Apr 192021

This morning, a drone took flight. It successfully took off from the ground, hovered for a few seconds, and then landed safely.

What, you ask? How is this supposed to be a big deal? There are millions of drones out there, kids playing with them and whatnot.

Oh, but this drone is special, and not only because it carries a small piece of fabric from the Wright brothers’ very first airplane.

It is special because it flew on Mars.

 Posted by at 11:42 am
Mar 242021

For more than a day now, I’ve been watching the news about a giant container ship that is blocking the Suez Canal. Supposedly it now “partially refloated”, whatever that means.

In the process, I learned about vesselfinder.com, a Web site that tracks ships on the high seas, much like sites like flightradar24.com track airplanes. Here it is, a real-time snapshot of this stuck vessel:

I have no idea though why the ship is given the name “EVER GIVEN” here. Its actual name, written on the side of the ship in giant block letters, appears to be “EVERGREEN”. (Or not. I’ve since learned that EVERGREEN is the name of the company, not the ship.) And yes, it does block the canal in spectacular fashion.

Given the importance of this shipping route, I wonder why this is not bigger news than it appears to be. Is it perhaps because the general expectation is that the problem will be resolved shortly, causing no more than minor delays in some shipments? I hope.

 Posted by at 11:59 am
Sep 122020

I have a travel radio.

It is a SONY ICF-SW1. It is an amazing little radio, probably the nicest radio ever made by anyone. It looks more like jewelry than a radio.

It is an immensely capable universal receiver, with continuous tuning in the AM band between 150 and 29995 kHz, and in the FM band between 76 and 108 MHz. About the only shortcoming that was mentioned by its critics is that it is a shame that such a radio does not offer the ability to selectively pick modulation schemes (e.g., narrowband FM, SSB).

I bought this radio maybe a quarter century ago, back in the 1990s. (So I guess it qualifies as an antique, despite the fact that there really are no comparable receivers out there that I know about.) I thought about buying one for quite some time but at first, I refrained as the radio was quite pricey. But one day, while waiting for my flight back home at Budapest Airport, I could not resist anymore: I saw the radio at the duty free shop and bought it.

Come to think of it, it must have been 1993 or earlier, because as I recall, the radio was already in my possession when I visited Beijing in the fall of ’93. As such, it began to show signs of age, its sound quality deteriorating because of aging electrolytic capacitors.

A few months ago, I purchased a capacitor kit off eBay, in the hope that I might be able to repair the radio. In fact, I began the repair job back in the summer, starting with taking the radio apart; not an easy task by itself, as it requires not just the removal of countless screws, not just carefully separating snap-together parts of the radio’s case without causing damage, but also desoldering several wires.

Back in the summer, I successfully replaced two capacitors but then I put the radio aside. It was hard work, and very easy to make irreversible mistakes working on submillimeter scale parts with a soldering iron. As I attempted to replace a third capacitor last night, I managed to rip up a small patch of the printed circuit board. I was able to repair the damage with a piece of wire, but this was the point when I said, enough is enough; “do no harm” should be my mantra, and I certainly do not wish to destroy this beautiful little device. So I decided to forego the rest, in the hope that the two largest capacitors that I replaced (the third was a backup capacitor for the microprocessor, to keep it powered while replacing batteries) would be sufficient. I did, however, replace the display backlight: the original backlight was a low-luminosity green LED, which I replaced with a modern, high-luminosity white LED that I received as part of the kit.

Putting everything back together was a challenge, too, and not just because the light didn’t work at first (bad soldering on my part). Ultimately I managed, though I ended up with four surplus screws with no place to go. (I think I know where they’re from, but they are redundant, and there’s no way I am going to take this radio apart again just to put those screws back in.) And much to my surprise, the radio works, and its sound quality indeed improved noticeably.

As I was studying the circuit diagram of the radio, I kept wondering what possessed SONY to produce a little marvel like this. This radio is insanely complex, with its multiple circuit boards in an absolutely tiny package. The number of distinct parts (each carefully labeled in the service manual with replacement order numbers) is astonishing. Was it a labor of love? Were they showing off? Probably both.

