May 142021
 

No, it’s not one of my cats posting a blog entry.

Rather, it’s a whimsical title someone gave to the following composition:

I started my day listening to this. I am still smiling. I think it sounds a little bit like Klingon opera, or perhaps like a piano piece written by a Klingon composer. But it’s not bad, not bad at all.

 Posted by at 3:47 pm
Apr 132021
 

Stereotypes hurt people.

Television, sitcoms in particular, often rely on stereotypes. But it’s not always a Bad Thing. When the stereotype itself is the object of ridicule, kind of holding up a mirror for the audience to look into, stereotypes can actually help turn ours into a better society. The Big Bang Theory is a good example: its Jewish (Howard Wolowitz) and Indian (Raj Koothrappali) protagonists mock not Jews and Indians but our prejudices.

But other stereotypes are more troubling. One notable example, discussed recently, is the character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in The Simpsons: a stereotypical Indian-American running a convenience store, speaking with a funny accent.

Yes, I recognize that the line between mocking people being stereotyped vs. mocking people who stereotype others is a thin one. But I think it is drawn somewhere between The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons. The Big Bang Theory‘s humor is defensible because it does not dehumanize the protagonists. The Simpsons, sadly, doesn’t fare that well. No wonder Hank Azaria no longer wants to be the voice of Apu.

However, when it comes to the point of a Caucasian voice actor voicing a non-Caucasian character, I think we are going one step, no, make that one giant leap, too far.

You see, I thought actors, you know, act. That is, pretend to be something they are not.

But now you are telling me that a naturally blond actress cannot play a brunette? Or a Jewish actor cannot play a German officer?

Or is this concern specifically reserved for, I don’t know, “race”? Or what’s the new catchphrase, people who are “racialized”? (Whatever the devil that means.) Because somehow, the color of your hair doesn’t matter but the color of your skin makes you… different?

And does it go both ways? Are Indian actors forbidden to play Europeans? Are black actors forbidden to play white roles? In any case, who decides what kind of acting is acceptable, and what crosses the line? Heaven forbid, into the territory of “cultural appropriation”?

In my all time favorite movie, Cloud Atlas, several actors play as many as a half dozen different roles, in different eras and cultures. These include a Korean actress playing, in one storyline, the role of the wife of a 19th century San Francisco lawyer. Another Korean actress, in a male (!) role, plays as a bellboy in 1970s San Francisco. Hugo Weaving plays the role of a sadistic female nurse in early 21st century Scotland, but also the role of an authoritarian Korean politician in 22nd century New Seoul. And so on.

You can guess which of these roles were criticized by some. “Yellowface” we were told, as if Cloud Atlas had anything to do with Hollywood’s racist past from many decades ago. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Rather, what that movie told me with its choice of actors and roles is that skin color, this so-called “race”, matters as little as the color of your hair or your eyes. It means nothing. We are all members of the one and only human race. And just as a blond actress can play the role of a brunette or a male actor can play in a female role, a black actor can play as a white person while a person of European descent can credibly play a Korean. Because these superficial differences in appearance mean nothing.

The suggestion that a white actor cannot lend his voice to an Indian character in a cartoon is preposterously backward. It seems designed to maintain racial discrimination. It, to use that fashionable phrase again, promotes and preserves racialization, instead of helping us progress towards a post-racial society in which all human beings are judged by the strength of their character, and the color of their skin matters no more than the color of their hair.

 Posted by at 4:17 pm
Apr 132021
 

I didn’t realize it was more than 11 years ago.

It is rare that a piece of music has such an impact on you that you remember clearly the first time you heard it. Yet I do remember it very well: I first heard Danzon n°2 by Arturo Márquez on Highway 401, on my way to the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, listening to the CBC on the radio.

What I didn’t realize that it was this long ago. More than 11 years already!

I heard this amazing piece of music again tonight, on Sirius XM. Different performance, but just as spirited as the one I am familiar with.

