Mar 292020
 

While I applaud the fact that there are very few partisan voices in Canada, and that governments at all levels constructively cooperate with each other, I cannot help but wonder if the measures taken are sufficient to fight this demon of a virus, COVID-19.

Take these two notifications that I received on my phone from the Radio Canada app yesterday:

  • 11:23 AM: À compter de lundi midi, les Canadiens ayant des symptômes de la COVID-19 ne pourront plus prendre des vols intérieurs ou le train
  • 11:38 AM: Justin Trudeau affirme qu’Ottawa n’envisage pas de fermer les frontières interprovinciales

My question is… why exactly do we still have non-essential travel within Canada? And why exactly are the interprovincial borders still open?

This virus will not be beaten with half-measures. If we are not able to bring down the infection rate, soon an extremely large number of people will become simultaneously sick, completely overwhelming the intensive care capacity of our health care system. Which means that a great many people who could survive with adequate medical care will die.

SIR model prediction based on US data as of March 28, 2020.

See this simple simulation of the US situation that I put together, using the simplest epidemiological model. If its predictions come true, at one point in late April more than 20% of America’s population will be sick. If 5-10% of these patients require intensive care, that is up to 6 million people or more, only a small fraction of which will receive the care that they will need to stay alive. The rest will die. The same thing can happen here in Canada if we don’t take the necessary measures.

 Posted by at 12:45 pm
Mar 252020
 

Ottawa looks like a ghost town these days. Here are a few images from this morning’s “rush hour”:

The one good thing about this is that when you actually have to go somewhere, it has never been this easy.

Oh, and gas is cheaper than… well, pretty much cheaper than it has ever been in my experience, since I moved to Ottawa in 1987.

 Posted by at 11:30 am
Mar 232020
 

Two weeks, or to be precise, fifteen and a half days ago, I was walking the streets of downtown Vienna, enjoying a bright late winter day, eating a bit of authentic Viennese street food and a fabulous slice of cake in a Vienna coffee house. The next day, I boarded a flight at a busy Vienna Airport. To be sure, some signs were already present that not everything was normal. The plane had fewer passengers than usual, especially in business class. There was news of Lufthansa grounding all their A380 superjumbos, and when I asked our pilot about this, he just shook his head, not knowing what the future would bring. But all this felt distant; the world around us, by and large, still felt normal, busy as usual, with people lining up at checkpoints, roadways busy with traffic, airplanes landing and departing at regular intervals.

Today, fifteen days later, we visited our favorite deli store in a nearly completely deserted Byward Market in downtown Ottawa. I literally could have parked in the middle of the street. The store was open (we phoned ahead to make sure) but deserted as well. All the good food there… will it ever sell? Will they at least get a chance to donate some of it, e.g., to the Food Bank or to a nearby shelter? Will they be able to stay open? Will they be able to stay in business?

I don’t know what hit me more, this store or the Web site of Vienna Airport. You know, the same airport where I stood in line, two weeks ago, to go through customs and security.

Not much of a chance of a lineup today.

How will our world recover from this?

 Posted by at 11:50 pm
Mar 232020
 

My wife and I went on a shopping spree.

No, we didn’t win the lottery. But apart from our desire to support our local economy in times of crisis, we were also rather worried that our favorite deli store in the Byward Market may be forced to close for an indefinite period of time.

So we stocked up on things. That said, I hope they are able to stay open. I hope they are able to stay in business. Other deli stores have shut their doors. I hope Continental remains open and that the owner and employees stay healthy.

In the meantime, I thank them for serving us.

 Posted by at 3:43 pm
Mar 222020
 

Working from home is easier for some than for others.

Members of a symphony orchestra have to get a little more creative than most of us, but that didn’t stop members of the Danubia Symphony Orchestra of Óbuda, from Budapest, Hungary:

Nicely done!

 Posted by at 6:18 pm
Mar 202020
 

I am reading this article in Mother Jones, worrying about the United States following the fate of the Western Roman Empire, leading to its collapse in 476 AD.

But… Empire?

I think it speaks volumes about America that even a left-wing outlet, like Mother Jones, worries about the end of an Empire… instead of worrying about the end of a Republic.

