Nov 202021
 

I kept staring at my calendar.

November 20. November 20. Why is this date memorable?

Then it suddenly popped into my mind. My father was born exactly 115 years ago, on November 20, 1906, in what was then Austria-Hungary, in the fine city of Temesvár, today known by its Romanian name as Timișoara.

He passed away in the fall of 1985, not long before I left Hungary.

 Posted by at 4:55 pm
Nov 142021
 

I am sure everybody had people like my friend Ken in their lives: People who, often by pure chance, played a major role in shaping our lives at critical turning points. When I came to Canada in 1987, I met several people who opened doors for me, offered me opportunities when I needed them most, or simply rewarded me with their friendship.

Ken Bowman was one such person. A mid-level manager at Canada Post in 1989, he was running the little project that I joined. I needed the income badly as my previous contract work ended months prior and I was rapidly running out of money. But the project itself was also interesting, challenging even. Oh, and the machines were fabulous: IBM PS/2-70 workstations with very large (by the standards of the time) hard drives, high resolution color monitors, laser printers… Lovely work.

I worked there for about nine months, but the friendships proved lasting. Some time later, Ken joined the company that was set up by a couple of my teammates on this project. He led the business side of one of my favorite development projects, which involved not only a product catalog but also an engineering and load sizing component, with plenty of interesting physics.

Ken’s partner at this company had a long, difficult-to-spell last name. One day, they received personally addressed but otherwise identical pieces of junk mail. The partner’s name was spelled flawlessly. Ken’s? Not so much. The envelope just read “Kenowman”. Needless to say, this earned him the obvious instant nickname: from this point on, he was often called Obi wan Kenowman, or just Obi wan for short. He loved it.

Even after he retired, we stayed in touch. Whether it was the politics of the day, a reaction to one of my silly blog posts, or just a picture of his beautiful cat Cimarron, I received missives from him occasionally, mostly in the form of lengthy text messages. And before the pandemic changed the world, we also met from time to time. Seeing him in person, I was actually worried about his health: he lost a great deal of weight, more than what I’d consider healthy.

Ken with one of his grandsons, two elegant gentlemen in happier times.
Photo courtesy Hollis Bowman.

Sadly, it appears that my concerns were not unfounded. One morning a few days ago I received an e-mail from Ken’s daughter Hollis that her Dad was now in palliative care. And before I could even respond, a second e-mail arrived: her Dad passed away.

And just like that, another friend is gone. If I am counting it right, Ken is the fifth person who played an oversize role in shaping the first couple of years of my life here in Canada. Inevitably it makes me wonder, who’s next? (Let that be a plea to my remaining friends: please stay healthy and take good care of yourselves!)

For now, though, Ken, I’ll miss hearing your voice on the phone from time to time. I’ll miss getting text messages from you about the state of the world. I’ll miss pictures from you about your beautiful cat.

I’ll miss you. Thank you for having been a part of my life.

 Posted by at 11:52 pm
Nov 122021
 

In 1973, my Mom and I visited my aunt here in Ottawa. It was a remarkable journey for 10-year old me. The differences between Hungary, then firmly behind the former Iron Curtain, and Canada were… astonishing. (Let’s just say that this experience firmly inoculated me against any communist claims about building a better society.) The trip was equally impactful on my Mom, though of course she experienced it quite differently as an adult.

At the time, my Mom spoke very little English. So when my aunt and her husband decided to take her to a movie theatre to see the latest James Bond movie, the first one with Roger Moore in the title role, they assured her that they will provide a running translation.

Then the film began and they quickly found out that translation was not necessary after all. At least insofar as these opening shots were concerned.

To this day, we cannot stop laughing when we think back of this moment.

 Posted by at 8:46 pm
Nov 122021
 

Today, I saw a funny post on Quora about how to pet a rabbit. Apparently, rabbits should not be picked up (fragile skeletal structure, bones that break easily) and also hate it when their tail is touched. I was about to make a cheeky comment on pulling either a rabbit or a cat by the tail. But first I wanted to fact check something quickly on Google, and that’s when I came across this article about tail pull injuries that cats sometimes suffer.

Yikes!

I admit I pulled our cats by the tail every once in a while. It’s funny, but also effective when you need to pull a cat back when he’s about to run out of the house or do something he’s not supposed to do.

