Nov 142014
 

Kim Lane Scheppele is a professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University. She is also an expert on constitutional law in Hungary. Her writings frequently appeared in publications such as The New York Times.

A few days ago, Dr. Scheppele gave a video interview to an English-language Hungarian newspaper, the Budapest Beacon. In the interview, she explains how, in her opinion, Hungary can no longer be considered a constitutional democracy: how the system of checks and balances has been gutted and a constitution more resembling the country’s 1949 Stalinist constitution than the supposedly “communist” 1989 constitution it was intended to replace, was enacted unilaterally by a ruling party enjoying a two-thirds parliamentary supermajority.

Dr. Scheppele is not some liberal hack. She is an internationally renowned scholar. Her opinions are not arbitrary. Unfortunately, I do not expect to see meaningful change to happen anytime soon in the country of my birth, and I don’t think anything Dr. Scheppele says can alter this sad fact.

 Posted by at 8:24 pm
Nov 122014
 

Judging by the enthusiastic reaction I just saw moments ago on CBC Newsworld, the lander Philae, part of the Rosetta mission to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, has landed successfully.

This is big. This is the first time a man-made device landed on a comet. It is called “primary exploration”.

It is also big for the European Space Agency. Rosetta is a major deep space mission: the spacecraft spent ten years traveling to this comet.

All in all, wonderful news.

 Posted by at 11:12 am
Nov 112014
 

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada.

Unlike the Remembrance Days of recent years, today is perfect. The Sun is shining, the temperature is going to hit double digits. It is a sparkling, beautiful, almost unnaturally splendid late autumn day.

The combination of exceptional weather and the recent death of Cpl. Cirillo, gunned down last month while guarding the very memorial where Remembrance Day ceremonies will take place, will bring exceptional crowds.

But today is not a day of celebration. It is a day to remember.

To remember the War to End All Wars, which began exactly 100 years ago. Far from ending all wars, it claimed nearly 40 million lives, and redrew the maps of Europe, laying the groundwork for another, even more devastating war less than a quarter century later. To remember all the dead: not just Canadians, not just Allied soldiers, indeed, not only just soldiers but also civilians who suffered and died in even greater numbers.

To remember, for instance, my wife’s great-grandfather, who served in the Austro-Hungarian army at one of the bloodiest fronts of the Great War, along the Isonzo river in present-day Slovenia. His little notebook [in Hungarian] detailing, often in verse, his horrendous experience in the trenches, was found among the papers left behind by my wife’s father when he died.

To remember my great uncle Béla, who taught me to play chess when I was little and who was the first among elder family members who awakened my interest in science and mathematics. Uncle Béla served in both world wars and (if I remember family lore correctly) even spent some time as a POW. A memento, a stringless balalaika, hung on the wall of their tiny, bathroom-less working-class flat in central Budapest, where he lived with his wife, aunt Flóra, until his death.

To remember my grandfather on my mother’s side, whom I never met, as he passed away a year before I was born. He spent some horrendous months as an army engineer near the Don river; he only escaped the devastating defeat of the Second Hungarian Army (and thus, likely death or long-term captivity in Stalin’s gulag) because he was allowed to return to Budapest after contracting pneumonia. Nonetheless, what he went through there probably contributed to his declining health and the massive stroke or brain hemorrhage that struck him just a few years later and left him severely disabled for the last 15 years of his life. He was several years younger than I am at present when his life effectively came to an end.

His wife, my grandmother, was responsible for keeping a family of six (including a newborn baby and two preschoolers, one of them my Mom) alive and fed through the siege of Budapest, when the family spent an entire winter in a basement bomb shelter, even as she herself was coping with illness that nearly took her life.

As I am writing down these thoughts, I am listening to the musical Johnny Johnson, by Kurt Weill. Weill, well-known for his Threepenny Opera, is one of my favorite 20th century composers. He escaped Germany when the Nazis came to power in 1933, to live the rest of his all too short life (he was only 50 when he died) in the United States. It was here that he composed Johnny Johnson, an astonishing anti-war musical. One of my favorite songs has a German and an American priest preaching in canon on the battlefront to their respective troops: one in German, one in English, but preaching the exact same words. But perhaps the most heart-rending scene is at the very end: the protagonist, Johnny Johnson, is now a toymaker selling his “toys for nice little girls and boys” on the street. Unfortunately, nobody is buying: they are more interested in the speech of a politician just a block away, calling for another war.

The title of Johnny Johnson was inspired by the fact the name appeared on United States casualty rolls more often than any other.

