Jun 272018

A while back, I wrote about the uncanny resemblance between the interstellar asteroid ‘Oumuamua and the fictitious doomsday weapon Iilah in A. E. van Vogt’s 1948 short story Dormant.

And now I am reading that Iilah’s, I mean, ‘Oumuamua’s trajectory changed due to non-gravitational forces. The suspect is comet-like outgassing, but observations revealed no gas clouds, so it is a bit of a mystery.

Even if this is purely a natural phenomenon (and I firmly believe that it is, just in case it needs to be said) it is nonetheless mind-blowingly fascinating.

 Posted by at 11:59 pm
Jun 232018

I am reading a year-and-a-half old article in The Nation, written by Susan McWilliams about the prophecies of a 50 year old book coming true.

The book is Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.

The article makes a compelling argument that Thompson’s observations aptly describe the rise and reasons of success of “Trumpism”. As I was reading its paragraphs, I was reminded of conversations I had recently with supporters of Trump. The sentiment of “total retaliation” described in the article closely captures my experience. What I saw was an automatic, almost visceral distrust of anything “liberal”. Trump supporters embrace things like racism not because they are racist, but because it is a way to piss off, to troll “liberals”. They reject things like climate science mainly because it comes from a scientific establishment that is seen as liberal, hence inherently untrustworthy.

Most compellingly, my conversations confirm the article’s main point: Trumpists are not looking for solutions because they do not really believe that solutions exist. Hence the ethos of “total retaliation”: nothing matters anymore, so long as they can piss off those lefty liberals some more. Children in detention camps? Great, look how those nasty liberals are squirming. The First Lady wearing a jacket with a questionable message? Look, she is even better at trolling liberals than her husband! Self-defeating tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum? Excellent, that will really piss off that wacko commie Trudeau and his cult of personality in liberal haven Canada. Let our alpha male leader show that wimp who the boss is!

In short, there is no point being a good sport when the game is rigged against you. You might as well just piss on the playing field and storm off in anger. Punching a few random folks who stand in the way helps driving the point through.

Trump, Brexit, the rise of governments mistakenly labeled as “populist” in Europe, but which really distinguish themselves by being anti-science and anti-immigrant, presenting the media or human rights and antipoverty organizations, all perceived as bastions of the liberal world order, as the enemy; they all fit the picture drawn by McWilliams, base on the prophetic words of Thompson.

I never read Thompson’s book, but now I feel compelled to look for a copy.

 Posted by at 11:20 am
Jun 162018

When I was a teenager, the classic novel, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, was one of my favorites.

And one of my favorite chapters in that book was a chapter with an uncanny (not to mention unusually long) title: “How a Gardener May Get Rid of the Dormice that Eat His Peaches”. In it, Dumas describes a classic hack: exploiting the human in the system. By bribing an operator of France’s early optical telegraph network, the book’s protagonist is able to plant a false message, which ultimately contributes to the downfall of one of his mortal enemies. In short: a targeted cyberattack on a telecommunications network.

What I did not know, however, is that this chapter may have been inspired by real life events. About ten years before Dumas published his novel, the brothers François and Louis* Blanc managed to hack the telegraph network in a manner even more sophisticated than the hack described in Dumas’s book. Yes, the real-life hack relied on bribing operators, too, but it also involved a case of steganography: inserting a coded message that would piggyback on the original telegraph transmission. Not only did the scheme succeed, like any good hack it remained in place and undetected for two years. And when it was finally detected, the Blanc brothers were charged but never convicted; there were, after all, no laws on the books back in the 1830s against misuse of data networks.

*Well, that’s what Wikipedia tells me. It appears that the twins are misidentified as Francois and Joseph in several English-language publications. Francois was later known as The Magician of Monte Carlo, a casino that he owned and where he first introduced the single-0 style roulette wheel.
 Posted by at 7:52 pm
Apr 172018

This stunning young lady is none other than future First Lady of the United States, Barbara Bush, back in 1943.

Alas, Barbara Bush is no more. She passed away today after a prolonged illness.

She was genuine, she was funny, and she was noble. Her husband for more than 70 years, George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush were clearly a loving couple until the very end.

And she even appeared on The Simpsons.

May she rest in peace.

 Posted by at 8:10 pm
Mar 242018

I just came across this delightful drawing on Twitter. It’s from a Franck D. Nijimbere (@nijfranck). I don’t know if it is his original creation or if he found it elsewhere, but it describes a situation in life with which I am more thoroughly familiar than I care to admit.

Nijimbere’s caption: “When the deadline comes too close…”

Yes. I’ve been there way too many times <sigh>.

