Aug 082020
 

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

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

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

 Posted by at 5:46 pm
Aug 062020
 

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

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

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

 Posted by at 5:29 pm
Aug 052020
 

A tragedy took place in Beirut yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 1:30 am
Aug 022020
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 7:21 pm
Jul 312020
 

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 7:41 pm
Jul 162020
 

I met Gabor David back in 1982 when I became a member of the team we informally named F451 (inspired by Ray Bradbury of course.) Gabor was a close friend of Ferenc Szatmari. Together, they played an instrumental role in establishing a business relationship between the Hungarian firm Novotrade and its British partner, Andromeda, developing game programs for the Commodore 64.

In the months and years that followed, we spent a lot of time working together. I was proud to enjoy Gabor’s friendship. He was very knowledgeable, and also very committed to our success. We had some stressful times, to be sure, but also a lot of fun, frantic days (and many nights!) spent working together.

I remember Gabor’s deep, loud voice, with a slight speech impediment, a mild case of rhotacism. His face, too, I can recall with almost movie like quality.

He loved coffee more than I thought possible. He once dropped by at my place, not long after I managed to destroy my coffee maker, a stovetop espresso that I accidentally left on the stove for a good half hour. Gabor entered with the words, “Kids, do you have any coffee?” I tried to explain to him that the devil’s brew in that carafe was a bitter, undrinkable (and likely unhealthy) blend of burnt coffee and burnt rubber, but to no avail: he gulped it down like it was nectar.

After I left Hungary in 1986, we remained in sporadic contact. In fact, Gabor helped me with a small loan during my initial few weeks on Austria; for this, I was very grateful.

When I first visited Hungary as a newly minted Canadian citizen, after the collapse of communism there, Gabor was one of the few close friends that I sought out. I was hugely impressed. Gabor was now heading a company called Banknet, an international joint venture bringing business grade satellite-based Internet service to the country.

When our friend Ferenc was diagnosed with lung cancer, Gabor was distraught. He tried to help Feri with financing an unconventional treatment not covered by insurance. I pitched in, too. It was not enough to save Feri’s life: he passed away shortly thereafter, a loss I still feel more than two decades later.

My last conversation with Gabor was distressing. I don’t really remember the details, but I did learn that he suffered a stroke, and that he was worried that he would be placed under some form of guardianship. Soon thereafter, I lost touch; his phone number, as I recall, was disconnected and Gabor vanished.

Every so often, I looked for him on the Internet, on social media, but to no avail. His name is not uncommon, and moreover, as his last name also doubles as a first name for many, searches bring up far too many false positives. But last night, it occurred to me to search for his name and his original profession: “Dávid Gábor” “matematikus” (mathematician).

Jackpot, if it can be called that. One of the first hits that came up was a page from Hungary’s John von Neumann Computer Society, their information technology history forum, to be specific: a short biography of Gabor, together with his picture.

And from this page I learned that Gabor passed away almost six years ago, on November 10, 2014, at the age of 72.

Well… at least I now know. It has been a privilege knowing you, Gabor, and being able to count you among my friends. I learned a lot from you, and I cherish all those times that we spent working together.

 Posted by at 2:04 pm
Jul 162020
 

Seventy-five years ago this morning, a false dawn greeted the New Mexico desert near Alamagordo.

At 5:29 AM in the morning, the device informally known as “the gadget” exploded.

“The gadget” was a plutonium bomb with the explosive power of about 22 kilotons of TNT. It was the first nuclear explosion on planet Earth. It marked the beginning of the nuclear era.

I can only imagine what it must have been like, being part of that effort, being present in the pre-dawn hours, back in 1945. The war in Europe just ended. The war in the Pacific was still raging. This was the world’s first high technology war, fought over the horizon, fought with radio waves, and soon, to be fought with nuclear power. Yet there were so many unknowns! The Trinity test was the culmination of years of frantic effort. The outcome was by no means assured, yet the consequences were clear to all: a successful test would mean that war would never be the same. The world would never be the same.