 Posted by at 12:20 pm
Aug 292020

My mind just got blown.

The reason? Photographs like this one:

No, it’s not photoshop. Nor is it a movie prop.

Back in the 1950s, 1960s, early 1970s there really was regular bus service connecting the city of London, United Kingdom, with Calcutta (now Kolkata), India.

It really blew my mind. What a ride! Traveling through Belgium, West Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, West Pakistan (now Pakistan), and finally, India.

I think what really blew my mind was not that the roads were there. Of course. But that a bus, obviously from a Western capital, carrying unarmed passengers, could safely travel through this route. Sure, passengers needed a multitude of visas, even crossing the Iron Curtain (twice!) but nonetheless, the route had to be safe enough, roadside services had to be reliable enough, and the authorities along the route had to be trustworthy enough for a bus operator to be able to offer this regularly scheduled service.

Of course things didn’t stay that way. The India-Pakistan border has become less open each passing year. Afghanistan went to hell in a handbasket with the Soviet occupation, the Taliban, the American invasion in the wake of 9/11. Iran turned into a theocracy with the Islamic revolution. Yugoslavia went up in flames in a bloody civil war. Today, it would be quite impossible* to organize reliable bus service from London to Kolkata.

I cannot help but wonder what it must have been like, for a child in Kolkata, Kabul, Lahore or Tehran, looking at this bus and imagining that faraway, fabulous city of London. I used to feel that sense of awe a little when, as a child in behind-the-iron-curtain Budapest, I saw trains departing the railway station for faraway, magical places like Vienna or Paris; but those were a lot closer, a lot more accessible to us in Budapest than London must have been to a 6-year old on Kabul or Lahore in 1969.

*Or maybe not: Apparently there is an effort under way to establish a bus route, with a gigantic detour through Myanmar, Thailand, China and Russia. I wish them luck.

 Posted by at 1:34 am
Jun 032020

Amidst all the tension that has been unleashed in the United States, there is this small ray of hope.

A black flight attendant on a Southwest flight initiated a conversation with a white passenger, who was reading the book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, by Robin DiAngelo.

The white passenger’s remark, “It’s our fault. We have to start these conversations,” caught her by surprise. A short conversation followed. Then the big revelation: The unassuming gentleman happened to be Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines.

I can already hear some of my friends objecting: “It’s not our fault!” Do not misconstrue Parker’s words (perhaps they weren’t even quoted verbatim.) He of course didn’t mean, I am sure, that every white person must bear personal responsibility for every vile act of racism that happens in America or elsewhere.

Rather, what I read into those words is an acknowledgement of a simple reality: In an unequal relationship, the dominant party has the power to make change for the better. In America, this means whites.

The fact that the CEO of a company as large as American Airlines recognizes this is, well, a ray of hope. As is the fact that he traveled, unassumingly, as an ordinary economy passenger on a competitor’s flight. As rising inequality between the super-wealthy and the stagnating middle class plagues Western societies, the US in particular, as disadvantaged minorities fall even further behind, it is nice to know that at least some folks in positions of power recognize that their wealth and status also come with a huge responsibility. Especially if the nice thoughts are also followed by deeds.

 Posted by at 11:44 am
Mar 232020

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

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

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

Not much of a chance of a lineup today.

How will our world recover from this?

 Posted by at 11:50 pm
Mar 102020

I returned from a brief trip to Hungary yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 3:04 pm
Mar 102020

And then, my Mom almost spat out her tea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 2:50 pm
Nov 302019

Not a day goes by in Ottawa this autumn without news of yet another service interruption with our brand new light rail transport system.

You’d think that reliably operating an urban rail network is not exactly high science in 2019; especially considering that 60 years earlier, this town had an extensive network of streetcars, which operated reliably for 68 years.

Sadly, that network fell victim to the myopic urban planning trends of the postwar years, which also saw streetcar networks destroyed, or at the very least, severely diminished, as in the case of my city of birth, Budapest, where, for instance, a once popular streetcar line was replaced by an overpass carrying vehicular traffic to an already congested downtown core.

