Mar 312022

Very well. I have now become convinced that Putler’s army in Ukraine is led by criminally incompetent clowns whose expertise is limited to cruelty and wholesale murder.

So they decide to occupy the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It’s an Exclusion Zone for a reason. Not because Ukrainians are fond of the Strugatsky brothers’ amazing novelette, Roadside Picnic, which describes similar Zones (albeit zones left behind by visiting, “picnicking” extraterrestrials.) They might be; the story really is good (and it formed the basis for Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, as well as the amazing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of video games. Scenes from which, incidentally, now bear alarming resemblance to the ruined cities of Ukraine.)

No, it is called an Exclusion Zone because it contains, you know, radioactive fallout from the world’s worst nuclear disaster: the explosion at reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station that happened in 1986.

Fallout that, until now, was mostly safely buried under fresh soil, causing relatively little harm. That is, until Russian conscripts, led by the aforementioned nincompoop murderers, dug it up with trenches. Soldiers who are now ill with signs of radiation sickness. With generals like the ones leading them, they need no enemies. They are perfectly capable of defeating themselves even without Ukrainian help.

 Posted by at 2:34 pm
Mar 292022

For the first time in my life, I exercised my right as a Hungarian citizen and voted.

Before I left Hungary, voting was pointless: my choice was the Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party or else. The “or else” meant nothing.

More recently, I didn’t feel it kosher to participate in elections in a country where I do not reside and do not pay taxes. Then again, thanks in part to the current government, a great many Hungarian citizens who do not reside in Hungary or pay taxes there have gained the right to vote… so perhaps it’s not unethical for me to do so as well.

So I did.

Incidentally, the Parliament building in Budapest is quite an impressive edifice.

 Posted by at 3:28 pm
Mar 242022

A friend of mine was wondering about Putin’s motivation.

I offered my take on Putin’s “dream”, starting with his remarkable statement from decades ago, expressing his opinion that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest political catastrophe of the 20th century.

Many of Putin’s generation feel the same way. They spent their formative years in a Soviet Union that finally stepped over the shadow of Stalin’s terror rule. A country in which life became worth living again, and which was poised to deliver, after much toil and struggle of course but still, a Utopian communist state that in many ways is almost exactly like the Utopia of Star Trek and its United Federation of Planets.

And this was a post-racial, transnational dream. To be sure, Russians, their culture, their language, their civilization were to assume a leading role but not as oppressors, rather as leaders and teachers, bringing the benefits of Utopia to all, including both the polyglot citizenry of the USSR and peoples beyond the Soviet borders.

The collapse of the USSR meant the end of this dream. Many wept (literally) when the red Soviet flag was taken down from the Kremlin at the end of 1991. Perhaps even Putin was one of them.

Fast forward to 2022. To those who were weeping in 1991, the state of affairs that saw essential parts of the USSR as independent countries was deeply offensive and unnatural. The eventual reunification of these nations was, to them, a foregone conclusion. What stood in the way? Apart from corruption and petty politics, a hostile West that supported the independence of these newly created nations, even incorporating them into its military alliance that exists for the sole purpose of threatening and intimidating Russia.

And that leads to the grand strategy. Divide the West. Sow the seeds of division within Europe, support Brexit, spread conspiracy theories that create mistrust in the media and in the institutions of liberal democracy, help promote a narcissistic TV personality to the presidency of the United States by spreading propaganda through social media, drive wedges between the West and its closest allies such as Turkey, and in the meantime make gradual advances in the territories of the former USSR, a “salami tactic” approach, recovering what was lost one county, one province at a time, but with the ultimate goal being even uncoupling the Baltic states from the West, re-establish a land connection to Kaliningrad and reincorporate Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia into the reforming USSR.