And then, the most surreal of things happens: minutes before the planned detonation, in the pre-dawn darkness, the intercom system picks up a faint signal from a local radio station, and music starts playing. It’s almost as if reality was mimicking the atmosphere of yet-to-be-invented computer games.

When the explosion happened, the only major surprise was that the detonation was much brighter than anyone had expected. Otherwise, things unfolded pretty much as anticipated. “The gadget” worked. Success cleared the way to the deployment of the (as yet untested) simpler uranium bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima three weeks later, followed by the twin of the Trinity gadget, which ended up destroying much of Nagasaki. The human cost was staggering, yet we must not forget that it would have been dwarfed by the costs of a ground invasion of the Japanese home islands. It was a means to shorten the war, a war not started by the United States. No responsible commander-in-chief could have made a decision other than the one Truman made when he approved the use of the weapons against Imperial Japan.

And perhaps the horrors seen in those two cities played a role in creating a world in which the last use of a nuclear weapon in anger occurred nearly 75 years ago, on August 9, 1945. No one would have predicted back then that there will be no nuclear weapons deployed in war in the coming three quarters of a century. Yet here we are, in 2020, struggling with a pandemic, struggling with populism and other forces undermining our world order, yet still largely peaceful, living in a golden age unprecedented in human history.

Perhaps Trinity should serve as a reminder that peace and prosperity can be fragile.

 Posted by at 12:52 pm
Jul 112020
 

Today’s editorial cartoon in the Toronto Star perfectly captures how many Canadians, myself included, feel about the Canada-US border:

What can I say. Things are not looking good in Trumpia. In fact, things are looking so bad that after months of denial, even the narcissist-in-chief decided to wear a bleeping mask today while visiting a hospital.

I have been trying to remember why the American attitudes towards COVID-19 felt vaguely but strangely familiar. It just hit me. It was the 1970s oil crisis, and the general attitude by leaders in the former Soviet Bloc. This was a crisis of the decadent capitalist West, they told us. The pandemic of fuel shortages, mile long lines at gas stations, high energy prices would not reach us, they told us. Well… they were wrong. Just like those Americans who refuse to wear masks, who refuse to take precautions, who refuse to accept the need to shut down nonessential businesses, because, you know, it’s just like a bad case of the flu…

 Posted by at 11:49 pm
Jul 092020
 

This may not be an all-time record-breaking day according to Environment Canada (supposedly, the peak temperature today at Ottawa Airport was 34.8 C at 2 PM) but it sure is hot.

You could be forgiven if you thought that this measurement is of the body temperature of a COVID-19 patient with mild symptoms, not the outdoor temperature on our balcony, measured in the shade:

As I said… really hot. Praise be to air conditioning.

 Posted by at 4:25 pm
Jul 082020
 

I am with Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Michael Ignatieff, Garry Kasparov, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Fareed Zakaria (just a few of the names that I readily recognize) on this one.

“Cancel culture” is wrong. Seeking to find offense where no offense was intended is stupid. It fosters conflict, not understanding. It divides, it doesn’t unite us.

In short, “cancel culture” is not what intelligent people do. It is what mobs do.

And a mob, even when it acts in the name of the highest of ideals, is still a mob.

Ultimately, cancel culture does exactly that: It cancels culture.

The very culture that is our best defense against division. Against prejudice. Against populism.

 Posted by at 6:12 pm
Jul 082020
 

I grew up in a country with closed borders. I despise closed borders. I find the right to travel, unimpeded, almost as fundamental as the right to breathe.

Yet… For the time being, I support fully the closure of the US-Canada border. As a matter of fact, I wish it was kept even more tightly closed.

Here is why.

What Americans are doing to themselves is unfathomable. That they have an narcissist idiot, an incompetent imbecile running the White House is one thing. But all the other idiots, from state governors to individual citizens, who ignore the threat, cheer as their nation abandons the World Health Organization, even condemn their immunocompromised children to death?