And now we have an LRT that is made unreliable, in part, by a risk-averse culture in which an entire urban transportation system is shut down because of a single door’s failure to close properly.

 Posted by at 10:46 am
Jul 152019

Galileo is the world’s third global satellite navigation system, built by the European Union, operating in parallel with the American GPS system and Russia’s GLONASS. It has been partially operational since 2016, with a full constellation if satellites expected to enter service this year.

But as of early Monday, July 15, Galileo has been down for nearly four days, completely inoperative in fact:

As of the time of this writing, no explanation is being offered, other than one article mentioning an unspecified issue with Galileo’s ground-based infrastructure.

It really is difficult to comprehend how such a failure can occur.

It is even more difficult to comprehend the silence, the lack of updates, explanations, or any information about the expected recovery.

 Posted by at 12:59 am
Jan 012019

Today, I answered a question on Quora about the nature of \(c\), the speed of light, as it appears in the one equation everyone knows, \(E=mc^2.\)

I explained that it is best viewed as a conversion factor between our units of length and time. These units are accidents of history. There is nothing fundamental in Nature about one ten millionth the distance from the poles to the equator of the Earth (the original definition of the meter) or about one 86,400th the length of the Earth’s mean solar day. These units are what they are, in part, because we learned to measure length and time long before we learned that they are aspects of the same thing, spacetime.

And nothing stops us from using units such as light-seconds and seconds to measure space and time; in such units, the value of the speed of light would be just 1, and consequently, it could be dropped from equations altogether. This is precisely what theoretical physicists often do.

But then… I commented that something very similar takes place in aviation, where different units are used to measure horizontal distance (nautical miles, nmi) and altitude (feet, ft). So if you were to calculate the kinetic energy of an airplane (measuring its speed in nmi/s) and its potential energy (measuring the altitude, as well as the gravitational acceleration, in ft) you would need the ft/nmi conversion factor of 6076.12, squared, to convert between the two resulting units of energy.

As I was writing this answer, though, I stumbled upon a blog entry that discussed the crazy, mixed up units of measure still in use worldwide in aviation. Furlongs per fortnight may pretty much be the only unit that is not used, as just about every other unit of measure pops up, confusing poor pilots everywhere: Meters, feet, kilometers, nautical miles, statute miles, kilograms, pounds, millibars, hectopascals, inches of mercury… you name it, it’s there.

Part of the reason, of course, is the fact that America, alone among industrialized nations, managed to stick to its archaic system of measurements. Which is another historical accident, really. A lot had to do with the timing: metric transition was supposed to take place in the 1970s, governed by a presidential executive order signed by Gerald Ford. But the American economy was in a downturn, many Americans felt the nation under siege, the customary units worked well, and there was a conservative-populist pushback against the metric system… so by 1982, Ronald Reagan disbanded the Metric Board and the transition to metric was officially over. (Or not. The metric system continues to gain ground, whether it is used to measure bullets or Aspirin, soft drinks or street drugs.)

Yet another example similar to the metric system is the historical accident that created the employer-funded healthcare system in the United States that American continue to cling to, even as most (all?) other advanced industrial nations transitioned to something more modern, some variant of a single-payer universal healthcare system. It happened in the 1920s, when a Texas hospital managed to strike a deal with public school teachers in Dallas: For 50 cents a month, the hospital picked up the tab of their hospital visits. This arrangement became very popular during the Great Depression when hospitals lost patients who could not afford their hospital care anymore. The idea came to be known as Blue Cross. And that’s how the modern American healthcare system was born.

As I was reading this chain of Web articles, taking me on a tour from Einstein’s \(E=mc^2\) to employer-funded healthcare in America, I was reminded of a 40-year old British TV series, Connections, created by science historian James Burke. Burke found similar, often uncanny connections between seemingly unrelated topics in history, particularly the history of science and technology.

 Posted by at 2:25 pm
Oct 252018

I just came across this picture of a newly built bicycle path in Hungary, complete with signs marking its beginning and end, as well as a stop sign instructing bicyclists coming off the path to yield to oncoming traffic:

I don’t think I can add any meaningful comments, other than perhaps that this bicycle path may yet find its way into the Guinness book of world records, albeit not necessarily for the right reasons.