For these are not the end times for the American Empire. Not even the beginning of the end. It is, to put it plainly, just the beginning. If the analogy with Rome has any validity (and I suspect that it might), what we are witnessing is not the end of an Empire, but its birth.

What we see is not the weakening of the American political entity, quite the contrary. But we do see a transition, as republican values erode, as liberal democracy is abandoned, and the United States inches ever closer to an imperial presidency.

I expressed my concerns about this before. There are certain unmistakable parallels between the history that unfolds in the United States in the present day vs. the history of Rome some 2100 years ago.

The fact that even a Mother Jones commentator misses this point and thinks of his nation as an Empire only reinforces my concerns.

 Posted by at 3:50 pm
Mar 202020
 

I have been working from home pretty much exclusively for much of my life, certainly for the past 25+ years.

To many, it is a new experience. I think I can offer a few useful words of advice. A few lessons I learned.

  • Always get up in the morning. Working from home does not mean that you can sleep until noon. Keep a regular schedule.
  • Always dress. Do not sit down to work in pajamas or a nightgown. It’s okay to wear clothes such as those half-torn pair of jeans that you’d no longer wear outside. But do dress. Also be mindful of personal hygiene. Working from home is no excuse for stinky breath or smelly feet.
  • Create a dedicated workspace. Let your family know that when you are sitting there, you are, in fact, at work. Tell them to respect that and allow you to focus on the work that you do, without unnecessary distractions.
  • Indeed, do not let yourself get distracted. Sure, it’s okay to take a break and watch that press conference on COVID-19, or perhaps even watch half an episode of your favorite Netflix show. Kind of like taking a break at the water cooler, chatting with colleagues. But then get back to work!
  • Do not consume alcohol while working. You wouldn’t be sipping whiskey, Mad Men style, in the office either, would you?
  • Do eat regular meals. Have a lunch break.
  • Don’t be a workaholic: When you are done for the day, you are done for the day. Working at home does not mean an obligation to work through the night or through the weekend.

OK, enough patronizing advice. My apologies. Not sure what I was thinking. It’s time for me to get back to work.

 Posted by at 12:12 pm
Mar 182020
 

Looking at papers presenting predictions about the COVID-19 outbreak, one thing is evident: Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. Today, we passed the 200,000 mark for confirmed infections worldwide, and the curve continues its super-exponential rise for the time being. We are quite a long way away from “flattening” the curve, and that means that millions will get infected, health care systems will be overwhelmed even in the most advanced industrialized societies, and some of us who could be saved, will die, because there will not be enough hospital beds, respirators, medication, or health care professionals available to help.

Yet… I cannot help but wonder if this calamity is, perhaps, a blessing in disguise. Here is why.

This is the year 2020, when we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of one of the most devastating wars in history. Back when I was a young child, growing up watching the Spaceship Orion (Europe’s answer to Star Trek, with, ahem, slightly inferior production values) on our black-and-white television, I don’t think there was a sensible adult anywhere in Moscow or Washington, Ottawa or Budapest, who was not quite certain that by the year 2000, the world would have lived through an even more devastating world war.

Yet WW3 never happened. Instead, here we are, after 75 years of unprecedented peace and prosperity, a Golden Age that brought benefits to more people than at any time in the history of humanity. It is not unreasonable to worry that this Golden Age would not last forever, that eventually, it would crumble, just as the old world order that characterized Western civilization between 1849 and 1914 crumbled when the “lights went out all over Europe” in August 1914.

But imagine… for one moment, imagine what would have happened if the last global pandemic, the Spanish Flu, hit the world not in 1918 but in 1913. Imagine towns and cities shutting down, borders closed, but also nations helping each other, exchanging medical information, improving their communication, all in an at first haphazard, but later increasingly coordinated effort to overcome this scourge. And eighteen months later, when the last wave of infections subsides, global euphoria: A new fraternity of nations who, using the powers of modern science and working together, overcame this challenge and preserved our shared civilization.

And… no Great War. No collapse of the old world order. Instead, countries that previously seemed incapable of reforming themselves, now willing to take the necessary steps, as Russia, Austria-Hungary and Imperial Germany transition to constitutional monarchies, and a new, modern Europe emerges without the devastation of war, without the horrors of the Holocaust… all because of the pandemic that hit the continent before it had a chance to go berserk on its own.