When you live next to a lunatic asylum, you do want to keep your front door under lock and key.

 Posted by at 1:48 am
Jul 052020
 

A few hours ago, my phone rang and my friend David told me the sad news: His father, Peter Ada-Winter passed away*.

I’ve known Peter since the late 1970s. He was an educator who played a pioneering role in the introduction of computer programming and computer science into the Hungarian school curriculum.

Peter was a true scholar. His home, a cramped apartment in Budapest’s historic Castle District, was full of books. The walls were lined with tall bookshelves. His large desk was also covered with teetering piles of textbooks, newspapers, and computer printouts.

Peter was the son of Ernő Winter, engineer, physicist and inventor, a towering figure in the early development of vacuum tube technology in the 1920s.

Born in 1923, Peter survived the Holocaust that wiped much of his extended family off the face of the Earth.

He was in his mid-40s when, in 1968, he was asked to organize a regular computer programming course for high school students in the same high school where I studied a decade later.

I met Peter when I became friends with his son David in high school. I always looked up to him. I learned quite a few things from him. Not just technical matters, basic human values as well.

Peter’s interest in information technology never diminished. In the mid-1980s, together with his son David they published a book on the 8-bit ZX Spectrum microcomputer. In the 1990s and early 2000s, despite his advancing age, Peter became well acquainted with the Internet; surfing the Web for news became part of his daily life.

Even after he passed 90, Peter remained in good health and mentally active. Only in the last few years did his health begin to gradually decline. Nonetheless, David remained hopeful that they would be able to celebrate Peter’s 100th birthday in 2023 with a ginormous birthday cake. These hopes were squashed by the news David received today.

Though I share David’s sense of grief, I reminded him that instead of grieving, we should remember the long, productive life of a very good man. Someone that I feel privileged to have known.


*No, not a COVID-19 statistic. Simply old age.

 Posted by at 10:04 pm
Jun 252020
 

Here are the number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases per day, here in the province of Ontario:

In the whole of Canada:

In the great United States:

And in the entire world:

The plots tell the story. I don’t think that there is anything that I can add.

 Posted by at 10:26 pm
Jun 162020
 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Parliament of Hungary granted Viktor Orban’s government extraordinary powers to rule by decree. Opponents likened this to the infamous “enabling act” that marked the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933.

In response, Mr. Orban and his supporters argued that the government has no intention of abusing these powers, and that Mr. Orban should be judged by how he relinquishes these extraordinary powers once the crisis is over.

So here it is: Parliament just voted to end the state of emergency and requested the government to take the necessary steps to return to normalcy. So far so good. The corresponding act of Parliament is short and sweet, and to the point. The legal part of the text is only four terse clauses. In my translation:

1. The Legislature requests the government to end, in accordance with section 54, paragraph 3 of the Constitution, the state of emergency that was declared in government decree 40/2020 (March 11) (henceforth: the state of emergency).

2. The act of Parliament concerning measures against the coronavirus, Bill 12 (2020), is no longer in force.

3. (1) The present act – with the exceptions defined in paragraph (2) – shall be considered in force the day after it is proclaimed.

(2) Clauses 2 and 4 shall be considered in force when the state of emergency ends.

(3) The calendar day when clauses 2 and 4 shall be considered in force will be decided by the Prime Minister as soon as the date is known, by immediately proclaiming the date in the Hungarian Gazette.

4. Clause 2 of this bill, in accordance with section 29, paragraph 3; section 2, paragraph 1; section 24, paragraph 9, section 31, paragraphy 3; section 35, paragrapha 1; and section 54, paragraph 4, is considered fundamental.

All looks kosher, right?