Except… Except that, as I now learn, cats’ tails get injured relatively easily, and the injury can be devastating, affecting the bundle of nerves that exit the spinal column, which control much of their lower body. The least devastating consequence is losing mobility of the tail, but the injury can also lead to paralysis of the hind legs and incontinence. In short, ruining a cat’s life.

I did not know this. I am glad I never inadvertently caused injury to one of our cats. But I will never pull a cat by the tail again.

 Posted by at 7:31 pm
Nov 062021
 

Machine translation is hard. To accurately translate text from one language to another, context is essential.

Today, I tried a simple example: an attempt to translate two English sentences into may native Hungarian. The English text reads:

An alligator almost clipped his heels. He used an alligator clip to secure his pants.

See what I did here? Alligators and clips in different contexts. So let’s see how Google manages the translation:

Egy aligátor majdnem levágta a sarkát. Aligátorcsipesz segítségével rögzítette a nadrágját.

Translated verbatim back into English, this version says, “An alligator almost cut off his heels. With the help of an ‘alligatorclip’, he secured his pants.

I put ‘alligatorclip‘ into quotes because the word (“aligátorcsipesz“) does not exist in Hungarian. Google translated the phrase literally, and it failed.

How about Microsoft’s famed Bing translator?

Egy aligátor majdnem levágta a sarkát. Aligátor klipet használt, hogy biztosítsa a nadrágját.

The first sentence is the same, but the second is much worse: Bing fails to translate “clip” and uses the wrong translation of “secure” (here the intended meaning is fasten or tighten, as opposed to guarding from danger or making safe, which is what Bing’s Hungarian version means).

But then, I also tried the DeepL translator, advertising itself as the world’s most accurate translator. Their version:

Egy aligátor majdnem elkapta a sarkát. A nadrágját egy krokodilcsipesszel rögzítette.

And that’s. Just. Perfect. For the first sentence, the translator understood the intended meaning instead of literally translating “clip” using the wrong choice of verb. As for the second sentence, the translator was aware that an alligator clip is actually a “crocodile clip” in Hungarian and translated it correctly.

And it does make me seriously wonder. If machines are reaching the level of contextual understanding that allows this level of translation quality, how much time do we, humans, have left before we either launch the Butlerian Jihad to get rid of thinking machines for good, or accept becoming a footnote in the evolutionary history of consciousness and intelligence?

Speaking of footnotes, here’s a footnote of sorts: Google does know that an alligator clip is a pince crocodile in French or Krokodilklemme in German. Bing knows about Krokodilklemme but translates the phrase as clip d’alligator into French.

 Posted by at 5:51 pm
Oct 242021
 

Thanks to streaming services, I occasionally stumble upon films and television series from foreign lands that otherwise I’d not even know about. And no, I don’t mean Squid Game, that explosively popular Korean series: I only watched the opening few minutes of the first episode so far, and I don’t yet know if it is my cup of tea. Rather, this time around it is a Russian movie that I came across on Amazon Prime: a 2017 film titled Salyut-7.

Salyut-7 was a Soviet space station. In 1985, the space station was dead, without power. The Russians launched a daring rescue mission, Soyuz-T13, which was not only able to dock with the derelict station but also able to revive and repair it.

Consistent with Soviet era secrecy, we knew very little about this mission and didn’t appreciate its significance back then.

The movie itself combined the actual story of the Soyuz-T13 mission with other events, such as the fire on board the Mir space station 12 years later or a nonsensical fictitious mission by the space shuttle Challenger to “steal” the station, for dramatic effect. In that, I think they did a disservice to the cosmonauts who pulled off this repair: perhaps less spectacular in terms of visual effects, what they accomplished was no less significant.

But otherwise, I found the movie fun to watch, very well done, with top notch special effects and (insofar as my inexpert eye can tell) excellent acting and directing. I enjoyed the movie. And its faults notwithstanding, I think it offers a worthy reminder that the USSR’s space program brought enormous value to all of humanity. It saddens me deeply when I think of how much of it went to waste in the turbulent years following the breakup of the USSR.

 Posted by at 12:11 pm
Oct 202021
 

Earlier today, I noticed something really strange. A lamp was radiating darkness. Or so it appeared.