And it almost worked! Europe seemed more divided than ever, with populist autocrats emerging in places like Hungary and Poland who seemed more loyal to Moscow than Brussels. The Brits completed Brexit. Turkey bought the S-400 air defense system against express US wishes. And while Canada was briefly immobilized by a “freedom” convoy, in the US a near-plurality of voters were willing to believe that the last presidential election was “rigged”.

So the time seemed ripe to take the next step, the biggest prize in the re-establishment of the USSR: Ukraine.

But this strategy presumes that successor countries like Ukraine are actually unwilling pawns in the hands of a hostile West; that the majorities in these countries would in fact welcome the “ancient regime”, would welcome becoming part again of a great, united superpower that covers 1/6th of the land area of the planet and commands economic resources to match any rival.

Based on that assumption, the expectations are easy to see. Once Russia’s army enters Ukraine, the country’s corrupt, ineffectual leadership (led by a former TV comedian who, being Jewish, probably has no loyalty to Ukraine anyway) would flee the country at the first opportunity, the regime would collapse and the population would welcome the tanks (several of which were decorated with Soviet — not Russian, Soviet! — flags) with great happiness.

The next step would be Georgia and of course, once the might and invincibility of Russia becomes clear to a weak, divided West, the Baltics: Kaliningrad, Lithuania, and the rest of them. The dream is fulfilled, and Putin is revered as the greatest Russian statesman since, say, Peter the Great.

So I think this is what Putin wanted or hoped for. Instead, he managed to accomplish in mere three weeks what took more than three years for Hitler: progression from the initial crossing of the border (like Hitler entering Poland in 1939) to his version of the Battle of Stalingrad.

It is clear that the Russian army no longer has the initiative. Reports today are about a destroyed Russian warship, Ukrainians not only pushing back against Russian forces near Kyiv but encircling some 10,000 of them, and NATO updating its estimates, now saying that over 15,000 (15,000!!! That’s a staggering number, considering that the invasion force numbered less than 200,000 to begin with) Russian servicemen have been killed already.

The wildcard is WMDs: Will Putin deploy chemical weapons? Go nuclear? History is no guide here. Or perhaps those in his close circle, knowing that he is finished and seeing the harm that his continuing “leadership” brings to their power, wealth, lives, will finish him off soon? That would be a relief.

But even if that happens, we need to be mindful of the broader context. Our reaction should be carefully calibrated by pragmatism, not petty vindictiveness. An opinion piece from Bloomberg that begins with the thoughts of Keynes echoes my concerns exactly. We may “win” this conflict and Putin may be deposed. But beyond the immediate needs of Ukraine, we must also look at the broader picture and make sure that we create a post-war world that is sustainable. In short, we’ll need to help Russia to become a valuable member of the international community (like Germany and Japan were helped after 1945) instead of punishing Russia (like Germany was punished in 1919) and sow the seeds of more division and conflict.

 Posted by at 3:54 pm
Mar 242022

Do you know what wealth is?

It’s not superyachts. It’s not million dollar mansions. It’s not private jets or a chauffeured Rolls Royce. Those are pricey toys.

Let me show you real wealth. Guess which of the two objects in the image below is worth more:

On the left, a Canadian quarter. That is, 25 Canadian cents. This is the amount that a resident of Ontario, working for the legally mandated minimum wage, earns in exactly one minute.

On the right is a 540 milliliter can of sliced pineapples, in pineapple juice. All the way from Indonesia.

That is to say, someone planted those pineapple plants and nurtured them. Someone picked that fruit. Others mined the iron and coal from which the soft steel was made, eventually rolled into sheets and formed into cans. Yet others operated the machinery of the cannery, slicing those pineapples, filling and sealing the cans on July 5, 2021 according to the stamped label on the can. The cans were then put into crates, loaded into containers that were put on trucks, taken to a port, transferred to a ship which then sailed to Canada. The container then made its way, through the railways and on trucks, to a warehouse and ultimately, to the grocery store here in Ottawa, all the while protected from the elements, from excess heat and excess cold that would have ruined the contents. Finally, someone placed the cans on a shelf where they must have sat a little longer than usual, until either a human manager or maybe an algorithm decided that they should be marked down.

