I am a software developer and author of computer books. I also work on some problems in theoretical physics. For more information, please visit my personal Web site at http://www.vttoth.com/.

Feb 122024

In the wake of the Israel-Hamas war, once again there are voices suggesting that the Jews have no business to be in Palestine, a land that they stole from the Palestinians.

The history of the word Palestine, the identity of the Arabs who only began to call themselves Palestinians in the past century or so, has been discussed elsewhere. And the Jews have been around in places like Yerushaláyim thousands of years ago. But what about the more recent past? Did the Jews just return to their once sacred land en masse in the wake of the Holocaust, stealing land rightfully owned by a peaceful Arab populace?

Not exactly.

Here is an image from Tel Aviv, taken in 1939, when WW2 in Europe began in earnest (and incidentally, the year when my Mom was born):

Hmmm… looks decidedly Jewish to me.

Or how about a rare color (!) photo from Jerusalem, showing the sign of an orphanage…

A Palestine orphanage, to be precise, yet the lettering is Latin and Hebrew, because back then, Palestine was mostly used as the name of the land (the British mandate of Palestine), not yet a national identity.

Now I am not suggesting that a Palestinian identity has no legitimacy. I understand how this identity emerged, and how it was, at least in part, a reaction, or response, to Zionism, an attempt to (re-)create a Jewish nation in what was historically Judaea, later to be made part of the new Roman province of Syria-Palaestina. Having a right-wing government in Israel that no longer shows any interest in a resolution that might grant Palestinian Arabs statehood is not helpful, to put it mildly. But even as I recognize the hatred and distrust that exists on both sides, I would purposefully refrain from “bothsidesism”: All I have to do is to look at Palestinian grade school textbooks (there are plenty of infuriating examples on the Interwebs) to know which side advocates actual genocide (a word used far too frequently in recent months), which side characterizes the other (in textbooks!) with hateful caricatures even as it claims a right to own all land from the river to the sea.

 Posted by at 2:01 pm
Feb 102024

Now that Google’s brand new Gemini is officially available in Canada, so I am no longer restricted to accessing it through a VM that’s located in the US, I asked it to draw a cat using SVG. It did. It even offered to draw a more realistic cat. Here are the results.

What can I say? I went back to GPT-4 turbo. I was hoping that it has not forgotten its skills or became too lazy. Nope, it still performs well:

OK, the ears are not exactly in the right place. Then again, since I gave Bard/Gemini a second chance, why not do the same with GPT?

There we go. A nice schematic representation of a cat. I know, I know, a bit boring compared to the Picasso-esque creation of the Bard…

 Posted by at 1:47 am
Feb 062024

Back in the 1990s, those innocent days when the Internet first became part of our lives, we naively dreamed of an empowered public. A future in which disinformation is no longer possible. A future in which lies would be exposed with a minimum of effort, as the truth is just one quick AltaVista (no, Google didn’t exist yet) search away.

How wrong we were.

Instead, here we are in 2024 with a deeply fragmented public, each of us in our respective social media bubbles, consuming information that is all too often preselected for us by algorithms. Algorithms that are designed to find, and serve, content that we find agreeable.

And suppose, just suppose, that we grow mildly skeptical. Skeptical enough to turn to Google or Bing and do a quick search to find the truth. We find… no, not the truth. All too often, we find instead confirmation.

At least this appears to be the conclusion of a recent study, published in Nature, titled Online searches to evaluate misinformation can increase its perceived veracity.

And then there are all those (very valid) concerns about the integrity of the scientific literature. With tens of thousands published papers every year produced by “paper mills”, not to mention alarming rates of scientific fraud and retractions, does the truth even stand a chance?

Sure, when I read a paper on gravitation and cosmology, fundamental particle physics, computer science or machine learning, I am reasonably well equipped to assess its validity. But what about papers on, say, COVID vaccines? Methods to cure cancer? Sociopolitical trends in the European Union? Archeological discoveries? How can I tell truth from falsehood? I do not have the requisite background to evaluate the literature on my own. The press used to be helpful: Reputable news outlets made an effort to be impartial, interview the right experts, produce reasonable assessments. Not anymore: Especially here in North America, news outlets appear more interested in building a brand and a committed audience than the truth.

