Jan 172021
 

Coups d’état don’t succeed without support from the armed forces. That’s a historic given.

So when strangely clad “warriors” wearing fur hats and tattoos storm the Capitol Building in Washington DC, the sights are unsettling, people may die, but the stability of the United States government is not in any way in question.

But what happens when the troops who are supposed to prevent it from happening again themselves come under suspicion?

Just read the headline from the following Associated Press news release from minutes ago:

Defense officials fear possible inside attack at inauguration, will have National Guard troops vetted.

Just how the bleep do you vet over 20,000 troops hastily sent to Washington in less than 72 hours?

And what will that vetting do to their morale?

I am beginning to feel truly frightened.

 Posted by at 9:50 pm
Jan 162021
 

I am reading an interdisciplinary paper, published in Frontiers in Conservation Science, about the likeliness of a much more ghastly future than usually predicted: A future characterized by deteriorating environmental conditions, mass extinctions, a collapsing ecosystem threatening human existence.

The concerns are real. The warnings should be heeded before it’s too late.

But… But, having read the article, I cannot escape the feeling that the authors themselves practice some of what they preach against.

They mention the “weaponization of ‘environmentalism’ as a political ideology”, rightfully expressing concern that as a result, environmental groups are often viewed as “terrorists” in many parts of the world. But then, later on, among the suggested remedies they list “the empowerment of women”.

Now I may be very fond of the idea of empowering women (I am) but I have to ask*: what does this have to do with climate and the ecosystem? Are women inherently better at being environmentally friendly? Do they have special abilities to understand climate science better than men? Or is it, heaven forbid, an actual example of someone, well-intentioned I am sure, sneaking in a desirable political goal by “weaponizing environmentalism” for ideological purposes?


*I could ask similar questions about “strict regulation of markets and property acquisition, reigning in corporate lobbying” (which appeared in the same sentence). While I may sympathize with reducing corporate influence by constraining campaign financing (I consider near unconstrained financing one of the core reasons behind the current democracy crisis in the United States), what on Earth does it have to do with climate or the ecosystem? I would also like to remind the authors that regimes that had strict regulations of markets and property acquisition, such as the socialist regime in which I grew up, have a terrible environmental track record: and yes, they tended to treat environmental groups as terrorists, insurrectionists or worse, precisely because such groups acted independently and refused to be controlled by those governments.

 Posted by at 1:11 pm
Jan 152021
 

Tens of thousands of military personnel in Washington. Troops quartered in the Capitol building, reportedly for the first time since the US Civil War a century and a half ago. Establishment of a “Green Zone” like the one the US set up in Baghdad in 2003. An inauguration ceremony that is closed to the public, and not because of the raging pandemic. Threats of violence in every one of the 50 state capitals. News of rioters planning to assassinate public officials, including quite possibly the Vice President of the United States. News of lawmakers who feared that their lives might be threatened by… their fellow lawmakers, who are also conspiracy theory activists. News of other lawmakers who were afraid to vote to impeach the President because they felt that their lives were at risk if they did so. And law enforcement responding with not one but both hands tied behind their backs: not only are many of the insurrectionists themselves part of law enforcement, but they are cheered on by none other than the sitting President of the United States of America.

Can someone please tell me that this is just a bad dream, perhaps I got lost in one of Harry Turtledove’s alternate history novels, or perhaps a Netflix science-fiction series set in an alternate present, and that in reality, all is well?

Because if that’s not the case, I have to ask… Can someone please tell me what the bleep is happening?

 Posted by at 1:18 pm
Jan 082021
 

In light of Trump’s Twitter suspension, my wife remarked: He deserved it.

He certainly did, but I am still of two minds about this one. More importantly, I am not at all certain that it is wise to call for criminal prosecution against him after he leaves office.

Not that he doesn’t deserve it. He deserves it a hundred times over.

But asking what he deserves is the wrong question.

Here is the right question: What will make the world, American democracy in particular, a better place years from now?

Vindictively dealing with politicians, no matter how badly they deserve it, is unlikely to accomplish that. In fact, it may create a precedent that will make it that much harder to remove future miscreants from office, that much more likely that they’ll cling to power, through unlawful means if necessary.

And make no mistake about it: the next wannabe despot will be a lot smarter, a lot more skillful than Trump.

And for all we know, the next wannabe despot will be driven by a bigger-than-life ideology, a messianic complex, a desire to change the world, as opposed to mere narcissistic, infantile egocentrism. And that person will be a lot more dangerous than Trump has ever been.

 Posted by at 7:14 pm
Jan 062021
 

So this is what the US Capitol building looks like today:

Apparently, for some folks “democracy” is synonymous with “my way or the highway”, and they are willing to destroy democratic institutions to prevail. The pictures are beyond shocking. This is the kind of shit that we usually see coming from failed states in remote corners of the world, not the United States of America.