And then my beautiful wife picked up a pair of these cans… paying the grand total of 48 Canadian cents for the two.

That is, a large can of sliced pineapples, all the way from Indonesia, here in the final days of an Ottawa winter… costing less than a quarter. Even working at the Ontario minimum wage, for the equivalent of less than 60 seconds of our labor.

That’s what wealth really is.

 Posted by at 2:13 pm
Mar 242022

Between a war launched by a mad dictator, an occupation by “freedom convoy” mad truckers, and other mad shenanigans, it’s been a while since I last blogged about pure physics.

Especially about a topic close to my heart, modified gravity. John Moffat’s modified gravity theory MOG, in particular.

Back in 2020, a paper was published arguing that MOG may not be able to account for the dynamics certain galaxies. The author studied a large, low surface brightness galaxy, Antlia II, which has very little mass, and concluded that the only way to fit MOG to this galaxy’s dynamics is by assuming outlandish values not only for the MOG theory’s parameters but also the parameter that characterizes the mass distribution in the galaxy itself.

In fact, I would argue that any galaxy this light that does not follow Newtonian physics is bad news for modified theories of gravity; these theories predict deviations from Newtonian physics for large, heavy galaxies, but a galaxy this light is comparable in size to large globular clusters (which definitely behave the Newtonian way) so why would they be subject to different rules?

But then… For many years now, John and I (maybe I should only speak for myself in my blog, but I think John would concur) have been cautiously, tentatively raising the possibility that these faint satellite galaxies are really not very good test subjects at all. They do not look like relaxed, “virialized” mechanical systems; rather, they appear tidally disrupted by the host galaxy the vicinity of which they inhabit.

We have heard arguments that this cannot be the case, that these satellites show no signs of recent interaction. And in any case, it is never a good idea for a theorist to question the data. We are not entitled to “alternative facts”.

But then, here’s a paper from just a few months ago with a very respectable list of authors on its front page, presenting new observations of two faint galaxies, one being Antlia II: “Our main result is a clear detection of a velocity gradient in Ant2 that strongly suggests it has recently experienced substantial tidal disruption.”

I find this result very encouraging. It is consistent with the basic behavior of the MOG theory: Systems that are too light to show effects due to modified gravity exhibit strictly Newtonian behavior. This distinguishes MOG from the popular MOND paradigm, which needs the somewhat ad hoc “external field effect” to account for the dynamics of diffuse objects that show no presence of dark matter or modified gravity.

 Posted by at 2:30 am
Mar 182022

Today, we saw President Putin in public, at a celebration commemorating the annexation of Crimea 8 years ago.

Suddenly that reminded me of something else: Germany celebrating the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria that occurred in March 1938.

But Putin, it seems, had eclipsed Hitler as the all-time genius of national greatness. After all, he managed to accomplish in mere three weeks what took Adolf more than three long, painful, blood-soaked years.

Putin managed to get from his equivalent of the Polish border to his Stalingrad in just three weeks.

That is, what initially began as a form of Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, rapidly deteriorated into an unwinnable war of attrition, with long, unsustainable supply lines, fighting against a much better motivated, better led, better supplied foe.

Ukraine is paying an incredibly heavy price, but by their fierce resistance, they might just be saving the world from global thermonuclear war.

Of course, rather than losing (which will likely see him hanged, just like other incompetent autocrats before him, with Mussolini serving as a relevant example) Putin may well decide that burning much of the world is preferable. At that point, I hope that those around him, however subservient or corrupt, will find the moral courage, the spirit of true patriotism not to carry out orders that would amount to much of humanity (including Russia) committing a form of collective suicide. That they won’t let this murderous sicko, this petty KGB thug turn our magnificent civilization into ashes and dust, into radioactive mushroom clouds.