 Posted by at 8:49 am
Nov 092014
 

Earlier today, someone I know shared a video on Facebook. The video is just a text slide show, retelling a story that, according to snopes.com, has been around for almost a century.

Condensed version: an atheist university professor keeps ridiculing religion year after year in his class, “demonstrating” that God does not exist by dropping a piece of chalk, which shatters into pieces as God fails to intervene. When finally, just as a young man stands up to him, the demonstration fails (the chalk slips from the professor’s fingers and does not break), the humiliated professor flees the classroom, leaving the young man sharing his faith in Jesus with his fellow students for the next half hour. The video version then laments on people’s lack of faith and how everyone wants to go to heaven but so few are willing to do what it takes.

I felt compelled to reply to the post of my Facebook friend. I told him that as a committed atheist, I would call the professor of this story a much bigger fool than he thought his religious students were. He basically turned his atheism into a matter of faith… a religion, in other words, with himself the firebrand preacher.

The chalk story reminds me of the joke about a deeply religious person who is caught in a flood. When rescuers come to his door, he refuses the help, “God will help me”, he says. When later, he had to climb to the top floor of his house to escape the waters and rescuers in a boat arrive at the window, he once again rejects their assistance. Finally, when a helicopter tries to rescue him from his rooftop, he again says no. Needless to say, he dies and finds himself in heaven before God. He asks, “God, I feared you, loved you, prayed to you all my life, why didn’t you help me in my deepest need?” God answers, “I sent you rescuers on foot, I sent you a boat, I even sent you a bleeping helicopter, what more do you want?”

The morale of the story is not that God does parlor tricks, as in the chalk story. (That just kind of ruined it for me, to be honest. Is the Christian God really just a stage magician?)

The morale of the story is that if there had been true believers in that classroom, and I mean true believers, not just timid, half-committed people practicing a form of Pascal’s Wager in the vain hope for a better chance in the afterlife, one of them would have stood up and caught the chalk long ago. And then, perhaps even the half-hour sermon would not have been necessary afterwards to convince others of the purity and depth of his faith.

And yes, I am a committed atheist. It does not stop me from respecting, even defending other people’s right to their faith, though I have no use for it. And no, everyone does not want to go to heaven. I have no need for an imaginary kindergarten afterlife. I just want to make the most of this one life here on Earth, as a decent (I hope) human being. Which includes not ridiculing others for their faith, even if I myself find the subject of that faith somewhat ridiculous.

 Posted by at 9:26 am
Nov 082014
 

Once again my country of birth, Hungary, made it to the cover of both the North American and Asian editions of The New York Times.

And not for a good reason.

The article laments that, 25 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Hungary, which was back then at the forefront of the transition from communism to democracy, is now turning away form Western values. That the prime minister, the same Mr. Orban who once played a leading role in that transition, now rejects Western values and preaches “illiberal democracy”, citing countries like Russia or Turkey as worthy examples.

Such criticisms are routinely rejected by supporters of Mr. Orban as “misguided”, a product of a Western media that “only listens to liberal critics”. And this plays well with an audience that is accustomed to the notion of national victimhood. Hungary is seen by many Hungarians as a victim throughout history. The country was a victim of the Paris-Versailles peace treaties. A victim of Germany and national socialism. A victim of communism. And now, a victim of Brussels’ new “colonialism”.

Even the national anthem is all about victimhood: “Fate, who for so long did’st frown / Bring him happy times and ways / Atoning sorrow hath weighed down / Sins of past and future days.”

Maybe one day the focus in Hungary will shift from victimhood to responsibility. For being accountable for one’s actions. Maybe that day, Hungary will no longer be easy pray to populist demagogues like Mr. Orban.

But I am not holding my breath.

 Posted by at 9:41 am
Nov 042014
 

Standard_Model_of_Elementary_Particles.svgMany popular science books and articles mention that the Standard Model of particle physics, the model that unifies three of the fundamental forces and describes all matter in the form of quarks and leptons, has about 18 free parameters that are not predicted by the theory.

Very few popular accounts actually tell you what these parameters are.

