Jan 312024

This here is our ~11 year old cat Rufus. Exact age unknown as he was a stray when we adopted him back in early autumn 2014, but he was assessed to be about 1 year old back then.

This picture was taken late last night. Today, Rufus had an ultrasound that confirmed what we feared: That not only does he have a tumor in his abdomen, but that it is inoperable, and chemotherapy is also unlikely to help.

So we are left with the final option: Palliative care, taking care of Rufus as long as we can, so long as he can still have some quality of life.

So far so good. Tonight, despite the hours-long stay at the vet, Rufus came home ready to eat a little, drink a little, even play a little. So it’s one day at a time, all the while recognizing that in this increasingly troubled world, we are among the lucky ones, so long as our main concern is the welfare of our cat.

 Posted by at 10:28 pm
Jan 282024

I first bought a hybrid (a Honda Civic) in 2004. I loved that car; it served us faithfully for 10 years. Our more recent Hondas were not hybrids, but the reasons were eminently practical: hybrids were in short supply, conventional gasoline cars were cheaper, and we use the car very little in any case, so…

Having said that, I certainly contemplated the idea of buying an all electric vehicle, but every time I think it through, I decide against it. Today, I saw a map that perfectly illustrates my lack of enthusiasm. Here it is:

This map shows the locations of supercharger stations where you’d have to stop for a 20-30 minute recharge, in order to complete a cross-country trip across the United States in a Tesla automobile.

In contrast, here’s a map of an actual trip I took in my Civic Hybrid back in 2005, along with the approximate locations where I stopped for gas (reconstructed from old receipts):

What can I say? I think EVs are great when you live in the suburbs and use your car for shopping and commuting to work. If I lived, say, in Kanata and commuted daily to work at, say, Place du Portage in Gatineau, purchasing an EV would make an awful lot of sense. But that’s not where we live or how we commute. We live on Ottawa Lowertown, which is to say almost downtown, we work at home, we use the car only occasionally, but as this example demonstrates, sometimes for lengthy road trips. EVs are not great for lengthy road trips. I am used to the idea of driving to Montreal Airport and back without worrying about stopping for gas. Or driving to Toronto non-stop.

And then, of course, there are the dreaded Canadian winters. It’s one thing to use waste heat from a gasoline engine to heat the interior of a car. It’s another thing to waste electric power stored in a battery for this, converting electricity inefficiently into heat, at the expense of range already reduced by the effect of cold weather on the batteries. And while heat pumps can help, there are no miracles when the outside air temperature is closer to -40 than -30 Centigrade, which is a not altogether uncommon occurrence (though it is certainly becoming less common) in these parts of Canada.

And then there’s the question of where the electric energy comes from. Renewables are okay, nuclear would be great. But too much of the electricity, even here in nuclear-rich Ontario, comes from natural gas fired plants. That’s not so great.

So for now, it’s either gasoline-powered or hybrid vehicles for us. EVs may be in our future, but I am not yet too keen on them, to be honest.

 Posted by at 3:05 pm
Jan 242024

Someone sent me a link to a YouTube podcast, a segment from an interview with a physicist.

I didn’t like the interview. It was about string theory. My dislike is best illustrated by a point that was made by the speaker. He matter-of-factly noted that, well, math is weird, the sum of \(1 + 2 + 3 + …,\) ad infinitum, is \(-\tfrac{1}{12}.\)

This flawlessly illustrates what bothers me both about the state of theoretical physics and about the way it is presented to general audiences.

No, the sum of all positive integers is not \(-\tfrac{1}{12}.\) Not by a longshot. It is divergent. If you insist, you might say that it is infinite. Certainly not a negative rational number.

But where does this nonsense come from?

Well, there’s the famous Riemann zeta-function. For values of \(s>1,\) it is indeed defined as

$$\zeta(s)=\sum_{n=1}^\infty \frac{1}{n^s}.\tag{1}$$

It is a very interesting function, at the heart of some unresolved problems in mathematics.

But the case of \(s=-1\) (which is when the right-hand side of the equation used to define \(\zeta(s)\) corresponds to the sum of all positive integers) is not an unresolved problem. As it is often presented, it is little more than a dirty trick befitting a cheap stage magician, not a scientist.