Of course there was a mundane explanation. Now that the Sun is lower in the sky and the linden tree in front of our kitchen lost many of its leaves already, intense sunlight was reflecting off the hardwood floor in our dining area.

Still, it was an uncanny sight.

 Posted by at 11:27 pm
Oct 012021
 

One of the issues that plagues our present-day world is distrust in the media, distrust in particular in American media.

There are many reasons for this distrust. There is all the “fake news” spread by social media. The source, in a fair number of cases I guess, is agencies ran by hostile foreign governments, like Putin’s infamous Internet Research Agency or his cable news channel RT, whose purpose often seems to be precisely this, undermine trust by spreading disinformation. At other times, it is domestic politicians, including a certain former US president who spent his four years in office denouncing anything he didn’t like as fake news, thus blurring the line between bona fide fake news, political bias, and straightforward reporting of facts that he just plain didn’t like.

The flip side of the coin is that unfounded accusations and bona fide fake news from foreign sources do not automatically guarantee that the actual “mainstream media” is truthful. And every so often, I feel compelled to question the prevailing narrative. This is especially true when it comes to American news television, which over the years has become exceedingly partisan. (I pretty much stopped watching US news networks for this reason, except in case of major breaking news events.)

Just over a month ago, America’s war in Afghanistan came to an ignominious end. Much of the news media denounced the chaotic withdrawal, presenting it as both unexpected and avoidable. In reality, if you spent any time watching the efforts in Afghanistan, it was neither. The military presence in Afghanistan never had a well-defined, achievable military goal. And the withdrawal inevitably meant a collapse of institutions that had no legitimacy in the country other than the Western military support on which they relied for their very existence. So while the actual details can always be surprising, the collapse was both predictable and unavoidable.

But then comes the second part of the narrative, about the nature of the Taliban’s rule. No, I have no delusions about them. If you are a young woman in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, your future just became a lot darker. And if, heaven forbid, you are a member of the LGBTQ community, flee while you still can. But… Western media narratives notwithstanding, the Taliban seem genuinely interested in restoring law and order. Yes, it will be their version of law and order (but then, how exactly does it differ from the Islamist law and order in our friend and ally, Saudi Arabia?) but law and order nonetheless. Case in question? The Globe and Mail just published this view of Canada’s shuttered embassy in Kabul, guarded by Taliban security, who claim that they’ll guard the building until Canadian diplomats return. How do we know? Because the Globe and Mail’s international correspondent, a Western journalist, was able to visit the place. Harsh Islamist regime? I am sure. A terror regime that beheads stray Westerners? Doesn’t look like it.

And then there was something else today, completely unrelated to the above: the shutdown of a news media startup in the US, Ozy. Now I don’t know much about Ozy, except that a few months ago, they started spamming me. I say spamming because I never signed up for their daily news briefs, but I ended up receiving them anyway. Having said that, the briefs seemed sufficiently interesting and original so I decided not to block them. But now Ozy is shut down, in response to an investigative report by The New York Times that claimed serious (possibly even criminal) behavior by Ozy’s leadership. Earlier, there were also claims that Ozy had inflated audience numbers and little original content. I obviously cannot comment on the first two points, but the content? The only reason I allowed the Ozy newsletter to continue arriving in my Inbox was that it did have original content that I found mildly interesting.

So now I am torn. Can I take the allegations at face value? Or was it simply a successful attempt to fatally wound and destroy a competitor in the cutthroat world of news media? Perhaps something in between, a more nuanced picture?

Groan. Have I also been infected by this insidious distrust-all-media pathogen?

 Posted by at 10:19 pm
Sep 302021
 

I have had it up to my eyeballs with misinformation about vaccines, mRNA vaccines in particular. People who up until 2020 could not tell the difference between acronyms like “RNA” and “WTF” suddenly became experts on molecular biology, capable of evaluating the professional literature and arriving at profound judgments, telling us that the vaccines are “fake” and such, or worse yet, they amount to “gene therapy”.

With all due respect, I first encountered the acronym “mRNA” (or its Hungarian equivalent, mRNS) not in 2020, not in 2019, but in 1980 or 81, from a Hungarian translation of Watson’s book on molecular biology of the gene.