So perhaps… perhaps COVID-19 is our era’s Spanish Flu and it is hitting us in our equivalent of 1913, before our next Great War, instead of devastating us after years of horrific warfare. Perhaps COVID-19 is what our societies need to preserve the values of our existing world order even as we reform it and ensure its survival for decades to come.

Is this a pipe dream? Perhaps. Then again… just thinking about this possibility made me feel substantially less apprehensive about the coming months, despite all my concerns, despite knowing that the worst is yet to come.

 Posted by at 1:39 pm
Mar 172020
 

There are photos of empty store shelves circulating on the Internet, promoted in particular by Americans supporting Donald Trump, as examples of what stores would look like under socialism.

No, my friends, this is what stores looked like under socialism. Socialism that I experienced first-hand, not some abstraction. And it wasn’t pleasant. But the stores were… well, see for yourself. This is no propaganda photo, but a picture from the collection of my late father-in-law, who was a professional photographer. (The hand-written blue arrow is there to point out that under a sign advertising first-class poultry, there are meats hanging that definitely don’t appear to have come from any chicken):

In contrast, and contrary to what the poster tweeted, the following is a picture of Trumpian capitalism in a moment of crisis:

In fact, as some commenters pointed out, a centrally planned command economy in a police state may be better able to cope with a crisis of this nature than market capitalism, even with competent political leadership.

 Posted by at 9:38 am
Mar 172020
 

A Trumpist friend of mine (yes, I have Trump-supporting friends; I refuse to let politicians, left or right, to make me distrust my neighbor just because our political opinions differ) made a disparaging comment about Justin Trudeau, calling him xenophobic on account of Canada shutting its borders to foreigners.

No, my friend, that is not xenophobic. If you want to know why I call the American president a xenophobic asshole (again, forgive my language, dear readers, but I am done being nice to that boneheaded moron), here is a perfect example:

Yes, this is a tweet by a xenophobic schmuck.

 Posted by at 9:29 am
Mar 142020
 

Businesses appear to be somewhat freaked out by the COVID-19 pandemic. The good news is that many of these businesses choose to act responsibly, in the public interest, as opposed to trying to turn a global health crisis into short-term profiteering.

Several newspapers and magazines made their COVID-19 coverage accessible even for non-subscribers. In Canada, CBC Newsworld is now carried for free by several cable providers. One of the largest GIS software firms, ESRI, is making tools available for free online.

Even smaller firms follow suit. There is StarNet, makers of X-Win32 and FastX, popular software packages that can be used to access UNIX/Linux servers remotely from Windows workstations. They, too, are now offering free 6-month FastX licenses to anyone, to help facilitate work-from-home arrangements. I have liked this company ever since I first became familiar with their products back in the 1990s; now I like them even more (hence my decision to use their product logo to illustrate this post.)These steps, taken by businesses large and small, give me hope, even as I watch that compulsive liar of an infantile US president who cannot even get his story straight and his opposition who think that the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on Trump’s presidency is more important than the number of people the pandemic kills; or as I watch Canadian opposition politicians (looking at your Twitter feed, Andrew Scheer!) who use even COVID-19 as a cheap excuse for Trudeau-bashing. Can you please put this partisan shit aside, follow the lead of the aforementioned businesses, and start acting like, you know, grown-ups?

 Posted by at 11:24 pm
Mar 122020
 

Trump is incompetent. America’s most Stable Genius is probably the most boneheadedly incompetent president in my lifetime, if not in the entire history of the great United States.

Take his announcement last night of the travel ban from Europe. First, let me state that the policy is, I believe, the right one: restricting international travel is the single biggest thing governments can do to slow the spread of a communicable illness. Despite being Draconian, despite inconveniencing hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, it was therefore the sanest thing to do, and I am glad that for a change, Trump listened to smart people in his administration.