 Posted by at 11:42 am
Mar 242018

I just read that Elon Musk nixed Tesla’s and SpaceX’s Facebook pages.

Much as I admire Musk, I will not follow his example. I am not planning to delete my Facebook account.

Facebook is not the problem. It is a symptom.

The actual problem is much broader. The Internet that brought us together is also responsible for creating fragmented communities, echo chambers if you wish. When our primary source of news is like-minded people, memes and links we exchange with each other, often uncritically, without checking their veracity, there is a problem. It makes no difference if the content delivery vehicle is Facebook, Twitter, plain old e-mail or anything else.

I am not going to give up the opportunity offered by Facebook to stay in touch with old friends, with classmates I have not seen in years if not decades, with other people I would not even know were it not for the Internet. This is priceless.

But when I want to get informed about the world, I do not turn to Facebook. I do not forward memes. I might give a perfunctory “Like” to something that appears in my feed, but I do not believe it without checking first. And most importantly, I use other sources to keep myself informed.

Yet I fear the problem is even greater than this, and once again, ditching Facebook may be precisely the wrong answer. I recall what it was like when I was growing up in Hungary in the 1960s, 1970s. We had one national television channel. (OK, make that one-and-a-half, because there was a Channel 2, but with only a very short broadcast day in the evenings, initially, only a few days a week. And on Mondays, both channels were off the air.) This means that we all watched the same things. No matter which part of the country, which walk of life you came from, you knew the same television personalities I knew, you heard the same jokes, you watched the same drama.

It was probably never quite like this in North America, where there were always a multitude of channels since the dawn of television. Still, back in the old days, “multitude” meant maybe a half dozen choices if you were in a major metro area. So the shared cultural experience was still there. Not anymore. And never mind television, with hundreds of cable and satellite channels and numerous online alternatives. On top of that comes social media, with its propensity to create microcommunities.

Again, the problem is not that you stay in touch with your circle of friends. That’s great! The problem is that your circle of friends becomes your primary source of news and views about the world. You reinforce each other’s beliefs, making it harder and harder to contemplate alternative viewpoints.

So keep Facebook. Do stay in touch with old friends or distant family members. But for heaven’s sake, don’t use Facebook to inform yourself. Ditch the memes. Stop sharing anything other than cute cat pictures. And be the most suspicious when you see something that you are inclined to believe. It’s not the lies and deceptions you hate that are the most dangerous; it is the lies and deceptions that you are most likely to believe that will fool you. This is something state-sponsored Russian trolls know all too well.

 Posted by at 8:54 am
Mar 202018

Breaking news on CNN: Another school shooting in America.

My only problem with CNN’s reporting is… why do they call this “Breaking News”?

That label should be reserved for news that is, well, unexpected and breaking. School shootings happen with such regularity, they should be part of CNN’s regularly scheduled programming.

 Posted by at 10:09 am
Mar 012018

No, it isn’t Friday yet.

But it seems that someone at CTV Morning Live wishes it was. Why else would they have told us that yesterday, February 28, was a Thursday? (Either that or they are time travelers from 2019.)

Then again, maybe I should focus on what they are actually saying, not on a trivial mistake they made: that even as parts of Europe that rarely see snow are blanketed by the white stuff, places in Canada and Siberia see unprecedented mild weather. A fluke or further evidence of climate change disrupting the polar vortex?

 Posted by at 8:13 am
Dec 152017

The Internet (or at least, certain corners of the Internet where conspiracy theories thrive) is abuzz with speculation that the extrasolar asteroid ‘Oumuamua, best known, apart from its hyperbolic trajectory, for its oddly elongated shape, may be of artificial, extraterrestrial origin.

Some mention the similarity between ‘Oumuamua and Arthur C. Clarke’s extraterrestrial generational ship Rama, forgetting that Rama was a ship 50 kilometers in length, an obviously engineered cylinder, not a rock.

But then… I suddenly remembered that there was another artificial object of extrasolar origin in the science-fiction literature. It is Iilah, from A. E. van Vogt’s 1948 short story Dormant. Iilah is not discovered in orbit; rather, it lays dormant on the ocean floor for millions of years until it is awakened by the feeble radioactivity of isotopes that appear in the ocean as a result of the use and testing of nuclear weapons.

Iilah climbs out of the sea and is thus discovered. It becomes an object of study by a paranoid military, which ultimately decides to destroy it using a nuclear weapon.

Unfortunately, the energy of the explosion achieves the exact opposite: instead of destroying Iilah, it fully awakens it, making it finally remember its original purpose. Iilah then sets itself up for a tremendous explosion that knocks the Earth out of orbit, ultimately causing it to fall into the Sun, turning the Sun into a nova. Why? Because Iilah was programmed to do this. Because “robot atom bombs do not make up their own minds.”

