Jul 192024

So everyone is talking about the major IT outage today (which actually turned out to be two unrelated outages, the second due to a since-remedied issue with Microsoft Azure platform), namely the fact that millions of physical computers and virtual machines around the world are crashing due to a driver failure in what is known as CrowdStrike Falcon.

I admit I have not heard of CrowdStrike Falcon before. I had to look it up. So I went to the most authoritative source: the company’s Web site.

“Cybersecurity’s AI-native platform for the XDR era,” it tells me, and “We stop breaches”. XDR is supposedly “extended detection and response”. Wikipedia tells me that “the system works by collecting and correlating data across various network points such as servers, email, cloud workloads, and endpoints”. Microsoft tells me that XDR “is a holistic security solution that utilizes automation and AI to reduce response time across multiple workloads”.

Going back to CrowdStrike, I learn that it yields $6 of return for every $1 invested. (How?) That it identifies 96% more potential threats. (More than what? More dentists use…) It tells me that it is leads to 2x as effective security teams with 66% faster investigations… compared to what?

Okay, scrolling down… it’s “cloud-native”, “single-platform” and an “open and extensible ecosystem”. It is “data-centric” and “AI-native” with “workflow automation”.

So far there is one thing I have not yet learned: What the bleepety-bleep does it do?

Of course I can guess. I know what security solutions are supposed to do, and I have no doubt that CrowdStrike delivers… more or less, probably not any better than its major competitors. But they certainly have good marketing, with all the right buzzwords!

Unfortunately, behind these buzzwords there is a flawed mentality. The implication that all it takes is a fancy software solution to protect your enterprise. Never mind that a good chunk of the threats (I was going to say, “vast majority”, but I have no data to back that up) are not in the form of malware. If I communicate with a senior manager at a bank and convince them to initiate an important transfer that later turns out to be fraudulent, no cybersecurity is going to prevent that.

And as today’s example shows, protection from malware and other technological threats is just one element of a successful cybersecurity policy. A comprehensive policy must be based not just on prevention but also the recognition that sometimes, despite your best efforts, excrement can hit the ventilator. How do you detect it? What do you do?

That leaves us to these main points that must be on everyone’s cybersecurity checklist, whether you are a small company or a major international enterprise. Here, in no particular order, and I am sure I left some things out:

  • Threat prevention (technological prevention, such as antivirus software, network firewalls, real-time monitoring)
  • Data collection (comprehensive logs that may be used for threat detection, forensic analysis, mitigation)
  • Compartmentalization (user privileges, user access management, network architectures)
  • User relationships (user education, use management — treating users as partners not as threats)
  • Backup and recovery procedures and policies, tested (!) and validated
  • Intrusion detection
  • Intrusion response (emergency operations, fallback operations including manual operations if needed, notification policy)
  • Mitigation, self and third-party impact
  • Recovery
  • Forensic analysis and prevention
  • Auditing and risk analysis (including third party dependence)

I mean, come on, CrowdStrike’s graphic is eye-catching but I swear I drew much more informative diagrams well over a decade ago when educating customers about the need for comprehensive security. Like these, for instance.

Sure, comprehensive cybersecurity technology can help with some of these points. But not all. For instance, no cybersecurity solution will help you if broad dependence on a third-party component in your enterprise suddenly causes a widespread outage. That dependence can be anywhere, could be a simple messaging app or a complex cybersecurity suite. If it causes systems to crash, and you have no proven, tested policies and practices to detect, mitigate, and recover from an event like that, you’re in deep doo-doo.

Oh wait. That’s exactly what happened to far too many companies today.

 Posted by at 6:33 pm
Jul 192024

I admit I almost lost it last night.

I was attempting to sign up as an author with a notable scientific journal (who shall remain nameless as I am cowardly and I hope to remain in their good graces.) I was confronted with a questionnaire asking about some personal details.

Okay, so they want to know about my name, e-mail address, office phone and institution. All perfectly reasonable, even though I do not have a formal affiliation which sometimes means going through extra hoops, trying to convince the software that I am nonetheless legit. Then came more personal questions such as my gender and age. But then… race, ethnicity, sexual orientation…

Sexual orientation???

I beg your pardon?

Say what? I apologize for language that’s rude and crude, but what the fuck do my scientific contributions have to do with the privacy of my bedroom and how is that your fucking business?