That is to say, the above definition of \(\zeta(s),\) as I said, is valid only for \(s>1.\) However, the zeta-function has what is called its analytic continuation, which makes it possible to extend the definition for other values of \(s,\) including \(s=-1.\) This can be accomplished utilizing Riemann’s functional equation, \(\zeta(s)=2^s\pi^{s-1}\sin(\tfrac{1}{2}\pi s)\Gamma(1-s)\zeta(1-s).\) But the right-hand side of (1) in this case does not apply! That sum is valid only when it is convergent, which is to say (again), \(s>1.\)

A view of the Riemann zeta-function, from Wikipedia.

So no, the fact that \(\zeta(-1)=-\tfrac{1}{12}\) does not mean that the sum of all integers is \(-\tfrac{1}{12}.\) To suggest otherwise only to dazzle the audience is — looking for a polite term here that nonetheless accurately expresses my disapproval — well, it’s dishonest.

And perhaps unintentionally, it also shows the gap between robust physics and the kind of mathematical games like string theory that pretend to be physics, even though much of it is about mathematical artifacts in 10 dimensions, with at best a very tenuous connection to observable reality.

 Posted by at 10:48 pm
Jan 192024

Japan’s SLIM (Smart Lander for Investigating Moon) made it to the lunar surface. Well… sort of. It accomplished its main goal of a targeted soft landing.

Unfortunately, its solar panels are non-operational. It’s unclear for now why (one speculation I read is that the lander may have tipped over after landing). Its batteries can power it only for a few hours. They’re hoping that perhaps later in the lunar day, or in a next lunar cycle, the lander will get sunlight from the right direction to be able to recharge its batteries after all.

Even so, Japan is now officially the fifth country to have landed a spacecraft on the Moon that remained (at least partially) operational on the lunar surface.

 Posted by at 2:01 pm
Jan 182024

I gave a brief invited talk today via Zoom, participating in a workshop on cosmological models, organized by Complutense University of Madrid, Spain.

The subject of my talk was John Moffat’s theory of gravitation, MOG/STVG, to which I made significant contributions myself over the past 18 years, in an on-going collaboration with John. Judging by the questions that followed my short presentation, I think it was reasonably well received.

The workshop was streamed live on YouTube, and the video is archived.


 Posted by at 9:25 pm
Jan 152024

I offered this gloomy prediction before I am offering it again, though it gives me no pleasure: World War 3 is long overdue.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, nuclear Armageddon was seen as almost inevitable someday. Back in 1970, when I was in the second grade, chances were no sane adult believed that the world would persist mostly in peace, with no major conflict between great powers, all the way up to the year 2000 and beyond.

Yet here we are, in 2024, now in the 79th year of the historical epoch that should rightly be called pax Americana: an imperfect, yet unprecedent period of peace, a rules-based world order that brought prosperity, freedom and security to billions. Not everyone, to be sure, but still, it was an era without precedent. The only comparable period of time that I can think of is also from relatively recent history: the decades between 1849 and 1914, which gave birth to the modern world, streetcars and electric subways, lightbulbs and radios, airplanes and labor unions, telephones and civil rights.

It is true that century after century, humanity has become more peaceful: that in any given century since the dawn of written history, your chances of dying as a victim of violence were ever so slightly less than in the preceding century. But that did not put an end to devastating war. And an all-encompassing, devastating war is long overdue, if history is any guide.

In fact, I very much worry that by the reckoning of some future historians, World War 3 might already be under way. We simply haven’t recognized it just yet.

Consider World War 2. When did it begin? Well, most official accounts I suppose mark September 1, 1939, when Hitler’s Third Reich attacked Poland, as the start date. But that’s a very Euro-centric view. I daresay that, in reality, World War 2 actually began on July 7, 1937 at the bridge known to Europeans as the Marco Polo bridge in Beijing, China. It was this incident that started what some call the Second Sino-Japanese War, but it really is the first major military conflict marking the beginning of the global war between 1937 and 1945.

