Dec 112023
 

A welcome sight: A seemingly civilized discussion between Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Viktor Orban.

Of course “frank” in the language of diplomacy can mean many things, but if their posture is any indication, the conversation might have been mutually respectful, perhaps even productive. Moments like this have been known in the past to break the ice where more formal encounters led nowhere. One can only hope…

 Posted by at 11:11 am
Dec 092023
 

I am looking at the summary by Reuters of the European Union’s proposed regulatory framework for AI.

I dreaded this: incompetent politicians, populist opportunists, meddling in things that they themselves don’t fully understand, regulating things that need no regulation while not paying attention to the real threats.

Perhaps I was wrong.

Of course, as always, the process moves at a snail’s pace. By the time the new regulations are expected to come into force, 2026, the framework will likely be hopelessly obsolete.

Still: Light transparency requirements as a general principle, severe restrictions on the use of AI for law enforcement and surveillance, strict regulation for high-risk systems… I am compelled to admit, the attitude this reflects makes a surprising amount of good sense.

Almost as if the framework was crafted by an AI…

 Posted by at 11:57 am
Dec 072023
 

Today, December 7, marks the 82nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Discussion of the Pacific War inevitably leads to discussion of the morality and necessity of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I have long argued, and continue to argue, that it was the only acceptable decision for Harry Truman to make back during the fateful summer of 1945. And I just came across an unusual data point that supports my argument: the manufacture of Purple Hearts.

Wikipedia tells us that the Purple Heart is a US military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving. Needless to say, Purple Hearts must have been in high demand during the war years, between 1941-1945. The decorations obviously need to be manufactured, and that means the US government placing an order for them in anticipation of casualties during any conflict.

And it was an order of stunning magnitude that they placed in 1944-1945, anticipating the invasion of Japan: Something like half a million Purple Hearts were stockpiled. As a result of this and other unused stocks, it was not until the year 2000 that the US government ordered a new supply, and the old supply, though running low, remains in existence to this date.

So imagine that you are the newly minted president of the United States, after your former boss, Roosevelt, dies. You are informed that your government just completed an astonishing effort to create an immensely powerful new weapon, and it is ready for deployment. You are facing a ruthless enemy: Let’s not forget that the Empire of Japan was no less genocidal than Hitler’s regime, perhaps in some ways even more so (look up Unit 731 on Wikipedia if you have the stomach for it.) Perhaps they are ready to surrender. Perhaps not. But until they are, they remain the enemy. You don’t have the benefit of hindsight. You know what you know and it’s July 1945.

How could you NOT order tactical deployment of the new weapon? As opposed to keeping it in reserve or worse yet, wasting one for a theatrical “demonstration”? Wouldn’t that be an open betrayal of the American servicemen fighting in the Pacific theater? An almost treasonous act?

Yes, there were dissenting voices. But, lest we forget, the conventional bombing campaigns were just as brutal on the civilian population as the nuclear bombs, perhaps even more so. The firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo serve as splendid examples of just what the Allied powers were able and willing to do to enemy cities and their civilian population. Of course there was dissent. Americans are not without conscience, and senior political and military leaders in 1945 were no exception. But it was not until the 1960s that questioning the morality of the use of these weapons became… fashionable.

Yet here we are, more than 78 years later, and not a single nuclear weapon was used in anger ever since. That’s not an iron clad guarantee of course, but at least a ray of hope. Perhaps Hiroshima and Nagasaki achieved more than help bring an end to the War in the Pacific. Perhaps they also helped shape our public perception of nuclear war as the pinnacle of abhorrence.

In the meantime, though, if anyone wonders about the morality of Truman’s decision, perhaps it’s a good idea to contemplate the half million (give or take) surplus Purple Hearts.

 Posted by at 9:41 pm
Dec 062023
 

A few days ago, I came across an article that described a remarkable paper, published in the USSR more than 50 years ago, with predictions on climate change.

Predictions that proved remarkably prescient.

I first read about Mikhail Budyko’s article in a recent review, published on EOS three years ago. What caught my attention, in particular, was Fig. 1 of that article, reproduced below, that shows just how spot on Budyko’s predictions happen to be.

Budyko’s 1972 predictions (solid gray lines) of a) surface temperature and b) changes in Arctic sea ice, compared to observational data from NASA Goddard and IPCC predictions.

