Feb 112019
 

What do you do when you are confronted with racism when you least expect it?

No, not the overt kind. That would be easy. Obviously if someone used the N-word to descibe a black person, the K-word to describe a Jew, or similar slurs in my presence, I would tell them in no uncertain terms to get out of my face with that caveman racist attitude.

But what if it is something more subtle, more insidious?

Like, when a close friend explains to you how it is not racism but bad experience that turned them suspicious towards black people. That they used to be color-blind until they were defrauded or otherwise mistreated by black people one too many times.

At first, you think there is hope. You have known this person for a long time. The negative experiences are undoubtedly real. And you know that your friend is, deep inside, a good person. A rational person who can be convinced not to generalize from a few negative experiences and condemn an entire population of human beings on account of the color of their skin. To judge people by their character instead.

You bring up historical examples, pro and con. People from oppressed minorities who demonstrated the strength of their character by the dignified way with which they stood up to oppression, such as Frederick Douglass or Nelson Mandela. Or people who used twisted logic and a false sense of victimhood to justify how they turned from self-professed race-blind innocents into vitriolic racists, such as Adolf Hitler during his years in Vienna.

But then something snaps in you. There comes the moment of realization. It is all pointless. Your moral outrage is ignored or worse, filed away as a hysterical outburst of excessive political correctness, for which you should probably apologize. Your arguments are dismissed because, you know, you were lucky and avoided all those negative experiences and you can afford to remain an idealist unlike your more experienced, more streetwise friend. You try to explain to your friend that adopting a racist attitude means being part of the problem, not part of the solution. To no avail; in fact, you learn that the only reason your friend seemed to favor politicians of a more liberal persuasion is the fear of losing personal benefits. When it comes to race, their views align with the worst.

And it becomes clear at one point that your friend’s dream life is in an affluent, whites-only gated community.

What do you do then? Pretend you haven’t heard anything? Throw away decades of friendship? Or maybe take the easy way out and just turn into a card-carrying Nazi yourself?

I could, of course. I am a tall, middle-aged, white male with (as far as I know) no questionable Mischlingsblut in my veins. I even had some military training. I could click my heels, raise my arm and shout, Sieg Heil!, faster than most semi-literate, drunken Nazis. Jawohl, mein Führer, wir verteidigen die weiße Rasse. And tall as I am, I would look especially impressive in a KKK hood. And then I would have no problems with racism anymore. I could go on and just despise and distrust blacks, Muslims (especially black Muslims, I guess) Asians, Native Americans, Jews, you name it. Anyone who is different from my superior race. Any lesser untermensch. Including, quite possibly, my dear friend.

Trouble is, I still prefer to see a human being, not a monster, staring back at me from the mirror when I brush my teeth in the morning.

So no. Not even from my best, dearest friends. No matter how well-justified they feel in their views. No matter how strongly they feel that they are the victims here.

No, my white friends. You are no more victims of visible minorities than Hitler was a victim of Jews.

And the time to speak up is now. Even if my friends think that I went berserk with political correctness.

No matter how close a friend or family member you are: If you think your racist views are justified, please just bugger out of my sight.

I like to think of myself as a low-maintenance friend. You don’t have to come over to fix my computer. I don’t ask you to help me move. I don’t demand to be invited to your parties (in fact, I prefer not to be invited at all, being the introvert that I am.) I don’t show up, unannounced, to eat your food, crash on your couch, or borrow your car.

But there is one price for my friendship and that, you must pay. No, not to give lip service to some politically correct doctrine. No, I am not asking you to go all kumbaya with people with whom you feel uncomfortable. I am not asking you to donate all your wealth to people you distrust. The price is that I ask you to think. To imagine what it would be like if it was you who lived in a society that judged you by what others have done, simply because you share a visible characteristic with them. To have no place to go, because prejudice follows you everywhere. To be treated with suspicion at all times.

And then think about your duty as a human being to rise above petty, everyday grievances. To consider, at the very least, the possibility that you, too, bear some responsibility to not make our society worse. And don’t dig your heels in deeper. Don’t wallow in your sense of victimhood. Don’t come up with new justifications for your prejudice.

