old proverb goes, he who chases two rabbits catches none.

To be clear, I don’t like Facebook/Meta. I am only marginally more fond of Google. But stupid is stupid, and Bill C-18 is the perfect legislative example of shooting oneself in the foot.

I find it mildly annoying that Facebook rejects posts that contain direct news media links but it doesn’t bother me much. And if Canadian news organizations want a better deal, perhaps they can ask the government to get rid of this stupid legislation first instead of doubling down, compounding stupidity with more stupidity.

 Posted by at 12:21 pm
Aug 262023

Welcome to Ottawa, Canada’s beautiful capital, home of…

… the homeless? Drug addicts? Record numbers of overdose victims? A rising threat of violence?

I should be grateful to Radio Canada for this almost 12-minute report, and I am. But the situation they depict (right on our doorstep, I should add, as we live right here in Ottawa Lowertown, thankfully to the east of King Edward Avenue, so we are not quite that badly affected, but still) makes me boil with anger.

Why? Because it is in large part a solvable problem.

Homelessness is manifestly solvable. Yes, it’d cost money, but how can I put it? A permanent solution would cost only a fraction of our botched LRT. Make affordable housing available to anyone for the asking. It need not be great accommodations, but functional and of acceptable quality. To follow the example set by Vienna a century ago, the accommodations should be good enough for many to decide to stay there for good, and nobody should be kicked out either.

Drug use and mental health problems require another old-fashioned solution: institutionalization. No, I don’t mean Dickensian insane asylums. We’re better than that. But we must recognize that there exists a small percentage among the homeless whose mental health is such that they are incapable of independent living. Institutionalizing such people is not a crime; rather, it’s the failure to provide the support and care they require that is criminal.

Unfortunately, I see no real desire to address these problems. Instead, we have this situation, getting worse with each and every passing day, within a stone’s throw of Canada’s Parliament, within a stone’s throw of venerable institutions like the Chateau Laurier… And we’re letting it happen. I find this incomprehensible.

But don’t you worry, the city has money to spend on messing up yet another street (this time, it’s Bank Street) with bike lanes that almost nobody uses, suffocating the remaining local brick-and-mortar businesses by eliminating the few on-street parking spots on which they rely for their clientele…

 Posted by at 12:36 am
Aug 252023

Susie King Taylor, née Baker, was a black teacher and nurse, literate, famous among other things for teaching former slaves to read and write. And now a square is named after her in Savannah, Georgia.

I know about Susie King Taylor from this evening’s AP newsletter. However, without clicking on the link to read the full release, I would not have learned her name.

And this, frankly, ticks me off. This is how progressivism works nowadays. Her identity is secondary to her race. Oh, but we are ever so careful to defy commonsense rules of grammar and capitalize the word “Black”!

When virtue signaling becomes more important than respect, when emphasizing race becomes more important than working towards a post-racial society in which we are judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character… How would I even know the content of Susie King Taylor’s character if her name is actually omitted from the shortened press release that appeared in the newsletter?

The elegant lady in this picture is not “a Black woman”. She has a name. Her name is Susie King Taylor, née Baker. Her identity is not defined by the pigmentation of her skin anymore than by the color of her hair or her eyes. It is defined by what she did. That is, if we respect her as a person, as a human being, as opposed to using her memory as a mere prop in the culture wars.

 Posted by at 6:18 pm
Aug 252023

Last night, much of the world even outside the great United States was consumed by a mugshot of an angry, defiant, entitled man, in his seventies, elegantly dressed with his thinning blond hair in a combover.

Meh. You call that a mugshot?

[In my best Crocodile Dundee impersonation] THIS is a mugshot!

A lot more pleasant to look at, too, if you ask me.

 Posted by at 4:49 pm
Aug 242023

This is OC Transpo’s soon-to-expire summer schedule brochure for 2023. It has a graphic that I find… puzzling?

What is it supposed to represent? Let’s start from the top, clockwise: A firetruck, a walker, a life preserver, an app screenshot with a Pause button, a reindeer and a roll of toilet paper.

What is it supposed to mean? That if you ride OC Transpo, you may end up in an accident, spend the rest of your life depending on a walker, may need a life preserver to survive, even as the service is paused for yet another technical glitch with the LRT, so you end up riding a reindeer instead, and if you don’t like it, you can go shit yourself?

Fitting, I’d say.

PS: For the pedants out there, yes, I do recognize that the “firetruck” is supposed to be a bus and the “life preserver” is just the O-train emblem. Not sure about the rest of the symbols, though.

 Posted by at 4:57 pm
Aug 242023

Whatever you think of The Rolling Stones, announcing their new album this way is… classy.

What is less classy is that I could not share the original link on Facebook because “news” cannot be shared on Facebook in Canada anymore. What can I say? Idiotic laws deserve idiotic reactions. And I say this despite the fact that I am not particularly fond of Meta/Facebook these days (to say the least) and I am not particularly antagonistic towards Trudeau’s Liberals either. Still, stupid breeds stupid.