This is not the road to democracy. This is unadulterated fascism, and it’s not some exaggeration a’la Godwin’s law: This really is it.

I am thoroughly, thoroughly disgusted with Trumpists.

 Posted by at 3:13 pm
Dec 242020
 

Tonight, this view of earthrise from the historical Christmas flight around the Moon by Apollo 8 seems and feels especially profound.

We are all in this together on our tiny blue marble. For now, hunkered down, but not beaten. As a result of 21st century science and an incredible push by researchers, we now have working vaccines that will soon be distributed to millions, starting with health care workers and the most vulnerable. Who could ask for a better Christmas present? And even amidst all this, we can still share a joke, as people from Romania to New Zealand, from Canada to Iran erect copycat versions of the famous Utah monolith.

[G]ood night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.
– Frank Borman, Apollo 8 mission commander

There is hope for us in 2021 on this good Earth.

 Posted by at 12:35 pm
Dec 202020
 

The year 2020 was certainly not… nice.

But there is a ray of hope. It arrived in the form of the mysterious metal monoliths that popped up all over the globe, most recently even here in our relative neighborhood, on Sherbrooke street in Montreal.

Similar monoliths appeared all over the planet, from British Columbia to Romania, from Iran to New Zealand.

And that makes me feel optimistic.

If, in a year like 2020, humanity can share a joke like this: people on all continents, from different cultures, can happily participate in a shared prank, a harmless diversion, making fun of it all… then, perhaps, there is hope for us yet.

 Posted by at 12:36 pm
Dec 202020
 

In the last several days, until I asked Google not to show it anymore, this ad appeared on just about every other Web page that I visited:

As near as I can tell, it is inviting me to visit a clickbait site with some brainless list of “amazing inventions”. (Yes, I blurred out the address on purpose, because I have no desire to offer them free publicity.)

But what’s with this picture? It is… horrifying to be honest. If it is supposed to be an amazing invention, I wonder if it is an unusually gross sex toy or perhaps some quack medicine device.

Well, whatever it is… Google, please stop. This thing is… gross. (The machine-generated human face that seems to hit the bullseye in the middle of the uncanny valley doesn’t help either.)

 Posted by at 12:26 pm
Dec 152020
 

A very nice article about our work on the Solar Gravitational Lens was published a few days ago on Universe Today, on account of our recent preprint, which shows quantitative results assessing the impact of image reconstruction on signal and noise.

Because the SGL is such an imperfect lens, the noise penalty is substantial. However, as it turns out, it is much reduced when the projected image area is large, such as when an exoplanet in a nearby star system is targeted.

While this is good news, the Sun’s gravitational field has other imperfections. We are currently working on modeling these and assessing their impact on noise. Next comes the problem of imaging a moving target: an exoplanet that spins, which is illuminated from varying directions, and which may have varying surface features (clouds, vegetation, etc.) Accounting for all these effects is essential if we wish to translate basic theory into sound scientific and engineering requirements.

So, the fun continues. For now, it was nice to see this piece in Universe Today.

 Posted by at 11:08 pm
Dec 132020
 

I am watching an almost surreal (but beautiful) video.

In this video, ambassadors to the United States from Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates appear, exchanging warm greetings on account of the third night of Hanukkah.

The year 2020 is memorable mostly for all the wrong reasons, but if this remains one of the lasting legacies of 2020 and the Trump presidency, then perhaps it wasn’t a wasted year after all. After all, normalization of relations between Israel and Arab nations has been a decades long dream and until recently, very few people thought we’d live to see any meaningful results.

Yet here it is: the ambassador of a Gulf Arab state, lighting three candles on a menorah. What an astonishing sight.

 Posted by at 9:11 pm
Dec 022020
 

According to the immortal Douglas Adams, God’s final message to His creation is simple: “We apologize for the inconvenience.”

But there’s also another final message of sorts, the answer to the Ultimate Question about Life, Universe, and Everything: 42.

Recently, a researcher by the name of Michael Hippke analyzed the seemingly random bits that are contained in minute fluctuations of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation. His conclusion: there is no discernible pattern, no appearance of constants of nature, no detectable statistical autocorrelation. The message is random.

I beg to respectfully disagree. In the 512-bit segment published by Hippke, the bit sequence 101010 appears no fewer than eight, er, nine times (one occurrence split between two lines).

Now if we only knew the question to which the answer is 42…

 Posted by at 1:18 pm
Dec 012020
 

The giant Arecibo radio telescope is no more.

Damaged by a broken cable just a few weeks ago, the telescope completely collapsed today.

Incredibly sad news.

Completed in 1963, the telescope was 57 years old, just like me. I hope I will last a few more years, though.

 Posted by at 9:52 pm
Nov 192020
 

It was less than three weeks ago that I blogged about a terrifying milestone: the number of new COVID-19 cases reached 100,000 a day in the great United States.