Of course no one in July 1937 surmised that these were the first shots fired in a war that will leave tens of millions dead, Europe devastated, and culminate in the first (and to date, only) use of nuclear weapons in anger. Not even in September 1939 was it a foregone conclusion that the world entered another World War; indeed, for months thereafter, much of the Western press was talking about a “phony war”.

Things changed after the collapse of France, the Battle of Britain, Barbarossa and Pearl Harbor, of course. But it was a gradual process of recognition. Only in hindsight did we attach a firm date (even if it is the wrong date) marking the beginning of the world war.

So where are we now? War in Ukraine continues. Putin is undoubtedly enraged that Ukraine receives substantial assistance not just from the West in general, but from the Baltic states that not too long ago were part of the Soviet Union, places he thinks he owns. Meanwhile, what began as an unprecedented terrorist attack on Israeli civilians in early October is rapidly widening into a regional war, with US and UK forces now attacking Houthi facilities in Yemen, bases that were used to carry out unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping in the region. Iran, of course, is actively involved in all this even as they are entering an unholy alliance, dubbed the “axis of resistance”, uniting Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, with support from Russia and North Korea.

These conflicts are unlikely to go away in 2024. If anything, they are more than likely to escalate.

And I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to consider the very possibility that nuclear weapons will soon enter the stage.

Israel of course is one of the undeclared nuclear powers of the world. Should they feel existentially threatened, I don’t think they’d hesitate to use nukes against their major opponents.

Iran, as far as we know, is not a nuclear power just yet, but they are “almost there”. Would they use nukes merely as a deterrent, or would they deploy nukes against Israel? The ayatollahs are just crazy enough to do that, I fear.

Russia is of course one of the nuclear superpowers of the world. So far, they refrained from using nukes in Ukraine, but how close are they to take that step? They have already been using chemical weapons at a rising rate according to several reports that I have seen.

And then there is Ukraine itself. Though the country gave up its arsenal of inherited Soviet-era weapons, they certainly have the scientific and technological capability to develop a nuclear weapon in a short period of time. Are they working on it already? If so, how close are they and what will be the intended use? Deterrent? Battlefield deployment? And how would Russia react?

Meanwhile, the West is preoccupied with increasingly polarized politics, putting “conservative” against “progressive”, while undermining perhaps fatally the values of liberal democracy. Indeed, there are leaders like Hungary’s Orban who proudly declared themselves and their political schools of thought “illiberal”. It’s not exactly clear which part of traditional liberalism they reject, though quite possibly it’s all of them: who cares about the rule of law when they prefer the laws not apply to them, who cares about freedom of enterprise when their oligarchic cronies want no competition, who cares about civil rights when those pesky citizens have the audacity to criticize them? But if “illiberal” marks predominantly the conservative right, their “woke” counterparts from the progressive left, dubbed “liberal” though their attitudes are often completely at odds with traditional liberal values, certainly give them a run for their money when it comes to intolerance of any views other than their own.

Am I anxious? Not the right word. It’s hard to describe how I feel. The colossal stupidity that marks the world’s march towards conflict and suffering is annoying, but I have a lot less to worry about than most folks. I have no children whose future might concern me. I am in my early 60s, which means that the majority of my lifespan is behind me already, and it was a good life so far. I have no complaints. And there is nothing I can do to help avoid the outcome that I fear. An old joke pops into my mind, one I heard as a child in Hungary, about the railroad watchman who is taking an exam. He is asked what he would do if he saw two express trains heading towards each other on the open track. “I’d call the wife out from the shack,” he says, “because there’s nothing else that I can do and I’m sure she’s never seen a crash quite as big as this one!”

“The lamps are going out all over Europe,” declared Sir Edward Grey in London early August 1914, as the country that he served as foreign secretary was about to declare war on Imperial Germany. The lamps may soon start to go out all over the world. So here I am, telling my beautiful wife that we can watch the show together. My only regret is that we don’t have a ladder long enough to reach the rather tall roof of our townhouse condo. If I did, we’d have a prime view of downtown Ottawa for when the mushroom clouds blossom over its skyline.

 Posted by at 1:16 pm
Jan 132024

In 1981-82, I served as a conscript in what was then called the Hungarian People’s Army.

As an engineering student, I was trained as a radar operator, which is several notches above cannon fodder I suppose. Still, I do not have fond memories of the time.