 Posted by at 11:57 pm
Mar 162022

Time for me to rant a little.

Agile software development. Artificial intelligence. SCRUM. Machine learning. Not a day goes by in our profession without the cognoscenti dropping these and similar buzzwords, hoping to dazzle their audience.

Give me a break, please. You think you are dazzling me but all I see is someone who just rediscovered the wheel.

Let me present two books from my bookshelf. Both were published in Hungary, long before the Iron Curtain came down, back when the country was still part of the technologically backward, relatively underdeveloped “second world” of the socialist bloc.

First, Systems Analysis and Operations Research, by Géza Jándy, published in 1980.

In this book, among other things, Jándy writes (emphasis mine): “Both in systems analysis and in design the […] steps are of an iterative nature […]. Several steps can be done contemporaneously, and if we recognize opportunities for improvement in implementing the plan, some steps may be retraced.”

Sounds familiar, Agile folks?

And then, here’s a 1973 (!!!) Hungarian translation of East German author Manfred Peschel’s book, Cybernetic Systems.

A small, unassuming paperback. But right there, the subtitles tell the story: “Automata, optimization, learning and thinking.”

Yes, it’s all there. Machine learning, neural networks, the whole nine yards. What wasn’t available in 1973 of course was Big Data, the vast repositories of human knowledge that is now present on the Internet, and which machine learning algorithms can rely on for training. And of course hardware is a lot faster, a lot more capable than half a century ago. Nor am I suggesting that we haven’t learned anything in the intervening decades, or that we cannot do things better today than back in the 1970s or 1980s.

But please, try not to sell these ideas as new. Iterative project management has been around long before computers. The conceptual foundations of machine learning date back to the 1950s. Just because it’s not on the Interwebs doesn’t mean the knowledge doesn’t exist. Go visit a library before you reinvent the wheel.

 Posted by at 1:54 pm
Mar 112022

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma found the classiest way to protest Russia’s naked, unprovoked aggression. Without any publicity, he simply went to the Russian embassy in DC and played.

We would not even know about this had a passing bicyclist not recognized him.

I suspect that once it is all over (and who knows how many human beings will suffer and die before it’s all over?) the world will remember this scene as iconic.

 Posted by at 2:56 pm
Mar 112022

Several years ago, while playing one of the computer games from the renowned Fallout series (to those unfamiliar with it: the games are set in an alternate retrofuturistic world, centuries after the apocalypse of the Great War of 2077 that ended civilization — in-game radio stations, however, play music mostly from the Golden Age of American radio, from the 1930s to the 1950s, including the iconic I don’t want to set the world on fire by The Ink Spots) I put together a “doomsday” playlist of songs I want to listen to while I await the fateful flash. (Here in Ottawa Lowertown, chances are that we will see the flash but won’t live long enough to hear the kaboom.)

Unfortunately I have no public links: the MP3 files reside on my computer along with the playlist itself. But I thought I’d share the list nonetheless, as most of the songs are easy to find. In any case, I think the titles alone tell a story.

  • I don’t want to set the world on fire – The Ink Spots
  • Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Is That All There Is – Peggy Lee
  • Yesterday – The Beatles
  • C’est la vie – Emerson, Lake and Palmer
  • Non, je ne regrette rien – Edith Piaf
  • I did it my way – Frank Sinatra
  • 99 Luftballons – Nena
  • Here is the news – 21st century man – Electric Light Orchestra
  • Mother – In the flesh – Pink Floyd
  • Rejoice in the Sun – Joan Baez
  • Adios Nonino – Astor Piazzolla
  • Blondie – Philip Glass remix – Daft Beatles
  • November – Tom Waits
  • Brazil – Geoff Muldaur
  • Strange fruit – Billie Holiday
  • Sway (from Dark City) – Anita Kelsey
  • Kurt Weill’s Ballad of the soldier’s wife – P. J. Harvey
  • Sweet Dreams – Eurythmics
  • Round midnight – Thelonious Monk
  • We’ll meet again – Vera Lynn

There you have it.