 Posted by at 11:53 pm
Aug 212018

I often advise my clients that although automation is great, it must be accompanied by well-tested fallback procedures and training, to ensure that they can continue operations even when systems fail. This is especially important in the case of life-critical applications or, for that matter, in applications related to major centers transportation and infrastructure centers.

Today, there was a perfect example that took place at Gatwick Airport in London. Due to a problem with an underground cable, their flight information system failed. That meant no more functioning displays showing departure times and gate numbers. Yet the airport was able to continue operations with no cancellations or delays, and with very few passengers missing connecting flights.

How? Why, they used whiteboards.

Yes. Whiteboards, maintained by officials carrying walkie-talkies.

Now here is the thing. Although the scenes were described as “chaotic” by some, reality was the exact opposite. To quote a spokesperson: “The airport’s manual contingency plan – which included displaying information manually in the terminals and having extra staff on hand to help direct passengers – worked well and tens of thousands of passengers departed on time and no flights were cancelled.”

This is exactly what “business continuity” means. I hope that the person at Gatwick who insisted that such plans must be in place and ensured that not just whiteboards, walkie-talkies and markers but also adequately trained personnel were available when needed, will get not just a commendation but a nice raise.

 Posted by at 6:57 pm
Apr 142018

Yesterday, we said goodbye to our old car, a very nice Honda Accord that served us faithfully for four years.

The lease expired, so we opted to lease a new one. Another Honda Accord. (Incidentally, 2018 marks the 30th year that I’ve been purchasing Hondas, from this very same dealership.)

The old car was nice. The new car… Well, it’s amazing what even four years can mean these days when it comes to vehicle automation.

The level of automation in this vehicle is amazing. It can start itself, it can steer itself. It has full situational awareness, with radar all around. Apparently, it even monitors the driver for alertness (I’ll have to read up on exactly how it accomplishes that.) During the short drive home, it once applied the brakes when its adaptive cruise control was on and someone moved into the lane ahead of us. It was braking a little harder than I’d have preferred, though. And at one point, as the lane markings were a little ambiguous, it gently resisted my attempt to depart from what it thought was the correct lane.

In principle, it appears, this car has all the components for it to be fully autonomous, except that perhaps its array of sensors is not sufficient for it to be fully safe. But really, the only thing missing is the software. And even the way it is, it is beginning to feel more like a partner in driving than a dumb machine; a partner that also has a well-developed instinct for self-preservation.

Welcome to the future, I guess.

 Posted by at 9:54 pm
Oct 252017

One of the blessings of working at home is that I rarely drive. For which I am grateful.

Today, I did drive, because I had to meet someone. And I ended up in an unexpected traffic jam due to a lane closure.

It appears that they were doing emergency (?) traffic light repair at the intersection of Vanier Parkway/Riverside Road and the eastbound Queensway off-ramp here in Ottawa. What is incomprehensible is why they had to close a lane of Vanier parkway on the bridge, long before the intersection, and before the on-ramp lane splits, thus causing a close to half-mile long traffic back-up.

[Sorry, no audio. I was swearing too profusely.]

PS: Yes, I know. First world problems.

 Posted by at 4:47 pm
Nov 202016

Okay, this is hands down the winner as the absolute “I’ll effing be” moment for me today, if not this week (and that’s saying something, with all the shenanigans going on with Trump and his cabinet picks): An electric steam locomotive that I just came across.

Say what?

Yes, an electric steam locomotive. That would be a steam engine, boiler and all, with a pantograph connecting it to an overhead line.

A lunatic scheme, to be sure, but apparently it made sense in 1940s Switzerland. They had steam locomotives aplenty. What they didn’t have was fuel for these locomotives. But they had plenty of cheap hydroelectricity. So even with the incredibly inefficient conversion of electric power into heat into steam pressure into mechanical motion, it still made sense.

Still… these perverted things just look absolutely demented.

 Posted by at 3:20 pm
Nov 052016

I am just back from a brief road trip to the Big Apple, aka. New York City.

