Jun 162024
 

Warning: Spoilers follow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 6:05 pm
Jun 152024
 

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 2:58 am
Jun 102024
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 1:32 am
Jun 072024
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 3:06 am
May 272024
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 6:56 pm
May 242024
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 2:34 am
May 202024
 

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

I think this picture is patently false.

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 2:14 pm
May 062024
 

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 11:59 pm
May 052024
 

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

That is, Best Picture my ass.

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

An actual photo of the real Oppenheimer

But the film?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 11:27 pm
Apr 302024
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 11:43 pm
Apr 302024
 

It is fashionable these days to curse our city’s transit company, but here’s some praise for a change.

I wanted to thank those employees of OC Transpo that I ran into the other day who helped me recover a lost phone. Not only was the phone located and returned to us in short order, the gentlemen I met, without a fault, were exceptionally polite, helpful, and, well, just genuinely nice! What could have been an awfully frustrating experience for us turned into something that, well, made my day.

Thank you, OC Transpo.

By the way, a large-ish city’s major bus depot is a fascinating 24/7 operation.

 Posted by at 7:58 pm
Apr 262024
 

As of yesterday, I think we again officially qualify as a three-cat household.

Which is to say, Rigby and Raina now have moved upstairs, no longer using our basement as their “safe place”. They are still a bit apprehensive: Rigby can be petted, Raina not so much, but they made friends with Freddy, the three cats now eat together, and they found new favorite sleeping spots around the house.

They are so… elegant. Beautiful little guys. I hope they will spend many happy years with us.

 Posted by at 4:07 am
Apr 232024
 

Despite working with them extensively for the past 18 months or so, our “little robot” friends continue to blow me away with their capabilities.

Take this: the other day I asked Claude opus 3 to create an N-body simulation example from scratch, in HTML + JavaScript, complete with the ability to record videos.

Here’s the result, after some very minor tweaks of the code produced by Claude, code that pretty much worked “out of the box”.

The code is simple, reasonably clean and elegant, and it works. As to what I think of our little robot friends’ ability to take a brief, casual description of such an application and produce working code on demand… What can I say? There’s an expression that I’ve been overusing lately, but it still feels the most appropriate reaction: Welcome to the future.

 Posted by at 6:11 pm
Apr 222024
 

Can someone explain, by any chance, why, when moments ago I logged out of the Canada Revenue Agency Web site after filing an HST return, I was greeted with a German-language message announcing that my logout was successful?

I mean, a French-language message, sure. Inuit, sure. Aber Deutsch? Ja, ich kann ein bisschen Deutsch sprechen, aber woher wissen sie das?

 Posted by at 1:48 am
Apr 202024
 

So here is the thing. When you announce to the world your latest breakthrough in quantum computing, you might want to make sure first that the results cannot be replicated using hardware that is nearly half a century old, from the heyday of 8-bit personal computers.

Granted, the paper announcing this result was presented at a joke conference, but the paper itself is no joke: It’s actually quite well-written and the results appear credible.

I admit I loved this result because not only does it provide an example supporting my skepticism of sensationalist quantum computing claims, it also involves the computer that played a significant role in my early career, and which also happens to be the first computer that I proudly owned.

Of course the real point is that sensationalist coverage aside, apart from highly specialized, niche applications in which quantum computers basically play the role of specialized analog computers, the “quantum revolution” will not happen without scalable quantum computing, and scalable quantum computing will not happen without beating the threshold theorem. I am one of the skeptics: I strongly suspect that the threshold theorem will be shown to be a “no go” theorem. It is, of course, entirely possible that I am wrong about this, but in my mind, quantum computing is in the same league as fusion power: a technology that forever remains “just around the corner”.

 Posted by at 7:52 pm
Apr 172024
 

I just finished watching the first (but hopefully not the only) season of the new Amazon Prime series, Fallout.

There have been three modern game franchises that I became quite fond of over the years, all of the post-apocalyptic genre: S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Metro, and Fallout. Metro has incredible storytelling: For instance, meeting the last surviving theater critic or the shadow artist at the half-flooded Bolshoi station of the Moscow Metro are moments I’ll never forget. And the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series has its own incredible moments, foremost among them when I finished the main storyline of the third installment, Call of Pripyat, by accident in the middle of the night, in-game time, and found myself alone, in the dead silence, near the center of a deserted, pitch dark Pripyat, with my comrades gone. The relief I felt when I retreated to the Laundromat and found that it was now full of lively stalkers like myself, eating, listening to music, sleeping… A reaffirmation of life in that dead city.