 Posted by at 1:47 am
Aug 232023

Chandrayaan-3 landed safely on the Moon, cementing India’s position as a space superpower.

What can I say? Congratulations! Not sure who the gentleman is in this image that I saw on Twitter, but he certainly looks happy.

 Posted by at 12:48 pm
Aug 212023

Russia’s first probe to the Moon in nearly half a century, Luna-25, has crashed.

It would be easy to react to the news with glee, with schadenfreude. We are, after all, talking about a crash that denied a propaganda opportunity to Putin’s Evil Empire (maybe not quite as evil as Stalin’s regime but more evil, to be sure, than the USSR ever was in my lifetime).

But space exploration transcends, always transcended, national boundaries. Our petty squabbles look pretty… well, petty from the Moon. Chances are, if human beings are still around with an advanced technical civilization a millennium from now (or, if our machine descendants are still around) they’re far more likely to remember Armstrong’s first step on the Moon than Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the Cold War, or even WW2.

So this crash is sad news, Putin or no Putin. I hope India’s probe, Chandrayaan-3, is more successful. Fingers crossed. Things are looking good for now but it has yet to accomplish a tricky landing.

 Posted by at 11:57 pm
Aug 202023

Even before I began watching the penultimate episode of the current season of Star Trek: Strange New Worlds, I already considered this series, more than any other “Trek”, a true successor of TOS, The Original Series (or Those Old Scientists, the in-universe meaning of the acronym as revealed in the Lower Decks crossover episode.)

Then came this. A musical.

A bleeping musical! That they had the guts!

And they pulled it off. They actually pulled it off, without turning it into a farce, a ridiculous caricature.

In fact, the episode was actually… good.

Yes, perhaps it was unnecessary. One critic even called it “vapid” I think, though I certainly don’t think that’s accurate. Silly? Yes, but think The Trouble with Tribbles. Or even The Squire of Gothos. Silly is permissible in Star Trek. It doesn’t have to be all-serious, all the time. Not everything that happens in space on a 23rd century starship is about the future of humanity if not all life in the galaxy. Sometimes it’s about just… singing. (Or saving the galaxy from a subspace improbability quantum whatever event that all this singing was about.)

Sure, Subspace Rhapsody is by no means the best of Strange New Worlds. But the fact that they had the guts to make this episode and the talent to pull it off… I think that cements SNW as perhaps the best Star Trek series ever (at least to date), certainly the best since TOS.

 Posted by at 10:17 pm
Aug 182023

And then there is this. The rate of increase in atmospheric methane has been rising since the mid-2000s. The curve is becoming ever steeper.

Surprisingly perhaps, it’s not from natural gas producers, industry, or vehicles. Not even cow farts.

It’s apparently in large part coming from tropical wetlands. Climate change is still indirectly responsible as it is the changing climate that changes the vegetation that, in turn, results in more methane production. But the consequences of this rise in methane levels can dwarf anything CO2 will do. A “termination-level” event, they call it, which sounds alarming and it should be: even though it does not mean our immediate termination, it may mark the termination of an epoch, just as in the past, when similar rises in methane events marked the end of the ice ages. Except that there’s no ice age at present.

 Posted by at 5:47 pm
Aug 182023

Yellowknife is not a large city by Ontario standards, but it is the capital city and the largest community in the Northwest Territories of Canada, with over 20,000 inhabitants.

And it is about to be evacuated entirely today, because of the imminent wildfire threat.

Yes, it’s a faraway place but it is still incredibly scary that tens of thousands of Canadians are uprooted, some taking their cars, some boarding evacuation buses or flights, fleeing their homes, traveling through landscapes that are like warzones, with burned buildings and burnt-out vehicles often in sight.

No, I won’t rant about climate change. There can be other contributing reasons behind this unprecedented wildfire season, though I bet climate change is by far the most significant contributor.

I wonder what prompted N.W.T. authorities to take this drastic step. I may be wrong but I have a feeling that the devastation in Maui was a wake-up call, and they wanted to avoid a similar disaster. Having said that, I sincerely hope that Yellowknife will be spared and its inhabitants can return in a few days.

 Posted by at 2:43 am
Aug 162023

In case there is any doubt, Putin’s Russia is doing its darnedest best to prove that they are a bona fide menace to the world.

There are people in the world who are hungry today. Food prices are rising again worldwide. In a leading industrialized country, it’s a mere inconvenience to most people. Elsewhere, it’s a disaster.

Russia, meanwhile, bombs… no, not military installations, not strategically important infrastructure, not even elements of Ukraine’s defense industry…

… but grain warehouses.

Seriously, forgive me for not mincing words but what the fuck is wrong with these people? I mean Putin and his followers and their almost textbook case of villainy.

 Posted by at 7:12 pm
Aug 122023

Here’s a Hungarian-language letter, an official note from 120 years ago that has been making the rounds on the Hungarian Interwebs for many years already. As far as I know, the letter is real, penned by a well-known Hungarian scholar, also known for his poetry. Below is my translation: watch it, the language is more than a little, hmmm, rough.