I generally consider my ideological affiliation left-of-center, which is to say more likely leaning towards a progressive liberal attitude. But this? Granted, there was the option, “prefer not to answer”. Nonetheless, I was beyond offended. In this context, the question is downright creepy. What are they going to ask next from prospective authors? How often do you masturbate? Do you prefer conventional or unconventional positions while copulating? Are you into S&M?

I mean, seriously, all I am trying to do is to submit a physics paper to a scientific publication. Not interrogated about my bedroom habits.

Of course I know the answer. This is checkbox-driven DEI virtue-signaling. Someone, somewhere, will write a report about how well (or how badly) this scientific publication represents various communities. Never mind that the actual science should have absolutely nothing to do with race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. They now have checkboxes, and no doubt, folks patting themselves on the back being proud of what they have accomplished, making the world more inclusive and all.

Except that they didn’t. Except that these forms of aggressive, self-serving episodes of virtue signaling achieve the exact opposite: instead of steering the world towards a future in which such superficial characteristics no longer matter, instead of a world in which we are all judged by the content of our character, they not only keep divisions alive, they are actively deepening them.

And that’s why we can’t have nice things anymore.

 Posted by at 6:16 pm
Jul 132024

This is a picture perfect moment. For all the wrong reasons, but this image is destined for the history books.

July 13, 2024. I have the feeling that it will be remembered like a day almost precisely 80 years ago, July 20, 1944, when another defiant leader emerged, mostly unscathed, from an assassination attempt.

Assassinations do not restore or strengthen democracy. We’ve known that at least since the times of ancient Rome, since Marcus Junius Brutus and co-conspirators assassinated Julius Caesar almost two thousand years ago. Rather than saving the Roman Republic, they hastened its demise.

The only thing worse than the assassination of a tyrant (or a would-be tyrant, as some see Trump) is a failed assassination. Which is what happened 80 years ago in the famed Wolf’s Lair. Ironically, Hitler was also injured in his ears. But far from weakening him, the assassination attempt likely played a role in Germany fighting all the way to the bitter end, as Hitler viewed his survival as a divine moment. What the fallout from the attempt on Trump’s life will be is yet an open question, but there is one thing of which I am sure: it’s going to be bad news for his political opponents and, by extension, for all of us who worry about the future of the Western democratic world order.

 Posted by at 11:27 pm
Jul 102024

Throughout her life my Mom earned a living as a artisan textile dyer in Hungary. Nothing fancy, her usual work involved bringing home to her workshop a few hundred, e.g., silk sheets, hand-dying them with predetermined, preapproved patterns (mostly fashionable headscarves, which were very popular in Europe in the 1960s, 1970s), then returning them to the warehouse, which then sent them out for further processing (steam fixing, hemming, etc.)

One day in 1984 she was asked to do something different: To prepare several silk sheets, using the designs, and under the supervision, of a well-known artist (Judit Szabó), for public display in a community hall in a small Hungarian town (Földeák).

She was reminded of this during our recent conversation. Though I had no high expectations, I searched for it using the name of the town and the artist. To our no small astonishment (and to my Mom’s great delight), I found it. The silk sheets are still there (or at least, they were back in 2021), adorning the walls of the town’s wedding hall. Not only that, someone actually took the trouble to take some decent photographs of it and publish it on a nice Hungarian-language Web site.

 Posted by at 1:13 pm
Jul 102024

I was so busy with things like Linux updates, I forgot to celebrate. My main Internet domain, vttoth.com, was 30 years old just ten days ago.

$ whois vttoth.com | grep "^Creation Date"
Creation Date: 1994-06-30T23:00:00Z

To be sure, it’s not the oldest domain in existence, not by a longshot.

$ whois oracle.com | grep "^Creation Date"
Creation Date: 1988-12-02T05:00:00+0000

But then, look at these guys:

$ whois facebook.com | grep "^Creation Date"
Creation Date: 1997-03-29T05:00:00Z
$ whois google.com | grep "^Creation Date"
Creation Date: 1997-09-15T07:00:00+0000
$ whois whitehouse.gov | grep "Creation Date"
Creation Date: 1997-10-02T01:29:32Z

So yes, I suppose I’ve been around. Here’s the earliest version of my Web site as remembered by The Wayback Machine:

Well, I suppose Web sites have become a tad more sophisticated since then.

 Posted by at 1:12 am
Jun 262024

I thought I remembered once seeing a YouTube video that showed, using excellent graphics, how violence actually declined over the centuries.

