Sep 242020

Reading about Trump’s refusal to commit to the peaceful transfer of power, I suddenly felt the urge to read up on the history of our Canadian provinces during the US Civil War.

As it turns out, Canadian provinces did well economically. And some of Canada’s enduring institutions, seemingly undemocratic yet serving as effective guarantees of political stability and safeguards against excessive partisanship, such as the appointed Senate, were born in the wake of the lessons of that conflict.

Even so, I worry about the future. US elections this November will be unlike any other in living memory, I fear.

 Posted by at 2:06 am
Sep 222020

My favorite Twitter accounts: @PossumEveryHour, @RaccoonEveryHr, @RatsEveryHour,@ekichoTAMA, @evilbmcats, @giantcat9. I also love the Facebook Bird Misidentification Page. I think I should limit my social media consumption to these groups. For mental health, you know.

 Posted by at 8:13 pm
Sep 122020

I have a travel radio.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 12:20 pm
Sep 102020

We live in a blessed country. That doesn’t mean that it is a flawless country, not by any means. And we also have occasional cases of political corruption, such as when a leading politician uses his position for partisan advantage.


Here is this news item from The Globe and Mail‘s evening e-mail newsletter that caught my attention:

Morneau breached election laws by using ministerial role to promote Liberal candidates, watchdog says

Commissioner of Canada Elections Yves Côté has found former finance minister Bill Morneau violated federal election laws ahead of the 2019 election by using his government role to promote Liberal candidates.

The decision points to two examples in which Morneau visited Ontario ridings in his capacity as Minister of Finance, but used each visit to promote the local Liberal candidate.

The report determined that the “known quantifiable costs” associated with these events have a commercial value of $1,661. That amount has since been paid back to the government.

So here we have, ladies and gentlemen, a national political scandal, Canada style: it cost Canadian taxpayers the princely sum of $1,661, which has since been paid back to the government.

No, there is no need to remind me that there other, (much) bigger scandals afoot, WE charity and other things, but I still find it encouraging that an ethics lapse amounting to $1,661 is sufficient to rise to the level of national scandal in this country. It reflects a certain degree of innocence that, I hope, will remain a characteristic of Canada for many years to come.

 Posted by at 5:41 pm
Sep 102020

In the last few days, I was:

  1. scolded in one Facebook group, when I commented on a post and made a mention of other personalities (who are not directly connected to the topic of the group), intended to serve as examples showing that the issue being discussed was a much broader one;
  2. had a repost of mine of a funny image to a humor group unceremoniously deleted, for supposedly reposting “ad nauseam” something that I have not yet seen in that group since I became a member a few months ago.

Yes, I know, discussion group moderation is a thankless task. Been there, done that.

But, as I often reminded all-powerful witches and wizards in our favorite MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) games, there is no point overdoing the policing. It sucks away the fun for everyone. By all means, step in and police blatant violations… but also be wise and know when it is more appropriate not to notice things, even when they technically qualify as infractions. The goal, simply put, is to make things fun for everyone, not to enforce rules at all costs. In short, rules exist for our convenience, not the other way around.

If only people were this conscientious when it comes to pandemic-related rules for social distancing and wearing masks… Rules that are there, you know, because they actually save lives?

Oh well. Done ranting for the day.

 Posted by at 1:13 pm
Sep 042020

This is intriguing. Thanks to a recently published study, we may now know better why COVID-19 wreaks havoc with the human body, and perhaps know a little better how best to treat the illness.

I am generally wary when it comes to research that relies heavily on computer codes. I have zero experience in medicine or molecular biology, but when it comes to physics, I’ve seen unjustified reliance on computer programs that were treated as opaque black boxes and which, when I looked at the source code closely, turned out to contain code that was not particularly well written, difficult to decipher, and obviously not subjected to proper quality control by experienced IT professionals. I have no reason to believe that the situation is any better in other fields, such as medicine.

But in this case, the mechanism that they are uncovering actually makes sense. The “bradykinin hypothesis” basically amounts to the discovery that COVID-19 messes with the very receptors that allow it to enter the body in the first place: it hypersensitizes these so-called ACE2 receptors, which in turn suppresses the breaking down of bradykinin, a chemical that regulates blood pressure. The resulting runaway buildup, the “bradykinin storm“, causes blood vessels to leak, the lungs to fill up with fluid (gel-like, to make things worse, and to make ventilators less effective) and even lead to neurological effects, in part because of a breakdown of the blood-brain barrier.

All this sounds quite horrible, and it is, but understanding it can also lead to better treatment. Medications to deal with a bradykinin storm are readily available. And something as mundane as Vitamin-D can be immensely helpful.

Related to this, I read also that COVID-19 can mess with the thyroid gland. This is of obvious concern to me, as I’ve been taking thyroid medication for hypothyroidism for decades. I was relieved to learn that a pre-existing thyroid condition does not seem to cause complications.

 Posted by at 11:40 pm
Sep 032020

Tonight, Slava Turyshev sent me a link to an article that was actually published three months ago on but until now, escaped our attention.

It is a very nice summary of the work that we have been doing on the Solar Gravitational Lens to date.

It really captures the essence of our work and the challenges that we have been looking at.

And there is so much more to do! Countless more things to tackle: image reconstruction of a moving target, imperfections of the solar gravitational field, precision of navigation… not to mention the simple, basic challenge of attempting a deep space mission to a distance four times greater than anything to date, lasting several decades.

Yes, it can be done. No it’s not easy. But it’s a worthy challenge.

 Posted by at 10:54 pm