Now granted, even if I had read that book cover-to-cover (I didn’t) it would not make me an expert on molecular biology. But I knew enough for the expression “mRNA vaccine” to make sense to me right away when it first showed up in news reports. In short, I know enough to spot the bullshit. Such as all that anti-vaccine scaremongering that has become ever so popular on the Interwebs lately.

Something similar happened 20 years ago, in the wake of 9/11. Many folks, especially Americans, who previously couldn’t tell Mohammed the prophet from Mohammed Ali, and who have never been in the same room with a textbook on comparative religion previously, suddenly became experts on Islam, making grand pronouncements about it being the religion of terror and all that. I first read a textbook on comparative religion back when I was 10 or so, from a 1927 2-volume tome on religions of the world:

This is volume one, titled “Primitive and cultural religions, Islam and Buddhism”. As with the Watson textbook, the images in this blog entry are of my own making, done just moments ago using my phone camera, of the actual books I have in my personal library.

Again, reading this book did not make me an instant expert. But it did give me enough background to spot the flood of bullshit that permeated the discussion after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Coming from a family and personal tradition that values learning, values impartial knowledge, it almost feels like physical pain, being confronted with such gross ignorance and outright lies each and every day. Enough already. Don’t listen to me, but don’t listen to the bullshit artists either. Listen to the actual experts (and not a cherry-picked subset of so-called experts who say what you want to hear). That’s what experts are for in an advanced scientific-technological society in which no human can be a master of all trades, and in which we rely on each other’s knowledge and experience.

Someone on Quora recently compared the anti-vaxxer movement to a hypothetical scenario on an airliner in distress: instead of following the crews’ instructions and donning oxygen masks, passengers stage a revolt, led by an “expert” who already knows better than the pilots how to fly the damn plane because he played with Microsoft Flight Simulator!

Groan.

 Posted by at 1:10 am
Sep 282021
 

I live in a condominium townhouse. We’ve been living here for 25 years. We like the place.

Our unit, in particular, is the middle unit in a three-unit block. The construction is reasonably sound: proper foundations, cinderblock firewalls between the units, woodframe construction within, pretty run-of-the-mill by early 1980s North American standards. We have no major complaints.

Except that… for the past several years, every so often the house wobbled a bit. Almost imperceptibly, but still. At first, I thought it was a minor earthquake (not uncommon in this region because it is still subject to isostatic rebound from the last ice age; in fact we did live through a couple of notable earthquakes since we moved in here.) But no, it was no earthquake.

I thought perhaps it was related to the downtown light rail tunnel construction? But no, the LRT tunnels are quite some ways from here and in any case, that part of the construction has been finished long ago.

But then what the bleep is it? Could I be just imagining things?

Our phones have very sensitive acceleration sensors. Not for the first time, I managed to capture one of these events. A little earlier this afternoon, I heard the woodframe audibly creak as the house began to move again. I grabbed my phone and turned on a piece of software that samples the acceleration sensor at a reasonably high rate, about 200 times a second. Here is the result of the first few seconds of sampling:

The sinusoidal signal is unmistakably there, confirmed by a quick Fourier-analysis to be a signal just above 3 Hz in frequency:

Like Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, I can claim that no, I am not crazy, and in this case not because my mother had me tested but because my phone’s acceleration sensor confirms my perception: Something indeed wobbles the house a little, enough to register on my phone’s acceleration sensor, measuring a peak-to-peak amplitude of roughly 0.05 m/s² (the vertical axis in the first graph is in g-units.) That wobble is certainly not enough to cause damage, but it is, I admit, a bit unnerving.

So what is going on here? A neighbor engaging in some, ahem, vigorous activity? Our current neighbors are somewhat noisier than prior residents, occasionally training their respective herds of pygmy elephants to run up and down the stairs (or whatever it is that they are doing). But no, the events are just too brief in duration and too regular. Underground work, perhaps a secret hideout for the staff of the nearby Chinese embassy? Speaking of which, I admit I even thought that this ~3 Hz signal might be related to the reported cases of illness by embassy staff at several embassies around the world, but I just don’t see the connection: even if those cases are real and have an underlying common cause (as opposed to just mere random coincidences) it’s hard to see how a 3 Hz vibration can have anything to do with them.

OK, so I have a pretty good idea of what this thing isn’t, but then, what the bleepety-bleep is it?