 Posted by at 1:24 am
Apr 122021
 

My all time favorite movie is Cloud Atlas. I know, others have not reacted to this movie quite as powerfully as I have, but for whatever reason, the movie “got me”. (The fact that I first saw it during my first ever visit to the Middle East, in an Abu Dhabi hotel room, just a few days after flying over the war-torn Iraq-Iran border region while enjoying British Airways’ business class hospitality, may have had something to do with it.)

The movie has many memorable quotes. Banal, you might say, but even banalities sometimes reflect profoundly on our reality.

On particular quote echoes in my mind today as I witness, day after day, even in my relatively close circle of friends, the “relativization” of facts in our post-truth era. A key character in the movie is interviewed by an archivist just before her scheduled execution. To put her at ease, the archivist reassures her: “Remember, this isn’t an interrogation or trial. Your version of the truth is all that matters.” The protagonist, looking deeply in the eyes of the archivist, responds: “Truth is singular. Its versions are mis-truths.”

Yes, it should be that self-evident. Truth is singular. A and ¬A cannot simultaneously be true: A ∧ ¬A = 0 always. It is elementary formal logic.

But in our increasingly Göbbelsian 21st century, formal logic no longer matters. Instead, we have “alternative facts”. Instead, everyone feels entitled to question, even deny, facts that conflict with their Weltanschauung.

Yes, I said Göbbelsian. No, I am not trying to serve as an example of Godwin’s law by needless comparisons to Nazis. Rather, it is a recognition that the legacy of Göbbels, the evil genius of modern communication, continues to reverberate nearly a century later, as various actors push their versions of the truth. Göbbels taught us how to “sell” alternative facts: blatant lies are easy to falsify, lies by omission are much harder to catch.

A pluralistic society thrives on differences of opinion. Good people whose priorities differ may come to different conclusions based on the same set of facts. But when there is disagreement over the facts themselves, society breaks down. And that’s what we face today. The facts have now become matters of opinion.

I could name a number of issues from climate change to gender roles where the facts should be indisputable but they aren’t. But my concern transcends any specific topic. I simply worry that if we all retreat into our alternative facts bubbles, consensus or compromise become impossible. Where that leads, I don’t know but it is deeply worrying.

 Posted by at 12:11 pm
Apr 102021
 

Black lives matter. No argument there.

But, unfortunately, so does messaging. Dr. Göbbels knew this. The communists also knew this, hence their emphasis on “agitation and propaganda”. But, truth to tell, unlike the Third Reich, the left always sucked at it. That’s why, in Kádár’s Hungary, for instance, instead of being content with a regime that delivered a solid system of universal health care and a consistently high quality public system of education that included free tertiary education, we joked about living in the “happiest of the barracks”, took the regime’s successes for granted without acknowledging them, and grumbled daily about its numerous shortcomings.

The political left seems to be intent on continuing this tradition. Their messaging sucks.

A few days ago, I grumbled about the Mayor of London who proclaimed that there are too many white men in science and engineering.

Not too few women. Not underrepresented minorities. Not the need to increase the appeal and accessibility of science and engineering professions to women and minorities. Nope. Too many white men. The resulting backlash was both predictable and completely unnecessary.

Meanwhile, self-righteous warriors of the progressive left declare people like J. K. Rowling a public enemy. Shouldn’t someone with her storytelling prowess be enlisted as a friend and ally? No… deviate in the slightest from the unwritten standards of leftist orthodoxy, and you are labeled a backward, hateful somethingophobe. Like the California university professor who dared to mention a common Chinese expression in his lecture on communication: “na ge” (那个), a common pause word. Oh, how the righteous pounced! This insensitive white professor must be secretly a racist white supremacist! How dare he utter a word that sounds like, well… dare I write it down? Or do I, too, have to fear repercussions from the thought police if I dare spell out the infamous N-word in its entirety? The incident drew criticism from Chinese students and comparisons to Mao’s cultural revolution, and they were not wrong.