So here they are, in no particular order:

  1. The so-called fine structure constant, \(\alpha\), which (depending on your point of view) defines either the coupling strength of electromagnetism or the magnitude of the electron charge;
  2. The Weinberg angle or weak mixing angle \(\theta_W\) that determines the relationship between the coupling constant of electromagnetism and that of the weak interaction;
  3. The coupling constant \(g_3\) of the strong interaction;
  4. The electroweak symmetry breaking energy scale (or the Higgs potential vacuum expectation value, v.e.v.) \(v\);
  5. The Higgs potential coupling constant \(\lambda\) or alternatively, the Higgs mass \(m_H\);
  6. The three mixing angles \(\theta_{12}\), \(\theta_{23}\) and \(\theta_{13}\) and the CP-violating phase \(\delta_{13}\) of the Cabibbo-Kobayashi-Maskawa (CKM) matrix, which determines how quarks of various flavor can mix when they interact;
  7. Nine Yukawa coupling constants that determine the masses of the nine charged fermions (six quarks, three charged leptons).

OK, so that’s the famous 18 parameters so far. It is interesting to note that 15 out of the 18 (the 9 Yukawa fermion mass terms, the Higgs mass, the Higgs potential v.e.v., and the four CKM values) are related to the Higgs boson. In other words, most of our ignorance in the Standard Model is related to the Higgs.

Beyond the 18 parameters, however, there are a few more. First, \(\Theta_3\), which would characterize the CP symmetry violation of the strong interaction. Experimentally, \(\Theta_3\) is determined to be very small, its value consistent with zero. But why is \(\Theta_3\) so small? One possible explanation involves a new hypothetical particle, the axion, which in turn would introduce a new parameter, the mass scale \(f_a\) into the theory.

Finally, the canonical form of the Standard Model includes massless neutrinos. We know that neutrinos must have mass, and also that they oscillate (turn into one another), which means that their mass eigenstates do not coincide with their eigenstates with respect to the weak interaction. Thus, another mixing matrix must be involved, which is called the Pontecorvo-Maki-Nakagawa-Sakata (PMNS) matrix. So we end up with three neutrino masses \(m_1\), \(m_2\) and \(m_3\), and the three angles \(\theta_{12}\), \(\theta_{23}\) and \(\theta_{13}\) (not to be confused with the CKM angles above) plus the CP-violating phase \(\delta_{\rm CP}\) of the PMNS matrix.

So this is potentially as many as 26 parameters in the Standard Model that need to be determined by experiment. This is quite a long way away from the “holy grail” of theoretical physics, a theory that combines all four interactions, all the particle content, and which preferably has no free parameters whatsoever. Nonetheless the theory, and the level of our understanding of Nature’s fundamental building blocks that it represents, is a remarkable intellectual achievement of our era.

 Posted by at 2:49 pm
Oct 312014
 

The once famous Hungarian language broadcasts of Radio Free Europe ceased more than two decades ago, shortly after the end of communism in my country of birth.

Now, however, Radio Free Europe joined the growing choir of voices concerned about the policies of Hungary’s current government, and the country’s slide away from the values of Western-style liberal democracy.

This article, which will no doubt be dismissed by supporters of the ruling FIDESZ party as misguided and uninformed, misled by “liberal propaganda”, provides a nice summary of the events that unfolded in the country in recent years. It is also accompanied by a video report, which details the rising popularity of the ultra-right in Hungary and the dangers that it represents.

I just feel compelled to repeat the famous quotation by the Spanish-American poet, writer and philosopher George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

 Posted by at 11:53 pm
Oct 302014
 

Spacecraft sometimes catch a glimpse of the Sun as it reflects off a sea or an ocean. Here is an example:

Except that this example was not captured by Earth-orbiting spacecraft. The sea here is not a terrestrial ocean. It is a hydrocarbon sea of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

Just to clarify, the reflection of the Sun is in the upper left of the image, where the outline of the sea is also clearly visible. The redder, arrow-shaped object closer to the center is a cloud formation.

 Posted by at 10:37 pm
Oct 302014
 

The parkways of the Gatineau Park are now closed and the autumn colors are nearly gone. Still, my wife and I enjoyed a pleasant walk today in the outskirts of the park, after a fine lunch at Le Buffet des Continents.

Autumn remains my favorite season. My only complaint is that it ends too soon, and it is often followed by a nasty winter.

 Posted by at 3:39 pm
Oct 292014
 

This afternoon, I felt compelled to take a walk to downtown Ottawa. Our home is within walking distance of Parliament Hill and the National War Memorial, where a deranged shooter killed a ceremonial guard, Corporal Nathan Cirillo.

It was a beautiful autumn day and the walk was very enjoyable. On my way downtown, I dropped by my favorite computer store (Canada Computers, on Rideau Street) to purchase some needed cables. Then I continued.