And for heaven’s sake, do not make your racism worse by calling me a blind idiot. Do not insult my intelligence with the cheapest racist excuse I ever heard, the last refuge of the intellectually incompetent hatemongerer: Do not tell me that I don’t see it the way you do because I have not experienced just how bad it really is where you live. Even if I am inexperienced in these matters, there are plenty of people in your neck of the woods who are not following you down that racist rabbit’s hole.

I am not asking much. I am not asking you to change. I am just asking you to think. And to stop justifying the morally and intellectually unjustifiable. Do the bidding of your inner demons if you must; but don’t try to pretend that they are angels. Not to me, not to yourself.

Can’t do it? Too bad. I will not apologize for this. I will not ask for your forgiveness. This is the price of my friendship. In this day and age, when I am confronted with racism, especially from people closest to my heart, there is one thing I cannot to: I just can’t not speak up.

 Posted by at 6:58 pm
Feb 032019
 

I have been fancying myself as a TV repairman (I know, I know, a completely useless skill set in 2019) ever since I successfully repaired a 25-year old SANYO television set. I figured I would repeat that success with an even older television: my first television set in Canada, a 1986 Mitsubishi CS-1454C portable television. (By “portable”, they mean it weighs less than about 25 pounds and it can be hauled from one room to another without the use of a forklift.)

The problem seemed simple enough: The TV set refused to turn on. Obviously, I expected a faulty power supply or something similar, maybe due to an aging capacitor somewhere.

Alas, nope. The power supply was doing what it was supposed to do, supplying low voltage power to all the relevant parts, including the integrated circuit that was responsible for activating the relay that, in turn, would have turned on the set. But the relay never got the signal that would have turned it on. The transistor that controlled the relay never got the signal either.

Why? Well, the signal to that transistor comes from a microchip:

It comes from pin 28 of a chip labeled μPD-1709CT. What is this chip? Well, it turns out that it is, in fact, a 4-bit microcontroller with about 1.5 kilowords of ROM, factory programmed by the chip manufacturer (NEC) with code supplied by the customer.

I checked, and the microcontroller has everything. It has power, it has a clock signal. It scans the front panel keypad with beautiful, nice square waves on my oscilloscope. The one thing it does not do is outputting a signal on pin 28 when I press the Power button; which, in turn, would have provided a signal for the relay, which in turn would have energized the rest of the unit.

I am therefore forced to conclude that this television is not repairable. Even if I found a replacement chip, chances are that unless it is from the same unit, its program code would be incompatible. (The same family of chips has been used, e.g., in car entertainment systems.) Since I doubt that the manufacturer still provides support for a unit that was sold 32 years ago, the only possible source for a replacement chip would be another, cannibalized television set.

And, of course, the thing is just not worth the effort. An old style, analog television set with a CRT? Years older than half the human beings presently alive on Earth? Still, it was worth a try… I like fiddling with these old devices. Although I much prefer success stories, of course.

 Posted by at 6:12 pm
Jan 092019
 

So I figured I’d try Office 2019. It came out a few months ago, and I have the MSDN license and everything, so why not give it a test drive. I downloaded the DVD installation image, and ran setup.

Immediately, I was presented with a cryptic error message:

What the devil does this mean? I am installing from a Microsoft-provided DVD image. Surely, it has all the required files?

The “Go online…” link was of no use. Just some generic stuff about installation failures.

A quick online search, however, revealed the culprit: Office 2019 won’t install unless Office 2016 is removed first.

Not something I am inclined to do at this time, not without thoroughly testing Office 2019 first to make sure that it behaves the way I like it (I am especially worried about Outlook and my encrypted imap connection, which can be a bitch to set up.)

In any case… in the software industry, 30 years ago already we had installers that gracefully recognized an existing installation of the same package, and offered either an upgrade or a side-by-side install. Or, worst case, they offered a meaningful error message, informing the hapless user that the prior version must be uninstalled first. Because, you know, chances are anyone installing Office 2019 might already have a copy of Office 2016 installed on their system?