And then FalloutFallout is in a league of its own. I admit I only played the 3D open world installments of the franchise, starting with Fallout 3. A game that begins with The Ink Spots singing how they don’t want to put the world on fire… with the burned-out, post-nuclear ruins of the DC Mall serving as background scenery. A game in which, after “growing up” inside an underground Vault, you experience true daylight for the very first time, with eyes that never saw anything other than artificial lighting.

So it is this Fallout universe that was turned into a television series on Amazon Prime, and what a series it is. It captures the vibe of the game franchise perfectly, but it also stands on its own as a darn good television series.

The first five minutes of the first episode already contain an instant classic: The line uttered by a little girl as she, horrified, is looking at the growing mushroom cloud enveloping Los Angeles, trying to measure it by holding out her thumb, as taught by her dad. “Is it your thumb or mine?” she asks innocently.

But the real motto of the series is a statement made by one of the main protagonists, Maximus, in episode five. “Everybody wants to save the world,” Maximus observes, “they just disagree on how.”

Doesn’t that perfectly capture our present-day world of 2024, too, as we are slowly, but inevitably, stumbling towards a new “chaotic era” (to borrow an expression from another recent television adaptation, the 3 Body Problem)? I can only hope that we don’t all end up like Shady Sands, the one-time capital city of the New California Republic, pictured above. Because, as all Fallout players know, war… war never changes.

 Posted by at 4:32 am
Apr 142024
 

Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum — Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus in De Re Militari (~400 AD)

The West is full of useful idiots*.

This is nothing new. This was true in the 1920s and the 1930s, with countless Western intellectuals and other activists apologizing, expressing support, even admiration for Lenin, later Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler.

In the 1950s and the 1960s, this continued: Useful idiots proclaimed the West as militarist, imperialist, or worse; the USSR and the Soviet Bloc were presented as a huggable, benign alternative to the evils of capitalism.

And it continues to this day. Ever since the start of the Ukraine war on February 24, 2022 (or, depending on how one is counting, back in 2014 with the occupation of the Crimea and Donbass), “reasonable” Western voices (often amplified, overtly or covertly, by a well-financed Russian propaganda machine) have been advocating negotiation. Peace. Ukraine must accept the inevitable.

Then, on October 7, 2023, Hamas launched a brutal attack on Israel. I won’t go into the prehistory of Palestine. The narrative is long, and depending on where one begins the history, any viewpoint can be justified with a clever twist of the facts. Let’s just say that since 2005, Gaza has been a self-governed territory. Yes, the constraints imposed by Israel were heavy, though Israel (and Egypt!) certainly had their reasons. Anyhow, the point is, none of that, absolutely none of that, justified that attack on October 7, which involved the murder of nearly 700 civilians and the kidnapping of around 250 civilian hostages. An attack that had no military objectives whatsoever, but was designed to impose as much pain on innocent civilians as possible. In other words, a textbook case of a massive terror attack.

I don’t know why anyone in his right mind thinks that a state like Israel would not react to such an attack with a devastating military response, aimed at decapitating, destroying Hamas, even if it entails significant “collateral damage”, which is to say, a large number of civilian injuries and deaths. If I may be brutal about it, that’s what fucking war is like, people. You know how many civilians were killed, for instance, when the Soviet army liberated the city of my birth, Budapest, in 1945? Or how many civilians were killed in places like Dresden or Tokyo, not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And of course it doesn’t take a lot to figure out that this was very much in line with the expectations of Hamas and their Iranian backers: They counted on an Israeli response, in the hope that it interrupts the process of warming relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, turns international opinion against Israel, perhaps even undermines American support for the Jewish state, and thus strengthens the position of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region.

Oh no, in come the useful idiots. “Genocide,” they scream, every time some incident or statistic, often grossly inflated by the Hamas propaganda machine, sees the light of day. Where were you on October 7? All I heard was deafening silence. And where were you in the past two years when Putin systematically attacked civilian targets in Ukraine, his troops (military units often made up of pardoned convicts) murdering civilians wholesale, kidnapping and indoctrinating Ukrainian children? Silent, it seems, except for those among you who were already blaming the West because, you know, NATO or whatever.

Perhaps, if I really want to be charitable about this, it’s simply that they hold the West, they hold Israel, to a higher standard. When Putin targets civilians in Ukraine, when rampaging Hamas militants murder civilians wholesale, there are no sounds of protest because this is how these regimes are expected to behave. When Israel targets an aid convoy or when an Israeli airstrike kills civilians, the protests are loud and clear because the expectation is that they will do everything to protect civilians even if it means fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. I don’t know, but I find the hypocrisy deplorable.

Speaking of NATO, they must be the ineptest organization in human history. I mean, Soviet, and now Russian, propaganda tells us that the sole purpose of NATO is to harm and destroy Russia. Yet in the now 75 years of NATO’s existence, the organization has not managed to launch a single military attack on Russia! What stellar incompetence!