There was quite a crowd at the War Memorial, and it was full of flowers. Flowers, flowers and more flowers. Also, many Canadian flags.

And it so happened that I was very lucky: I caught the changing of the guard ceremony. I even managed to record it on video.

Near the end of the clip, a police officer (armed with what appeared to be a fully automatic weapon) crosses in front of my phone camera. He apologized for doing so (I can be heard muttering, “no problem,” on the video). After I was done recording, I stepped over to the policeman and had a brief conversation with him. I mentioned to him that it is an unfortunate necessity that he has to be part of the picture. He understood immediately what I meant. I also thanked him for his service.

I then carried on, right up to Parliament Hill. As a free citizen of a free country, I entered the grounds without encountering any guards, obstacles, metal detectors or other obscenities. It occurred to me that this is the first time I walked on Parliament Hill in 41 years.

The flag on top of the Peace Tower is still at half mast.

I also managed to take a panoramic photo of sorts of the view from the Hill:

Ottawa is still a beautiful city. And, having just returned from the Middle East, it was good to reassure myself that it remains a free city of a free people.

 Posted by at 6:54 pm
Oct 282014
 

On my way back from sunny Abu Dhabi to autumn Ottawa. My wife asked me to bring some warm weather. I’ll try…

When you fly over trouble spots, the flight path can get interesting.

Our flight carefully avoided Iraqi, Syrian and Ukrainian airspace. We also spent as little time in Iranian skies as possible.

Soon, we’ll be flying over Hungary. Maybe I should try to wave to my Mom, in case she sees me…

 Posted by at 7:05 am
Oct 222014
 

So here I am, late at night, sitting in an Abu Dhabi hotel room, watching local TV streaming from my workstation in Ottawa with the news of a shooting taking place just over a kilometer away from my home.

The shooter is dead. Hopefully, he was the only one. Let him rot.

 Posted by at 5:32 pm
Oct 132014
 

Science fiction has a subgenre: mathematical fiction. Stories of this nature are rare; good stories are even rarer. One memorable story that I recall from ages ago was A Subway Named Moebius, written by A. J. Deutsch in 1950. There was another story more recently: Luminous by Greg Egan, which I read in Asimov’s SF magazine shortly before I stopped reading (and eventually, stopped subscribing to) said magazine. (Nothing wrong with the magazine; it’s just that I found many of the stories unsatisfying, and I found I had less and less time to read them. The genre is just not the same as it was back in the Golden Age of Science Fiction.)

So recently, I found out that Egan wrote a sequel: Dark Integers, published in the same magazine in 2007. I now had a chance to read it and I was not disappointed.

Both stories are very good. Both stories are based on the notion that as yet unproven mathematical theorems can go either way; that the Platonic book of all math has not only not yet been written, but that there is no unique book, and multiple versions of mathematics may coexist, with an uneasy boundary.

Now imagine that you perform innocent mathematical experiments on your computer, using, say, computer algebra to probe ever more exotic theorems in a subfield few non-mathematicians ever heard about. And imagine how you would feel if you realized that by doing so, you are undermining the very foundations of another universe’s existence, literally threatening to wipe them out.

OK, if you start poking holes in that idea, there are many, but the basic notion is not completely stupid, and the questions that the stories raise are worth contemplating. And Egan writes well… the stories are fun, too!

Incidentally, this was the first decent (published) science fiction story I ever came across that contained a few lines of C++ code.

 Posted by at 4:00 pm
Oct 132014
 

Something happened to me this morning that I have not experienced in ages. Probably not in the 21st century.

I learned about a breaking news event from a newspaper.

That is to say, this morning after I woke up, I happened to glance at the cover of The Globe and Mail before checking the state of the world on any electronic device. And the cover informed me about a massive fire and power outage in downtown Calgary.

I like The Globe and Mail. It is a fine newspaper, and sometimes, it informes me about things that I would not otherwise come across. And there is something to be said about reading a physical newspaper; I am certainly reading it differently, perhaps a tad more attentively, than I read online news sources.

But I long became accustomed to the idea that whatever is in the newspaper will be old news. Stuff I already know about, saw reports about on CNN or the CBC, read about on Google News.

This is why this moment this morning was so striking: like our forefathers in the past century, I learned about a breaking news story from an old-fashioned, paper newspaper.

 Posted by at 3:54 pm
Sep 232014
 

Dear CRTC: Please stop trying to protect us poor Canadians from evil companies like Netflix.