Then there are these calls to “defund the police”. The first time I heard this expression I was perplexed. Sure, I know there exist crazy anarchists who want no uniformed authority whatsoever on our streets, but I was also certain that this was not the meaning that the expression was intended to convey. And I was right. The original intent is to divert funds away: let the police do policing when they must, but use the funds wisely, to prevent those cultural and socioeconomic circumstances that lead to situations that need policing in the first place. Makes sense, right?

But that’s not the message that a call to “defund the police” conveys. Many who are rightfully angered by police excess want to, well, literally defund the police. And now their voices are amplified beyond reason, seemingly representing mainstream progressive attitudes. Needless to say, that’s all their opponents need to spread fear and concern among their followers: Look, they tell you, these leftist idiots, these commie anarchists want to leave your streets unprotected from thieves and murderers! They want to turn your country into a failed state like Venezuela!

So yes, black lives matter. And I know what you mean. You mean “Black lives matter, too.” You mean “Not only white lives matter.” You are not suggesting that lives other than black lives matter less.

But when you just say, “black lives matter”, you hand a propaganda victory to your opponents on a silver platter. Even stereotypical rednecks, those undereducated and unintelligent “deplorables”, can retort easily with “but I thought all lives matter!” and gain the moral upper hand.

I happen to support many (most? all?) key progressive ideas. I do think black lives (also) matter. I do believe it is a good idea to attack socioeconomic problems at their roots as opposed to just policing the consequences. I understand that words can hurt, dehumanize, and contribute to systemic racism. I do agree that we must do better to involve women and minorities in science and engineering professions.

But, dear progressives, when I look at your messaging… continuing a century-old tradition, you remain your own worst enemies.

 Posted by at 7:25 pm
Mar 262021
 

So I learned today that J. K. Rowling writes hate-filled drivel on Twitter (her last post is from December 4 but never mind), and that forgiving Einstein for being a man of his times when he wrote about the white and Chinese races in the 1920s is the same as forgiving the Nazis.

Makes me sympathize more than ever with Principal Skinner.

This intolerant cultural orthodoxy that is promoted by virtue signaling champions of progressive tolerance not only fails to protect those who actually need it most (last time I checked, capitalizing Black has not reduced violence against black people, introducing a multitude of made-up pronouns has not eliminated transphobia, and preaching against white supremacist mathematics education—yes, this really is a thing!—has not brought potable drinking water or meaningful jobs to indigenous communities here in Canada), it also creates a backlash by feeding the trolls who promote actual racism and hate.

Here is a recent example: a tweet by the Mayor of London and the reaction. The tweet said, in part, “There’s no good reason why 65% of people working in science and engineering should be white men.” In one of the responses, we read “Fixing it? That deems it to be broken, in an 85% white country I would have expected the white % to be higher.”

The commenter obviously doesn’t know how to use a calculator, otherwise he would have pondered how 42.5% (assuming half of that white 85% are males) of the population can have 65% of the science and engineering jobs, whereas the remaining 57.5% gets only 35%. Which means that if you’re a white man, you have a 2.5 times better chance to get a job in science and engineering. But aside from the obvious innumeracy, there is this greater problem: by his careless choice of words, the Mayor of London may have made things worse.

And unlike Principal Skinner’s dilemma, this should have been easy to fix. Just say, “There’s no good reason why only 35% of the people working in science and engineering should be women or come from a non-white background” and right there, he’d have avoided feeding the trolls who promote the idea, ever so popular among frustrated, unsuccessful white men, that they are the victims here of identity politics. More careful words would have helped keeping the focus on the second part of the message, which describes genuine action to address the problem in a constructive, dare I say progressive way: “So far we’ve helped 10,000 young Londoners learn these subjects so they can follow their dreams.”

So how about if we stop vilifying J. K. Rowling* and others who do not flawlessly conform to the ideals of some narrow-minded progressive orthodoxy, stop condemning historical figures who lived decades or centuries ago for having failed to live up to the standards of the present, end “cancel culture” and instead start supporting policies that actually help those in need, even if it means sacrifices such as (gasp!) higher taxes?

