Jun 092020

In 1889, a story by Jules Verne (believed to have been written actually by his son, Michel Verne) was published in the American magazine Forum under the title, “In the Year 2889“.

In it, among other things, Verne envisions video conferencing.

Verne’s story was illustrated by George Roux, who is best known for his numerous illustrations for Verne’s science-fiction novels. I suspect that this particular picture was made in 1889 or 1890 (when Verne’s story, which appeared originally in English, was republished in France.)

I find this image mind-boggling. That 130 years ago, back in the 19th century, someone was able to envision… well, something that, for all intents and purposes, looks pretty much like what many of us are doing today.

 Posted by at 12:15 pm
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
Jun 022020

I don’t always like commercial publishers. Some of their textbooks are prohibitively expensive, yet often lacking in quality. (One persistent exception is Dover Publications, who published some of the best textbooks I own, as low-cost paperbacks.)

Last night, however, I was very pleasantly surprised by Springer, who made several hundred textbooks across a range of disciplines available for free, on account of COVID-19.

I did not get greedy. I didn’t download titles indiscriminately. But I did find several titles that are of interest to me, and I gladly took advantage of this opportunity.

Thank you, Springer.

 Posted by at 9:40 pm
May 192020

One of the most fortunate moments in my life occurred in the fall of 2005, when I first bumped into John Moffat, a physicist from The Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, when we both attended the first Pioneer Anomaly conference hosted by the International Space Science Institute in Bern, Switzerland.

This chance encounter turned into a 15-year collaboration and friendship. It was, to me, immensely beneficial: I learned a lot from John who, in his long professional career, has met nearly every one of the giants of 20th century physics, even as he made his own considerable contributions to diverse areas ranging from particle physics to gravitation.

In the past decade, John also wrote a few books for a general audience. His latest, The Shadow of the Black Hole, is about to be published; it can already be preordered on Amazon. In their reviews, Greg Landsberg (CERN), Michael Landry (LIGO Hanford) and Neil Cornish (eXtreme Gravity Institute) praise the book. As I was one of John’s early proofreaders, I figured I’ll add my own.

John began working on this manuscript shortly after the announcement by the LIGO project of the first unambiguous direct detection of gravitational waves from a distant cosmic event. This was a momentous discovery, opening a new chapter in the history of astronomy, while at the same time confirming a fundamental prediction of Einstein’s general relativity. Meanwhile, the physics world was waiting with bated breath for another result: the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration’s attempt to image, using a worldwide network of radio telescopes, either the supermassive black hole near the center of our own Milky Way, or the much larger supermassive black hole near the center of the nearby galaxy M87.

Bookended by these two historic discoveries, John’s narrative invites the reader on a journey to understand the nature of black holes, these most enigmatic objects in our universe. The adventure begins in 1784, when the Reverend John Michell, a Cambridge professor, speculated about stars so massive and compact that even light would not be able to escape from its surface. The story progresses to the 20th century, the prediction of black holes by general relativity, and the strange, often counterintuitive results that arise when our knowledge of thermodynamics and quantum physics is applied to these objects. After a brief detour into the realm of science-fiction, John’s account returns to the hard reality of observational science, as he explains how gravitational waves can be detected and how they fit into both the standard theory of gravitation and its proposed extensions or modifications. Finally, John moves on to discuss how the Event Horizon Telescope works and how it was able to create, for the very first time, an actual image of the black hole’s shadow, cast against the “light” (radio waves) from its accretion disk.

John’s writing is entertaining, informative, and a delight to follow as he accompanies the reader on this fantastic journey. True, I am not an unbiased critic. But don’t just take my word for it; read those reviews I mentioned at the beginning of this post, by preeminent physicists. In any case, I wholeheartedly recommend The Shadow of the Black Hole, along with John’s earlier books, to anyone with an interest in physics, especially the physics of black holes.

 Posted by at 10:31 pm
Apr 272020

The other day, I ran across a question on Quora asking why Einstein didn’t support his country, Germany, during the Second World War. Thinking about this question reminded me of an old Star Trek episode and one of the root concepts (or, at least, my reading of it) of the Abrahamic family of religions.

In answering the question, I pointed out the difference between supporting a country vs. supporting a regime. I argued that Einstein, though not even a citizen of Germany at the time (he gave up German citizenship after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, and became a naturalized US citizen in 1940), did, in fact, support his country of birth, precisely by the act of following his conscience and opposing the despotic, murderous Nazi regime.