I guess none of that is needed in 2019. After all, what kind of a dumb user am I if I don’t immediately understand Error code 30182-1 (2)?

 Posted by at 9:25 pm
Jan 062019
 

I almost forgot: a couple of months ago, I was interviewed over the telephone by a journalist who wanted to know my thoughts about one of my favorite moments in manned space exploration: The Apollo 8 “Genesis” moment, the reading of the opening verses of the Old Testament, on Christmas Day, 1968, by the astronauts of Apollo 8 as their spacecraft emerged from behind the Moon.

Today, something reminded me of this interview and I did a quick search. Lo and behold, there it is: My words, printed in The Boston Globe on December 23, 2018:

“It was a beautiful moment, and Genesis is part of our Western cultural heritage,” said Viktor Toth, an atheist and a senior research fellow at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, who played the lead role in the investigation of the Pioneer Anomaly, the mysterious acceleration of the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts in deep space. “This was an awe-inspiring thing: Human beings for the first time cut off from the Earth, and then they reemerged and saw the Earth again. The message was entirely appropriate.”

Though shortened, this pretty accurately reflects what I actually said during that roughly 10-minute conversation with the journalist.

 Posted by at 10:12 pm
Dec 302018
 

This is Master Rufus.

Master Rufus would like to wish a Happy New Year to all our family, friends, indeed all good people who stumble upon this blog post.

 Posted by at 11:58 pm
Dec 242018
 

A quote from 50 years ago is the most appropriate one tonight, considering that our world is just as troubled as the world of 1968:

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 5:25 pm
Dec 142018
 

The news came a few days ago: Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig has been arrested in China, in apparent retaliation for the arrest of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

Michael WHAT, I asked? Kovrig? As in, K-O-V-R-I-G?

You see, Kovrig is not at all a common surname. And it so happens that my stepfather’s last name is Kovrig.

Not just that but… we know another Kovrig (no relation, none that we know anyway). My parents came to know this Kovrig as a result of a chance encounter, but ultimately, they helped him purchase an apartment in the same building where they live. So this Kovrig lives two floors above my Mom and my stepfather, in Budapest.

And Michael Kovrig, former Canadian diplomat, is his nephew.

A few years ago, I was about to be offered an opportunity to take part in a Chinese research effort. My participation would have involved access to data that Chinese authorities might have viewed as military secrets. I backed out for this very reason. The last thing I needed in my life was the possibility, however remote, that I would end up in Chinese custody, accused of espionage. Later, I was wondering if I simply made a fool of myself; Was there any real danger that I might get into trouble, or was I simply pretentious?

Kovrig’s arrest is a wake-up call. This time, lightning struck uncomfortably close. Much as I regret not taking part in that very interesting and promising piece of research (and it would have been an honor to be invited) I am glad I backed out.

I hope Kovrig is released soon. I hope his arrest helps others realize that beneath the spectacular economic growth and the undeniable successes, China is still fundamentally a communist police state, whose methods of choice are bullying and violence.

 Posted by at 5:07 pm
Dec 042018
 

Between the tragic, sudden loss of our cat Kifli and the unexpected arrival of our new cat Freddy, there is also our now oldest cat Rufus.

Rufus is a gentle giant. For a few days after Freddy’s arrival, he seemed a bit depressed, but I think he mostly got over it. (Just to be sure, we had his bloodwork done at the vet; there were no concerns.) Now that they’ve known each other for ten days or so, it seems that Freddy and Rufus are getting along quite well.

Incidentally, the shredded fabric that is seen in the lower left of this picture is fabric hanging from the edge of a sofa. A very comfortable piece of furniture, to be sure; sadly, also a cats’ favorite when it comes to regular claw maintenance.

 Posted by at 8:41 pm
Nov 292018
 

Supposedly, at one year and two months, a kittycat is fully grown.

But in case we mistook “fully grown” for “adult”, Freddy is here to remind us of our mistake.

