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 medium.com 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
Aug 302020
 

One thing follows another…

I’m listening to old MP3 files on my computer, one of which contains this once popular song by Paper Lace, The Night Chicago Died.

I once read that the band knew nothing about Chicago’s geography; I checked again on the Wikipedia page dedicated to this song.

The page mentions, among other things, how then Chicago mayor Daley hated the song. Daley? The same Daley who demolished Meigs Field airport, the island airport serving downtown Chicago that was the starting location of Microsoft Flight Simulator for many years?

Indeed. (Well, almost. There were two Daleys, father and son, Richard J and Richard M.) And Wikipedia tells me that the island has indeed since been turned into a park and nature preserve. But there are few pictures, so I figured I’d check it out using Google Maps.

So I typed Chicago into Google Maps and was greeted with this message in response:

I don’t know but this seems… a tad embarrassing isn’t it. Unless of course Chicago actually did die last night, and was promptly removed from Google Maps in response.

But no, Chicago is still there. The Google Maps thing was just a glitch. As is Northerly Island, which once hosted that ill-fated airport, its future as uncertain as it has always been in the past century or so.

 Posted by at 5:21 pm
Aug 292020
 

My mind just got blown.

The reason? Photographs like this one:

No, it’s not photoshop. Nor is it a movie prop.

Back in the 1950s, 1960s, early 1970s there really was regular bus service connecting the city of London, United Kingdom, with Calcutta (now Kolkata), India.

It really blew my mind. What a ride! Traveling through Belgium, West Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, West Pakistan (now Pakistan), and finally, India.

I think what really blew my mind was not that the roads were there. Of course. But that a bus, obviously from a Western capital, carrying unarmed passengers, could safely travel through this route. Sure, passengers needed a multitude of visas, even crossing the Iron Curtain (twice!) but nonetheless, the route had to be safe enough, roadside services had to be reliable enough, and the authorities along the route had to be trustworthy enough for a bus operator to be able to offer this regularly scheduled service.

Of course things didn’t stay that way. The India-Pakistan border has become less open each passing year. Afghanistan went to hell in a handbasket with the Soviet occupation, the Taliban, the American invasion in the wake of 9/11. Iran turned into a theocracy with the Islamic revolution. Yugoslavia went up in flames in a bloody civil war. Today, it would be quite impossible* to organize reliable bus service from London to Kolkata.

I cannot help but wonder what it must have been like, for a child in Kolkata, Kabul, Lahore or Tehran, looking at this bus and imagining that faraway, fabulous city of London. I used to feel that sense of awe a little when, as a child in behind-the-iron-curtain Budapest, I saw trains departing the railway station for faraway, magical places like Vienna or Paris; but those were a lot closer, a lot more accessible to us in Budapest than London must have been to a 6-year old on Kabul or Lahore in 1969.


*Or maybe not: Apparently there is an effort under way to establish a bus route, with a gigantic detour through Myanmar, Thailand, China and Russia. I wish them luck.

 Posted by at 1:34 am
Aug 252020
 

I keep reading about ancient Rome. Part of the reason, of course, is that every so often, looking in particular at American politics, I wonder if we are witnessing history repeating itself.

But there was a lot more to ancient Rome than politics and palace intrigue.

Take their roads. They knew how to build roads! Holy Roman macaroni, some of the roads built two thousands years ago are still in use!

I don’t know if Roman roads represented the first properly engineered road network in history, but they certainly were properly engineered.

And there were a lot of roads in ancient Rome. Apparently, they had some 80,000 km of paved roads, and several hundred thousand kilometers of additional roadways criss-crossing the realm.

An Internet data scientist and cartographer, Sasha Trubetskoy, created a fantastic map of the major Roman roadways in the style of modern subway maps.

It truly is amazing that two thousand years ago, it was possible to circumnavigate the Mediterranean via paved roads and regular service stations, making it possible for a determined traveler to travel several hundred kilometers in a day.

 Posted by at 4:15 pm
Aug 162020
 

Moments ago, as I was about to close Microsoft Visio after editing a drawing, I was confronted with the following question:

Do you want to save earth?

Needless to say, I felt morally obliged to click Save.

In case you are wondering, yes, the file was indeed named earth.vsdx.

 Posted by at 10:32 pm
Aug 132020
 

There is a new, popular meme on the Interwebs showing how supporters of the Republican Party twist and distort the political positions of Democrats. The meme is not wrong. In fact, on many of the issues it is spot on. Nonetheless, as a friend of mine to whom I forwarded it pointed out, it is rather one-sided.