 Posted by at 3:50 pm
Sep 282021
 

I began to see this recently. Web sites of dubious lineage, making you wait a few seconds before popping up a request to confirm that you are not a robot, by clicking “Allow”:

Please don’t.

By clicking “allow”, you are simply confirming that you are a gullible, innocent victim who just allowed a scamster to spam you with bogus notifications (and I wouldn’t be surprised if at least some of those notifications were designed to entice you to install software you shouldn’t have or otherwise do something to get yourself scammed.)

Bloody crooks. Yes, I stand by my observation that the overwhelming majority of human beings are decent. But those who aren’t are no longer separated from the rest of us by physical distance. Thanks to the Internet, all the world’s crooks are at your virtual doorstep, aided by their tireless ‘bots.

 Posted by at 2:59 pm
Sep 242021
 

Yes, you got that right. The title of this blog entry is not a mistake. And no, I didn’t suddenly turn into a relic Cold Warrior from the 1950s.

It is how I characterize Xi Jinping’s commie regime tonight.

It may be a “kinder, gentler” version of communism compared to Mao’s or Stalin’s (at least so long as you are not an Uyghur from Xinjiang province, enjoying your vacation in a concentration, oh, pardon me, re-education camp), but it is nonetheless a regime that does not refrain from the most despicable, criminal acts, including the taking of hostages.

In case anyone had any doubts on the matter…

Within hours after the United States dropped its extradition request and thus Meng Wanzhou of Huawei was released from house arrest in Canada (to her credit, she actually thanked Canada for upholding the rule of law), two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, have reportedly been released by China, finally allowed to leave after three years of captivity, despite the bogus allegations of spying against them.

How else can I describe such a regime other than hostage-taking commie bastards without resorting to obscenities?

Oh, I got it.

Rotten hostage-taking commie bastards.

 Posted by at 10:00 pm
Sep 192021
 

A little over 50 years ago, we were all excited in the city of my birth, Budapest. This fine city, home of the old continent’s first subway line (and the world’s first that was built from the onset as an all-electric system), was about to get a modern “metro”. Using Soviet technology, the M2 line was opened to great fanfare, providing a rapid connection from the center of town towards the eastern suburbs on the Pest side. The line was soon extended under the Danube, reaching the Buda side’s main railway station in 1972.

Why do I mention this in a blog entry about Ottawa’s LRT? Simple. This 50-year old system, using technology from the former USSR, has operated reliably ever since. I know from experience: for a while, I used to take it daily, back in the 1970s and the early 1980s. The expectation of urban travelers is that barring rare, major emergencies, the system should work like clockwork; and when an emergency disrupts system operations, service is restored within a matter of hours. This expectation was, in my experience, always met by the M2 line. The most serious accident on the line happened in 2016, when a train rear-ended another, injuring ten passengers. Even in the wake of this accident, service was rapidly restored, albeit with a speed reduction at the accident location while the ongoing investigation tried to determine the cause.

Fast forward to 2021, to the proud capital of Canada, a G7 nation, supposedly one of the most advanced economies in the world, certainly one of the richest, wealthiest nations. Ottawa used to have an extensive streetcar system. Like similar systems in so many cities around the world, this system was dismantled, wantonly destroyed in the late 1950s, when urban planners looked at streetcars as unwanted relics from the past.

Finally, in the 2010s the decision was made that Ottawa needs urban rail transport after all, and the Confederation Line was built. It was opened to the public after many delays in September, 2019. The initial, 13-station segment cost approximately 2.1 billion dollars.

And… well, until now I refrained from commenting because, you know, be patient, good people know what they are doing, sometimes a system has more kinks than anticipated, all that… but no longer. This 2.1 billion dollar system is a piece of crap.

It has had trouble when the weather was too warm. Define too warm? Well, 30 degrees Centigrade. It has had trouble when the weather was too cold. Never mind that Ottawa is one of the coldest capital cities in the world; a little bit of wintry weather below freezing was enough to cause  problems. It has had trouble with train doors, trouble with the rails, trouble with axles and who knows what else. And it now experienced its second derailment.

And no, don’t expect them to rapidly restore service, repairing the affected track and perhaps as a precaution, instituting a temporary speed reduction. No, we are told, the entire system will be shut down again for at least a whole week!