Naw, why bother. It’s so much easier to just condemn people as racist misowhatever somethingophobes. Makes you feel good!


*Since I wrote this blog entry, I also learned that Rowling is an anti-Semite. How do we know? Why, those gold-loving goblin bankers in Harry Potter, with their obviously Jewish appearance, hooked noses and all.

I kid you not.

 Posted by at 2:13 pm
Mar 192021
 

I remembered something today. A set of playing cards.

I never had a card deck like this but some of my grade school classmates did. This was the (very) early 1970s in communist Hungary. It was through these cards that I first learned of the existence of luxury sports cars, supercars like Ferrari, racecars like Lotus.

It was cards like these:

These were not some imports from the decadent West. Not subtle imperialist propaganda. These cards were produced by the state-owned Playing Card Factory (yes, that was the name of the company!) and they were much coveted by many 7-year olds. Like me.

But now that I think back, it makes me wonder: Exactly what were they thinking? I mean, this was a bleeping communist dictatorship (of the goulash variety, but still). What on Earth did they think they were doing, these self-appointed masters of agitprop, poisoning our young, impressionable minds with such blatant Western consumerist propaganda?

Ah, the sweet irony.

 Posted by at 9:28 pm
Mar 152021
 

The cartoon series The Simpsons is into its 32nd season this year. It has been picked up for at least another two seasons by Fox.

The Simpsons depicts a “typical” American family of five: Homer the breadwinner, with only a high-school diploma, holding a dead-end but secure job as a safety inspector at the Springfield Nuclear Plant, Marge the housewife, mother of three children and the three kids, two of them school-age, one still a toddler. The Simpsons live in a detached house in a suburb and own two cars. They are not rich, but they do have disposable income: Homer spends his evenings gulping down beer as Moe’s Tavern, Marge never seems to have a problem paying for groceries.

In other words, The Simpsons live the American dream: a comfortable North American middle class lifestyle from a single income.

A dream that, as lamented in a recent opinion article in The Atlantic, is no longer attainable.

This, I think, really explains it all. The polarization of American politics. The emergence of extremism. The appeal of slogans like “Make America Great Again”. The “we have nothing to lose” attitude that led many to vote for Trump, despite their misgivings.

And it is by no means a US-only phenomenon. Income inequality may not be as bad in Canada as it is in the US, but the middle class is not doing spectacularly well here either. Europe, too, is not heading in the right direction.

Lest we forget the lessons of history, this is precisely what provides fertile ground for totalitarian ideologies like fascism and communism. When liberal democracy fails to deliver on society’s most basic promise, the ability to provide a life as good as, but preferably better than your own for your children, people turn to other ideas. That was just as true a century ago as it is today.

 Posted by at 10:52 pm
Mar 062021
 

I just came across this painting on Twitter.

I find it poignantly beautiful. According to the description by the artist, Antony John, the cow in the painting is old, on her last pregnancy, as she stares outside at a late winter Southwestern Ontario landscape. The equipment in the room may appear scary but it is nothing sinister. It is used to help with difficult pregnancies; the artist also intended it as a metaphor representing the inexorable pull of time.

I fell in love with this painting the moment I saw it.

 Posted by at 5:20 pm
Dec 242020
 

Tonight, this view of earthrise from the historical Christmas flight around the Moon by Apollo 8 seems and feels especially profound.

We are all in this together on our tiny blue marble. For now, hunkered down, but not beaten. As a result of 21st century science and an incredible push by researchers, we now have working vaccines that will soon be distributed to millions, starting with health care workers and the most vulnerable. Who could ask for a better Christmas present? And even amidst all this, we can still share a joke, as people from Romania to New Zealand, from Canada to Iran erect copycat versions of the famous Utah monolith.

[G]ood night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.
– Frank Borman, Apollo 8 mission commander

There is hope for us in 2021 on this good Earth.