My friend has a point. It is not a false equivalency. Positions that Republicans hold dear are distorted just as often by their political opponents. Here is my version of the original meme along with my attempt to create its “mirror universe” variant:

My point with this is not that one side is superior to the other. Not even that a moral equivalency exists between the two. It is simply to stress how badly American politics embraced the tactic of demonization and how, from either side’s perspective, their political opponents now represent a greater threat to life, liberty and the American way of life than Kim from North Korea, the ayatollahs of Iran, Daesh, Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China and the COVID-19 pandemic combined.

Which, of course, is nonsense. People can be patriots and hold different political opinions, both in the United States and elsewhere.

 Posted by at 12:50 pm
Aug 082020
 

A popular Internet meme these days is to present an arithmetic expression like, say, 6/3(4−2) and ask the poor souls who follow you to decide the right answer. Soon there will be two camps, each convinced that they know the truth and that the others are illiterate fools: According to one camp, the answer is 4, whereas the other camp will swear that it has to be 1.

In reality it is neither. Or both. Flip a coin, take your pick. There is no fundamental mathematical truth hidden here. It all boils down to human conventions. The standard convention is that multiplication and division have the same precedence and are evaluated from left to right: So 6/3×(4−2) is pretty unambiguous. But there is another, unwritten convention that when the multiplication sign is omitted, the implied multiplication is assumed to have a higher precedence.

Precisely because of these ambiguities, when you see actual professionals, mathematicians or physicists, write down an expression like this, they opt for clarity: they write, say, (6/3)(4−2) or 6/[3(4−2)] precisely so as to avoid any misunderstanding. Or better yet, they use proper math typesetting software such as LaTeX and write 2D formulas.

 Posted by at 5:46 pm
Aug 062020
 

I know, I know, the idea is far from original, and I feel compelled to apologize for turning tragedies into a form of dark humor but still, this calendar that I made last night accurately sums up how I feel about this glorious year of 2020:

And I didn’t even include everything (e.g., BLM protests and accompanying riots). But then, there are nearly five more months to go… plenty of time for more stuff to happen, even without aliens or killer asteroids. Or a massive second wave of COVID-19 infections.

Yes, let’s just say, I am mildly concerned.

 Posted by at 5:29 pm
Aug 052020
 

A tragedy took place in Beirut yesterday.

The actual power of the massive explosion is yet to be estimated accurately (probably not quite as large as the largest non-nuclear, accidental explosion that took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia 103 years ago though it comes close), but the images and videos are horrifying.

Reportedly, windows were shattered as far as 25 kilometers away from the epicenter.

The audio on one of the many videos showing the moment of the explosion accurately captures the event: “What the actual fuck?” asks a woman’s voice incredulously.

In light of the scope of the disaster, I expect that the final death toll will far exceed the 78 deceased that we know about for now.

It now appears that it was an industrial accident: welding work setting off a fire that in turn spread to a warehouse where thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate was stored.

Naturally, it didn’t prevent America’s “stable genius” from talking about an “attack”. When asked, he even referred to his “generals” who, according to him, told him that it was likely an attack.

I have no doubt that he made it all up on the spot. But his pronouncement had predictable consequences. It was like pouring oil on the fire, as it gave an excuse for every closet antisemite to come out and spread the conspiracy theory that it was an attack by Israel. Twitter accounts spreading this inflammatory nonsense include a Robert de Niro parody account; for a brief moment, I thought it was the real Robert de Niro, which would have been terribly disappointing.

Wildfires in Australia, locusts in Africa, a global pandemic, widespread racial riots in the United States, “murder hornets” spreading in North America… The Internet was already full of joke calendars for this year with disaster memes, as well as speculation that perhaps that infamous Mayan calendar was misinterpreted, as it referred to 2020, not 2012. In light of this catastrophe in Beirut, I am inclined to ask, what next? Alien invasion? The Yellowstone caldera? Global thermonuclear war? Giant asteroid impact? I won’t even try to guess, just note that we still have nearly five months left of this year.

 Posted by at 1:30 am
Aug 022020
 

For years now, Microsoft’s support site, answers.microsoft.com, has been annoying the hell out of me.

It’s not that they aren’t trying. Their intentions are, well… how does the saying go about the road to hell?

Take today, for instance, when Windows Update gave me an error message that I have never seen before: “We could not complete the install because an update service was shutting down”. What the bleep? Why causes this? How do I fix it?