Nonetheless, I have to admit that there were some educational moments.

Having once lived in a resort hotel that my stepfather was managing, in the spectacular, historic small town of Visegrád at the bend of the Danube, I learned how a commercial-grade kitchen, serving 100+ people, operates. Standards in Hungary were quite strict at the time, and managing such a kitchen entailed both enforcing food safety and hygiene standards and tasks such as managing and recycling meal samples, which would be used by health authorities in case of a suspected case of food-borne illness.

The military base where I spent most of my time as a conscript was an active air defense installation, part of the country’s peacetime air defense network. Nonetheless, they had a chronic shortage of officers, which meant that many tasks that would normally have been assigned to commissioned or non-commissioned officers were instead handed to us conscripts. Once they learned that I had some knowledge of how a kitchen is run, I was frequently assigned kitchen duty: No, not washing dishes (though I did that, too, in the early months of my service) but as kitchen supervisor, responsible for everything including obtaining the needed ingredients from our food storage (run by a civilian employee) and taking samples. It was a surprisingly educational experience.

Or how about the time when I was tasked with ordering… a freight train? Not just any train, mind you, but a specialized train (and route) to carry oversize equipment (our large Ural trucks that carried radar equipment and electronics) with a larger-than-standard cross-section to the USSR border, to participate in some international war games exercise. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go myself, my participation was limited to a journey to the regional headquarters of Hungary’s national railway company, where I had to patiently, and correctly, explain to the person responsible what kind of train we needed and why.

I also did minor tasks such as keeping the base’s one and only television set (an aging color set, a Videoton Color Star television, a mostly Soviet design I was told) alive. I was also responsible for the base’s movie projector, and I took weekly trips to Budapest to get a fresh movie on film, for movie night Mondays (back in the early 1980s, there was no television broadcast in Hungary on Mondays.)

The base where I served no longer exists. First, the military abandoned it. The municipality that inherited it tried to sell without much success, even as the facility was stripped, e.g., of nearly all metal bits by (I presume) metal thieves. Someone took a walk around the base in the early 2000s and put the resulting video on YouTube; it looked almost like parts of the city of Pripyat, near Chernobyl, except that in this case, I was looking at a building that I remembered very well personally, having spent some nine months of my life there.

In the end, the entire facility was demolished, to make way for a solar energy farm, if memory serves me correctly.

All that is to say that I was quite surprised, pleasantly I might add, when I discovered the other day that back in 2022, the local municipality decided to install a small memorial plaque thanking all those who served there in defense of Hungary’s airspace. The cynic in me was wondering if there was any profit in this act (it was, after all, partially financed by the EU, it says so on the plaque itself) even as I actually felt a bit of gratitude that our service was not completely unnoticed after all.

What can I say? The plaque is actually quite nice. I might even visit the spot some day.

 Posted by at 4:34 pm
Jan 102024

Here are the first few lines of a program I wrote over 40 years ago, an early attempt to model a massively parallel processor architecture.

No, the program is nothing special. And there are much better ways to create practical multiprocessor/multicore systems. The reason why I copy-pasted this image here has to do with something else: the fact that it was written in the Pascal programming language.

Pascal was just one of the many creations of one of the giants of computer science, Niklaus Wirth.

I learned yesterday that Wirth, who was born back in 1934, passed away on January 1.

 Posted by at 10:31 pm
Jan 042024

Looking at this image by Kyodo News showing the wreck of that Airbus 350 that burnt to a cinder at Haneda Airport the other day, I continue to feel astonished that not only did everyone survive, most of the almost 400 passengers were not even injured!

Photo taken from a Kyodo News helicopter on Jan. 3, 2024, shows a Japan Airlines plane a day after it caught fire on a runway at Haneda airport in Tokyo following a collision with a Japan Coast Guard aircraft while landing. (Kyodo)

It really boggles the mind. I hope that the JAL flight crew who facilitated what, for all intents and purposes, was a textbook successful evacuation from a severely damaged, burning aircraft, will get the recognition they deserve.

Although unwelcome, it was also a good test of the A350 airframe and its ability to protect passengers long enough for a successful evacuation.

 Posted by at 1:08 am