To the esteemed Public Works Office
in the town of Pecs

Concerning your official transcript 1090/1903 that arrived with yesterday’s mail, in which you ask what needs to be done with the old spurs that were found in the outskirts of the village Magyarbeki? With official respect, my answer is that you gentlemen should fuck your spurs, because in this heat of 35° Reaumur, we cannot deal with such shit.

Aug 18, 1903, Budapest.

With all due respect,
Horsedick up your ass
Dr. Laszlo Rethy
Deputy Director, Hungarian National Museum, Department of Coins and Antiquities

To the Hungarian Royal Public Works Office of District XIV, Pecs

Ahem. For what it’s worth, 35°R is 44°C or about 111°F.

In other words: damn hot.

 Posted by at 4:51 pm
Aug 122023

One of the many unfulfilled, dare I say unfulfillable promises of the tech world (or at least, some of the tech world’s promoters) is “low code”. The idea that with the advent of AI and visual programming tools, anyone can write code.

Recall how medieval scribes prepared those beautiful codices, illuminated manuscripts. Eventually, that profession vanished, replaced by the printing press and, eventually, the typewriter. But what if someone suggested that with the advent of the typewriter, anyone can now write high literature? Laughable, isn’t it. There is so much more to writing than the act of making nicely formed letters appear on a sheet of paper.

Software development is just like that. It is about so much more than the syntax of a programming language. Just think of the complete life cycle of a software development project. Even small, informal in-house projects follow this model: A requirement is identified, a conceptual solution is formulated (dare I say, designed), the technology is selected, problems are worked out either in advance or as they are encountered during testing. The code is implemented and tested, bugs are fixed, functionality is evaluated. The code, if it works, is put into production, but it still needs to be supported, bugs need to be fixed, compatibility with other systems (including the operating system on which it runs) must be maintained, if it is a public-facing app, its security must be monitored, business continuity must be maintained even if the software fails or there are unexpected downtimes… These are all important aspects of software development, and they have very little to do with the act of coding.

In recent months, I benefited a great deal from AI. Claude and, especially perhaps, GPT-4, proved to be tremendous productivity tools of almost unbelievable efficiency. Instead of spending hours on Google searches or wading through StackExchange posts, I could just consult Claude and get an instant answer clarifying, e.g., the calling conventions of a system function. When I was struggling to come up with a sensible way to solve a problem, I could just ask GPT-4 for suggestions. Not only did GPT-4 tell me how to address the problem at hand, often with helpful code snippets illustrating the answer, it even had the audacity to tell me when my approach was suboptimal and recommended a better solution.

And yes, I could ask these little robot friends of ours to write code for me, which they did.

But this was when things took a really surprising turn. On several occasions, Claude or GPT not only offered solutions but offered inspired solutions. Elegant solutions. Except that the code they wrote had bugs. Sometimes trivial bugs like failure to initialize a variable or assigning a variable that was declared a constant. The kind of routine mistakes experienced programmers make, which are easily fixable: As the first, draft version of the code is run through the compiler or interpreter, these simple buglets are readily identified and corrected.

But this is the exact opposite of the “low code” promise. Low code was supposed to mean a world in which anyone can write software using AI-assisted visual tools. In reality, those tools do replace armies of inexperienced, entry-level programmers but experience is still required to design systems, break them down into sensible functional components, create specifications (even if it is in the form of a well-crafted prompt sent to GPT-4), evaluate solutions, perform integration and testing, and last but not least, fix the bugs.

What worries me is the fact that tomorrow’s experienced software architects will have to come from the pool of today’s inexperienced entry-level programmers. If we eliminate the market for entry-level programmers, who will serve as software architects 20, 30 years down the line?

Never mind. By then, chances are, AI will be doing it all. Where that leaves us humans, I don’t know, but we’re definitely witnessing the birth of a brand new era, and not just in software development.

 Posted by at 12:23 pm
Aug 112023

One of the things I asked Midjourney to do was to reimagine Grant Wood’s famous 1930 painting with a gentlecat and a ladycat.

Not all of Midjourney’s attempts were great, but I think this one captures the atmosphere of the original per… I mean, how could I possibly resist writing purr-fectly?

Well, almost perfectly. The pitchfork is a bit odd and it lacks a handle. Oh well. No AI is, ahem, purr-fect.

 Posted by at 7:21 pm
Aug 112023

Here’s a sunflower, which grew in a large planter right here on our driveway, as photographed by my beautiful wife just the other day (before Ottawa got an incredible deluge of rain):

If you look closely, there’s a bumblebee in the flower. May there be more! I keep reading about the crisis pollinating insects face worldwide, sometimes accompanied by tragic images of entire beehives, dead. Pollinating insects play an essential role in nature, including our food supply. And they seem to be in serious trouble. Climate change, habitat loss, reckless use of insecticides, whatever the reason, it might be a good idea to take this problem seriously before it is too late. (Just don’t turn it into politics please. It’s a real crisis, not fodder for virtue-signaling by wannabe liberals or progressive-bashing by wannabe conservatives.)

 Posted by at 5:38 pm