A quick Google search led me to the aforementioned Microsoft support site. I was, of course, hoping to see a solution there.

A volunteer moderator offers a marginally useful reply: Check if the Windows Update service is set to automatic, and/or try to manually install the update in question.

An independent advisor asks what version of Windows caused the issue.

Another independent advisor, who sounds like a bot, advises several methods: 1) run the Windows Update troubleshooter, 2) download the latest service pack manually, 3) download the latest updates manually, 4) fix file corruption, or 5) in-place upgrade Windows from a DVD.

Needless to say, I wasn’t planning to run manual updates or reinstall Windows. I was simply hoping to see if perhaps there was an explanation of what might have caused this error and any specific recommendations, before taking the one obvious step that was not mentioned by any of the responders: open the Task Manager, click the Services tab, right-click the Windows Update service (wuauserv) and click Restart.

Why is it so hard to, you know, refrain from answering a question unless you actually know the bleeping answer?

Reminds me of why I never really liked unmoderated Usenet newsgroups. At least on answers.microsoft.com, you don’t get answers like “what kind of an idiot still uses Windows” or “you must be a fool, installing updates”.

 Posted by at 7:21 pm
Jul 312020
 

A few weeks ago, Christian Ready published a beautiful video on his YouTube channel, Launch Pad Astronomy. In this episode, he described in detail how the Solar Gravitational Lens (SGL) works, and also our efforts so far.

I like this video very much. Especially the part that begins at 10:28, where Christian describes how the SGL can be used for image acquisition. The entire video is well worth seeing, but this segment in particular does a better job than we were ever able to do with words alone, explaining how the Sun projects an image of a distant planet to a square kilometer sized area, and how this image is scanned, one imaginary pixel at a time, by measuring the brightness of the Einstein-ring around the Sun as seen from each pixel location.

We now understand this process well, but many more challenges remain. These include, in no particular order, deviations of the Sun from spherical symmetry, minor variations in the brightness of the solar corona, the relative motion of the observing probe, Sun, exosolar system and target planet therein, changing illumination of the target, rotation of the target, changing surface features (weather, perhaps vegetation) of the target, and the devil knows what else.

Even so, lately I have become reasonably confident, based on my own simulation work and our signal-to-noise estimates, as well as a deconvolution approach under development that takes some of the aforementioned issues into consideration, that a high-resolution image of a distant planet is, in fact, obtainable using the SGL.

A lot more work remains. The fun only just began. But I am immensely proud to be able to contribute to of this effort.

 Posted by at 7:41 pm
Jul 162020
 

I met Gabor David back in 1982 when I became a member of the team we informally named F451 (inspired by Ray Bradbury of course.) Gabor was a close friend of Ferenc Szatmari. Together, they played an instrumental role in establishing a business relationship between the Hungarian firm Novotrade and its British partner, Andromeda, developing game programs for the Commodore 64.

In the months and years that followed, we spent a lot of time working together. I was proud to enjoy Gabor’s friendship. He was very knowledgeable, and also very committed to our success. We had some stressful times, to be sure, but also a lot of fun, frantic days (and many nights!) spent working together.

I remember Gabor’s deep, loud voice, with a slight speech impediment, a mild case of rhotacism. His face, too, I can recall with almost movie like quality.

He loved coffee more than I thought possible. He once dropped by at my place, not long after I managed to destroy my coffee maker, a stovetop espresso that I accidentally left on the stove for a good half hour. Gabor entered with the words, “Kids, do you have any coffee?” I tried to explain to him that the devil’s brew in that carafe was a bitter, undrinkable (and likely unhealthy) blend of burnt coffee and burnt rubber, but to no avail: he gulped it down like it was nectar.

After I left Hungary in 1986, we remained in sporadic contact. In fact, Gabor helped me with a small loan during my initial few weeks on Austria; for this, I was very grateful.

When I first visited Hungary as a newly minted Canadian citizen, after the collapse of communism there, Gabor was one of the few close friends that I sought out. I was hugely impressed. Gabor was now heading a company called Banknet, an international joint venture bringing business grade satellite-based Internet service to the country.

When our friend Ferenc was diagnosed with lung cancer, Gabor was distraught. He tried to help Feri with financing an unconventional treatment not covered by insurance. I pitched in, too. It was not enough to save Feri’s life: he passed away shortly thereafter, a loss I still feel more than two decades later.