I think this picture illustrates my point well. Although he isn’t actually misbehaving at the moment the picture was snapped, you can see it in his eyes. Something is about to happen. Soon, there will be a cat where no cat should be, or there will be things flying that were supposed to sit, undisturbed, on tables or shelves.

But this is why cats are so much fun.

 Posted by at 2:51 pm
Nov 232018
 

It all began with a short discussion after Kifli passed away. My wife was wondering if we’d ever find a pair of kittens like Kifli and Szürke.

On a whim, I decided to check out the Ottawa Humane Society’s adoption site. They have had littermates available for adoption in the past. Not this time, though.

However, I did stumble across a photo of Freddy, a 14-month old fawn tabby not unlike Kifli.

Silly, we said. You should not be thinking about adopting a cat less than 24 hours after you lost one, we said.

Nonetheless, we decided to check this cat out. And when he was out of his cage, first thing he did, he climbed onto my wife’s back, to perch there.

How can you say no to a cat like this?

So world, this is Freddy. Freddy, say hello to everyone. And we’re back to being a two-cat household. While we still grieve over the loss of Kifli, instead of crying, we smile as we endure this new cat’s antics, while he is discovering the house.

 Posted by at 7:44 pm
Nov 222018
 

About a week ago, our seventeen-and-a-half year old cat Kifli lost his appetite and started to have a bit of a diarrhea. Nothing too concerning, but we decided to take him to the vet come Monday.

Kifli in happier times sitting on top of a server he should not have been sitting on. May 2018.

By Monday morning, things were obviously more serious as Kifli stopped eating. He was still drinking though, so we were not too concerned. But an urgent visit to the vet was no longer merely optional. Still, our main concern at this time was to request the vet to clip Kifli’s claws, because he always managed to get them stuck in pieces of furniture (not to mention our own rather tender skin.)

But then, once the bloodwork came back on Tuesday, the vet told us that the symptoms were those of pancreatitis, quite possibly a result of lymphoma or some other form of cancer. The prognosis was poor.

An ultrasound exam was recommended. The ultrasound specialist was booked for Wednesday evening.

By Wednesday morning, Kifli was doing a lot worse, so I called the vet and took Kifli there in the morning, to make sure he is under proper medical care. He received some fluids. When I went to pick him up in the evening, his belly was shaved (for the ultrasound) and he was still very wobbly from the anesthesia. The vet, in fact, was concerned and recommended a stay at an overnight hospital nearby. However, when it became clear that the kitty may not live to see the morning, we opted to keep him home instead, closely monitoring him for signs of distress.

When we got home, Kifli was agitated. He released a few drops of urine. We presented him with a litterbox near his basket, but that was not good enough for him; though wobbly and groggy, he ambled and stumbled downstairs, to use the regular litterbox (more or less successfully.)

The night was uneventful. Kifli even seemed to recover a little. But in the morning, his condition was getting worse.

But then, a ray of hope! A cytology result arrived late in the morning, and it showed that the likely cause was a massive bacterial infection, not cancer. So suddenly, instead of planning for euthanasia, we were discussing a treatment plan with the vet. An aggressive plan involving multiple medications and a feeding tube (and no guarantee of success) but… well, a very thin, anemic ray of hope, but a ray of hope nonetheless. So I took Kifli to the vet again, to get him prepared for the mild anesthesia required to insert the feeding tube.

The call from the vet came much sooner than I expected. Not with good news. Kifli was collapsing. He already had a seizure, and he was now breathing pure oxygen, kept alive by a heated blanket as his heart rate and body temperature were dropping both. We knew what this meant. A final trip to the vet, from which we would come home with an empty cat carrier.

As we made our way through an unusually heavy traffic jam (a combination of afternoon traffic and a road closure), the vet called us again. “What would you like me to do in case Kifli goes into cardiac arrest?” His condition was that bad. I asked the vet to use her best medical judgment.

Kifli was barely alive when we got there, about ten minutes later. We had one final discussion with the vet and then agreed to the inevitable. My hand was on Kifli’s chest when he received the first injection. His little heart stopped instantly, without waiting for the second injection. It was truly his time.