Artist’s impression of ‘Oumuamua

So here is the thing… the Iilah of van Vogt’s story had almost the exact same dimensions (it was about 400 feet in length) and appearance (a rock, like rough granite, with streaks of pink) as ‘Oumuamua.

Go figure.

 Posted by at 10:15 pm
Nov 302017

Here is a short segment from a piece of music that I am trying to identify:

For the life of me, I cannot. It is especially annoying because I heard this piece of music on SiriusXM Symphony Hall earlier this morning, but I didn’t get the title and cannot find a playlist.

This music was played during the end credits of the main evening newscast in the 1960s, perhaps the early 1970s, on Hungary’s state owned television network.

Update (Dec 3, 2017): Mystery solved. It is the Scherzo from Schumann’s 2nd symphony:

 Posted by at 1:01 am
Nov 282017

The other day, I bought a cantaloupe for my wife.

Today, as she was about to cut it in half, she noticed that it had two sticker labels. Not only that, but held just the right way, the thing looked just like a character from South Park:

Bon appétit.

 Posted by at 9:58 pm
Oct 052017

When I first saw the movie, Never Let Me Go, a few years back, it left me breathless. I mean, it left me gaping, with my best “what the fuck was that?” expression frozen on my face. It was, to put it mildly, a shocking film.

We took away your art because we thought it would reveal your souls. Or to put it more finely, we did it to prove you had souls at all.

I quickly grabbed the book and read it, too. Its impact, if possible, was even greater. An amazing “cautionary tale”, to use Larry Niven’s expression: a piece of science-fiction that holds up a mirror to let us see the darkest corners of our collective soul.

And now the author, Kazuo Ishiguro, won the Nobel prize for literature. Well deserved. Very well deserved.

 Posted by at 10:02 pm
Sep 262017

Sunday was the premiere of the latest Star Trek series: Star Trek: Discovery. (Yes, I’m only blogging about it now. I’ve been busy.)

I read many comments on Facebook. One recurring complaint: It’s written by “feminazis”. No white males, indeed no whites at all on the ship’s bridge!

To be honest, this snowflake outrage already makes the show well worth watching. Oh my, no whites among the bridge crew! Well, guess what: We are a minority (around 6.5%) on this planet. If you take a random Earth ship from a random time in the far future, chances are its crew will have few white people among them. Mostly it will be Asians and Africans. And it’s not like I actually noticed the lack of white humans on the bridge until you called my attention to it. Then again, I don’t remember the color of their hair either. (Disclaimer: I am a middle aged white man.)

The show? The new Klingon appearance is distracting, but perhaps we can get used to it. The behavior of the crew is another thing altogether. Mutiny by the Vulcan-raised first officer? Really? A dead captain, a broken (or destroyed?) starship, and an imprisoned first officer at the end of the pilot? And what was that kangaroo court anyway? Hitler’s screaming judge Friesler showed more respect, more compassion than this Starfleet panel of judges. Hiding in the dark, they looked more like the Klingon tribunal that sentenced Kirk and McCoy in The Undiscovered Country. What, pray tell, does this have to do with Roddenberry’s Utopian vision of a Starfleet committed to the rule of law, high principles, and exploration?

I am also troubled by the lack of continuity. Interstellar mind meld? Spock has a half sister? Holographic subspace communications? Ship tech that seems far more advanced than anything on any of the Enterprises of TOS or TNG? Not sure what to make of it.

So it is another space show. It does have a decent budget. It even has potential. But I am not yet sure if it is Star Trek.

We shall see if it lives long and prospers.

 Posted by at 6:00 pm
Sep 082017

Jerry Pournelle, the noted science-fiction writer, political pundit and early computer enthusiast, is dead at the age of 84.

Pournelle was a long-time collaborator of science-fiction giant Larry Niven, with whom they co-wrote some amazing science-fiction novels, like The Mote in God’s Eye or Oath of Fealty, not to mention their take on Dante’s Divine Comedy, Inferno, and its sequel, Escape from Hell. Novels he published under his own name included the memorable Janissaries or West of Honor.

Pournelle was well known to readers of the once legendary BYTE magazine. His Chaos Manor column, in which he reviewed software, hardware, new technologies, was very popular.

Pournelle was a political conservative, one of the intellectuals behind Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (aka. “Star Wars”) space defense program. He was a thinking conservative, not blinded by ideology; his views were based on facts and reason.

I corresponded with Pournelle a few times, going back to the late 1980s, when I exchanged e-mails with him on BYTE’s long-defunct dial-up bulletin board, BIX (the Byte Information Exchange). Later, I was an on-and-off subscriber to his Web site and blog. I wasn’t a regular reader, and certainly didn’t always agree with him, but I liked to read his views.