And indeed I did: but the video focused primarily on the death toll of World War II. Even so, in the final one third of the presentation, Neil Halloran, the video’s creator, does explore how, when adjusted for the size of the population, wars actually became less devastating over time.

This is also the view if Steven Pinker, who often discussed the “decline in violence” in his work and his talks.

Others, however, are less sure. And indeed, when I explore it myself using raw data from ourworldindata.org [chart 48], courtesy of Max Roser, the picture is decidedly less rosy.

set logscale y ; set datafile separator "," ; plot "global-death-rate-in-violent-political-conflicts-over-the-long-run.csv" skip 1 using 3:4 with lines notitle

Looking at this logscale plot showing death rates per 100,000 in conflicts since he middle ages actually shows an increase. And while indeed, the past 80 years can be described as the “long peace”, it’s more an anomaly than a trend.

In fact, looking at this chart I can comprehend the optimism of those who greeted the previous turn of the century, 1900 that is, as the start of the “century of reason”. If only…

 Posted by at 2:01 am
Jun 252024

This morning, I was confronted with examples of both racism and virtue signaling in unexpected ways.

The morning local news told me that Middle Eastern drivers are 2.9 times more likely to be stopped by police, even though it is white drivers who are the most likely to be charged. Unsaid but implied, cops are supposedly racists.

But if you know how people drive in some Middle Eastern locales, perhaps there is a different explanation. Especially considering that when you are driving a police cruiser, chances are you have absolutely no idea who the driver is until they stop, you walk over, and they roll down the driver side window. Imagine you are a cop, stopping someone because he drives like they do in places like Cairo or Baghdad. You walk over, they roll down the window. “Oh damn, another Middle Eastern driver on my record,” you think, and you let them go with a verbal warning, lest you end up being accused of racism.

So which is more likely? That cops have magic eyes and can tell the ethnicity of a driver even from a sillhoutte as their cruiser follows another vehicle, or that perhaps, just perhaps, Middle Eastern drivers who grew up in a very different driving culture have some trouble, at least initially, to adjust their driving habits, so they do in fact end up being stopped more often but that cops also tend to be more lenient in their case?

Or perhaps none of the above. My speculation is not any better than anyone else’s: It’s still speculation. What matters are the data. Just make sure that the sampling and statistical analysis are free of hidden biases.

It is surprisingly hard to convince image generation AI to produce images on this topic without running into dumb (keyword-based) blocks against “harmful” content. This one is from Midjourney.

I was still pondering this when I received an e-mail. Someone asked if, as a scientist, I believe in things like genetic differences between races or policies that take such differences into account. After some thought, I responded with a question myself. I asked if they meant the genetic differences between blondes and brunettes. Or maybe the genetic differences between people with big vs. small noses. After all, we “know” that blondes are supposed to be dumb and people with big, hooked noses are consumed with greed and are disloyal…

 Posted by at 12:54 pm
Jun 212024

This consumed far too much of my time.

I had to update my server systems, both “on-premises” (meaning my home office) and “in the cloud” (my small cloud VM hosted by Amazon). They’ve been running CentOS 7 since 2016, and CentOS 7 reached its end-of-life. Back then, I of course anticipated that by this time, I’d have long ago upgraded my systems to CentOS 8. But that was before Red Hat decided to play hardball with all of us, turning CentOS from a robust open version of Red Hat Enterprise Linux into a bleeding edge, more or less experimental/test version.

So I had to switch. And it wasn’t easy.

I eventually opted for Oracle Linux (itself an RHEL derivative), after seriously considering both AlmaLinux and Rocky Linux. It seemed like the best compromise. I wanted an RHEL-compatible distribution to minimize the pain of the upgrade, and I wanted to pick the distribution that was the most likely to have robust long term support. Considering how Red Hat continues to play hardball with others, Oracle seemed the safest choice: They have the requisite in-house resources to “go it alone” if needed, and their cloud infrastructure alone appears to guarantee a long-term commitment. We shall see if I chose wisely.

And yes, it’s OL8 for now, though this time around, I plan an upgrade long before this product line reaches EOL. But first, stability.

I think everything works on my servers, and things are settling down nicely. But some other machines that I am responsible for still need some gentle care and feeding. It was an educational experience. I dare not share my detailed notes here as they contain information that probably should not be publicly disclosed about details of my configuration, but I have dozens of pages of notes detailing the quirks that I encountered.