Naturally, I wanted to see the original reference, which proved harder than I expected. While it was cited many times, the paper was almost impossible to find. Although I did locate it in an online Russian library, it was only an index entry, with the (unscanned) copy available only for reading in person.

But then… Fortunate favors the… foolish? Persistent? I stumbled upon a 2020 Russian-language publication containing full reprints of several papers by Mikhail Budyko, including the paper in question.

I took it upon myself then to translate the paper in its entirety, with help from one of our AI friends. (AI can do a remarkable job translating technically challenging content, much better than dedicated translation software, albeit some supervision is required.)

Yes, Budyko indeed accurately predicted human-induced climate change. His concerns about rapid changes, “tipping points” are also well-justified. Notably, his work was written before climate change became political football. It’s the work of an excellent climate scientist, not a political hack.

 Posted by at 11:57 pm
Dec 052023
 

Now that Roy Kerr’s paper on black holes and singularities is on arXiv, I am sure I’ll be asked about it again, just as I have been asked about it already on Quora.

Roy Kerr, of course, is one of the living legends of relativity theory. His axisymmetric solution, published in the year of my birth, was the first new solution in nearly half a century after Karl Schwarzschild published his famous solution for a spherically symmetric, static, vacuum spacetime. I hesitate to be critical of this manuscript since chances are that Kerr is right and I am wrong.

Kerr now argues that the singularity theorems are nonsense, and that his axisymmetric solution actually hides some nonsingular configuration of matter therein.

At a first glance, the paper seems well written and robust. Still… when I dug into it, there are a few things that caught my attention, and not in a right way. First, the paper takes argument with “singularity believers” using language that almost sounds like pseudoscience. Second, it has some weird factual errors. E.g., it asserts that black holes “as large as 100 billion solar masses have been observed by the James Webb Telescope” (not even close). Or, it describes the famous Oppenheimer-Snyder paper of 1939 as having “used linear, nineteenth century ideas on how matter behaves under extreme pressures” (actually, Oppenheimer and Snyder discuss the collapse of a “dust” solution with negligible pressure using the tools of general relativity with rigor). Kerr further criticizes the Oppenheimer-Snyder paper as attempting “to ‘prove’ that the ensuing metric is still singular”, even though that paper says nothing about the metric’s singularity, only that the collapsing star will eventually reach its “gravitational radius” (i.e., the Schwarzschild radius). Nonetheless, later Kerr doubles down by writing that “Oppenheimer and Snyder proved that the metric collapses to a point,” whereas the closest the actual Oppenheimer-Snyder paper comes to this is describing collapsing stars as stars “which cannot end in a stable stationary state”.

Never mind, let’s ignore these issues as they may not be relevant to Kerr’s argument after all. His main argument is basically that Penrose and Hawking deduced the necessary presence of singularities from the existence of light rays of finite affine length; i.e., light rays that, in some sense, terminate (presumably at the singularity). Kerr says that no, the ring singularity inside a Kerr black hole, for instance, may just be an idealized substitute for a rotating neutron star.

Now Kerr has an interesting point here. Take the Schwarzschild metric. It is a vacuum solution of general relativity, but it also accurately describes the gravitational field outside any static, spherically symmetric distribution of matter in the vacuum. So a Schwarzschild solution does not imply an event horizon or a singularity: they can be replaced by an extended, gravitating body that has no singularities whatsoever so long as the radius of the body is greater than the Schwarzschild radius associated with its mass. The gravitational field of the Earth is also well described by Schwarzschild outside the Earth. So in my reading, the crucial question Kerr raises is this: Is it possible that once we introduce matter inside the event horizon of a Kerr black hole, perhaps that can eliminate the interior Cauchy horizon or, at the very least, the ring singularity that it hides?

I don’t think that is the case, and here is why. Between the two horizons of a Kerr black hole, the “radial” coordinate is now the timelike coordinate, with the future pointing “inward”, i.e., towards the Cauchy horizon. That means that particles of matter do not have trajectories that would allow them to avoid the Cauchy horizon; no matter what path they follow, they will reach that horizon in finite proper time.