And I cannot decide (I don’t have enough information) if this is gross incompetence or tacit acknowledgment that the system has severe systemic problems, and that the derailment (second in two months!) was not so much a random accident but a result of a badly built track, unsafe trains, or some such cause.

In light of this, I wish they had just imported 50-year old Soviet technology. The darn things may not be pretty (they don’t actually look bad, mind you), may be a tad noisy, but they work. And work. And 50 years later, still work.

As opposed to this piece of… stuff.

And it’s not like railway technology is a new invention. Budapest’s old, 1896 line celebrated its 125th anniversary this year. London’s Underground is even older. And that’s just urban underground systems. So it’s not like some exotic new technology that still has issues. It’s just… I don’t know. Corruption? Incompetence? Just sheer bad luck? Whatever it is, I think the residents of our city deserve better. And those responsible should be held to account, if necessary, even criminally.

 Posted by at 7:11 pm
Sep 122021
 

I get it. Our standards change. Live and let live. We abhor racism and embrace differences. We recognize the crimes of the past.

But when the National Archives of the United States of America marks the country’s own Constitution as containing “potentially harmful language”, that’s so far beyond anything I would even remotely consider sane, I don’t even know how to describe it.

This is so far beyond insane, I have no words.

All I can say is that if the goal is to drive as many undecided people as possible into the camp of Trump voters, they found a singularly efficient way to accomplish that ignoble task.

Edit: And yes, I recognize that this is a blanket statement that applies to all Archive searches. Even so, I find it disturbing that this notice appears even for documents such as the US Constitution. The capability clearly exists not to show the notice for certain pages, as it is not present on explanatory pages of the Archives. Displaying this disclaimer so prominently on top of historical documents just sends the wrong message and provides unnecessary propaganda fodder. What’s wrong with a more discreet notice at the bottom? Or simply presenting, like so many sites do, a “terms and conditions” page when a user first connects, which could include this disclaimer? Showing it on every page, prominently over documents of great legal and historical significance is just… dumb. It reeks of “cancel culture”.

 Posted by at 1:21 am
Sep 112021
 

A few hours from now, it will be exactly 20 years since that fateful morning when, instead of going to bed after working through the night (I was very much a night owl in those days), I ended up spending the day glued to the television window on my old PC, running Windows XP and cable TV in a window, courtesy of a long obsolete ATI All-in-Wonder video card combining graphics with an analog TV tuner.

I had no doubt that the events of the day would change the world that we live in. What was not clear was how.

The good news: America’s “war on terror” by and large has to be considered a success. There have been no large-scale terrorist acts on US soil by militant Islamists since 9/11. But that’s pretty much where the good news end.

The bad news: Where should I begin?

First, the misguided occupation of Afghanistan. Yes, I know, hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but it was pretty obvious even back then that it is not possible to do an occupation on the cheap. There is one way to occupy a hostile country: put a sizable garrison in every town and a guardpost at every intersection, maintain order, and respond ruthlessly to attacks on your forces. Now the thing is, not even the USSR was willing to make this level of effort, which is why their Afghanistan venture was a fiasco. As for America, whoever came up with the idea that you can bomb a country into democracy need to get their heads examined.

Second, the criminally insane war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. No, Hussein was not a nice fellow. But removing him created a regional power vacuum that the theocracy in Iran was all too eager to fill. The one good outcome of this is that it created a previously unimaginable rapport between Iran’s enemies, namely Israel and the Gulf states. Otherwise, all the Iraqi venture accomplished is a destabilization of the region, the consequences of which we still reap.

And speaking of places like the Gulf states, this is another one of the unpleasant consequences of 9/11: Perhaps more than ever, the “land of the free”, the United States, loves cozying up with despots and dictators. This was especially prevalent during the Trump era, as Trump seemed unnervingly comfortable with the likes of Putin or MBS, even as he denounced democratically elected leaders committed to the values of liberal democracy.

Thankfully, the misguided military ventures are over. Chaotic last few days notwithstanding, US troops are finally out of Afghanistan. There are very few things for which Trump deserves praise, but his decision to pull out of Afghanistan, his reluctance to start new wars, are commendable.

If only the United States could overcome its internal partisan division, it could again resume its role as “leader of the free world”, a free world that now faces the dual threat of rising authoritarianism in many Western democracies, and the rise of a leader more authoritarian than anyone since Mao in a China that is now an undisputed economic superpower.