All is well that ends well. But why do I have the feeling that this forced upgrade represents many days of my life that were lost for no good reason, days that I’ll never get back? Oh well.

 Posted by at 1:19 am
Jun 202024

In case anyone wonders what we are up against. What Ukraine is defending, beyond their own territorial integrity. Why a compromise peace deal today would be aptly described by words uttered by Winston Churchill in 1938, criticizing Chamberlain’s “peace for our times”: “You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour and you will have war.” Well, just in case anyone has any doubt, take a look at this map from Wikipedia:

Countries in dark blue are the countries that signed the June 2024 joint communiqué of the Ukraine peace summit held in Switzerland. Countries in light blue participated but didn’t sign. The rest were absent, including the ayatollahs’ famous axis of resistance.

Notably, despite their pro-Russian stance, despite their reservations, Orban’s Hungary signed the communiqué. As did Ergodan’s Türkiye, despite their comparatively warm relationship with Moscow.

Yes, this is really shaping itself into a new world order. A struggle between Western democracies vs. authoritarianism. A flawed, but fundamentally decent, mostly peaceful, rules-based world order against a world characterized by territorial conquest and oppression.

The rhetoric is annoyingly familiar. Ukronazis? Well, in 1956, when Hungarians rose up against a totalitarian communist government, Soviet propaganda called them “fascists”. Soviet propaganda blamed American “imperialists” and the “CIA”, their relentless attempt to oppress freedom-loving socialist nations led by governments representing workers and peasants.

Where this will take us, I don’t know. I am not the only one worrying about WW3. Could it be that this time around, we are going to be a tad smarter than in the past? Maybe… but I don’t hold my breath. And when push comes to shove, I know what we are defending. Sigh.

 Posted by at 2:31 am
Jun 172024

Here, I picked a few countries for comparison on the Migration Policy Institute’s Web site. Specifically, to compare the ratio of migrant population (i.e., ratio of foreign-born residents) in these select lands.Immigration, of course, is a hot-button issue in the United States, but also in Hungary. Not sure about the UK but here in Canada, despite the fact that immigration represents an extra burden when it comes to, e.g., public health or affordable housing, we here comparatively less.

So how come a populist politician can exploit the immigration issue, never mind in border states of the United States, but also in Hungary where the relative immigrant population is still much lower? How come that the same topic has not become populist fodder here in Canada?

Well, perhaps I am looking at the wrong numbers. Yes, the share of immigrants in Canada is much higher than either in the US or Hungary. In fact, the share of the immigrant population here was already higher in Canada back in the 1960s than it is today in the United States. But look at the growth rate!

In Canada, the numbers went from about 16% back in 1990 to 21% in 2020. That represents a modest 30% increase. In other words, the immigrant situation in Canada today is not that different from the immigrant situation 30 years ago. In contrast, in the United States it went from about 9% to 15%. That is an almost 70% increase! Such an increase in the number of immigrants is certainly noticeable, and that is especially true if the immigrant population is not uniformly distributed across the country but is concentrated at specific locations (e.g., border states, major cities).

And Hungary? The figure went from 3% to 6%. So the relative share of the immigration population doubled in 30 years, in a country that is not used to having many immigrants in the first place. No wonder Mr. Orban can easily exploit the concerns and fears of his country’s citizens, presenting himself as the populist savior of the nation against Brussel’s bureaucrats who, hand-in-hand with the Jew Soros, are engaged in some sinister plan to flood the country with “migrants”.

 Posted by at 2:55 am
Jun 162024

Warning: Spoilers follow.

I am not what you would call a Trekkie, but I always enjoyed Star Trek. The original series remains my favorite, but TNG had its moments, as did Voyager, even Enterprise, for all its flaws. Picard was good, and Strange New Worlds has a chance of being on par with the original series.

But Discovery? I am presently about two thirds of the way through its penultimate episode and it’s… just painful. The tension is artificial, the writing feels shallow and preachy and… what’s this with, “We’re on a clandestine, dangerous mission, one misstep and we’re dead quite possibly along with the entire Federation, so why don’t we just stop and talk about our emotions?”

Seriously, I can only watch this abomination in five-minute chunks. I’ll suffer through the end now that barely more than an episode remains but… Oh well. I know, I know, another first-world problem.