And that takes me to the Star Trek episode Bread and Circuses from 1968. In this episode, the USS Enterprise encounters a planet governed by a regime not unlike the Roman Empire, but with 20th century technology, broadcasting gladiatorial matches by analog television. In due course, the crew of the Enterprise gets into trouble and link up with a group of rebellious Sun-worshippers. When at the end of the episode, after the conflict is resolved and the good guys prevail as usual, Spock expresses surprise over the fact that such a primitive religion could have survived on this planet into its modern era, Uhura corrects him by clarifying that they were, in fact, worshippers of the son of God. In other words, this planet’s version of early Christianity arrived two thousand years later than on the Earth.

Christianity borrows its creation mythology from Judaism, including the notion of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge, the fruit of which let Adam and Eve understand the difference between good and evil. In my reading, this is what it really means when the Bible proclaims that humans are created in God’s image: that just like God, humans are free agents with a conscience, capable of acting independently, not robots blindly executing a predetermined divine script. They even have the capacity to act against God’s will.

Think about this, just what a revolutionary, what a deeply subversive concept this really is even today, never mind ancient times. The Book of Genesis is probably about 3,000 years old if not older. Egypt, in its third intermediate period, was ruled by pharaohs, seen as intermediaries between gods and ordinary people, whose words must be obeyed. Whether or not the Egyptian captivity happened (there do appear to be reasons to doubt), it’s no wonder Egypt’s rulers didn’t look kindly upon these pesky Jews and their subversive religion that claimed that it is more important to listen to your conscience than to blindly follow the orders of your divine ruler.

Despots can claim whatever they want: They can claim to represent the state, they can even claim to be the earthly representative of a divine power, like the pharaohs of old, but you have something over which they have no power: your conscience, which allows you to defy the will of any ruler, even God’s will, just as Adam and Eve have done back in the Garden of Eden.

And this is precisely what Einstein did when he lent his support, for instance, to Leo Szilard’s letter to Roosevelt that arguably launched the Manhattan project: Instead of slavishly following a despot claiming to represent the country of his birth, he listened to his conscience.

 Posted by at 7:07 pm
Mar 222020

Working from home is easier for some than for others.

Members of a symphony orchestra have to get a little more creative than most of us, but that didn’t stop members of the Danubia Symphony Orchestra of Óbuda, from Budapest, Hungary:

Nicely done!

 Posted by at 6:18 pm
Jan 242020

A terrible sickness is upon us.

As of mid-January, just in the great United States 13 to 18 million people have been inflicted. Nearly 6 million required medical visits, and some 120,000 have been hospitalized. Worse yet, though the numbers are uncertain, somewhere between 6,600 and 17,000 people died. And that’s nearly two week old data; since then, I am sure there have been more victims.

Oh, you thought I was talking about the coronavirus outbreak that leads the evening newscast?

No. I am talking about the flu. Specifically, the 2019-2020 flu season, with data from the Centers for Disease Control.

As for the coronavirus, there have been a grand total of two confirmed cases so far in the US. None in Canada.

And that sums up the problem that I see with how we are being informed nowadays. Things that are exceptional and sensational lead newscasts. Things that are mundane are left forgotten, even when they are orders of magnitude more likely to affect you.

That is not to say that I disregard the threat that the coronavirus represents, or that I blindly criticize the response of authorities (in China and elsewhere) who are trying to contain a virus before it becomes more widespread. But keeping things in perspective is important.

 Posted by at 5:39 pm
Jan 052020

Back in 1944, Astounding Science Fiction magazine published a short story, Deadline by Cleve Cartmill, about a devastating war on an alien planet, and the development of a uranium fission bomb. The details of the bomb were sketchy, but at least a few of the details provided (about isotope separation, about the concern that a fission explosion might “ignite” nearby matter and cause global devastation) were sufficiently accurate to earn the magazine a visit by the FBI.

Something similarly uncanny happened three days ago, when the New York Times published an opinion piece by a former Obama aid about hypersonic missiles. The article included, among other things, the following paragraph: “What if the former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Qassim Suleimani, visits Baghdad for a meeting and you know the address? The temptations to use hypersonic missiles will be many.”

Hours later, Suleimani was killed at Baghdad airport (although not by a hypersonic missile, just an ordinary drone strike.)

I doubt Mr. Trump was acting on the advice of a former Obama aid, so almost certainly, this was pure coincidence. But that is just uncanny.

The consequences of the Suleimani attack, unfortunately, are another matter. One has to wonder if there was any real thinking, any real strategy. Even Fox’s Tucker Carlson chose to question the wisdom of this act, blasting the hawks who may have been responsible for talking Trump into taking this reckless step.