But for that, millions of Americans would first have to abandon scary conspiracy theories about a stolen election or a COVID vaccine that is an attack on their rights and freedoms; and other millions of Americans would have to abandon their commitment to impose their increasingly intolerant “woke” values, their “cancel culture” on their neighbors. And their lessons would have to be repeated elsewhere, throughout the Western world. In short, we have to somehow relearn some basic ideas of a liberal democracy, such as the notion that our neighbors whose political priorities differ from ours are not inherently evil, they are not the enemy. Can this happen? Will this happen in an era of social media bubbles, bubbles often controlled by foreign adversaries and their divisive propaganda, turning us against each other?

But before I get too pessimistic, I look at the long term trends. Here we are, in 2021, 76 years after one of the most devastating wars in human history ended with the use of two atomic bombs. When I was a child in the late 1960s, early 1970s, no sane person in the world would have predicted that we would live to see 2021 without another great war, without nuclear Armageddon. Yet here we are, worrying not about mushroom clouds but about climate change, not about Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare but about microplastics hampering efforts to clean up rivers and wetlands, not about famines and “Soylent Green” but about lithium or rare earth production for our batteries and high tech gadgets, not about hostile AI running our lives but about semiconductor shortages hampering the automobile industry.

Still I have to wonder, was 9/11 a wasted opportunity? Could the US and the world have responded better? Undoubtedly, I think.

 Posted by at 1:12 am
Aug 242021
 

I value StackExchange. I often come across technical answers that I could not find elsewhere. Yet I contribute only rarely, and I am always hesitant. StackExchange’s quick-to-punish culture does not encourage contributions.

Case in question: I recently searched for a particular solution in SQL. A Google search led me to a StackExchange page with a closely related question and some good answers. Also a bad one.

Except that this bad answer was nonetheless marked as the “accepted” answer by the question author.

And as a result, it garnered as many as 41 (!!!) downvotes. I’m sure there are some, but I’ve never before seen a StackExchange answer with this many downvotes.

Of course there are bad answers, which sometimes end up in negative territory (that alone is a huge turnoff for many potential contributors.) Usually they end up at the bottom of the page, often not even shown.

Not in this case. Because the answer was marked as “accepted”, it remains on top and continues to garner downvotes. Presumably, folks react to it being the accepted answer, but the one they’re punishing is the person who offered the answer in the first place.

It’s sad, really. The answer is technically incorrect but it is not nonsense, and was obviously offered in good faith. To no avail; when StackExchange punishes you, your intentions matter little.

Oh, but you can vote for moderators…

 Posted by at 8:23 pm
Aug 152021
 

I promised myself not to blog much about politics, but this one deserves an entry.

In my all time favorite movie, Cloud Atlas, while reading some decades-old letters, a protagonist remarks: “Just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes… over and over.”

I was wondering the same thing moments ago when I came across the cover page of tomorrow’s edition of USA Today:

The editors of USA Today of course knew exactly what they were doing when they elected to use a picture that is almost like a copy of another iconic photo, this one from 1975:

Many think that it is a mistake for the US to exit Afghanistan. I respectfully disagree. The mistake was starting an unwinnable war. Compounded by the mistake of staying there for 20 years, perpetuating a conflict, causing many more deaths. Wasn’t Vietnam a good enough lesson? Didn’t the collapse of the Saigon government teach the US that military occupation cannot build a nation? Was there nothing to learn from the USSR’s failure to pacify Afghanistan? Or for that matter, their failure to suppress the Baltics and the nations of Eastern Europe, which chose to escape the Soviet Bloc at the first opportunity, with their domestic politics often resuming exactly where it left off decades earlier when it was interrupted by the arrival of Soviet troops?

So here we are, 46 years after Saigon, and yet another helicopter departs yet another roof with some of the last lucky few who can thus escape an uncertain future, possibly death, in a besieged city.

 Posted by at 9:52 pm
Aug 142021
 

I am not happy admitting it, but it’s true: There have been a few occasions in my life when I reacted just like this XKCD cartoon character when I first encountered specific areas of research.

 Posted by at 11:48 am
Aug 132021
 

I was so busy yesterday, it was only after midnight that I realized the significance of the date.