Perhaps the least unsuccessful attempt by ChatGPT/DALL-E to illustrate the divisiveness of forced wokeness on television

And then there’s Dr. Who. I find that I actually like the latest season. Ruby Sunday is a delightful Companion, and Ncuti Gatwa has a chance to be ranked among the best Doctors. That is… if the series’ writers let him? Take the latest episode, Rogue. Within minutes, the Doctor falls in love. Same-sex love. The Doctor! The same Doctor who, in the past history of the series, almost never engaged in romantic relationships. Romantic teases, maybe… But not much more, except perhaps with River Song. But now? Instant infatuation, which, sadly, felt like little more than a cheap excuse for the writers to engage in dutiful woke virtue signaling, you know, same-sex kiss and all. To their credit, in the end they somewhat redeemed themselves, as Rogue’s (the love interest’s) feelings towards the Doctor and respect for the Doctor’s humanity led him to sacrifice himself… And save the episode from self-inflicted doom.

Even so, I wish television writers dropped the urge to outdo one another when it comes to virtue signaling. It’s just too painful to watch at times, even if I assume that it is about more than just ticking some boxes in a checklist, meeting a quota somewhere; that their intentions are the purest and their hearts are in the right place. Not to mention that it is grossly counterproductive: the only thing such blatant wokeness accomplishes is a knee-jerk trigger response by those on the political right, who are already convinced (in the words of someone I know) that “these are not normal times” anymore.

And you know where that leads. If these are not normal times, that means extraordinary means are justified. The autocrat wins in the end, presenting himself as the sole savior of all that is good and decent, in these abnormal times.

So let’s please just stop the forced, virtue-signaling wokeness. It’s not helping to make the world a better, more tolerant place. If it accomplishes anything, it’s the exact opposite.

 Posted by at 6:05 pm
Jun 152024

Say what you want, industrial design today is but a pale imitation of the extravagant design concepts that appeared back in the 1960s.

Here is one example. A Kuba Komet entertainment center from West Germany, manufactured between 1957-1962:

And here is its close cousin, known as the Arkay “Fantasia”, from the United States:

These things were obviously large, obnoxious even. Probably not terribly practical (300 pounds!) Yet they stand out in ways few, if any, modern devices do. We may be surrounded by gadgets that were not even imagined yet back in the early 1960s, we may be having delightful conversations with AI or have video chats with distant friends on other continents, but without the bold, science-fiction inspired visual appearance, our devices appear almost mundane in comparison with these design marvels.

 Posted by at 2:58 am
Jun 102024

I just finished watching the first season of a remarkable television series on Apple TV: Silo.

I say remarkable because it achieved for me the near-impossible: From the very beginning of the very first episode, I cared about the protagonists. I could identify with them, root for them. Including those who didn’t make it.

I shall try very hard not to spoil the show for those who have not seen all ten episodes yet, but…

It’s like Fallout, except that it’s even better. Fallout is great. I loved the games, I love the TV show. It captures Fallout‘s quirky cynicism and it truly feels like part of the same game universe.

Like Fallout, Silo also depicts a post-apocalyptic world. There is plenty of mystery. Unlike Fallout, there is no quirky humor in Silo. It’s more serious, and also more mysterious. In Fallout, we know right from the onset what caused the devastation. In Silo… let’s just say we know a lot less, and we may not even know what we don’t know.

I can’t wait for season 2 now. If they can maintain the quality of the show, the storytelling, the characters, the visuals… Damn, I sound like some stupid know-it-all TV critic, so let me just say that I liked the show. I wonder if Silo ever gets turned into a (preferably open-world) computer game.

 Posted by at 1:32 am
Jun 072024

I had a very busy day today. Or make that yesterday, since it’s almost 3 AM already.

I wanted write something about D-day. Eighty years. It’s been eighty years since Americans, Canadians, Britons and others of the Greatest Generation landed on the beaches of Normandy, opening a much-awaited second front in the global struggle against fascist totalitarianism.

The result: An imperfect, yet enduring world order, Pax Americana, which brought historically unprecedented peace, prosperity, and security to the majority of humans living on this planet.

Perfect it was not. Totalitarianism never vanished. Even after Stalin’s death, the USSR and its empire prevailed for another 36 years. Some of the worst excesses of communism were yet to come. And there were wars, big wars: I thought I’d list a few but there were too many. Even so, this was a period of global peace, a rules-based system that endured, beyond expectations I should say: When I was growing up, no sane adult existed anywhere I think who expected the world to survive beyond the year 2000 without a major nuclear war, yet here we are in 2024, and there are still no nuclear wastelands.