Anyhow, I understand that many of the useful idiots are driven by the purest of intentions. They don’t want to see innocents die. They want to live in a peaceful world.

Well, guess what? So do I. I am no less appalled by civilian deaths in Gaza than in Kharkiv, though I do see a bit of a difference between a military (Russia’s) that purposefully targets civilians vs. a military (Israel’s) that tries, at least half-heartedly, to reduce civilian casualties. And I am not exactly a diehard supporter of that corrupt crook, Netanyahu, who is clinging to power because who knows that once he leaves office, he may very well end up facing criminal prosecution for bribery, fraud, and breach of trust.

But unlike the useful idiots, I also remember my history lessons.

Let’s just go back in history less than 90 years, to the years preceding the last global conflict.

In 1936, Adolf Hitler launched his biggest gamble yet: The remilitarization of the Rhineland. Through this step, he risked open conflict with the West, since it was a direct violation of the Versailles peace treaty. His Wehrmacht was under strict orders to retreat if they ran into any significant military resistance.

But they didn’t. The West didn’t want war. Democracies are like that: Contrary to conspiracy theories, war is not good for business, and people prefer good food and great sex over being used as cannon fodder or turned into minced meat by carpet bombings, so they vote for the doves, mostly. But the doves are not always right. When it comes to regimes like Hitler’s, a desire for peace is seen as a sign of weakness, an opportunity waiting to be exploited. Churchill knew this, but he was ostracized as a warmonger.

Then came 1938. Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich, triumphant. “Peace for our times,” he proclaimed, as he stepped off his airplane on September 30 that year, having just signed a treaty with Hitler’s Germany. The Munich Agreement, as it was called, obliged Czechoslovakia (who were not even invited to the conference) to cede their border regions, the Sudetenland, to Germany. The inevitable result followed: Within a few months, a German puppet regime in Slovakia declared its independence, and the rest of Czechia was then invaded by Germany, and turned into a “protectorate”. And then, of course, on September 1, 1939 — just 11 months after Chamberlain returned with “peace for our times” — a World War began in earnest, with Germany’s attack on Poland and the resulting declaration of war on Germany by Western powers.

Is this what you want? Another world war? Then support peace initiatives that demand Ukraine to lay down their arms. Support Hamas by spreading their propaganda about “genocide”. You may even achieve limited goals. You will have the peace and quiet of a graveyard in Ukraine. Hamas may “peacefully” return to Gaza to rebuild its terror infrastructure.

But the message that Hamas or Putin or Xi or Kim or the ayatollahs will see is different. It’s a message of weakness. It’s a message of encouragement, that they can continue doing whatever it is that they are doing, always able to count on help from the West’s “useful idiots”. And trust me on this: If history is any guide, the resulting conflict will be far greater, far more genocidal than your worst fears, and chances are neither you nor I will survive to see its conclusion, along with a large portion of humanity.

I admit I am terrified. This shitshow is going to get a lot worse before it gets better. Innocent people will die in large numbers, often at the hands of those that we do, and must, hold to higher standards. But I also worry that thanks to our well-meaning but fatally nearsighted useful idiots and the policies of appeasement they pursue, a lot more death and suffering will follow.

The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it, and if one finds the prospect of a long war intolerable,
it is natural to disbelieve in the possibility of victory
— George Orwell, in Second Thoughts on James Burnham (1946)


*A useful idiot is a person who unwittingly supports a cause or political agenda without fully comprehending its goals, and is cynically manipulated or exploited by those in power to advance their objectives. The term is often attributed to Vladimir Lenin, who allegedly used it to describe Western intellectuals who naively supported the Soviet Union, though its documented uses in the British press predate the establishment of the USSR by many decades.
 Posted by at 1:27 am
Apr 082024
 

Hello, world, please meet Rigby and Raina.

Rigby and Raina are two cats from Arnprior, who now live in our home. They are still more than a little apprehensive, but at least they no longer feel compelled to always hide when we enter the basement, where they presently live. I hope that soon enough, they’ll be willing to venture forth and explore the house.

A house that might be full of dangerous wildlife! Like this one:

OK, don’t worry, it’s not a lion in a flimsy wooden cage. Just our cat Freddy. Nor is he in any sort of distress. He’s just looking at my wife through the kitchen patio door, meowing at her through the glass.

We have yet to see how Rigby and Raina will get along with Freddy, but we’ve been assured that they are okay with other cats and indeed, I’ve seen it at the shelter where they came from that they seemed comfortable in a room shared with several other cats.

So yes, we are again a three-cat household. Or will be, as soon as these two gray beauties find the courage to come forth and start exploring.