I had three reasons to go there. First, I was invited to a Quora Top Writers meeting. Second, I have recently built a new backup server, to replace the one that has served me faithfully for many years, hosted by my good friend David who lives there. And third, I haven’t been to NYC in ages… and I am quite fond of that city.

I drove. The drive was pleasant and uneventful. The weather could not have been nicer. November indeed… it almost felt like summer! I was wearing a shirt the entire time.

Once the new server was installed (which went without a hitch), David and I visited a fantastic little place in Brooklyn: the Subway Museum. An out-of-service subway station has been converted into this museum, which allows them to host renovated subway cars that remain powered, complete with original lighting fixtures. You can walk through them, even sit down in them, and contemplate what it must have been like to ride the subway in Manhattan while the Great War was raging in distant Europe.

We also visited the new World Trade Center.

Although we didn’t have time to go up to the Observatory level, we did visit the 9/11 memorial. That sad day, which David and I both vividly remember (for instance, we were on the phone when I warned him as the second tower began to topple, which was visible on CNN, so he rushed to his office window in time to see with his own eyes as that tower, too, vanished in a billowing cloud of smoke), left an indelible mark on this great city.

I didn’t take any pictures at the Quora meeting. There were several attendees with professional photo gear… I am sure that the pictures they took will surface somewhere eventually. But I did meet some amazing people and had some very interesting conversations. A great evening, even though my voice is still hoarse from all the shouting (the restaurant had very bad acoustics.)

One of my guilty pleasures is watching dash cam videos on YouTube. On my way home, I was given the opportunity to produce a dash cam video of my own, as I witnessed a near miss right in front of me:

I was using my mobile phone as a dash cam throughout the trip. Not because I was hoping to catch an accident, but I thought it might be a good idea just in case, and perhaps it might even help me record some memorable sights.

 Posted by at 12:58 am
Oct 302016

It is almost the end of October, and I only added one blog entry so far this month. One reason is that we had a minor health scare: when my wife traveled to Hungary last month, she landed in a hospital on arrival, as she had an unexplained seizure during her flight.

She is doing well, thankfully. She returned home safely, with no lasting effects. There will still be a few more tests to be sure, but the scare is largely over.

This unfortunate incident, however, allowed us to experience first-hand the state of the health care system in Hungary, about which we read so much in recent years. Yes, as it is well known, the system is badly underfunded: salaries are miserably low, and sometimes, even basic supplies are lacking.

But we cannot utter a bad word about the health care professionals that my wife encountered. They were impeccably professional and helpful, going out of their way to assist us, even beyond the call of duty. When my wife’s cell phone was acting up, one nurse volunteered to help fix it with my assistance. When I explained to a doctor that I cannot visit her in person because I happen to be a continent away, he handed the phone to my wife, allowing us to have a conversation (finally!) using a hospital line for a few minutes. They helped with insurance matters, too, and they issued a very thorough discharge report, complete with a CD-ROM containing the results of a CT scan.

All in all, we have nothing but praise for these overworked and underpaid health care workers, some minor mishaps notwithstanding. They were kind, they were helpful, and every one of them that I spoke with was ready to assist, forthcoming, and flawlessly polite. Thank you for your kind care. Köszönjük szépen.

 Posted by at 10:15 am
Sep 142016

Tonight, the two most important women in my life are both in the stratosphere.

My wife is en route to Hungary, to visit her Mom. At this moment, she is about halfway across the North Atlantic Ocean.

Meanwhile, my Mom is about to land in Beijing, on a memorable adventure I hope: a one-week trip to China with a friend.

And I am stuck here with three cats, fending for ourselves in the Ottawa wilderness. I would say that life is not fair, but I actually enjoy staying at home for a change. I like my home, and travel is such a chore.

 Posted by at 11:40 pm
Jun 082016


Here is what happened in downtown Ottawa, just a 15-minute walk from my home:


That’s one big hole. I hope it doesn’t start swallowing nearby buildings.

And yes, I feel very fortunate today that I do not need to commute to work.

And it has happened before, in 1924:


 Posted by at 2:56 pm