Video-on-demand is not broadcasting. The Internet is not the public airwaves. You have no business trying to bully companies just because they threaten the livelihood of lumbering, decrepit behemoths like Rogers.

I am a Rogers Cable subscriber. I have been a Rogers Cable subscriber ever since they purchased Ottawa Cablevision more than two decades ago.

What am I getting from Rogers? Here are a few examples:

  • Inept, sometimes openly contemptuous customer service (like, what kind of a backward moron am I for still wanting to use analog cable without a settop box?);
  • Technically substandard service (programs interrupted by local commercials that are inserted at the wrong time, substandard signal quality on some analog channels; an analog video frame that is reduced in size by a ratio of 59/60 for no apparent reason);
  • Overpriced, obsolete hardware and no opportunity to use non-Rogers equipment, e.g., with a subscriber identity card;
  • Unnecessary encryption on all digital channels (including local channels), which makes it impossible to use a TV without a settop box.

And you wonder why I am contemplating “cutting the cord”?

Instead of blaming Netflix, perhaps you can have a conversation with Rogers about addressing issues that alienate their customers. If you are not willing to do that, fine, then let the free market do its thing. But take your dirty regulatory paws off the Canadian Internet, please.

 Posted by at 10:18 am
Sep 192014
 

Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanSanity prevailed in Scotland last night.

By a comfortable margin, residents of Scotland rejected (ethnic) nationalism. Whatever their thoughts are about the current government in Westminster, it seems they decided that punishing David Cameron with a “Yes” vote would have amounted to biting off the nose to spite the face.

I always found nationalism distasteful. I don’t care if it is the nationalism of the oppressor or the oppressed. To be sure, it is easy the sympathize with the oppressed. But the solution to nationalist oppression is not to encourage the nationalism of the oppressed (so that they can then go and do some oppressing of their own, like, for instance, Hungarians did with their own minorities during the 1848-49 revolution against Austria). The solution is to put an end to the ideology that led to oppression in the first place. Governments should be responsible for governing the people in the territory that they control, regardless of ethnicity. And fragmenting the world into more, tinier countries in the 21st century just makes no practical sense.

To their credit, the Scots held a referendum with a clear, unambiguous question. “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” No shenanigans about sovereignty-association or a new economic-political partnership. And they seemed entirely civil about it.

Thank you, Scotland, for being wise. For not creating a precedent for the Balkanization of continental Europe.

Now… please don’t do this again, not in my lifetime anyway :-)

 Posted by at 3:20 pm
Sep 102014
 

I arrived in Ottawa in mid-July, 1987 as a landed immigrant. I was sponsored by my aunt and her husband András. It was András who awaited me at the airport on the evening of my arrival. (No, I did not arrive by air. My connecting flight from Montreal was canceled, so Air Canada put me in a limo along with another passenger. As the limo driver was not from Ottawa, and I knew nothing about the layout of the city, he dropped me off at the airport instead of taking me directly to my aunt’s house.)

I spent some time in the old (since decommissioned) airport building waiting for András to arrive. (In the pre-cellphone days, I first had to exchange some currency, then get some change, then find a payphone in order to be able to notify them about my whereabouts.) After a wait of a half hour or so, András did arrive. We only ever met once before, briefly, when they were visiting Hungary and I spent a few hours at my parents’ home, on leave from my mandatory military service. So when András saw me, he was not sure if I was the right person… as he approached me, he asked, “So you are Viktor?”

“Yes,” I answered, to which András replied with a second question: “Why did you come here, why didn’t you go to Calgary instead?”

Yes, András had a weird sense of humor. Not everyone appreciated it, but I did. I really grew to like him.

Earlier this week, it was Nature’s turn to be funny, while also providing me with a perfectly good answer to András’s question from 27 years ago. This is why, András:

Yes, András, I am a wimp. I can tolerate winter, but I really don’t like late summer snow storms.

Alas, András is no longer among us to hear my response. He passed away many years ago, after losing his battle with pancreatic cancer.

 Posted by at 5:26 pm
Sep 042014
 

It appears that France decided to suspend delivery of the first of two Mistral-class helicopter assault ships that they have been building for Russia.

It will cost the French an awful lot of money. Still, this is the right thing to do. The last thing the West should provide to Putin’s Russia is more firepower. On the other hand, NATO should probably consider stepping in and purchasing these ships from France. Come to think of it, Canada could use the capability to effectively patrol its oceans (which is currently, for all practical intents and purposes, is outsourced to the United States).

 Posted by at 10:43 am