And now here we are today, with over 192,000 new cases registered in the past 24 hours.

Frankly, this is beyond terrifying, especially considering the horrific stories of many COVID-19 survivors about the debilitating consequences of this disease.

 Posted by at 11:31 pm
Nov 192020
 

In recent years, I saw myself mostly as a “centrist liberal”: one who may lean conservative on matters of the economy and state power, but who firmly (very firmly) believes in basic human rights and basic human decency. One who wishes to live in a post-racial society in which your ethnicity or the color of your skin matter no more than the color of your eyes or your hairstyle. A society in which you are judged by the strength of your character. A society in which consenting, loving adults can form families regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. A society that treats heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals alike, without prejudice, without shaming, without rejection. A society in which covert racism no longer affords me “white privilege” while creating invisible barriers to those who come from a different ethnic background.

But then, I read that one of the pressing issues of the day is… the elimination of terms such as “master/slave” or “blacklist/whitelist” from the technical literature and from millions upon millions of lines of software code.

Say what again?

I mean… not too long ago, this was satire. Not too long ago, we laughed when overzealous censors (or was it misguided software?) changed “black-and-white” into “African-American-and-white”. Never did I think that one day, reality catches up with this Monty Pythonesque insanity.

It is one thing to fight for a post-racial society with gender equality. For a society in which homosexuals, transsexuals and others feel fully appreciated as human beings, just like their conventionally heterosexual neighbors. For a society free of overt or covert discrimination.

It is another thing to seek offense where none was intended. To misappropriate terms that, in the technical literature, NEVER MEANT what you suggest they mean. And then, to top it all off, to intimidate people who do not sing exactly the same song as the politically correct choir.

No, I do not claim the right, the privilege, to tell you what terms you should or should not find offensive. I am simply calling you out on this BS. You know that there is/was nothing racist about blacklisting a spammer’s e-mail address or arranging a pair of flip-flops (the electronic components, not the footwear) in a master/slave circuit. But you are purposefully searching for the use of words like “black” or “slave”, in any context, just to fuel this phony outrage. Enough already!

Do you truly want to fight real racism? Racism that harms people every day, that prevents talented young people from reaching their full potential, racism that still shortens lives and makes lives unduly miserable? Racial discrimination remains real in many parts of the world, including North America. Look no further than indigenous communities here in Canada, or urban ghettos or Native American villages in the United States. And elsewhere in the world? The treatment of the Uyghurs in China, the treatment of many ethnic minorities in Russia, human rights abuses throughout Africa and Asia, rising nationalism and xenophobia in Europe.

But instead of fighting to make the world a better place for those who really are in need, you occupy yourselves with this made-up nonsense. And as a result, you achieve the exact opposite of what you purportedly intend. Do you know why? Well, part of the reason is that decent, well-meaning people in democratic countries now vote against “progressives” because they are fed up with your thought police.

No, I do not wish to offer excuses for the real racists, the bona fide xenophobes, the closet nazis and others who enthusiastically support Trump or other wannabe autocrats elsewhere in the world. But surely, you don’t believe that over 70 million Americans who voted for Donald J. Trump 17 days ago are racist, xenophobic closet nazis?

Because if that’s what you believe, you are no better than the real racists, real xenophobes and real closet nazis. Your view of your fellow citizens is a distorted caricature, a hateful stereotype.

No, many of those who voted for Trump; many of those who voted for Biden but denied Democrats their Senate majority; many of those who voted for Biden but voted Democratic congresspeople out of the US Congress: They did so, in part, because you went too far. You are no longer solving problems. You are creating problems where none exist. Worse yet, through “cancel culture” you are trying to silence your critics.

But perhaps this is exactly what you want. Perpetuate the problem instead of solving it. For what would happen to you in a post-racial society with gender equality and full (and fully respected) LGBTQ rights? You would fade back into obscurity. You’d have to find a real job somewhere. You would no longer be able to present yourself as a respected, progressive “community leader”.

Oh, no, we can’t have that! You are a champion of human rights! You are fighting a neverending fight against white supremacism, white privilege, racism and all that! How dare I question the purity of your heart, your intent?

So you do your darnedest best to create conflict where none exists. There is no better example of this than the emergence of the word “cis” as a pejorative term describing… me, among other people, a heterosexual, white, middle-class male, especially one who happens to have an opinion and is unwilling to hide it. Exactly how you are making the world a better place by “repurposing” a word in this manner even as you fight against long-established terminology in the technical literature that you perceive as racist is beyond me. But I have had enough of this nonsense.

 Posted by at 10:46 pm
Nov 112020
 

Did Microsoft just offer me a 14-year old driver as a new update for Windows 10? Oh yes, they did!

But that’s okay… why fix something if it is not broken? Though I do wonder, if it is indeed a 14-year old driver, why was it not part of Windows 10 already? But never mind.