And then, to add insult to injury, there is foreign meddling: powers that are less than friendly towards the Western world order, most notably China and, especially, Russia, who are doing their darnedest best to make things worse by exploiting and further promoting our distrust in the media and, by extension, in the entirety of our Western system of institutions. Their goal is nothing less than dismantling the rules-based, liberal world order established in 1945, the pax Americana. I may not be an adoring fan of American politics, but between Washington and Moscow, or Washington and Beijing, I know which one to choose without hesitation.

But forming a realistic, valid view of the world that is largely based on the truth? That task is becoming more difficult with each and every passing day. We live in the days of Orwell’s “Ministry of Truth” and it didn’t even take an all-powerful totalitarian regime for this to happen.

Illustration courtesy of DALL-E.

 Posted by at 12:44 am
Feb 042024

The illness of our cat Rufus made me read up on the subject of spontaneous remission. No, I do not cling to false rays of hope, I was simply curious: Does it really happen? How often?

Long story short, Google soon led me to a study mentioning the earliest known description of induced spontaneous remission: The Ebers Papyrus.

The Ebers Papyrus is a roughly 3500 years old document, essentially a medical textbook or at least notes. In addition to recipes for numerous remedies, it also contains descriptions of various illnesses, their diagnosis, and methods of treatment.

Here is one example out of many:

Experiential knowledge regarding an a’at growth of fat: When you identify an a’at growth of fat on any body part of a man (and) you find that it comes and goes under your fingers, and where it somehow can be permanently separated by your hand, then you say for this: “This is an a’at growth of fat. A disease that I will treat.” Because of this you then prepare a knife-treatment for it. May it be treated according to the treatment of a wound!

I like it especially (assuming it is not a stylistic mistranslation) how the text instructs the physician-in-training to announce his diagnosis. It instills confidence, but also potentially invites questions or criticism before a treatment is attempted. And there’s no mumbo-jumbo, no superstition or religious mysticism: Facts are facts.

From more than three thousand five hundred years ago.

 Posted by at 11:37 pm
Jan 312024

This here is our ~11 year old cat Rufus. Exact age unknown as he was a stray when we adopted him back in early autumn 2014, but he was assessed to be about 1 year old back then.

This picture was taken late last night. Today, Rufus had an ultrasound that confirmed what we feared: That not only does he have a tumor in his abdomen, but that it is inoperable, and chemotherapy is also unlikely to help.

So we are left with the final option: Palliative care, taking care of Rufus as long as we can, so long as he can still have some quality of life.

So far so good. Tonight, despite the hours-long stay at the vet, Rufus came home ready to eat a little, drink a little, even play a little. So it’s one day at a time, all the while recognizing that in this increasingly troubled world, we are among the lucky ones, so long as our main concern is the welfare of our cat.

 Posted by at 10:28 pm
Jan 282024

I first bought a hybrid (a Honda Civic) in 2004. I loved that car; it served us faithfully for 10 years. Our more recent Hondas were not hybrids, but the reasons were eminently practical: hybrids were in short supply, conventional gasoline cars were cheaper, and we use the car very little in any case, so…

Having said that, I certainly contemplated the idea of buying an all electric vehicle, but every time I think it through, I decide against it. Today, I saw a map that perfectly illustrates my lack of enthusiasm. Here it is:

This map shows the locations of supercharger stations where you’d have to stop for a 20-30 minute recharge, in order to complete a cross-country trip across the United States in a Tesla automobile.

In contrast, here’s a map of an actual trip I took in my Civic Hybrid back in 2005, along with the approximate locations where I stopped for gas (reconstructed from old receipts):

What can I say? I think EVs are great when you live in the suburbs and use your car for shopping and commuting to work. If I lived, say, in Kanata and commuted daily to work at, say, Place du Portage in Gatineau, purchasing an EV would make an awful lot of sense. But that’s not where we live or how we commute. We live on Ottawa Lowertown, which is to say almost downtown, we work at home, we use the car only occasionally, but as this example demonstrates, sometimes for lengthy road trips. EVs are not great for lengthy road trips. I am used to the idea of driving to Montreal Airport and back without worrying about stopping for gas. Or driving to Toronto non-stop.