Inside the Cauchy horizon, anything goes, since closed timelike curves exist. So presumably, it might even be possible for particles of matter to travel back and forth between the past and the future, never hitting the ring singularity. But that’s not what Kerr is suggesting in his paper; he’s not talking about acausal worldlines inside the Cauchy horizon, but some “nonsingular interior star”. I don’t see how to make sense of that suggestion, because I don’t see how a stationary configuration of matter could exist inside the inner horizon. Wobbling back-and-forth between yesterday and tomorrow in a closed timelike loop is not a stationary configuration!

For these reasons, even as I am painfully aware that I am arguing with a Roy Kerr so there’s a darn good chance that he’s right and I’m spouting nonsense, I must say that I remain unconvinced by his paper. The language he uses (e.g., describing the business of singularities as “dogma”) is not helping either. Also, his description of the interior of the rotating black hole sounds a bit off; to use his own words, “nineteenth century” reasoning, much more so than the Oppenheimer-Snyder paper that he criticizes.

 Posted by at 7:31 pm
Dec 022023
 

I just came across a quote attributed to Einstein: “If I had foreseen Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I would have torn up my formula in 1905.

The problem with this quote is that it is utter nonsense, and not something Einstein likely would have said, ever.

An image of Einstein that is just as real as some of the quotes attributed to him. Courtesy of Midjourney.

The “formula” of mass-energy equivalence simply states that an object’s resistance to motion (its inertia) is proportional to its energy-content. That is all. Yes, I know that in the popular imagination, \(E=mc^2\) is frequently associated with the nuclear age. But that’s nonsense. \(E=mc^2\) is not about “converting” anything into anything. Mass-energy is mass-energy, and it is conserved. Whether it is in the form of the nuclear binding energy of a uranium atom (or for that matter, the chemical binding energy of carbon atoms in a fireplace log) or in the form of the kinetic energy of photons released by a nuclear or chemical reaction has absolutely nothing to do with \(E=mc^2\): the formula does not explain nuclear fission any more than it explains the chemical reactions that govern the burning of wood.

But then, what about this quote, which appears in a number of reliable places, including Wikiquotes?

It is attributed to a book published by a William Hermanns, who supposedly interviewed Einstein on a number of occasions between the late 1920s and Einstein’s death in 1955.

The person appears real. I found, in Google’s archive, the May 2, 1955 issue of Life, which includes a personal recollection of one of Life’s own editors, William Miller, of his very last visit to Einstein, when he actually met William Hermanns.

Hermanns’s book, Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man, is also real: In fact, it even has a Kindle edition.

But… how much of it is true?

Considering that Hermanns has an exceptional biography (which one can read on a Web site dedicated to his life) it is more than a bit odd that the only references to his name in Wikipedia are Einstein-related. Yet his name does not appear in notable Einstein biographies, including Abraham Pais’s definitive scientific biography, or Walter Isaacson’s exceptionally good Einstein bio.

When I read the few pages of Hermanns’s book that are available as a Kindle preview, I grow even more suspicious. For instance, according to Hermanns, already in 1927 Einstein was “marked by Nazis as ‘Enemy number One of the Nation,’ and the object of at least seven plots to take his life.” News to me.

But then, Hermanns goes on to quote Einstein who supposedly said, “When I was about five, my father gave me a compass as a toy. I wanted to find out why the needle never deviated […] When I asked my uncle, an engineer, he immediately proceeded to teach me some fundamentals of algebra, with this advice: ‘What you don’t know, call x, then hunt til you find what it is.’ From that time on, I have called everything I didn’t know x, especially magnetism.

As I asked ChatGPT just moments ago, can you imagine Einstein saying these words, in 1927, to a stranger who just visited him?

Long story short, I don’t know what to think. Based on what I have read, I do not believe Hermanns’s accounts of his conversations with Einstein are credible. At the very least, they must be severely distorted versions of Einstein’s words, probably deeply colored, warped by Hermanns’s imagination. For what it’s worth, ChatGPT concurs: “The lack of independent verification and recognition in authoritative sources casts doubt on the accuracy and credibility of his accounts. Your reservations about accepting Hermanns’ narratives as factual are well-founded.”

 Posted by at 11:32 pm
Dec 012023
 

Well, here it is, a local copy of a portable large language and visual model. An everywhere-run executable in a mere 4 GB. Here’s my first test, with a few random questions and an image (one of my favorite Kliban cartoons) to analyze:

Now 4.57 tokens per second is not exactly fast but hey, it runs on my 7-year old workstation, with no GPU acceleration, and yet, its performance is more than decent.