 Posted by at 12:23 pm
Mar 102022

World War Z used to mean a fictitious war with zombies. Not anymore: the Latin letter Z apparently became a symbol for supporters of Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine.

What prompts people to support Putin? What makes a religious leader declare unconditional loyalty to a decidedly un-Christian murderous dictator, even as a 91-year old survivor of the Nazi siege of Leningrad is struggling to remain alive in Kharkiv, besieged by Russian troops?

Is it the success of propaganda and disinformation? Russian nationalism? Self-deception, being able to convince oneself that it’s the rest of the world who act as blind “sheeple”? Being blinded by the charisma of the strongman, the macho warlord?

Meanwhile, decisions are being made with consequences that will fundamentally change the world in which we live, and quite possibly result in untold numbers of death and suffering.

History is no guide. Things can go either way. In 1914, the world opted to intervene when one of the “sick men of Europe”, Austria-Hungary attacked a much smaller neighbor. Had the world stayed idle, limiting its contribution to material help only, the Serbs would have won against the demoralized, badly led, ill-trained troops of the Monarchy. But the world felt compelled to step in, and the result was decades of devastating war and totalitarianism.

But in 1938, the world opted not to listen to political have-beens like a certain Winston Churchill, a warmongerer who was advocating war with Germany. This clown would plunge the world into another World War, they argued, as they celebrated the diplomatic triumph of Neville Chamberlain, who returned from Munich with a document signed by Adolf Hitler, representing “peace for our times”. Of course we know that Churchill was right all along, and had the world opted to confront Hitler in 1937 or even 1938, the resulting war would have been much less severe, much less devastating than the one that actually ensued.

Then again, a less devastating war would have meant no US involvement in Europe, no Marshall plan, no post-war golden era that characterized much of the world in the past 77 years. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

All that is my way of saying that I don’t envy those who need to make these decisions. We are at a historical crossroads: These decisions may determine the fate of our civilization for decades to come, and a wrong move can very possibly result in hundreds of millions of lives lost.

What can I say? I am worried. Scared even. We go about our business as usual, planning to do things next week, next month, next year. But will the world as we know it still be around next week, next month, next year? With the end of the pandemic in sight, we again contemplate travel, such as my wife visiting her Mom later this year. But Hungary is right there on the border with Ukraine. Will it still be peaceful? Will it still be safe?

It’s easy to blame individuals for the ills of the world, and Putin deserves a lot of blame. But I think it’s naive to expect that things would go back to normal if only some sane Russian with access had the presence of mind and the courage to get rid of him. There are historical processes at work here, and the past 77 years already represented an exceptionally long, exceptionally (perhaps uniquely) prosperous period in human history. And if there is one lesson that history consistently teaches us, it’s that nothing lasts forever, not even a golden age.

 Posted by at 11:23 pm
Mar 042022

Hitler mocked it. For Colin Powell’s 2003 speech announcing the war in Iraq, they covered it up.

And now the whole of Ukraine is beginning to look like Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece.

 Posted by at 8:02 pm
Mar 032022

This beautiful creature was my Mom’s canine, who went by the name Labi.

I use the past tense because unfortunately, Labi is no more. He died a few hours ago. He was 13.

I know, I know. This is a very minor tragedy with all that’s going on in the world right now. But even minor tragedies are devastating to those who experience them first-hand.

Our first cat, Marzipan, taught us a lesson. Do not grieve death; celebrate life. It’s been almost 22 years since Marzipan’s life was cut short by illness, and every time we think about him, we smile. He continues to bring happiness to our lives even this many years after his death.

I’ll have to tell my Mom that this will also be true for Labi. Years from now, every time she thinks about him, she will smile, remembering all the love and all the mischief. Life, even a brief life, triumphs because it exists.

 Posted by at 12:42 am