 Posted by at 10:41 pm
Apr 022024
 

People, including responsible scholars and journalists, have begun to wonder publicly about the possibility that with conflicts (Ukraine, the Middle East, perhaps China-Taiwan) spiraling out of control, perhaps this will lead the world to another devastating World War. (We’ve had global peace for far too long, I guess.)

I suspect future historians will frame it differently. They will know that it’s a world war. They will simply debate if its beginning should be marked by Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula and the Donbass region (February 2014); Russia’s full-scale invasion attempt (February 24, 2022); the Hamas attack on Israel (October 7, 2023); or some other event.

But that’s like debating if WW2 really began with, say, the Spanish Civil War (1936), the Marco Polo Bridge incident in Beijing (July 7, 1937) that marked the start of the Japanese occupation of parts of China, the Anschluss (March 12, 1938), the Sudetenland occupation (October 1, 1938) or Germany’s full-scale attack on Poland on September 1, 1939.

The thing is, people in 1939 did not yet know that it was a “world war”. Eventually, they found out of course. Kind of hard not to, when the world around you lies in ruins.

 Posted by at 4:04 pm
Mar 302024
 

Though vintage programmable calculators remain one of my oddball hobbies, it’s been a while since I last mentioned them in this blog. And it’s especially rare that I’d write about a non-programmable, perfectly ordinary, dirt cheap, dollar-store quality mass-produced Chinese scientific (“56-function”, standard chip) calculator, but this one is different.

Why? Because I fixed the darn thing, that’s why.

Why am I so proud of my accomplishment, fixing something that most folks would have thrown away as a worthless, broken piece of junk? There is a very specific reason.

The bane of cheap calculators for the past 20-odd years has been the connection between the calculator’s main circuit board and its liquid crystal display. The liquid crystal display contains transparent connections, but these, rather obviously (it’s glass!) cannot be soldered. So how do you connect the display and the circuit that drives the display? In the earliest LCD devices, this was accomplished by a strange, rubbery part, a conductive silicone “zebra strip” that made an electrical connection between a series of connectors on the circuit board and the corresponding leads on the display glass. The device worked if this zebra strip was properly sandwiched between the display and the circuit board and held together tightly, which required an appropriate mechanical construction.

More recently, these have been replaced by, ahem, I think they’re usually referred to as “zebra stripes” or maybe “zebra lines”: essentially, paper-thin sheets of plastic with parallel conducting lines. A short strip, or stripe, attaches on one end to connections on the circuit board, and on the other end, to the LCD display. The attachment is adhesive (which may be heat activated) and once attached, there’s no need for mechanical pressure to hold the parts together. This, I presume, makes the design less constrained, and reduces manufacturing costs.

The problem is that these zebra stripes can become detached. This leads to a failing display: Digits vanish, segments vanish, crosstalk appears, the display becomes garbled and unreadable.

In some cases, this can be reversed by (very) carefully pressing down the stripe on both ends, with a hard but not too sharp tool as you wish to apply pressure to reattach the adhesive, not destroy the plastic. Sometimes, a heated tool works better. But the result is uncertain: Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes it fails a few hours, days, weeks later.

If the zebra stripe is mostly or completely detached, or if it is damaged, the device is dead. Or so I thought… until now.

When this nameless “scientific calculator” came into my possession (found in a small bag of goodies that we bought at a thrift store) it indeed seemed hopeless. But I decided that it can serve as a perfect test case. For the first time ever, I endeavored to purchase a small piece of replacement zebra stripes of the right size from AliExpress. I had no idea how to use it properly, or indeed if it would work or not, but I figured it’s worth trying.

My first few attempts were disastrous. Applying too much heat destroyed the zebra stripe. Glue and molten plastic residue contaminated both the circuit board and the LCD display. Scraping it off was difficult and I was probably one bad move away from cracking the display.

But I didn’t. And on the fourth try, the display more or less came to life! I was ready celebrate success even though the display was not quite flawless, as it was already a far better result than I had hopes for. But at this point I noticed that although the display was now working, the calculator itself wasn’t: it no longer responded to any of its keys. I went through several iterations trying to troubleshoot this new problem before I noticed something: The zebra stripe I used was a tad longer than it should have been, and it made contact with another lead on the calculator’s circuit board, effectively short-circuiting its keyboard.

Once I corrected that, the calculator not only came back to life, even its display was now working like a charm. I feel like celebrating.

I don’t know how long it sill last: Cheap hardware is still cheap hardware. But now I know that repairing broken zebra stripes is possible.

So yes, this is how I am having fun during the long Easter weekend. Happy Bunny Day!

 Posted by at 3:03 pm