How is this LLM different from GPT or Claude? Well, it requires no subscription, no Internet connection. It is entirely self-contained, and fast enough to run on run-of-the-mill PC hardware.

 Posted by at 12:12 am
Nov 302023
 

I made some mistakes in the past. I never made a half-a-billion dollar mistake.

Neither did Chris Lewicki, but he came awfully close.

I just read this delightful account of how Lewicki almost fried the innards of the Spirit rover, destined for Mars, during an engineering test that took place just weeks before the rover was launched.

I can only imagine the sinking feeling in his stomach he must have felt when he thought that the rover was ruined. My mistakes never came close in value, but the sensation is uncomfortably familiar.

Fortunately, in his case, the disaster never actually materialized. In simple terms, yes, he plugged a cord into the wrong outlet, but fortunately, the other end of the cord was not plugged in.

To this day, Lewicki must feel like one of the luckiest persons on the planet.

The illustration is from his blog post, but its appearance suggests that it might have been produced by DALL-E. Or maybe Midjourney or Stable Diffusion? The style looks very reminiscent of AI-produced cartoon images.

 Posted by at 6:17 pm
Nov 302023
 

So the other day, as I was doing a Google Search (can’t exactly remember what it was that I was searching for but it was machine learning related), up pops this invitation to participate in a challenge.

Turned out to be the Google Foobar challenge, Google’s secret recruiting tool. (Its existence is not really a secret, so I am not really revealing any great secrets here.)

Though I have no plans to become a Google employee (and I doubt they’re interested in me on account of my age anyway) I decided to go through the challenge because, well, it’s hard to say no to a challenge, and it was an opportunity to practice my Python skills (which need a lot of practice, because I have not yet used Python that much.)

Well, I did it. It was fun.

More importantly, I enjoyed it just as much as I enjoyed similar challenges as a math geek in my early teens. And if that’s not a gift from life, I don’t know what it is.

And yes, I am now much better at Python than I was just a few days ago. I certainly appreciate why the language has become popular, though I can also see its non-trivial pitfalls.

 Posted by at 6:03 pm
Nov 302023
 

This morning, like pretty much every morning, there was an invitation in my inbox to submit a paper to a journal that I never heard of previously.

Though the unsolicited e-mail by itself is often an indication that the journal is bogus, predatory, I try to be fair and give them the benefit of the doubt, especially if the invitation is from a journal that is actually related to my fields of study. (All too often, it is not; I’ve received plenty of invitations from “journals” in the medical, social, biological, etc., sciences, subjects on which I have no professional expertise.)

So what are the signs that I am looking for? Well, I check what they published recently. That’s usually a good indication of what to expect from a journal. So when I read a title that says, say, “Using black holes as rechargeable batteries and nuclear reactors,” I kind of know what to expect.

Oh wait. That particular paper appears to have been accepted for publication by Physical Review D.

Seriously, what is the world of physics coming to? What is the world of scientific publishing, by and large, coming to? Am I being unfair? Just to be sure, I fed the full text of the paper on black hole batteries to GPT-4 Turbo and asked the AI to assess it as a reviewer:

 Posted by at 11:06 am
Nov 222023
 

Watching things unfold at OpenAI, the company behind ChatGPT, these past several days was… interesting, to say the least.

I thought about posting a blog entry on Monday, but decided to wait as I was sure there was more to come. I was not disappointed.

First, they fire Sam Altman, in a move that is not unlike what happens to the Game of Thrones character Jon Snow at the end of Season 5. (Yes, I am a latecomer to GoT. I am currently watching Season 6, Episode 3.)

Then several other key executives quit, including the company president, Greg Brockman.

Then, the Board that fired Altman apparently makes noises that they might welcome him back.

But no, Altman and Brockman instead joined Microsoft after, I am guessing, Nadella made them an offer they could not refuse.

Meanwhile, in an open revolt, the majority of OpenAI’s employees signed a letter demanding the resignation of the company’s Board of Directors, threatening to quit otherwise.

The authors of CNN’s Reliable Sources newsletter were not the only ones asking, “What on Earth is going on at OpenAI?”

As if to answer that question, OpenAI rehired Altman as CEO, and fired most of their Board.