And then, of course, there are the dreaded Canadian winters. It’s one thing to use waste heat from a gasoline engine to heat the interior of a car. It’s another thing to waste electric power stored in a battery for this, converting electricity inefficiently into heat, at the expense of range already reduced by the effect of cold weather on the batteries. And while heat pumps can help, there are no miracles when the outside air temperature is closer to -40 than -30 Centigrade, which is a not altogether uncommon occurrence (though it is certainly becoming less common) in these parts of Canada.

And then there’s the question of where the electric energy comes from. Renewables are okay, nuclear would be great. But too much of the electricity, even here in nuclear-rich Ontario, comes from natural gas fired plants. That’s not so great.

So for now, it’s either gasoline-powered or hybrid vehicles for us. EVs may be in our future, but I am not yet too keen on them, to be honest.

 Posted by at 3:05 pm
Jan 242024

Someone sent me a link to a YouTube podcast, a segment from an interview with a physicist.

I didn’t like the interview. It was about string theory. My dislike is best illustrated by a point that was made by the speaker. He matter-of-factly noted that, well, math is weird, the sum of \(1 + 2 + 3 + …,\) ad infinitum, is \(-\tfrac{1}{12}.\)

This flawlessly illustrates what bothers me both about the state of theoretical physics and about the way it is presented to general audiences.

No, the sum of all positive integers is not \(-\tfrac{1}{12}.\) Not by a longshot. It is divergent. If you insist, you might say that it is infinite. Certainly not a negative rational number.

But where does this nonsense come from?

Well, there’s the famous Riemann zeta-function. For values of \(s>1,\) it is indeed defined as

$$\zeta(s)=\sum_{n=1}^\infty \frac{1}{n^s}.\tag{1}$$

It is a very interesting function, at the heart of some unresolved problems in mathematics.

But the case of \(s=-1\) (which is when the right-hand side of the equation used to define \(\zeta(s)\) corresponds to the sum of all positive integers) is not an unresolved problem. As it is often presented, it is little more than a dirty trick befitting a cheap stage magician, not a scientist.

That is to say, the above definition of \(\zeta(s),\) as I said, is valid only for \(s>1.\) However, the zeta-function has what is called its analytic continuation, which makes it possible to extend the definition for other values of \(s,\) including \(s=-1.\) This can be accomplished utilizing Riemann’s functional equation, \(\zeta(s)=2^s\pi^{s-1}\sin(\tfrac{1}{2}\pi s)\Gamma(1-s)\zeta(1-s).\) But the right-hand side of (1) in this case does not apply! That sum is valid only when it is convergent, which is to say (again), \(s>1.\)

A view of the Riemann zeta-function, from Wikipedia.

So no, the fact that \(\zeta(-1)=-\tfrac{1}{12}\) does not mean that the sum of all integers is \(-\tfrac{1}{12}.\) To suggest otherwise only to dazzle the audience is — looking for a polite term here that nonetheless accurately expresses my disapproval — well, it’s dishonest.

And perhaps unintentionally, it also shows the gap between robust physics and the kind of mathematical games like string theory that pretend to be physics, even though much of it is about mathematical artifacts in 10 dimensions, with at best a very tenuous connection to observable reality.

 Posted by at 10:48 pm
Jan 192024

Japan’s SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) made it to the lunar surface. Well… sort of. It accomplished its main goal of a targeted soft landing.

Unfortunately, its solar panels are non-operational. It’s unclear for now why (one speculation I read is that the lander may have tipped over after landing). Its batteries can power it only for a few hours. They’re hoping that perhaps later in the lunar day, or in a next lunar cycle, the lander will get sunlight from the right direction to be able to recharge its batteries after all.

Even so, Japan is now officially the fifth country to have landed a spacecraft on the Moon that remained (at least partially) operational on the lunar surface.

 Posted by at 2:01 pm
Jan 182024

I gave a brief invited talk today via Zoom, participating in a workshop on cosmological models, organized by Complutense University of Madrid, Spain.