The attack was a godsend to the ayatollahs. It offers them the best possible way out of an wave of protests unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic. It finally prompted Iraq’s parliament to vote in favor of the removal of remaining US troops. And it gave Iran an excuse to completely abandon the nuclear deal.

No, I don’t think the ayatollahs will escalate. They don’t have to. The threat of imminent war is always a more effective means to control the population than actual war. And facing an incompetent imbecile, they can just bide their time, while Trump loses whatever goodwill remains among America’s allies towards his administration by threatening Iranian cultural sites in retaliation.

 Posted by at 11:44 pm
Jan 012020

A year ago today, I was looking forward to 2019 with skepticism. I expressed concern about a number of things. Not everything unfolded according to my expectations, and that’s good news. What can I say, I hope 2020 will continue the trend of defying pessimistic predictions.

  • The political crisis in the United States continues to simmer with Trump’s impeachment, but it remains less dramatic than I feared;
  • NATO and the EU remain intact for now, though unresolved issues remain;
  • An orderly Brexit is now possible with Johnson’s election victory; I still think the Brits are shooting themselves in the foot with this idiocy, but an orderly Brexit may be the best possible outcome at this point;
  • Sliding towards authoritarianism in places like Hungary and Poland remains a grave concern, but there is also pushback;
  • Russia continues to muck up things in untoward ways, but there was no significant (e.g., military) escalation;
  • China is ramping up its campaign against the Uyghurs with an ever widening system of concentration camps but there was no significant escalation with respect to their neighbors;
  • Japan, sadly, resumed whaling, but so far I believe the impact is minimal;
  • Brazil continues to wreak havoc in the rain forest, but there is pushback here as well;
  • Lastly, Canada did have elections, but populism was crushed (for now at least) with the defeat of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party.

And now here we are, entering the roaring twenties! A decade that will bring things like Prohibition and organized crime in the United States, institutionalized antisemitism in Hungary, the rise of fascism in Italy, the Great Depression… no, wait, that was a century ago. Here’s to hoping that humanity got a little wiser in the past 100 years.

Speaking of that century, my wife’s Mom and mine can now both tell us that they lived in every decade of a century, having been born in the 30’s and now living in the 20’s.

 Posted by at 12:33 pm
Dec 082019

I just visited Twitter.

This is Deanna Troi from Star Trek: The Next Generation, played by Marina Sirtis.

Deanna Troi was not my favorite character, but I always respected Marina Sirtis. So I was very sad to see the death of her husband, Michael Lamper, announced on Sirtis’s Twitter account. They have been married as long as my wife and I.

And then this is Odo from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, played by René Auberjonois.

According to his Twitter account, René Auberjonois passed away today, at the age of 79.

As I said, a sad day.

 Posted by at 8:34 pm
Sep 302019

One of the few news shows I still watch is Reliable Sources on CNN, a weekly backgrounder on Sundays.

Yesterday, Robert De Niro was interviewed in one segment.

He certainly did not hide his opinion about Fox News. Gave me a good chuckle, too, but then I remembered why he was saying what he was saying and it no longer felt funny at all.

 Posted by at 9:26 am
Sep 172019

I just came across the name of an artist, a painter, that I never heard before: Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916) of Denmark.

Amazing paintings. Here is one example.

I find the subdued, melancholic atmosphere of his works irresistible. If I had the talent (which I most decidedly lack), this is what I would paint.

 Posted by at 3:43 pm
Jul 242019

Rutger Hauer was a Dutch actor. He is best known perhaps for his role in the science-fiction cult classic Blade Runner, in particular for his improvised tears in rain soliloquy, spoken by the character Roy Batty just before his death:

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

I just learned that Hauer himself died a few days ago, after a brief illness, at age 75.

 Posted by at 6:55 pm
Jul 152019

In 1929, probably just weeks before the great stock market crash, people were entertained by the sight of thousands of burning radio sets.

Some suggested that the apparent zeal with which these poor radios were burned had to do with the fact that they were obsolete regenerative receivers, notorious sources of radio frequency interference.

But no, the pictures make it clear that many of these old radios were simple tuned radio frequency (TRF) sets, not regenerative units. Besides, it was not until the early 1930s that superheterodyne receivers began to dominate the market.

No, this was just good old capitalism. People were encouraged to trade in old, “obsolete” radios and purchase new ones. And the wanton destruction of the old sets became a public spectacle.

One can only wonder about the amount of toxic smoke that was produced by this stunt. Not that anyone cared back in 1929.