But eventually, all good things come to an end. This world order is crumbling. Will we survive without a civilizational catastrophe? I don’t know. I worry. Ukraine, the Middle East, Taiwan… who knows what else. The retreat of democracy and the rise authoritarianism. The storm is brewing.

Anyhow, enough about D-day. There were some good news. Boeing’s Starliner, though limping a little, made it to the International Space Station. Those astronauts were brave souls. Considering recent news from Boeing, their newfangled attitude towards quality control and safety, I expected, feared rather, a disaster. I am relieved that it has not happened, but NASA should still dump that overpriced, unsafe contraption.

Meanwhile, Musk’s SpaceX had a major success: Starship completed a full test, involving successful launch and “landing” (onto the ocean for now) of both its first stage and Starship itself. The re-entry was not without challenges, but they made it. This is a big milestone, a very big one. The promise of Starship is basically the holy grail of space travel: Fully reusable, rapidly refurnished vehicles. The fiery reentry was perhaps a bit more dramatic than planned, but the spacecraft made it, and that means that they can learn from the issues and improve both the vehicle and its landing procedure.

And I was only marginally paying attention because I am still struggling with forced upgrades: CentOS 7, the Linux version that I’ve been using since 2016, is coming up EOL (end-of-life) which means I must upgrade. But I cannot upgrade to CentOS because Red Hat turned CentOS into a bleeding edge version of Linux with a short support cycle. Joy. Anyhow, today I managed to complete another milestone of my transition plan, so I may still be able to get everything done in time.

 Posted by at 3:06 am
May 272024

One of the catch phrases of the famous computer game, Bioshock, is “would you kindly”. It’s only near the end of the game that we learn that the protagonist is compelled to respond to this phrase and act accordingly. Presumably, omitting this phase would have had unpleasant consequences for the game’s antagonists.

I was reminded of this as I was playing with the “behind-the-scenes” setup instructions that I have for the language models GPT and Claude at my site wispl.com. The models are instructed on how to use tools, specifically Google (for searches) and Maxima (for computer algebra). I was perplexed as to why both models tended to overuse Google even when the conversation began with a question or request that should have required no searches at all.

The relevant part of the instructions sent to the chatbot at the beginning of a conversation used to read as follows:

If your answer requires the most recent information or current events, respond solely with CSEARCH(query) with no additional text. For general queries or fact-checking that is not time-sensitive, respond solely with GSEARCH(query) and no additional text.

In a moment of inspiration, however, I changed this to:

If your answer requires the most recent information or current events, respond solely with CSEARCH(query) with no additional text. If your answer requires general queries or fact-checking that is not time-sensitive, respond solely with GSEARCH(query) and no additional text.

Can you spot the tiny difference? All I did was to repeat the “If your answer requires” bit.

Problem (apparently) solved. The chatbot no longer appears to do Google queries when it doesn’t really need them. I just needed to make sure that the magic phrase explicitly accompanies each request. Much like “Would you kindly”, in the world of Bioshock.

 Posted by at 6:56 pm
May 242024

I am watching HBO’s recent miniseries, The Regime, and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. The satire is great. The allusion to historical or present-day political personalities, from Rasputin To Ceausescu, from Orban to Putin, are unmistakeable.

Yet it hits a little too close to home. OK, far too close to home. Which is to say, the world of 2024 resembles the fictitious world of The Regime a little too much. Authoritarians on the rise, wars of conquest, pardon me, “peaceful reunification”, meddling by China, efforts to undermine trust in the fundamental institutions of Western democracy… And frankly, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between the “real” CNN vs. its fictitious depiction in The Regime.

Indeed, I was just reading about Argentina’s new head of state, Javier Milei. El Loco, he calls himself, and it’s fitting: if Time’s article is to be believed (and it is certainly consistent with what I’ve been reading elsewhere), what we have here is a delusional conspiracy theorist with a messianic complex. Yikes!

But just in case nutty politicians in a distant land in the southern hemisphere don’t bother us, here’s another piece of news and this really gave me the creeps the other day. Dutch firm ASML, the world’s premier maker of extreme ultraviolet lithography equipment (i.e., machines that can make the highest of the high tech chips) assured us that it has the capability to remotely disable their machines, used by chipmaker TSMC in Taiwan, in case of a Chinese invasion.