The subject of my talk was John Moffat’s theory of gravitation, MOG/STVG, to which I made significant contributions myself over the past 18 years, in an on-going collaboration with John. Judging by the questions that followed my short presentation, I think it was reasonably well received.

The workshop was streamed live on YouTube, and the video is archived.


 Posted by at 9:25 pm
Jan 152024

I offered this gloomy prediction before I am offering it again, though it gives me no pleasure: World War 3 is long overdue.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, nuclear Armageddon was seen as almost inevitable someday. Back in 1970, when I was in the second grade, chances were no sane adult believed that the world would persist mostly in peace, with no major conflict between great powers, all the way up to the year 2000 and beyond.

Yet here we are, in 2024, now in the 79th year of the historical epoch that should rightly be called pax Americana: an imperfect, yet unprecedent period of peace, a rules-based world order that brought prosperity, freedom and security to billions. Not everyone, to be sure, but still, it was an era without precedent. The only comparable period of time that I can think of is also from relatively recent history: the decades between 1849 and 1914, which gave birth to the modern world, streetcars and electric subways, lightbulbs and radios, airplanes and labor unions, telephones and civil rights.

It is true that century after century, humanity has become more peaceful: that in any given century since the dawn of written history, your chances of dying as a victim of violence were ever so slightly less than in the preceding century. But that did not put an end to devastating war. And an all-encompassing, devastating war is long overdue, if history is any guide.

In fact, I very much worry that by the reckoning of some future historians, World War 3 might already be under way. We simply haven’t recognized it just yet.

Consider World War 2. When did it begin? Well, most official accounts I suppose mark September 1, 1939, when Hitler’s Third Reich attacked Poland, as the start date. But that’s a very Euro-centric view. I daresay that, in reality, World War 2 actually began on July 7, 1937 at the bridge known to Europeans as the Marco Polo bridge in Beijing, China. It was this incident that started what some call the Second Sino-Japanese War, but it really is the first major military conflict marking the beginning of the global war between 1937 and 1945.

Of course no one in July 1937 surmised that these were the first shots fired in a war that will leave tens of millions dead, Europe devastated, and culminate in the first (and to date, only) use of nuclear weapons in anger. Not even in September 1939 was it a foregone conclusion that the world entered another World War; indeed, for months thereafter, much of the Western press was talking about a “phony war”.

Things changed after the collapse of France, the Battle of Britain, Barbarossa and Pearl Harbor, of course. But it was a gradual process of recognition. Only in hindsight did we attach a firm date (even if it is the wrong date) marking the beginning of the world war.

So where are we now? War in Ukraine continues. Putin is undoubtedly enraged that Ukraine receives substantial assistance not just from the West in general, but from the Baltic states that not too long ago were part of the Soviet Union, places he thinks he owns. Meanwhile, what began as an unprecedented terrorist attack on Israeli civilians in early October is rapidly widening into a regional war, with US and UK forces now attacking Houthi facilities in Yemen, bases that were used to carry out unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping in the region. Iran, of course, is actively involved in all this even as they are entering an unholy alliance, dubbed the “axis of resistance”, uniting Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, with support from Russia and North Korea.

These conflicts are unlikely to go away in 2024. If anything, they are more than likely to escalate.

And I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to consider the very possibility that nuclear weapons will soon enter the stage.

Israel of course is one of the undeclared nuclear powers of the world. Should they feel existentially threatened, I don’t think they’d hesitate to use nukes against their major opponents.

Iran, as far as we know, is not a nuclear power just yet, but they are “almost there”. Would they use nukes merely as a deterrent, or would they deploy nukes against Israel? The ayatollahs are just crazy enough to do that, I fear.

Russia is of course one of the nuclear superpowers of the world. So far, they refrained from using nukes in Ukraine, but how close are they to take that step? They have already been using chemical weapons at a rising rate according to several reports that I have seen.

And then there is Ukraine itself. Though the country gave up its arsenal of inherited Soviet-era weapons, they certainly have the scientific and technological capability to develop a nuclear weapon in a short period of time. Are they working on it already? If so, how close are they and what will be the intended use? Deterrent? Battlefield deployment? And how would Russia react?