Stable Genius

Unfortunately, Trump obviously thinks life is a reality show, where bending the truth for the sake of maximizing entertainment value is not only acceptable but expected behavior. Which is why, if you only listened to Trump’s televised speech, without actually bothering to fact check it against the Web sites of the White House or the Department of Homeland Security, you could have come to the false conclusion that there might be a rush on airports as desperate Americans try to get home on one of the last few flights from the continent, or that trans-Atlantic trade is about to be shut down. Neither of which is the case, actually; US citizens can still return home and trans-Atlantic trade continues. The actual ban affects aliens who have spent any time in the Schengen zone within the past two weeks (like me; I presume I therefore cannot travel to the United States for the next couple of weeks, as I am not a US citizen or resident and I just returned from the Schengen zone this Monday.)

And Trump is also a hatemongerer, who feeds off dividing people. I cannot think of any US president in my lifetime: Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr., Obama — who would have presented the coronavirus thing as anything other than a global threat to humanity, a shared responsibility, not as an “us vs. them” affair, blaming China for the “foreign virus”, blaming Europe for not taking measures similar to those taken by the US (which is not even true, but that’s besides the point.) But Trump? As I said, like a leech or a vampire, he feeds off hate and distrust.

And then consider the following: This smartest president ever, this “stable genius” as he once characterized himself, actually disbanded his own National Security Council’s Global Health Unit, because, according to Mr. Stable Genius, it’s something that “you can never really think is going to happen.” Well, Mr. Stable Genius, I can offer a few names who actually did think that something like COVID-19 might happen: the aforementioned Messrs. Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush Sr., Clinton, Bush Jr. and Obama… and that’s just in my lifetime.

You know, Mr. Stable Genius, I am trying to give you credit for finally listening to people who, unlike you, actually know what they are doing. But what I really feel… I hesitate to use profanity in my blog, but in this case I will make a rare exception, with apologies to my readers: I cannot wait until you just get the fuck out of that White House and return to obscurity as a failed rich boy, a crooked real estate villain, a reality TV has-been. The sooner you fuck off, the better we all are, Americans and other citizens, Republicans and Democrats alike.


PS: To my Republican-leaning friends who still defend this idiot and think that my criticism is evidence of me suffering from Trump Derangement Syndrome: Please look at the facts. Please recognize that this is not about “us vs. you”, not about liberals vs. conservatives, not about The Donald vs. Hillary, not about trying to undo an election. I understand why you voted for Trump and I accept that he actually delivered on a number of fronts, meeting or even exceeding your expectations. That does not make him any less dangerous, as he turns us against each other, makes us distrust each other more than we distrust actual enemies, and takes steps that reek of colossal incompetence. Like that speech last night. And before you dismiss all that, here is one number for you to ponder: 21,200.62. That’s the DJIA tonight, down from 27090.86 just eight days ago. That’s nearly 25% of the investments and retirement savings of millions of Americans and others, wiped out. In a market driven mostly by middle-aged white men. Trump’s primary voting base. Do they suffer from Trump Derangement Syndrome, too, when they conclude that his speech did more harm than good, driving markets down at an unprecedented pace?

 Posted by at 7:20 pm
Mar 102020
 

I returned from a brief trip to Hungary yesterday.

My return flight was a bit eerie. Here is a picture of a part of the business class section of this Austrian Airlines 767:

It was not quite this empty (I tried to avoid photographing any passengers, for obvious privacy reasons) as there were a few passengers there, but only a few. Most reservations were canceled.

Is this dramatic response to the coronavirus justified? Parts of China, all of Italy under quarantine? Schools, public gatherings canceled around the world? A cruise ship industry in crisis, a global airline industry poised to lose hundreds of billions of dollars? Planes flying empty just to maintain the respective airlines’ claims on lucrative routes, or planes not flying at all, like the A380 fleet of Lufthansa?

Meanwhile, as Trump himself is fond to point out, the number of conformed coronavirus infections (most of which result in a mild illness, nothing more) worldwide is dwarfed by the number of influenza deaths this flu season.

Of course the flu is (more or less) predictable. The coronavirus is not. And its fatality ratio is much higher.

Even so, I have to admit that I wonder if the cure is causing more harm than the disease.

Then again… if we are just one minor mutation away from a Spanish Flu like pandemic, perhaps the drastic steps are justified. After all, at least some folks are criticizing the WHO for not going far enough, for failing to declare a global pandemic.

No matter what, flying back home in the time of coronavirus was an eerie experience. It was a bit like something straight out of the first episode of a science-fiction television series.