The New Yorker‘s take on the “AI revolution”

Meanwhile, some speculate that the fundamental reason behind this is not some silly corporate power play or ego trips but rather, genuine concern that OpenAI might be on the threshold of releasing the genie from the bottle: the genie called AGI, artificial general intelligence, that is.

I can’t wait. AGI may do stupid things but I think it’d have to work real hard to be dumber than us humans.

 Posted by at 3:43 pm
Nov 202023
 

I am not Jewish. My family is not Jewish.

My father’s first wife, however, was Jewish. His son from that first marriage, born decades before I was born, is Jewish and married a Jewish woman. My mother’s grandparents, though not Jewish, worked for a Jewish family at the turn of the last century, and lived in their household.

That might explain how it came to be that I grew up using expressions like “gott sei dank” or “na zag schon”, much to the amusement of some of my Jewish friends who know less Yiddish than I. Or why I have friends who had parents, siblings, aunts, nieces, spouses murdered in Auschwitz or shot into the Danube by the Hungarian Arrow Cross during the Holocaust.

No, that does not mean that suddenly I have a favorable opinion of Mr. Netanyahu (I don’t) or that I turn a blind eye when I see innocents suffer. I have criticized and will again criticize the government of Israel. In fact, for what it’s worth, I think Netanyahu is a crook, his pact with the far right is a poison pill for Israeli democracy, and that the outsize influence of the ultraorthodox is corrupting Israeli politics. Unfortunately I also do not see a long-term solution, an achievable goal: None of the foreseeable alternatives provide an acceptable outcome: The two-state solution undermines Israeli security, annexation would create an Arab-majority state, more drastic “solutions” like wholesale expulsion or genocide (of either Palestinians or Jews) are obviously unacceptable. So the status quo remains by default, even though it’s not exactly a solution either.

But “never again” must mean something. Failure to respond to the attack on October 6 would amount to the Israeli state abandoning its most basic responsibility to its citizens. It is the sad nature of war that when one party hides behind its civilians, civilians suffer. Notably, however, hiding behind civilians only works against a civilized opponent that abhors “collateral damage”: if Israel was as savage, as hell-bent on genocide as its enemies suggest, hiding behind civilians would not work as a Hamas tactic.

Earlier, I came across a meme that depicted a female Arab member of Israel’s Knesset, enumerating the rights she enjoys as a full citizen of Israel. I changed my mind about reusing that meme since I suspect that it was created without her approval. Even though she is a public figure, so using her image in this manner is arguably legitimate, it felt a bit tasteless.

Instead, let me just repost a propaganda meme straight from Israel’s defense forces.

It’s not even new; it dates back to 2014. And yes, it’s a propaganda piece. But like all good propaganda, it is based on the sad truth.

 Posted by at 1:01 pm
Nov 192023
 

So I am watching this political drama series, with almost daily new installments.

It’s about a world heading towards conflict, with one of the major powers in particular having recently voted out of office a would-be despot, a crooked, narcissistic businessman who became a politician mainly for self-glorification, preaching a populist message. Although he’s no longer in office, he remains popular, despite the fact that he also has several lawsuits (both civil and criminal) hanging over his head.

The current season will wrap up soon. I am having a feeling that the writers plan to bring him back next season and that, in fact, he’ll win the election again.

Portrait of a would-be despot, a crooked, narcissistic businessman, his thinning blond hair in a combover, with a fake tan, who became a politician mainly for self-glorification, preaching a populist message to a crowd of adoring followers

Pictured is Midjourney’s response to the prompt, “Portrait of a would-be despot, a crooked, narcissistic businessman, his thinning blond hair in a combover, with a fake tan, who became a politician mainly for self-glorification, preaching a populist message to a crowd of adoring followers“.

Oh wait, you’re telling me that this is NOT a scripted television series created for entertainment? That it is reality?

 Posted by at 9:53 pm
Nov 172023
 

“I am freer than you”. These were the defiant words of St. Petersburg artist Sasha Skochilenko as she was sentenced for five tiny pieces of paper, providing details about Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.

She used the five pieces of paper in question to replace price tags in a grocery store.