Meanwhile, the West is preoccupied with increasingly polarized politics, putting “conservative” against “progressive”, while undermining perhaps fatally the values of liberal democracy. Indeed, there are leaders like Hungary’s Orban who proudly declared themselves and their political schools of thought “illiberal”. It’s not exactly clear which part of traditional liberalism they reject, though quite possibly it’s all of them: who cares about the rule of law when they prefer the laws not apply to them, who cares about freedom of enterprise when their oligarchic cronies want no competition, who cares about civil rights when those pesky citizens have the audacity to criticize them? But if “illiberal” marks predominantly the conservative right, their “woke” counterparts from the progressive left, dubbed “liberal” though their attitudes are often completely at odds with traditional liberal values, certainly give them a run for their money when it comes to intolerance of any views other than their own.

Am I anxious? Not the right word. It’s hard to describe how I feel. The colossal stupidity that marks the world’s march towards conflict and suffering is annoying, but I have a lot less to worry about than most folks. I have no children whose future might concern me. I am in my early 60s, which means that the majority of my lifespan is behind me already, and it was a good life so far. I have no complaints. And there is nothing I can do to help avoid the outcome that I fear. An old joke pops into my mind, one I heard as a child in Hungary, about the railroad watchman who is taking an exam. He is asked what he would do if he saw two express trains heading towards each other on the open track. “I’d call the wife out from the shack,” he says, “because there’s nothing else that I can do and I’m sure she’s never seen a crash quite as big as this one!”

“The lamps are going out all over Europe,” declared Sir Edward Grey in London early August 1914, as the country that he served as foreign secretary was about to declare war on Imperial Germany. The lamps may soon start to go out all over the world. So here I am, telling my beautiful wife that we can watch the show together. My only regret is that we don’t have a ladder long enough to reach the rather tall roof of our townhouse condo. If I did, we’d have a prime view of downtown Ottawa for when the mushroom clouds blossom over its skyline.

 Posted by at 1:16 pm
Jan 132024

In 1981-82, I served as a conscript in what was then called the Hungarian People’s Army.

As an engineering student, I was trained as a radar operator, which is several notches above cannon fodder I suppose. Still, I do not have fond memories of the time.

Nonetheless, I have to admit that there were some educational moments.

Having once lived in a resort hotel that my stepfather was managing, in the spectacular, historic small town of Visegrád at the bend of the Danube, I learned how a commercial-grade kitchen, serving 100+ people, operates. Standards in Hungary were quite strict at the time, and managing such a kitchen entailed both enforcing food safety and hygiene standards and tasks such as managing and recycling meal samples, which would be used by health authorities in case of a suspected case of food-borne illness.

The military base where I spent most of my time as a conscript was an active air defense installation, part of the country’s peacetime air defense network. Nonetheless, they had a chronic shortage of officers, which meant that many tasks that would normally have been assigned to commissioned or non-commissioned officers were instead handed to us conscripts. Once they learned that I had some knowledge of how a kitchen is run, I was frequently assigned kitchen duty: No, not washing dishes (though I did that, too, in the early months of my service) but as kitchen supervisor, responsible for everything including obtaining the needed ingredients from our food storage (run by a civilian employee) and taking samples. It was a surprisingly educational experience.

Or how about the time when I was tasked with ordering… a freight train? Not just any train, mind you, but a specialized train (and route) to carry oversize equipment (our large Ural trucks that carried radar equipment and electronics) with a larger-than-standard cross-section to the USSR border, to participate in some international war games exercise. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go myself, my participation was limited to a journey to the regional headquarters of Hungary’s national railway company, where I had to patiently, and correctly, explain to the person responsible what kind of train we needed and why.

I also did minor tasks such as keeping the base’s one and only television set (an aging color set, a Videoton Color Star television, a mostly Soviet design I was told) alive. I was also responsible for the base’s movie projector, and I took weekly trips to Budapest to get a fresh movie on film, for movie night Mondays (back in the early 1980s, there was no television broadcast in Hungary on Mondays.)