And yes, I was using my limited supply of hand sanitizer quite liberally. After all, you can never be certain…

 Posted by at 3:04 pm
Mar 102020
 

And then, my Mom almost spat out her tea.

That happened when I told her about the pitiful attempt of mid-level management to deal with the persistent smell of sewage at the Parliament station of Ottawa’s defect-plagued new LRT system: the installation of bathroom air fresheners at dozens of locations around the station.

You see, I was visiting my Mom in Budapest. The city has an old underground line that was constructed back in 1896, but it also has a modern subway network, the first of which (line 2 in the current numbering scheme) was opened to the public in 1970, when I was seven years old.

That line used Soviet technology, Soviet trains, a Soviet signaling system. And it… just worked, from day one, each and every day, each and every hour of the day.

I spent one afternoon riding public transportation in Budapest. I traveled on this old line 2, which is presently using 90s era equipment and trains. I traveled on line 3, which uses recently rebuilt trains of the original Soviet variety. And I traveled on line 4, which is a modern, 21st century line with completely automated, driverless trains.

All three lines just… work. They work reliably. The rare instances when the system is interrupted are usually caused by events beyond the operators’ control, such as someone jumping in front of a train. And that 19th century relic, line 1, rebuilt and renovated in 1973, works reliably, too.

Meanwhile in Ottawa, and least the air fresheners have since been removed. But the stink remains, if you are fortunate (or unfortunate?) enough to be able to visit Parliament station when the service operates, at least at a reduced capacity.

 Posted by at 2:50 pm
Feb 262020
 

The United States had Grace Hopper: A diminutive, elderly lady with a stern look on her face, uncannily wearing a rear admiral’s dress uniform as the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the United States Navy, even as she earned the nickname Grandma COBOL, for her role in the development of one of the oldest computer programming languages still in use today.

But there was another female computer scientist with a career just as defining and just as fascinating as that of Rear Admiral Hopper: Xia Peisu, sometimes known as China’s mother of computer science.

Xia Peisu in 1946

Xia Peisu in 1946

I learned about Xia Peisu just now, from a BBC News online article. What an amazing life! I am especially fascinated by Chinese scientists and engineers who never gave up, who continued to work for the benefit of their country even through the indignities of the Cultural Revolution and other political upheavals.

Dr. Xia lived a long life: she passed away in 2014, at the age of 91. She lived to see the modern, interconnected world with computers everywhere. She also lived to see computers as means of oppression and surveillance in the hands of police and totalitarian regimes, China among them. I would have loved to know what she thought of it all.

 Posted by at 11:26 pm
Feb 172020
 

Our most comprehensive paper yet on the Solar Gravitational Lens is now online.

This was a difficult paper to write, but I think that, in the end, it was well worth the effort.

We are still investigating the spherical Sun (the gravitational field of the real Sun deviates ever so slightly from spherical symmetry, and that can, or rather it will, have measurable effects) and we are still considering a stationary target (as opposed to a planet with changing illumination and surface features) but in this paper, we now cover the entire image formation process, including models of what a telescope sees in the SGL’s focal region, how such observations can be stitched together to form an image, and how that image compares against the inevitable noise due to the low photon count and the bright solar corona.

 Posted by at 11:37 pm
Feb 042020
 

Before heading to bed, I briefly turned on CNN, to listen to a few minutes of the coverage of the Iowa caucus fiasco.

In light of what I am hearing, I only have one question: Exactly when did the great United States turn into an incompetent banana republic?

Hmmm, actually, I also have a second question. Is this how the Democratic Party planning to beat Donald Trump in November?

 Posted by at 1:43 am
Jan 242020
 

A terrible sickness is upon us.

As of mid-January, just in the great United States 13 to 18 million people have been inflicted. Nearly 6 million required medical visits, and some 120,000 have been hospitalized. Worse yet, though the numbers are uncertain, somewhere between 6,600 and 17,000 people died. And that’s nearly two week old data; since then, I am sure there have been more victims.

Oh, you thought I was talking about the coronavirus outbreak that leads the evening newscast?

No. I am talking about the flu. Specifically, the 2019-2020 flu season, with data from the Centers for Disease Control.

As for the coronavirus, there have been a grand total of two confirmed cases so far in the US. None in Canada.