Among other things, she said in court, that [emphasis mine]

[…] I am unable to understand why we need military operations. Why are we doing this? Military actions shorten life. Military actions mean death.
You can call it anything you want. You can say I was mistaken, misled, or brainwashed. But I always stick to my opinion, my truth.
I don’t know anyone other than the state prosecutor who wants to put me in prison.
In fact, I think that deep down even the state prosecutor doesn’t want this. I think he became a prosecutor to imprison real criminals and miscreants — murderers, rapists, pedophiles.
[…]
You are worried about your career […] to give your children or your future children a head start. But what will you tell them? Will you tell them how you sent to prison an ailing woman because of five tiny pieces of paper?
[…]
Even though I am behind bars, I am freer than you. […] I am not afraid that I won’t have a dazzling career or of appearing funny, vulnerable, or strange. I’m not afraid of seeming different from other people. Maybe that is why the state fears me and others like me so much and keeps me in a cage like a dangerous animal.

What an incredibly brave woman. What a morally bankrupt state it is that imprisons someone for this “crime”.

 Posted by at 12:11 am
Nov 112023
 

The fate of animals in wars was often tragic. They served their human masters (and all too often, died with their human masters) faithfully.

One of the most touching war memorials I ever came across was the Animals in War memorial in Hyde Park, London, that I stumbled upon completely by accident, unaware of its existence. Not that the animals themselves care, but it’s nice that they are remembered. And as of 2012, Ottawa has its very own Animals in War memorial, in Confederation Park.

Neither of these memorials specifically mention cats, though, despite the fact that cats played no small a role in making the otherwise unbearable conditions a teeny bit more tolerable. Many were killed. Occasionally, they even helped save their masters’ lives.

Long story short, last night I asked Midjourney to depict a gentlecat, thinking about his lost comrades.

 Posted by at 12:45 pm
Nov 082023
 

Sometimes it feels… so pretentious.

Here I am, saying all sorts of clever things in my blog. I once declared blogs to be write-only media, my way of shouting at the world without the world saying anything in return, but that kind of ceased being true when I decided, eons ago, to share my blog posts on social media, where a few friends at least reacted occasionally.

So who do I think I am, proclaiming my wisdom to the world, really?

For instance, a few days ago I thought I’d blog about the first precision clock arriving in America centuries ago, and promptly failing, leading to a better understanding of how the gravitational acceleration on the surface of the Earth may change with geographic location. But is there anything I can add to the subject other than what’s in the article I am citing?

Or take this report from earlier today, about Singapore’s Prime Minister expressing very much the same concerns that I have about the world experiencing a moment of danger not unlike the moments before the Great War. OK, so I blog about it. Is there anything I can add other than, hey, look, I am ever so clever, even Singapore’s PM shares my views!?

I suppose I feel most comfortable blogging about my actual research or my work. These are subjects that I can address with some competence.

Or maybe just blog about cats. They know how to be wise and silent, after all.

Meanwhile, in the world of humans…

F-15s strike weapons facility in Syria

By Lauren C. Williams and Jennifer Hlad

ABOARD A MILITARY PLANE—Two U.S. F-15 fighter jets attacked a weapons storage facility in eastern Syria on Wednesday, in what Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called a “precision self-defense strike” in response “to a series of attacks against U.S. personnel in Iraq and Syria by the [Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps]-Quds Force” and related groups.

So I must now follow my cats’ example and resist the urge to blog about how the US and Iran might already be at war…

 Posted by at 9:51 pm
Nov 062023
 

Looking at this headline on CTV News this morning, you might have been wondering if our esteemed politicians have finally decided that they’ve had enough of us, this winter it’s time for the unwashed masses to freeze to death. No more home heating for you!

Fortunately that is not what the news was about. What the headline should have said was, “Calls for all home heating tax to be suspended”, referring to carbon taxes that apply to fuel, and the decision of the government to suspend this tax on home heating oil but not other home heating fuels.

Guess it was a little too early in the morning for some of CTV’s technicians this Monday! (Can’t really blame them. When does their workday begin anyway, 4 AM or something?)

 Posted by at 9:39 am
Nov 042023
 

I grew up on The Beatles.

OK, I came a little late I guess, as The Beatles broke up when I was in the second grade, and truly it wasn’t until the fifth grade that a classmate introduced me to the Red and Blue albums… But I fell in love with their music. I couldn’t believe that they were not together anymore, and like many young teens my age, I kept hoping that they’d reunite until Lennon was murdered.

I never stopped loving their songs.

What I did not expect was that I’d be listening to a new Beatles song almost 50 years later, in 2023.