The base where I served no longer exists. First, the military abandoned it. The municipality that inherited it tried to sell without much success, even as the facility was stripped, e.g., of nearly all metal bits by (I presume) metal thieves. Someone took a walk around the base in the early 2000s and put the resulting video on YouTube; it looked almost like parts of the city of Pripyat, near Chernobyl, except that in this case, I was looking at a building that I remembered very well personally, having spent some nine months of my life there.

In the end, the entire facility was demolished, to make way for a solar energy farm, if memory serves me correctly.

All that is to say that I was quite surprised, pleasantly I might add, when I discovered the other day that back in 2022, the local municipality decided to install a small memorial plaque thanking all those who served there in defense of Hungary’s airspace. The cynic in me was wondering if there was any profit in this act (it was, after all, partially financed by the EU, it says so on the plaque itself) even as I actually felt a bit of gratitude that our service was not completely unnoticed after all.

What can I say? The plaque is actually quite nice. I might even visit the spot some day.

 Posted by at 4:34 pm
Jan 102024

Here are the first few lines of a program I wrote over 40 years ago, an early attempt to model a massively parallel processor architecture.

No, the program is nothing special. And there are much better ways to create practical multiprocessor/multicore systems. The reason why I copy-pasted this image here has to do with something else: the fact that it was written in the Pascal programming language.

Pascal was just one of the many creations of one of the giants of computer science, Niklaus Wirth.

I learned yesterday that Wirth, who was born back in 1934, passed away on January 1.

 Posted by at 10:31 pm
Jan 042024

Looking at this image by Kyodo News showing the wreck of that Airbus 350 that burnt to a cinder at Haneda Airport the other day, I continue to feel astonished that not only did everyone survive, most of the almost 400 passengers were not even injured!

Photo taken from a Kyodo News helicopter on Jan. 3, 2024, shows a Japan Airlines plane a day after it caught fire on a runway at Haneda airport in Tokyo following a collision with a Japan Coast Guard aircraft while landing. (Kyodo)

It really boggles the mind. I hope that the JAL flight crew who facilitated what, for all intents and purposes, was a textbook successful evacuation from a severely damaged, burning aircraft, will get the recognition they deserve.

Although unwelcome, it was also a good test of the A350 airframe and its ability to protect passengers long enough for a successful evacuation.

 Posted by at 1:08 am
Dec 242023

At this time of the year, especially in these tumultuous times, is there anything else I could possibly wish for?

Earthrise from Apollo 8

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a merry Christmas, and God bless all of you — all of you on the good Earth.

 Posted by at 2:34 am
Dec 242023

I don’t think I’ve ever done a “year in review” bragfest thing in my blog, but this year has been… well, surprisingly productive, helped in part by our AI friends.

Here are some of the things I created this year:

  1. A science-centered front-end for the major large language models, with support for LaTeX, markup, SVG graphics generated by the AI, and good quality PDF output. Also, savable conversations and compatibility with several Anthropic and OpenAI models. I am quite proud of this, not to mention that it has since become my primary means of accessing LLMs. (I even thought about commercializing it, but I fear it’s way too much hassle and in the end, without proper marketing, just not worth the effort.)
  2. A Web-based application to model image recovery of a rotating exoplanet with varying illumination, viewed through the solar gravitational lens.
  3. A Web-based application to model a constellation of four satellites, used in a precision gravitational experiment to detect the presence of a specific type of deviation from Newtonian gravity.
  4. A Web-based application to model imaging by multiple gravitational lenses.
  5. Another Web-based application to process and analyze emergency room medical data using machine learning.
  6. A custom telnet implementation to finally make it possible to access my game sites, british-legends.com and mud2.com, from within the browser but without third-party plugins.
  7. A reimplementation of my “seas of Mars” Web applet, written originally in Java, showing what Mars would look like if it was flooded with an ocean.
  8. A reimplementation of code I wrote many years ago, constructing a psychrometric chart and calculator, running in a Web browser.