 Posted by at 12:35 pm
Dec 202020
 

The year 2020 was certainly not… nice.

But there is a ray of hope. It arrived in the form of the mysterious metal monoliths that popped up all over the globe, most recently even here in our relative neighborhood, on Sherbrooke street in Montreal.

Similar monoliths appeared all over the planet, from British Columbia to Romania, from Iran to New Zealand.

And that makes me feel optimistic.

If, in a year like 2020, humanity can share a joke like this: people on all continents, from different cultures, can happily participate in a shared prank, a harmless diversion, making fun of it all… then, perhaps, there is hope for us yet.

 Posted by at 12:36 pm
Nov 192020
 

In recent years, I saw myself mostly as a “centrist liberal”: one who may lean conservative on matters of the economy and state power, but who firmly (very firmly) believes in basic human rights and basic human decency. One who wishes to live in a post-racial society in which your ethnicity or the color of your skin matter no more than the color of your eyes or your hairstyle. A society in which you are judged by the strength of your character. A society in which consenting, loving adults can form families regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. A society that treats heterosexuals and non-heterosexuals alike, without prejudice, without shaming, without rejection. A society in which covert racism no longer affords me “white privilege” while creating invisible barriers to those who come from a different ethnic background.

But then, I read that one of the pressing issues of the day is… the elimination of terms such as “master/slave” or “blacklist/whitelist” from the technical literature and from millions upon millions of lines of software code.

Say what again?

I mean… not too long ago, this was satire. Not too long ago, we laughed when overzealous censors (or was it misguided software?) changed “black-and-white” into “African-American-and-white”. Never did I think that one day, reality catches up with this Monty Pythonesque insanity.

It is one thing to fight for a post-racial society with gender equality. For a society in which homosexuals, transsexuals and others feel fully appreciated as human beings, just like their conventionally heterosexual neighbors. For a society free of overt or covert discrimination.

It is another thing to seek offense where none was intended. To misappropriate terms that, in the technical literature, NEVER MEANT what you suggest they mean. And then, to top it all off, to intimidate people who do not sing exactly the same song as the politically correct choir.

No, I do not claim the right, the privilege, to tell you what terms you should or should not find offensive. I am simply calling you out on this BS. You know that there is/was nothing racist about blacklisting a spammer’s e-mail address or arranging a pair of flip-flops (the electronic components, not the footwear) in a master/slave circuit. But you are purposefully searching for the use of words like “black” or “slave”, in any context, just to fuel this phony outrage. Enough already!

Do you truly want to fight real racism? Racism that harms people every day, that prevents talented young people from reaching their full potential, racism that still shortens lives and makes lives unduly miserable? Racial discrimination remains real in many parts of the world, including North America. Look no further than indigenous communities here in Canada, or urban ghettos or Native American villages in the United States. And elsewhere in the world? The treatment of the Uyghurs in China, the treatment of many ethnic minorities in Russia, human rights abuses throughout Africa and Asia, rising nationalism and xenophobia in Europe.

But instead of fighting to make the world a better place for those who really are in need, you occupy yourselves with this made-up nonsense. And as a result, you achieve the exact opposite of what you purportedly intend. Do you know why? Well, part of the reason is that decent, well-meaning people in democratic countries now vote against “progressives” because they are fed up with your thought police.

No, I do not wish to offer excuses for the real racists, the bona fide xenophobes, the closet nazis and others who enthusiastically support Trump or other wannabe autocrats elsewhere in the world. But surely, you don’t believe that over 70 million Americans who voted for Donald J. Trump 17 days ago are racist, xenophobic closet nazis?

Because if that’s what you believe, you are no better than the real racists, real xenophobes and real closet nazis. Your view of your fellow citizens is a distorted caricature, a hateful stereotype.

No, many of those who voted for Trump; many of those who voted for Biden but denied Democrats their Senate majority; many of those who voted for Biden but voted Democratic congresspeople out of the US Congress: They did so, in part, because you went too far. You are no longer solving problems. You are creating problems where none exist. Worse yet, through “cancel culture” you are trying to silence your critics.