I find the fact that ASML even thought it necessary to reassure us that this option exists deeply unsettling. It makes me believe that the question of the next Great War is not if, but when… and the most likely answer is, sooner than we’d like.

Seriously, can’t we just hand the world over to AI-assisted cats to manage? I am seriously inclined to believe that we’d all (cats and humans as well as machines) be better off that way.

 Posted by at 2:34 am
May 202024

Occasionally I chat with people about China, in comparison with Europe. Many view China as a political entity that managed to maintain its unity even as Europe split into a great many competing states, often engaged in warfare.

I think this picture is patently false.

Sure, Europe has sovereign states, separated by borders. And sure, Europe has a multitude of languages, different ethnicities. On the other hand, while the Roman Empire may have officially ceased to exist many centuries ago, its unifying influence did not vanish. On the contrary, Europe’s traditions, customs, institutions, legal systems and religion, languages and writing systems remain dominated by the continent’s Roman heritage. Come to think of it, my own name (Viktor) is a Latin word!

And it’s not like folks in China all speak the same language. Look at this amazing map that I just came across, showing the multitude of languages spoken in different regions of China:

So what about those devastating wars, then? Europe was, after all, at the center of two world wars just in the past century, and there were plenty of conflicts (e.g., Napoleon) in prior centuries as well.

Yet all these conflicts are dwarfed by some of the wars the Chinese waged among themselves in the past. Wars with millions, even tens of millions killed were not uncommon, at a time when there were far fewer people in the world to begin with than in the 20th century. Measured by the death toll relative to the size of the human population, the two world wars of the 20th century were minor skirmishes in comparison with conflicts like the Three Kingdoms War or the An Lushan Rebellion.

So perhaps there are more similarities between China and Europe than at first meets the eye. We must not let the concept of state borders (themselves a relatively modern invention, a product of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 that established the modern concept of state sovereignty) mislead us.

 Posted by at 2:14 pm
May 062024

A couple of months ago, I came across a nice paper, by Verma and Silk (of Silk damping fame, as he’s known to cosmologists), showing what would happen if we had a chance to view the “shadow” of a supermassive black hole as it is microlensed by an intervening smaller black hole along the line-of-sight.

It occurred to me that I have the means to model this. At first I thought I’d write a short paper. But there really is nothing new that I can add to what Verma and Silk said in their paper, other than a nice animation produced by my ray tracing code.

So here it is. A brief animation of a small black hole passing in front of the famous “shadow”.

Things are not exactly to scale, of course, but for what it’s worth, this video corresponds roughly to a 10,000 solar mass black hole passing through, halfway between us and Sagittarius A*.

 Posted by at 11:59 pm
May 052024

I finally saw last year’s blockbuster, Oppenheimer. Let’s just say that my reaction to the film is not exactly in the mainstream.

That is, Best Picture my ass.

I am okay with Murphy’s Best Actor. Downey Jr. was especially good, earning his Best Supporting Actor in a role that I can only describe as unpleasant, playing the main villain of the Oppenheimer story, Lewis Strauss.

An actual photo of the real Oppenheimer

But the film?

For starters, there’s the jumbled timeline.  I am deeply familiar with the Manhattan project, and reasonably familiar with Oppenheimer’s life, including the story of the humiliating revocation of his security clearance in the 1950s. Even so, I was confused: I had a hard time keeping track of what I was seeing.

Then, there are some of the portrayals. Teller was unrecognizable. Where was the famous limp? And what’s with the accent? Sometimes, no accent at all, sometimes an accent that, whatever it was, didn’t sound even remotely like Teller’s. For some of the other, well-known physicists, it was same thing: I’m glad the closed caption sometimes showed the name of the person talking, otherwise, I swear I would not have known that one of them was Szilard, for instance. And Groves? His portrayal by Matt Damon was more like a caricature than the real general.

And then there are the gratuitous sex scenes. I hope I don’t come across as a prude by mentioning this, but… was it really necessary? I mean, yes, I get it, their penetrating questions about Oppenheimer’s private life were metaphorically undressing him, but was it really necessary to assume that the audience is so dumb, they won’t “get it” unless you put Oppenheimer, stark naked, fucking his girlfriend right there in the chair in the conference room while he is being interrogated? Seriously, this was so over the top, I could not believe my eyes. My reaction was that they were trying to out-Kubrick Kubrick, but without the talent of Kubrick (and I am decidedly not a Kubrick fan.)