I also published a number of papers, both on my own and with coauthors:

  1. A paper with Slava Turyshev in Phys. Rev. D, on imaging with the realistic solar gravitational lens (SGL), accounting for its deviation from perfect spherical symmetry
  2. Another paper with Slava in Phys. Rev. D, on the spherical harmonic representation of gravitational lenses
  3. A paper with several (mostly NASA) authors in Planetary and Space Sciences, on the use of solar sailing smallsats for projects, including the SGL
  4. A paper with Slava in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, related to the software I described above about imaging a rotating planet with varying illumination
  5. Another paper in MNRAS, this one with John Moffat, on applying his Scalar-Tensor-Vector Gravity to the case of a difficult galaxy, NGC-1277
  6. Yet another paper in MNRAS under my own name, on recovering our key results on the SGL using strictly geometric optics
  7. Finally, another sole-author paper of mine, published in Astrophysics and Space Science, also related to the corresponding software, about using a satellite constellation for gravitational anomaly detection.

Additionally, I completed several in-house projects, including a much dreaded major Joomla! upgrade: Joomla! is the content management system I use for several of my Web sites, and the upgrade required first upgrading PHP, which in turn required fixes to countless instances of PHP code I wrote as many as 20 years ago, code that is not compatible with modern PHP versions. In the process, I also wrote replacement alternatives to two no longer supported third-party Joomla! components, to view images as thumbnails, and to view an image slideshow.

I also completed the Google foobar challenge, Google’s secret recruiting tool. No, I am not looking for a job at Google, but the challenge was, well, challenging (in a fun way) and it also allowed me to learn Python, the language I chose to implement the code that the challenge required. So now I know Python. Not a Python expert by any means, but I feel confident in my ability to use that language (which, incidentally, turns out to be more fun than I anticipated.)

So not quite an annus mirabilis (I don’t expect to discover a new relativity theory anytime soon) but not a bad year. And at least for a small part of this work, I even got paid. Not much, mind you, but I’ve been able to pay our bills so I am not complaining. I suppose if I were smarter, I’d do more work for money, but then again, there’s the quality of life thing, too…

 Posted by at 2:27 am
Dec 142023

I wanted to check something on IMDB. I looked up the film. I was confronted by an unfamiliar user interface. Now unfamiliar is okay, but the UI I saw is badly organized, key information (e.g., year of release, country of origin) difficult to find, with oversized images at the expense of useful content. And no, I don’t mean the ads; I am comfortable with relevant, respectful ads. It’s the fact that a lot less information is presented, taking up a lot more space.

Fortunately, in the case of IMDB I was able to restore a much more useful design by logging in to my IMDB account, going to account settings, and making sure that the Contributors checkbox was checked. Phew. So much more (SO MUCH MORE) readable, digestible at a glance. Yes, it’s smaller print. Of course. But the information is much better organized, the appearance is more consistent (no widely different font sizes) and the page is dominated by information, not entertainment in the form of images.

IMDB is not the only example. Recently, after I gave it a valiant try, I purposefully downgraded my favorite Android e-mail software as its new user interface was such a letdown. At least I had the foresight to save the APK of the old version, so I was able to install it and then make sure in the Play Store settings that it would not be upgraded. Not that I am comfortable not upgrading software but in this case, it was worth the risk.

All this reminds me of a recent discussion with a friend who works as a software professional himself: he is fed up to his eyeballs with the pervasive “Agile” fad at his workplace, with its mandatory “Scrum” meetings and whatnot. Oh, the blessings of being an independent developer: I could tell him that if a client mentioned “Agile” more than once, it’d be time for me to “Scrum” the hell out of there…

OK, I hope it’s not just grumpy ole’ complaining on my part. But seriously, these trendy fads are not helping. Software becomes less useful. Project management culture reinvents the wheel (I have an almost 50-year old Hungarian-language book on my shelf on project management that discusses iterative management in depth) with buzzwords that no doubt bring shady consultants a lot more money than I ever made actually building things. (Not complaining. I purposefully abandoned that direction in my life 30 years ago when I quietly walked out of a meeting, not having the stomach anymore to wear a $1000 suit and nod wisely while listening to eloquent BS.) The result is all too often a badly managed project, with a management culture that is no less rigid than the old culture (no fads can overcome management incompetence) but with less documentation, less control, less consistent system behavior, more undocumented dependencies, and compromised security. UI design has fads that change with the seasons, united only by results that are about as practical as a Paris fashion designer’s latest collection of “work attire”.