But perhaps this is exactly what you want. Perpetuate the problem instead of solving it. For what would happen to you in a post-racial society with gender equality and full (and fully respected) LGBTQ rights? You would fade back into obscurity. You’d have to find a real job somewhere. You would no longer be able to present yourself as a respected, progressive “community leader”.

Oh, no, we can’t have that! You are a champion of human rights! You are fighting a neverending fight against white supremacism, white privilege, racism and all that! How dare I question the purity of your heart, your intent?

So you do your darnedest best to create conflict where none exists. There is no better example of this than the emergence of the word “cis” as a pejorative term describing… me, among other people, a heterosexual, white, middle-class male, especially one who happens to have an opinion and is unwilling to hide it. Exactly how you are making the world a better place by “repurposing” a word in this manner even as you fight against long-established terminology in the technical literature that you perceive as racist is beyond me. But I have had enough of this nonsense.

 Posted by at 10:46 pm
Oct 182020
 

I rarely remember my dreams. It was therefore striking when this morning I woke up from a vivid dream. In my dream, I visited my long dead grandmother’s old apartment, except that she was very much alive, sitting in front of a desk facing the window of her room. I stood at her doorway, not wanting to get any closer, COVID-19 and all. I said to her that we should keep our distance, and at first she nodded but then, bah, she approached me anyway with the intent to hug and kiss me. Not having any better ideas, I quickly held up the sheet of paper or book or whatever it was that I had in my hands, so that instead of kissing each other on the cheek, we ended up kissing through that paper object. I truly was worried that if we are careless, we risk her frail health.

In actuality, my grandmother, who was born in 1901, passed away 26 years ago. I was wondering what prompted this dream. Then I realized: last night, I saw an image on Twitter, a 1908 Canadian painting titled Mrs. Davies at the Sewing Machine, by Albert Henry Robinson.

Not quite the same as my grandmother’s room, but it has the same vibe, same atmosphere.

What an unusual dream.

Yes, I loved my grandmother very much. But I don’t think I ever saw her using a sewing machine.

 Posted by at 12:46 pm
Oct 112020
 

I learned the other day that Jeff Lynne was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.

Lynne is one of the founders of the supergroup Electric Light Orchestra. Though there were inevitable changes and periods of inactivity, ELO has been in business for a remarkable 50 years.

I first “met” ELO in the mid-1970s when my uncle returned to Hungary from a trip to Canada. He brought a few records, including ELO’s On The Third Day, and he let me make a cassette copy.

This was my first encounter with ELO’s brand of progressive rock, a mix of pop rock and classical instrumentation. It was instant love on my part. Their interpretation of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt, in particular, left a lasting impression. Incidentally, it also increased my appreciation for classical music.

These days, I often listen to ELO when I am working. It works better than almost any other piece of music, helping me focus on my work. Especially useful when I am working on a difficult problem, whether it is physics or a tough code debugging exercise. As a matter of fact, I was actually listening to ELO when I first heard the news.

I suppose I cannot call Mr. Lynne Sir because for that, he’d have had to be made a Knight of the OBE, not a mere Officer. Even so, all I can say is that it’s an award well-deserved. Thank you for the music, Mr. Lynne, OBE.

 Posted by at 6:27 pm
Jul 082020
 

I am with Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, David Frum, Francis Fukuyama, Michael Ignatieff, Garry Kasparov, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Fareed Zakaria (just a few of the names that I readily recognize) on this one.

“Cancel culture” is wrong. Seeking to find offense where no offense was intended is stupid. It fosters conflict, not understanding. It divides, it doesn’t unite us.

In short, “cancel culture” is not what intelligent people do. It is what mobs do.

And a mob, even when it acts in the name of the highest of ideals, is still a mob.

Ultimately, cancel culture does exactly that: It cancels culture.

The very culture that is our best defense against division. Against prejudice. Against populism.

 Posted by at 6:12 pm
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