Then how about the conversations? Some of them, I swear, sounded like a bad AI (no, not GPT-4 or Claude 3, more like GPT-2 or compact versions of Llama) trying to recreate conversations between scientists. I don’t want to set an impossible standard here. How about just meeting the standard, say… of a sitcom? The Big Bang Theory and Young Sheldon are both more respectful of the science (and the intellectual quality of discussions between scientists) than this film.

And some of the scenes were just grossly inauthentic. Never mind misrepresenting the then-perceived significance of the Oppenheimer-Snyder paper on gravitational collapse (yes, it is significant, but no, the term “black hole” was not even coined until a quarter century later), what was that with that childish celebration when the print edition arrived? By then, Oppenheimer and his colleagues would have known for months that the paper was accepted. Oppenheimer would have seen, and corrected, the galley proofs. The fact that print copies of the journal would appear on the appointed date would have been neither a surprise nor news to anyone involved.

What about the things that were omitted from the film? And no, I am not talking about technical details, not even the massive role facilities other than Los Alamos played in the development of the bomb. How about Oppenheimer’s 1960 visit to Hiroshima? It could have offered some profound moments, perhaps even allowing the film to conclude in a way much more fitting than the stupid “burn the atmosphere” CGI.

And speaking of CGI… what’s with the Trinity explosion itself? I read somewhere that it was not CGI. I could tell… it felt cheap. A bit like the explosion of the planet Alderaan in the original Star Wars movie, before the remaster.

The film had some redeeming segments, especially in the final half hour, but even those were overplayed, like that final (as far as I know, wholly fictitious) conversation between Oppenheimer and Einstein. Certainly not enough to salvage the movie for me. The best part were the end credits, as the music score was decent (not sure about Best Original Score quality, but it was enjoyable).

All in all, between the two acclaimed blockbusters from last year, in my view, Barbie won hands down.

Incidentally, I reminded myself that I had an equally negative view of another famous blockbuster from ten years ago, Interstellar: crappy story, crappy science, a psychedelic scene that wanted to be a bit Kubrick-like but couldn’t quite make it (and I absolutely hated what Kubrick has done with the closing scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey). What I didn’t realize until this moment is that both Interstellar and Oppenheimer were directed by the same Christopher Nolan. Guess that makes it official: I am no fan of Christopher Nolan! On the other hand, I suppose I am a fan of his younger brother: I liked Westworld, and I am beyond impressed by what he did with Fallout.

 Posted by at 11:27 pm
Apr 302024

One of the reasons why I find the sitcom, The Big Bang Theory, as well as its spinoff, Young Sheldon, enjoyable, is the fact that they respect the science.

That is to say, the science that we see pop up in the series from time to time is, well, it may be fictitious but not bogus. Not gobbledygook.

Here’s the latest example. In the most recent Young Sheldon episode, we see Sheldon’s first paper, published in the fictitious journal, “International Physics Review”.

The journal may be fictitious, but the format is not: It’s the standard Physical Review layout, pretty much. Looks quite legit!

The title actually makes sense. The Calabi-Yau manifold is a popular mathematical tool, used to deal with, or “compactify” the unwanted excess dimensions of 10-dimensional supersymmetric string theory.

The abstract cannot be read in full, but the words that are visible are not nonsense. OK, as far as I know there is no “Vail-Walker metric compactification”, but the fragments of text that we can read actually make sense, sort of: which is to say, the words are not randomly strung together, they actually form expressions that you might encounter in entirely legitimate physics texts.

I mean, usual Hollywood would have something like this Midjourney creation on a sheet of paper or a blackboard:

Midjourney’s response to the prompt, “A gentlecat physicist in front of a blackboard discussing the Schwarzschild metric”.

I mean, Midjourney draws lovely physicist cats, but it certainly knows nothing about the Schwarzschild solution. The creators of The Big Bang Theory do: If Sheldon Cooper talks about the Schwarzschild solution, you can bet that in the background, on the blackboard you’d see something like \(ds^2=(1-2GM/r)dt^2-(1-2GM/r)^{-1}dr^2-r^2d\theta^2-r^2\sin^2\theta d\phi^2.\)

 Posted by at 11:43 pm