On the plus side, last night Windows 10 performed a feature upgrade along with security updates, and the whole upgrade process finished in well under half an hour; the reboot and installation phase only took a few minutes and so far, as far as I can tell, nothing is broken. Nice.

 Posted by at 12:36 pm
Nov 092020
 

I don’t consume much alcohol these days. Yet, I am compelled to admit, I had not one but two drinks this past week. One on Tuesday night as it became evident that the race was much tighter than pre-election polls suggested, and that there was a significant chance that my pessimistic prediction of a Trump victory would come true. The second was Saturday late morning when finally, the networks called it and named Joe Biden America’s president-elect; I felt a huge sense of relief and, well, the need for another Scotch.

Covers of the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel from February 4, 2017 and November 7, 2020.

Part of the reason why I felt relieved was that the process was far more orderly than I feared. After all the dire predictions of civil unrest, even talk of civil war, what we saw Tuesday night and on subsequent days was an orderly counting of ballots. There were modest protests but by and large within the confines if the law; and Saturday was marked with spontaneous celebrations by Biden supporters but again, no news of significant violence or rioting or anything of that nature.

In other words, America behaved exactly like you expect a mature democracy to behave, and that was perhaps the best news of the week (other than the outcome, of course.)

Yet I continue to worry that the root causes that led to Trump’s presidency have not gone away. Rising inequality, the stagnation, even shrinking of the middle class continue to create tension. The entrenched two-party system, a system of primary elections that often favor extremists over moderates, few constraints on campaign financing continue to contribute to an increasingly acerbic political climate. Biden, with his decades of experience in the Senate, might be uniquely qualified to address some of these issues but I remain skeptical: There is only so much a 78-year old politician can do. And the very fact that America elected someone this old is itself a symptom of a broken system. So the fear remains: That the next “Trump” will not be an incompetent narcissist but someone with a dangerous agenda and the skills needed to avoid becoming a one-term president.

At least for now, this nonsense is over. Trump can still do (and I predict, will do) damage in his remaining two and a half months in office. The transition is unlikely to be smooth, which will make it that much harder for Biden’s team to take over on January 20. But then again, his experience will help, and pretty soon, we won’t hear much of Trump anymore, unless some of the predicted criminal prosecutions materialize. (Which may or may not be a good idea; Gerald Ford’s rationale for pardoning Nixon was just as sound back then as it is today.)

Finally, there is Kamala Harris making history. The first woman to be elected on a presidential ticket. The second person in American history with a significant non-European ancestry to serve as Vice-President. (Much to my surprise, I learned that the first such person was Herbert Hoover’s Vice-President, Charles Curtis, who had significant Native American ancestry; he served from 1929 to 1933.) Conservative CNN commentator SE Cupp summed it up perfectly with her personal anecdote about her 5-year old son who, after being told by his Mom that the people on TV are the ones chosen to lead the country now, asked, “But that’s a woman! Could you lead the country, Mom?”

Damn right she could.

 Posted by at 1:20 am
Oct 312020
 

The ghosts of Halloween have not completely forsaken us.

Here is the driveway of one of our neighbors tonight:

I doubt there will be many trick-or-treaters, but it was nonetheless good to see this. I especially appreciated the lit candle that turned a jack-o-lantern into, well, an actual jack-o-lantern. But it is really the other pumpkin that looked truly frightening. Thank you, neighbor!

 Posted by at 7:53 pm
Oct 312020
 

Would you like me to scare you into offering me some Halloween candy?

Here are some plots from the spreadsheet that I’ve been using to keep track of COVID-19 numbers since the spring.

I am tracking global figures, numbers in the US, Canada, the province of Ontario and my city Ottawa, as well as the country of my birth (and where our elderly parents live), Hungary.

The number of cases needs no explanation. The trends are not good. Hungary, in particular, appears to be a representative case of Europe in general, where the numbers began skyrocketing in recent weeks, per capita figures far exceeding those in Trump’s America. (So perhaps it’s not politics, after all.)

The daily growth rates are also alarming. The only place with a downward trend is Ottawa. Everywhere else, the growth rate is increasing. A constant growth rate in this chart would correspond to an exponential rise in the total number of cases; an increasing growth rate implies super-exponential behavior.

This is also reflected in the doubling rate. In this chart, the higher the number, the better; a high number of days means that the spread is slow. Again, with the exception of Ottawa, the numbers are trending downward (which is bad), or at best, are perhaps stagnating (in Canada and Ontario). And look at Hungary again! According to the latest data, the number of cases there doubles every 16-17 days or so, which is frightening.

These charts show seven-day averages. Again, the usual disclaimers apply. Country-to-country comparisons need to be made with care, due to differences in testing and reporting regimes. But the trends are another matter.

 Posted by at 1:14 pm