I admit I was skeptical at first. I expected something that would bear a vague, soulless resemblance to what The Beatles used to be, a cheap attempt to cash in on their fame one very last time.

Instead, I was listening to an authentic Beatles song. One of their best, as a matter of fact. And I was looking at a video that brought Lennon and Harrison back to life, cheerful, funny, joyous, happy…

Bless Peter Jackson. There are “deepfakes” and then there are “deepfakes”… and I cannot think of a more appropriate, more respectful use of AI, bringing legends of the past back to life, as in this video.

I have listened to the song and watched Peter Jackson’s masterful creation at least five times in a row. And every time, I was almost in tears.

 Posted by at 6:53 pm
Nov 022023
 

Imagine the following sequence of events:

  • First, a second-rate power suffers a terrorist attack as part of a festering political crisis that has been going on for many years. This attack is the proverbial last drop in the bucket: they feel they must respond, and launch a punitive military expedition that may not be well planned and might even fail, despite their apparent superiority.
  • A rival second-rate power who supported the rebels that committed the terrorist act feels that it must intervene. Its voice has been ignored for far too long, and it has vital interests in the region.
  • A Great Power, in support of the first second-rate power as part of a long-standing alliance, steps in, reluctantly because they do not want to get embroiled in someone else’s war, but convinced that their actions are unavoidable.
  • Another Great Power, in reaction, steps in as well because it feels that it is necessary essential to do so in order to maintain the existing world order and their position therein.

What did I just describe? The October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas? The increasingly hostile response by Iran? A possible intervention by the United States assisting Israel, leading to direct conflict with Russia who are already active in the region and embroiled in conflict elsewhere?

Nope. I was describing something that happened 109 years ago, when Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princip murdered Austria-Hungary’s heir to the throne. Austria-Hungary’s punitive expedition against Serbia was launched in response. This led to Russia’s decision to enter the war, followed by the German Empire and ultimately, Britain.

Yet, though the analogy is far from perfect, the parallels are unmistakable. And to be honest, frightening.

This is why I don’t think of 10/7 as Israel’s 9/11. Nope. It’s our era’s Sarajevo.

We have been living in a golden era that has no precedent in human history. Pax Americana, which began in 1945 and was characterized by measures like the Marshall Plan that, instead of punishing Western Europe, helped the continent back onto its feet, has been keeping our world safe and prosperous for almost eight decades. No, not perfect, far from it. Millions still died in conflict. But it was millions, not billions, and the promised great conflict, a thermonuclear WW3, has not happened yet. Meanwhile, billions live in relative security, safety, and prosperity, enjoying decent lives, on a scale that truly has no historical parallel (though the period between 1849 and 1914 comes close.)

But ultimately, all good things must come to an end, they say. And this world order is coming apart at the seams. Alliances weaken. A rules-based world is no longer in vogue. Liberal democracies are losing their middle class, even as the same middle class votes for lower taxes and less government, forgetting that it was higher taxes and more government (reminding my good American friends of the late 1940s, 1950s, with the GI bill, the Interstate highway system or public education, all financed by taxing high incomes at rates not seen before or since) that built that prosperous, strong middle class in the first place. Other Western nations follow similar paths as the middle class shrinks and trust in the institutions of liberal democracy erodes.

“The lamps are going out all over Europe,” declared Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s Foreign Minister at the time, on August 3, 1914 as his country was about to declare war on Germany. I fear that we are just a hair’s breadth away from our lamps-are-going-out moment. And just like Sir Edward Grey, responsible leaders of our times appear to feel increasingly helpless.

 Posted by at 10:08 pm
Nov 012023
 

A few minutes ago, I checked Google News on my phone and lo and behold, there was a link to Universe Today, a new article discussing my latest manuscript on multiple gravitational lenses.

I knew that this was in the works, as the author approached me with some questions earlier in the day, but I didn’t expect it to appear this quickly, and, well, seeing it on my phone like this was a nice surprise.

Had the author asked, I’d have happily granted permission to use one of my generated images or animations involving multiple lenses.

Meanwhile, my paper on a four-satellite configuration used to detect deviations from Newtonian gravity was published by Astrophysics and Space Science, one of the Nature journals. I am officially permitted (in fact, encouraged) by Springer to share the link to an online read-only version of the published paper.

 Posted by at 1:25 am