OK, I would be lying if I said that only bad things come out of change. Now that I use AI in software development, not a day goes by without the AI teaching me something I did not know, including tools, language features and whatnot that can help improve the user experience. But it would be so nice if we didn’t take three steps back for every four steps forward.

 Posted by at 10:21 am
Dec 112023

A welcome sight: A seemingly civilized discussion between Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Viktor Orban.

Of course “frank” in the language of diplomacy can mean many things, but if their posture is any indication, the conversation might have been mutually respectful, perhaps even productive. Moments like this have been known in the past to break the ice where more formal encounters led nowhere. One can only hope…

 Posted by at 11:11 am
Dec 092023

I am looking at the summary by Reuters of the European Union’s proposed regulatory framework for AI.

I dreaded this: incompetent politicians, populist opportunists, meddling in things that they themselves don’t fully understand, regulating things that need no regulation while not paying attention to the real threats.

Perhaps I was wrong.

Of course, as always, the process moves at a snail’s pace. By the time the new regulations are expected to come into force, 2026, the framework will likely be hopelessly obsolete.

Still: Light transparency requirements as a general principle, severe restrictions on the use of AI for law enforcement and surveillance, strict regulation for high-risk systems… I am compelled to admit, the attitude this reflects makes a surprising amount of good sense.

Almost as if the framework was crafted by an AI…

 Posted by at 11:57 am
Dec 072023

Today, December 7, marks the 82nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Discussion of the Pacific War inevitably leads to discussion of the morality and necessity of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I have long argued, and continue to argue, that it was the only acceptable decision for Harry Truman to make back during the fateful summer of 1945. And I just came across an unusual data point that supports my argument: the manufacture of Purple Hearts.

Wikipedia tells us that the Purple Heart is a US military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving. Needless to say, Purple Hearts must have been in high demand during the war years, between 1941-1945. The decorations obviously need to be manufactured, and that means the US government placing an order for them in anticipation of casualties during any conflict.

And it was an order of stunning magnitude that they placed in 1944-1945, anticipating the invasion of Japan: Something like half a million Purple Hearts were stockpiled. As a result of this and other unused stocks, it was not until the year 2000 that the US government ordered a new supply, and the old supply, though running low, remains in existence to this date.

So imagine that you are the newly minted president of the United States, after your former boss, Roosevelt, dies. You are informed that your government just completed an astonishing effort to create an immensely powerful new weapon, and it is ready for deployment. You are facing a ruthless enemy: Let’s not forget that the Empire of Japan was no less genocidal than Hitler’s regime, perhaps in some ways even more so (look up Unit 731 on Wikipedia if you have the stomach for it.) Perhaps they are ready to surrender. Perhaps not. But until they are, they remain the enemy. You don’t have the benefit of hindsight. You know what you know and it’s July 1945.

How could you NOT order tactical deployment of the new weapon? As opposed to keeping it in reserve or worse yet, wasting one for a theatrical “demonstration”? Wouldn’t that be an open betrayal of the American servicemen fighting in the Pacific theater? An almost treasonous act?

Yes, there were dissenting voices. But, lest we forget, the conventional bombing campaigns were just as brutal on the civilian population as the nuclear bombs, perhaps even more so. The firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo serve as splendid examples of just what the Allied powers were able and willing to do to enemy cities and their civilian population. Of course there was dissent. Americans are not without conscience, and senior political and military leaders in 1945 were no exception. But it was not until the 1960s that questioning the morality of the use of these weapons became… fashionable.

Yet here we are, more than 78 years later, and not a single nuclear weapon was used in anger ever since. That’s not an iron clad guarantee of course, but at least a ray of hope. Perhaps Hiroshima and Nagasaki achieved more than help bring an end to the War in the Pacific. Perhaps they also helped shape our public perception of nuclear war as the pinnacle of abhorrence.

In the meantime, though, if anyone wonders about the morality of Truman’s decision, perhaps it’s a good idea to contemplate the half million (give or take) surplus Purple Hearts.

 Posted by at 9:41 pm