But just in case you are still paying attention… there was also a second bill on the table. It has an unassuming title: “About the rules of transition concerning the end of the state of emergency and health preparedness”. Seems eminently reasonable, since under the state of emergency, the government has taken many steps, all of which must be reconciled with the system of laws and regulations.

And there is a lot. This supplementary bill is not four pages. It is 247 (two hundred forty seven) pages in PDF form. Yikes!

And on page 135, we read clause 97:

97. Changes to Bill 128 of 2011 concerning emergency preparedness and modifications of related laws

§339 Section 5 of Bill 128 of 2011 concerning emergency preparedness and modifications of related laws will be amended by the following subclause 24/A:

“24/A Emergency acts of government in case of a state of emergency concerning a human epidemic causing mass rates of infection”

§51/A. (1) The Government, in order to prevent, or mitigate the consequences of, a human epidemic that causes mass rates of infection, threatening lives and property, in order to protect the health and life of citizens of Hungary in a declared state of emergency – in addition to the emergency measures and rules described in subclauses 21-24 – in order to guarantee the lives, health, personal security, security of property, and legal protection of citizens and the stability of the national economy, may, by decree, suspend certain laws, deviate from existing laws and make other extraordinary decisions.

(2) The Government may practice the authority prescribed in paragraph (1) – to the necessary extent, in proportion with the desired outcome – in order to prevent, deal with, and eliminate an epidemic, and furthermore, to prevent or avoid such an outbreak.

There you have it. There are many other clauses concerning other laws, and most seem quite reasonable and appropriate considering the circumstances. But this one?

I highlighted the problem text in red. The law gives the government extraordinary powers. But, though the words seem reassuring on the surface, it offers no checks and balances concerning any justification of invoking these powers and the extent to which they are practiced. In the right hands, these are powers that can be used wisely in case of another pandemic or a resurgence of COVID-19, and I am sure Mr. Orban’s supporters believe that this is precisely how the government will use these powers (if at all). But opponents of Mr. Orban are concerned, not without grounds, about the lack of checks and balances and the very real possibility that these powers can go unchecked in the wrong hands.

In short, this is precisely what many feared: That though the state of emergency is lifted, a backdoor remains, a means for Mr. Orban’s government to have its cake and eat it, too, relinquish its extraordinary powers yet keeping them at the same time.

In the end, it of course all depends on how the law is put into practice. But for now, my conclusion is that the concerns of Mr. Orban’s opposition are not unfounded.

 Posted by at 6:19 pm
Jun 122020
 

I just happened upon this 30-year old John Cleese sketch, where else? On John Cleese’s own Twitter feed, of course.

What can I say? Just perfect. As appropriate today as it was three decades ago, perhaps even more so.

 Posted by at 5:37 pm
Jun 092020
 

In 1889, a story by Jules Verne (believed to have been written actually by his son, Michel Verne) was published in the American magazine Forum under the title, “In the Year 2889“.

In it, among other things, Verne envisions video conferencing.

Verne’s story was illustrated by George Roux, who is best known for his numerous illustrations for Verne’s science-fiction novels. I suspect that this particular picture was made in 1889 or 1890 (when Verne’s story, which appeared originally in English, was republished in France.)

I find this image mind-boggling. That 130 years ago, back in the 19th century, someone was able to envision… well, something that, for all intents and purposes, looks pretty much like what many of us are doing today.

 Posted by at 12:15 pm
Jun 082020
 

Long overdue, but I just finished preparing the latest Maxima release, version 5.44.

I am always nervous when I do this. It is one thing to mess with my own projects, it is another thing to mess with a project that is the work of many people and contains code all the way back from the 1960s.

 Posted by at 2:11 am
Jun 032020
 

In case anyone doubted that modern birds are descendants of dinosaurs, here is a reminder: the shoebill.

These amazing creatures are apparently quite docile with humans, but eat baby crocodiles for lunch, which they kill by decapitating them.

They really look like survivors of the K-T asteroid impact. They are… I think they are beautiful.

 Posted by at 11:59 am