What I feel right now is unbearable heartbreak, but I know that soon enough, I’ll be able to smile again as I recall his antics. He was… quite a cat, that’s all I can say.

Good-bye, Kifli. Jó éjszakát.

 Posted by at 4:06 pm
Nov 072018
 

It was a last minute decision, but my wife was once again accepted as an artisan vendor, featuring her beautiful knitted hats, mittens and other things, at the Glebe Community Center’s annual Christmas Craft & Artisan Fair. She attended this fair every year for more than twenty years. I hope she will do well again this year.

I also hope that the Glebe Community Center will forgive my little Photoshopping efforts here, as I decided to copy-and-paste one of Ildiko’s designs onto their card advertising the Fair.

 Posted by at 9:03 pm
Nov 072018
 

A little over two years ago, I made a decision to stick with Google-branded smartphones running unmodified versions of the Android operating system. I got fed up with brand-name phones that rarely, if ever, received even important security updates and were often hopelessly behind Google releases even when they were brand new on the market.

Our Nexus 6P phones served us well, but recently, first in mine then in my wife’s phone, the battery started to lose charge much too rapidly. This, apparently, is a known and common problem with these Huawei-made phones. Given that Google’s support for the Nexus 6P was coming to an end this month anyway, I decided to look for new phones. I was hoping to get another zero-dollar deal from Rogers, which is how we got those two 6P’s in the first place.

What a disappointment. Sure, the Rogers Web site does show certain phones available at a deep discount, even at $0. But they are available only with certain plans. And the cheapest such plan that I could find would increase our combined phone bill by a whopping $35 (plus tax) per month. No matter how I look at it it seems like a ripoff. Thanks but no thanks. I might as well just go out and buy a pair of unlocked phones, I figured, instead of signing up for these ridiculously expensive plans.

So I started looking, and soon enough my attention was focused on phones produced under Google’s Android One program. This program makes it possible for manufacturers to produce phones that run unmodified (or minimally modified) versions of Android, with the same monthly security updates and same system update schedule that Google-branded phones enjoy.

And that’s when I stumbled upon the Nokia 6.1, also known as Nokia 6 (2018), a supposedly entry-level phone at the ridiculously low price of 320 Canadian dollars.

Nokia, you ask? Indeed, the Nokia brand is still alive, or perhaps coming back to life is a better way to describe it. Microsoft purchased Nokia’s devices business years ago, but in 2016, it sold the Nokia-branded feature phone business back to a newly formed Finnish company founded by former Nokia folks. It is this company that has since created a range of beautiful, low-cost, entry-level smartphones.

Well, the phone may be entry level, but this particular model (TA-1068) still has an octacore processor, 4 GB of RAM, 64 GB of storage, not to mention that it’s an unlocked, dual-SIM phone (or alternatively, I can have an SD card in the second SIM slot.) And it still has features like a fingerprint reader and NFC, not to mention an FM radio. Solidly built, with an elegant design, it does not feel like a cheap phone at all, quite the contrary.

And so far, its battery life proved spectacular. Here is what it showed moments ago:

OK, it was a few hours less than 3 days, and spent mostly at home. But I use this phone a lot!

My only worry was that after a reliable series of monthly updates (which the phone dutifully downloaded after initial setup, necessitating several reboots) there was no October security update and October came to an end. I was guessing that it was because we were waiting for the Android 9 Pie update instead. My suspicion proved correct; the phone is downloading Android 9 right now.

This phone reminds me of my current travel laptop, which I purchased over three years ago I think. It was a kind of emergency purchase; my old laptop was “on the fritz”, and I did not want to spend a lot of money, so I ended up buying this lightweight ASUS laptop for just over 400 dollars. Best purchase ever! My previous laptops, always in the $2000+ price range, consistently proved disappointing. Not this one. Even three and a half years later, it remains snappy, eminently useful, capable of running even decent games on its dual core (four virtual cores) i3 CPU. It also has a touchscreen, handy at times, and something else that’s increasingly rare: plain VGA video output, which makes it much easier to use when I give a talk using older projection equipment. Once I realized how much better this laptop was compared to my expectations, I swapped out its 500 GB hard drive in favor of an SSD and that, of course, also significantly improved its performance. All in all, it does not feel “old” at all, quite the contrary, it is a decent, capable machine that is still a joy to use when I travel.