And that sums up the problem that I see with how we are being informed nowadays. Things that are exceptional and sensational lead newscasts. Things that are mundane are left forgotten, even when they are orders of magnitude more likely to affect you.

That is not to say that I disregard the threat that the coronavirus represents, or that I blindly criticize the response of authorities (in China and elsewhere) who are trying to contain a virus before it becomes more widespread. But keeping things in perspective is important.

 Posted by at 5:39 pm
Jan 132020
 

We have had at least one cat in the house for nearly 24 years. More than one, for nearly 20 years.

Never before did I have a problem with cats and wires. And believe you me, I have plenty of wires in this house, especially in my study.

A few days ago, our cat Freddy overnight decided to attack my wired earbuds that I use with my desktop computer for Skype. He completely chewed through the (thin, rubbery, and I guess tasty) wire in several places, and eventually left the scene with his “trophy”, the separated earbuds.

Needless to say, I was not amused.

And then two days ago, while I was sitting on the porcelain throne in the little programmers’ room, I suddenly heard a loud noise from my study. A few seconds later, I heard my wife cry out in anguish: “Your mouse!”

Yup. The poor mouse, completely separated from its plug, was by then hanging from Freddy’s mouth as he was proudly exiting the scene.

Was I ever pissed. Before I even got downstairs, my wife locked Freddy in the downstairs powder room. I went there with the remnants of the mouse and impressed upon him just how angry I was. No, don’t worry, I did not harm Freddy. I would rather poke my eyes out first. I love the little guy dearly, but even if I didn’t, I do not harm living creatures. Darnit, I feel bad swatting fruit flies. I would most certainly not hurt a cat. But yell at him? Oh yes. Throwing the remnants of the mouse wire at him? Yes. Smashing the mouse in front of him showing just how upset I was? Absolutely.

When I left him in the sink with the remnants of the mouse, I think he knew. When I let him out of the powder room some time later, he was not afraid of me (much to my relief) but he remained very subdued. And when I was finally talking to him again the next day, he seemed relieved.

Will he stop chewing wires? I hope so. I am now liberally applying cat repellent to the wires on and under my desk and also around my servers. We are also giving Freddy snacks rich in fiber; cats supposedly don’t need fiber, but sometimes they do. And we will visit the vet soon for a checkup, just to be on the safe side.

Silly cat. What kind of a cat steals a mous… Oh wait.

 Posted by at 1:14 pm
Jan 052020
 

Back in 1944, Astounding Science Fiction magazine published a short story, Deadline by Cleve Cartmill, about a devastating war on an alien planet, and the development of a uranium fission bomb. The details of the bomb were sketchy, but at least a few of the details provided (about isotope separation, about the concern that a fission explosion might “ignite” nearby matter and cause global devastation) were sufficiently accurate to earn the magazine a visit by the FBI.

Something similarly uncanny happened three days ago, when the New York Times published an opinion piece by a former Obama aid about hypersonic missiles. The article included, among other things, the following paragraph: “What if the former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Qassim Suleimani, visits Baghdad for a meeting and you know the address? The temptations to use hypersonic missiles will be many.”

Hours later, Suleimani was killed at Baghdad airport (although not by a hypersonic missile, just an ordinary drone strike.)

I doubt Mr. Trump was acting on the advice of a former Obama aid, so almost certainly, this was pure coincidence. But that is just uncanny.

The consequences of the Suleimani attack, unfortunately, are another matter. One has to wonder if there was any real thinking, any real strategy. Even Fox’s Tucker Carlson chose to question the wisdom of this act, blasting the hawks who may have been responsible for talking Trump into taking this reckless step.

The attack was a godsend to the ayatollahs. It offers them the best possible way out of an wave of protests unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic. It finally prompted Iraq’s parliament to vote in favor of the removal of remaining US troops. And it gave Iran an excuse to completely abandon the nuclear deal.

No, I don’t think the ayatollahs will escalate. They don’t have to. The threat of imminent war is always a more effective means to control the population than actual war. And facing an incompetent imbecile, they can just bide their time, while Trump loses whatever goodwill remains among America’s allies towards his administration by threatening Iranian cultural sites in retaliation.

 Posted by at 11:44 pm