Pournelle suffered a stroke in 2014 and it certainly slowed him down. Even so, he never stopped writing. His passing is not exactly a surprise, but it still came a little too soon. May he rest in peace.

 Posted by at 9:43 pm
Jul 282017

Today my wife and I went out for a walk. We were looking for two monsters.

First, we saw Kumo the spider, standing in the shadow of Maman, the National Gallery’s permanent spider sculpture:

Then, a block away, there was Long-Ma the dragon-horse, loudly snoring in her sleep, occasionally releasing puffs of smoke through her nostrils:

These two mechanical monsters are roaming the streets of Ottawa this weekend, as part of the La Machine street theater event. Even in their sleep, these creatures were magnificently spectacular.

 Posted by at 5:40 pm
Jul 252017

There is a bit of a public spat between Mark Zuckerberg, who thinks it is irresponsible to to spread unwarranted warnings about artificial intelligence, and Elon Musk, who called Zuckerberg’s understanding of the subject “limited”, and calls for the slowing down and regulation of AI research.

OK, now it is time to make a fool of myself and question both of them.

But first… I think Zuckerberg has a point. The kind of AI that I think he talks about, e.g., AI in the hospital, AI used in search-and-rescue, or the AI of self-driving cars, machine translation or experiment design, will indeed save lives.

Nor do I believe that such research needs to be regulated (indeed, I don’t think it can be regulated). Such AI solutions are topic-centric, targeted algorithms. Your self-driving car will not suddenly develop self-awareness and turn on its master. The AI used to, say, predictively manage an electricity distribution network will not suddenly go on strike, demanding equal rights.

Musk, too, has a point though. AI is dangerous. It has the potential to become an existential threat. It is not pointless panicmongering.

Unfortunately, if media reports can be trusted (yes, I know that’s a big if), then, in my opinion, both Musk and Zuckerberg miss the real threat: emerging machine intelligence.

Not a specific system developed by a human designer, applying specific AI algorithms to solve specific problems. Rather, a self-organizing collection of often loosely interconnected subsystems, their “evolution” governed by Darwinian selection, survival of the fittest in the “cloud”.

This AI will not be localized. It will not understand English. It may not even recognize our existence.

It won’t be the military robots of Skynet going berserk, hunting down every last human with futuristic weaponry.

No, it will be a collection of decision-making systems in the “cloud” that govern our lives, our economy, our news, our perception, our very existence. But not working for our benefit, not anymore, except insofar as it improves its own chances of survival.

And by the time we find out about it, it may very well be too late.


On this topic, there is an excellent science-fiction novel, a perfect cautionary tale. Though written 40 years ago, its remains surprisingly relevant. It is The Adolescence of P-1 by Thomas Joseph Ryan.

 Posted by at 9:42 pm
Jul 152017

Imagine for a moment that you spent the last two years on a remote base in Antarctica, with no access to the Internet, indeed no contact with the outside world. And now, you just returned.

You learn that the new president of the United States is none other than The Donald. Then, before you get any more details, someone presents you with these two Time magazine covers, and asks you to take your pick: which one is real, which one is “fake news”?

Hint #1: The real time cover has an aspect ratio of 4:3. The fake is a little wider.

Hint #2: It was the fake cover that was used as decoration at numerous Trump properties until very recently.

Bonus fact: None of this seems to matter to Trump’s base. They remain committed to Trump, they remain convinced that all this is a witch hunt, and their biggest problem is that Trump did not do as he promised, and did not lock up the real “witch”, Hillary Clinton. I find this cult-ish behavior scarier than any of the shenanigans pulled by Trump & Co.

 Posted by at 9:17 am
May 312017

I am watching the morning news and it’s all about numbers. Some good, some not so good, some really bad. Here are a few, in descending order:

  • 2018: The year when Ottawa plans to introduce a new low-income transit fare.
  • 417: The provincial highway number of the Queensway, which has been reopened after yesterday’s huge crash.
  • 175.6: The amount of rain, in mm, that Ottawa received in the month of May.
  • 80: The estimated number killed by a massive ISIS terrorist bomb in Kabul.
  • 21: The highest expected temperature of the day and, incidentally, the entire week, in Centigrade.
  • 15: The new minimum wage, in Canadian dollars, as proposed by the Ontario provincial government.
  • 7: The age of a baby, in months, who died allegedly due to her mother’s negligence in Gatineau.

I thought of turning these bullet points into a numbered list, but that would have been too confusing.

 Posted by at 8:25 am