It was exactly 40 years ago yesterday, on August 12, 1981, that IBM introduced this thing to the world:

Yes, the IBM Model 5150 personal computer, better known simply as the IBM PC.

Little did we know that this machine would change the world. In 1981, it was just one of many competing architectures, each unique, each incompatible with the rest. A program written for the Apple II could not possibly run on a Commodore VIC 20. The Sinclair ZX81 even used a different microprocessor. Between different processors, different graphics chips, different methods of sound generation, different external interfaces, each machine created its own software ecosystem. Programs that were made available for multiple architectures were essentially redeveloped from scratch, with little, if any, shared code between versions (especially since larger, more complex applications were invariably written in machine language for efficient execution).

The PC changed all that but it took a few years for that change to become evident. There were multiple factors that made this possible.

First and foremost among them, it was IBM’s decision to create a well-documented, open hardware architecture that was not protected by layers and layers of patents. The level of documentation provided by IBM was truly unprecedented in the world of personal computers. An entire series of books were offered, in traditional binders characteristic of technical documentation of the era:

As to what’s in these volumes, here’s a random page from the XT technical reference manual:

This level of detail made it possible, easy even for a hardware ecosystem to emerge: first, companies that manufactured novel extension boards for the PC and eventually, “clone” makers who built “IBM compatible” computers using “clean room” functional equivalents, developed by companies like Phoenix Technologies, of the machine’s basic software component, the BIOS (Basic Input Output System).

But the other deciding factor was the fateful decision to allow Microsoft to market their own version of the PC’s operating system, DOS. IBM’s computers came with the IBM branded version called “PC-DOS”, but Microsoft was free to sell their own, “MS-DOS”.

Thus, starting in 1984 or so, the market of IBM compatible computers was born, and it rapidly eclipsed IBM’s own market share.

And amazingly, the architecture that they created 40 years ago is still fundamentally the same architecture that we use today. OK, you may not be able to boot an MS-DOS floppy on a new machine with UEFI Secure Boot enabled, but if the BIOS permits you to turn it off, and you actually have a working floppy drive (or, more likely, a CD-ROM drive with a bootable CD image of the old operating system) you just might be in luck and boot that machine using MS-DOS 2.1, so that you can then run an early version of Lotus 1-2-3 or WordPerfect. (Of course you can run all of that in a DOSBox, but DOSBox is a software emulation of the IBM PC, so that does not really count.)

And while 64-bit versions of Windows no longer run really old 16-bit software without tools such as virtual machines or the aforementioned DOSBox, to their credit Microsoft still makes an effort to maintain robust backward compatibility: This is how I end up using a 24-year old accounting program to keep track of my personal finances, or Microsoft’s 25-year old “Bookshelf” product with an excellent, easy-to-use version of the American Heritage Dictionary. (No, I am not adverse to change or the use of newer software. But it so happens that these packages work flawlessly, do exactly what I need them to do, and so far I have not come across any replacement that delivers the functionality I need, even if I ignore all the unnecessary bloat.)

So here we are: 40 years. It’s insane. Perhaps it is worth mentioning the original, baseline specifications of the IBM 5150 Personal Computer. It has a 16-bit processor running at 0.00477 GHz. It had approximately 0.000015 gigabytes of RAM. The baseline configuration had no permanent storage, only a cassette tape interface for storing BASIC programs. The version capable of running PC-DOS had four times as much RAM, 0.000061 gigabytes, and external storage in the form of a single-sided, single-density 5.25″ floppy disk drive capable of storing 0.00034 gigabytes of data on a single disk. (Be grateful that I did not use terabytes to describe its capacity.) The computer had no real-time clock (when PC-DOS started, it asked for the time and date). Its monochrome display adapter was text only, capable of showing 25 lines by 80 characters each. Alternatively the user could opt to purchase a machine equipped with a CGA (color graphics adapter), capable of showing a whopping 16 colors at the resolution of 160 by 100 pixels, or a high resolution monochrome image at 640 by 200 pixels. Sound was provided through a simple beeper, controlled entirely by software. Optional external interfaces included RS-232 serial and IEEE 1284 parallel ports.

Compare that to the specifications of a cheap smartphone today, 40 years later.

 Posted by at 4:24 pm