My last conversation with Gabor was distressing. I don’t really remember the details, but I did learn that he suffered a stroke, and that he was worried that he would be placed under some form of guardianship. Soon thereafter, I lost touch; his phone number, as I recall, was disconnected and Gabor vanished.

Every so often, I looked for him on the Internet, on social media, but to no avail. His name is not uncommon, and moreover, as his last name also doubles as a first name for many, searches bring up far too many false positives. But last night, it occurred to me to search for his name and his original profession: “Dávid Gábor” “matematikus” (mathematician).

Jackpot, if it can be called that. One of the first hits that came up was a page from Hungary’s John von Neumann Computer Society, their information technology history forum, to be specific: a short biography of Gabor, together with his picture.

And from this page I learned that Gabor passed away almost six years ago, on November 10, 2014, at the age of 72.

Well… at least I now know. It has been a privilege knowing you, Gabor, and being able to count you among my friends. I learned a lot from you, and I cherish all those times that we spent working together.

 Posted by at 2:04 pm
Jul 162020
 

Seventy-five years ago this morning, a false dawn greeted the New Mexico desert near Alamagordo.

At 5:29 AM in the morning, the device informally known as “the gadget” exploded.

“The gadget” was a plutonium bomb with the explosive power of about 22 kilotons of TNT. It was the first nuclear explosion on planet Earth. It marked the beginning of the nuclear era.

I can only imagine what it must have been like, being part of that effort, being present in the pre-dawn hours, back in 1945. The war in Europe just ended. The war in the Pacific was still raging. This was the world’s first high technology war, fought over the horizon, fought with radio waves, and soon, to be fought with nuclear power. Yet there were so many unknowns! The Trinity test was the culmination of years of frantic effort. The outcome was by no means assured, yet the consequences were clear to all: a successful test would mean that war would never be the same. The world would never be the same.

And then, the most surreal of things happens: minutes before the planned detonation, in the pre-dawn darkness, the intercom system picks up a faint signal from a local radio station, and music starts playing. It’s almost as if reality was mimicking the atmosphere of yet-to-be-invented computer games.

When the explosion happened, the only major surprise was that the detonation was much brighter than anyone had expected. Otherwise, things unfolded pretty much as anticipated. “The gadget” worked. Success cleared the way to the deployment of the (as yet untested) simpler uranium bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima three weeks later, followed by the twin of the Trinity gadget, which ended up destroying much of Nagasaki. The human cost was staggering, yet we must not forget that it would have been dwarfed by the costs of a ground invasion of the Japanese home islands. It was a means to shorten the war, a war not started by the United States. No responsible commander-in-chief could have made a decision other than the one Truman made when he approved the use of the weapons against Imperial Japan.

And perhaps the horrors seen in those two cities played a role in creating a world in which the last use of a nuclear weapon in anger occurred nearly 75 years ago, on August 9, 1945. No one would have predicted back then that there will be no nuclear weapons deployed in war in the coming three quarters of a century. Yet here we are, in 2020, struggling with a pandemic, struggling with populism and other forces undermining our world order, yet still largely peaceful, living in a golden age unprecedented in human history.

Perhaps Trinity should serve as a reminder that peace and prosperity can be fragile.

 Posted by at 12:52 pm
Jul 112020
 

Today’s editorial cartoon in the Toronto Star perfectly captures how many Canadians, myself included, feel about the Canada-US border:

What can I say. Things are not looking good in Trumpia. In fact, things are looking so bad that after months of denial, even the narcissist-in-chief decided to wear a bleeping mask today while visiting a hospital.

I have been trying to remember why the American attitudes towards COVID-19 felt vaguely but strangely familiar. It just hit me. It was the 1970s oil crisis, and the general attitude by leaders in the former Soviet Bloc. This was a crisis of the decadent capitalist West, they told us. The pandemic of fuel shortages, mile long lines at gas stations, high energy prices would not reach us, they told us. Well… they were wrong. Just like those Americans who refuse to wear masks, who refuse to take precautions, who refuse to accept the need to shut down nonessential businesses, because, you know, it’s just like a bad case of the flu…

 Posted by at 11:49 pm
Jul 092020
 

This may not be an all-time record-breaking day according to Environment Canada (supposedly, the peak temperature today at Ottawa Airport was 34.8 C at 2 PM) but it sure is hot.

You could be forgiven if you thought that this measurement is of the body temperature of a COVID-19 patient with mild symptoms, not the outdoor temperature on our balcony, measured in the shade:

As I said… really hot. Praise be to air conditioning.

 Posted by at 4:25 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