Of course in the smartphone era, we rely on our laptops less and less. With the ability to check my e-mail and social media accounts on the phone, I found that sometimes I would not even turn on my laptop for days while I am traveling, especially if I am not traveling on business.

 Posted by at 3:47 pm
Oct 182018
 

Just got back from The Perimeter Institute, where I spent three very short days.

I had good discussions with John Moffat. I again met Barak Shoshany, whom I first encountered on Quora. I attended two very interesting and informative seminar lectures by Emil Mottola on quantum anomalies and the conformal anomaly.

I also gave a brief talk about our research with Slava Turyshev on the Solar Gravitational Lens. I was asked to give an informal talk with no slides. It was a good challenge. I believe I was successful. My talk seemed well received. I was honored to have Neil Turok in the audience, who showed keen interest and asked several insightful questions.

 Posted by at 11:53 pm
Sep 202018
 

There is a white rabbit who set up residence near my wife’s allotment garden.

This is obviously not a wild animal. He may be okay for now, but for how long? How long before either a predator finishes it off, or bad weather sets in?

In short, I think it needs a home. I have no idea what to do with a rabbit and we have two cats already. But perhaps a good soul sees this post…

 Posted by at 12:29 am
Sep 192018
 

Outraged over ever increasing phone bills, today I decided to cancel our second landline.

We used to use this line a fair deal. It was, back in the days of dial-up modems, my phone line for incoming dial-up calls (e.g., when I was traveling) and also a means to maintain a backup, low-speed Internet connection. It was occasionally used by my wife, as it was the line to which a dual-mode Skype-and-landline phone was connected.

And, of course, it was used for that miracle of 20th century technology: facsimile transmissions.

Of course, this is 2018 now, and I have not used a dial-up data connection in at least a decade. No travel computer of mine had a modem, in fact, since the early 2000s. My old travel kit, containing various country-specific phone plugs, even a screwdriver and alligator clips, lies on a shelf, forgotten. And Skype? Microsoft betrayed many Skype users, myself included, when they irreversibly changed the Skype protocol, rendering old Skype-compatible hardware useless. Yes, I feel a bit bitter about it… I liked that Skype phone, I even fixed it once when its original microphone died and had to be replaced. Now it’s just another worthless piece of junk electronics. And once the Skype phone was no longer useful for, well, Skype, my wife also stopped using it as a landline phone, opting instead to use her mobile phone for local calls.

As for faxes… How quaint. Faxes. When was the last time you sent a fax? Or received one? I cannot remember.

To make a long story short, this second line has remained pretty much unused for the past year or two. Yet Bell kept ratcheting up the price. My most recent monthly phone bill for the two landlines reached $125, and that’s where I decided to draw the line. I called up Bell in the hope that they might have a decent offer for a long-time customer but no, nothing. In fact, it almost felt as if they wanted me to get rid of that second line. (Makes you wonder what the hell is going on there.) So… the second line has been terminated.

Well, supposedly anyway. It was at least six hours ago that Bell told me that the line would be deactivated within 15-120 minutes… but it still gives a dial tone, and I can still ring it. Go figure. I suspect the line will be dead tomorrow anyway.

 Posted by at 5:19 pm
Aug 212018
 

I have Google ads enabled on this site. Not really worth the effort; my blog site generates mere cents of revenue on a good day.

More recently, I noticed that Google started placing ads between paragraphs inside articles. I would like this if it improved the site’s profitability. But it didn’t.

And those ads are very disruptive, even when (or perhaps especially when) the ad is closely related to the content. Recently, I found myself apologizing more than once when I showed a blog post to someone, because of the silly, disruptive ads in the middle.

What can I say? I turned these ads off. I like Google ads as a source of revenue, but this was taking it one step too far.

 Posted by at 8:38 pm