 Posted by at 10:40 am
Jun 182019

So on the one hand… here I am, praising Canada for being true to its values, only to learn yesterday that Quebec’s provincial legislature approved a ban on “religious symbols”. Not once in my life did I worry when I was being served by a person wearing a kippa, a cross, a turban or a headscarf that nature that they might discriminate against me. Should I have been? Perhaps naively, I always felt privileged to live in a society in which persons wearing kippas, crosses, turbans or headscarves were welcome, even into positions of authority. But now I am worried that a person whose religion demands wearing a kippa, a cross, a turban or a headscarf will not be allowed to serve me anymore. And that’s even before I look at the more hypocritical aspects of the bill.

But then, I learn that south of the border, social justice warriors scored another “victory”: at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, they managed to get the name of silent era film star Lillian Gish stripped from the university’s Gish Film Theater because a student union protested on account of her role in the rather racist 1915 silent classic Birth of a Nation.

I fundamentally disagree with the idea of judging the past by the standards of the present. I dare hope that our societies are becoming better over time, and thus our standards are higher, but it is grossly unfair to the memory of those from generations ago when they are judged by standards that did not even exist at the time. But putting all that aside… isn’t it obvious that such acts of cultural intolerance (committed, ironically, in the name of tolerance) are just oil on the fire? That those who are behind the rise of xenophobia, nationalism, racism and intolerance will see such acts as proof that their grievances of valid, that it is truly they (and by “they”, I mean mostly middle-aged or older white men) who are being prosecuted here?

Are these truly the only choices out there? Xenophobic nationalism and Islamophobia vs. social justice militants? Where have all the sane people gone? Please come back wherever you are and help put an end to this madness.

 Posted by at 5:44 pm
May 132019

I have learned to love the voice of Doris Day.

Her version of No Moon At All is one of my all-time favorites.

Early this morning, I found out that she passed away. May she rest in peace.

 Posted by at 12:53 pm
May 082019

Today was a most unpleasant day for a whole host of reasons, so by the time I finished my dinner, I needed a distraction.

And then I recalled: Just the other day, I read that China’s most successful sci-fi blockbuster to date, The Wandering Earth, is now on Netflix.

So it was time for movie night. I watched it. And it was… fun.

It is not a flawless movie by any means. And the so-called “science” is as warped, as bogus as the science behind any Hollywood blockbuster.

But it was fast-paced, visually stunning, engaging, and occasionally even had sparks of genuine humor, just in the right quantities.

In short, it is on par with any A-rated sci-fi blockbuster from Hollywood.

One suggestion: Watch it with subtitles in the original Mandarin. This is not meant to be a criticism of the voice actors of the English-language dubbed version. It just… didn’t feel authentic. And you might miss out on subtleties, such as (ok, this is one of the less subtle subtleties, I admit) when one character: a blonde, mixed-race Chinese-Australian man from Beijing who speaks Mandarin as a native throughout the film, suddenly shouts “Fuck this shit! No fucking way!” in unaccented English when he makes an uncharacteristically self-sacrificing move, risking his own life.

 Posted by at 12:51 am
Mar 252019

The other day, I started listening to Google Music’s personalized music stream.

I am suitably impressed. The AI is… uncanny.

Sure, it picked songs that I expressed a preference for, such as songs from the golden age of radio that I happen to enjoy. But as I continue listening, it is presenting an increasingly eclectic, enjoyable selection. Some of it is quite new, from artists I never heard about, yet… it’s music I like. For some reason (maybe because I am in Canada? Or because it knows that I am trying to improve my French? Or was it a preference I once expressed for Édith Piaf?) it started presenting a whole bunch of French music, and again… some of it is quite likable. And now that I purposefully sought out a few classical composers, the AI realized that it can throw classical pieces at me as well, which is how I am suddenly listening to Schubert’s Ave Maria.

As a matter of fact, the eclectic choices made by Google’s AI remind me of two radio programs from the CBC’s past, long gone, long forgotten by most: Juergen Goth’s Disc Drive and Laurie Brown’s The Signal. Both these shows introduced me to music from excellent artists that I would otherwise never have heard about.

And now Google’s AI is doing the same thing.

I am also getting the sense that the more I listen, the bolder the AI becomes as it makes its choices. Instead of confining me to a bubble of musical genres of my own making, it is venturing farther and farther away from my presumed comfort zone.

Which is quite impressive. But also leaves me wondering how long before our machine overlords finally decide to take over.

 Posted by at 7:27 pm