Tonight, the two most important women in my life are both in the stratosphere.

My wife is en route to Hungary, to visit her Mom. At this moment, she is about halfway across the North Atlantic Ocean.

Meanwhile, my Mom is about to land in Beijing, on a memorable adventure I hope: a one-week trip to China with a friend.

And I am stuck here with three cats, fending for ourselves in the Ottawa wilderness. I would say that life is not fair, but I actually enjoy staying at home for a change. I like my home, and travel is such a chore.

Hey, I am getting famous again!

For the second time, Quora decided to feature one of my answers on their Forbes blog site. This one was in response to the question, “Is Theoretical physics a waste of resources”? I used the example of Maxwell’s prediction of electromagnetic waves to turn the question into a rhetorical one.

Forbes used a stock Getty image of some physicists in front of a blackboard to illustrate the blog post. Here, allow me to use the image of a bona fide blackboard, one from the Perimeter Institute, containing a few of the field equations of MOG/STVG, during one of our discussions with John Moffat.

Anyhow, I feel honored. Thank you Quora.

Of course, I never know how people read my answers. Just tonight, I received a mouthful in the form of hate mail from a sarcasm-challenged defender of the US space program who thought that in my answer about astronauts supposedly having two shadows on the Moon, I was actually promoting some conspiracy theory. Duh.

Fifteen years ago this morning, I was late going to bed. Very late. I was a night owl those days, and I was still up and working a few minutes before nine o’clock, when CBC Newsworld told me that an airplane hit the World Trade Center. I switched to CNN and their live coverage, in time to see the second tower hit. For a brief moment, I actually wondered if this was simply an accident, with someone flying a little too close to the action. It was hard to judge sizes on those television pictures, so I really did not realize at first that I was seeing a 767. The plane seemed so small. And the idea that someone was doing this on purpose was still too difficult to grasp.

I didn’t go to bed that day. Instead, I spent a fair bit of that time on the phone that morning with my friend David, whose office in Manhattan was just a few blocks away from the twin towers. We were on the line when the second tower fell. I saw it first: as the antenna began to sway, I knew what was coming. David watched it from his window. Later in the day, David and his wife were among the tens of thousands who were evacuated on foot from lower Manhattan; it was not until several days later that they were allowed back to visit their office.

Fifteen years. Young adults walk among us who are too young to remember that day. Thankfully, the world has not gone completely bonkers. Sure, air travel is even more unpleasant these days (not that it was such a pleasurable experience on September 10, 2011), and the consequences of America’s disastrous war in Iraq continue to impact the world. But there is no world war, and while the threat of terrorism remains with us, you are far more likely to die from falling down the stairs in your own home.

It was 25 years ago today that a Finnish chap by the name of Linus Torvalds made an announcement about a new operating system that he developed in the preceding few months. Nothing big and professional, he assured us, just a hobby project basically… but here it was, and he already got a command shell and the GNU C compiler working.

I have been using Linux for 23 of those 25 years. I became familiar with Linux when I took over sysop duties of the UNIX forum of the long defunct NVN (National Videotex Network).

I no longer have the original SLS (SoftLanding Linux) floppy images, though I am pretty sure even without checking they can be found in several archives online.

But I do have the announcement that I posted on the NVN UNIX forum page almost exactly 23 years ago, on September 1, 1993:

Welcome to the LINUX distribution on NVN!

The UNIX Forum data library now contains the complete set of files
making up the Softlanding Software (SLS) distribution of LINUX, the
popular *FREE* UNIX operating system clone.

The files are the most recent (version 0.99 patchlevel 12) as of
today, August 28, 1993.

The files were used by the UNIX SysOp to install a complete LINUX on
an 80386SX20 PC, with 4 Mb of RAM, a 68 Mb and a 42 Mb MFM hard disk
drive, an ATI VGAWonder super-VGA card with 512 kb video RAM, a
Microsoft mouse, a 5.25" high density floppy drive, and a 3.5" high
density drive, and an ATI2400etc/i internal modem. Brief assessment:
it works like a charm. So well, in fact, that I decided to keep it
and permanently convert my old 386SX to a LINUX host. I am already
using it as a dial-in system for my friends and business associates.

The files in this distribution are:

sls_info.zip miscellaneous text information files
rawrite.zip needed to create the A1 bootable LINUX disk
sls_a1_3.zip bootable floppy image for 3.5" 1.44 Mb drives
sls_a1_5.zip bootable floppy image for 5.25" 1.2 Mb drives
sls_a2.zip Minimum base system
sls_a3.zip
sls_a4.zip
sls_b1.zip Base system extras
sls_b2.zip
sls_b3.zip
sls_b4.zip
sls_b5.zip
sls_b6.zip
sls_b7.zip
sls_c1.zip Compilers
sls_c2.zip
sls_c3.zip
sls_d1.zip Documentation
sls_d2.zip
sls_s1.zip Essential component source
sls_t1.zip TeX
sls_t2.zip
sls_t3.zip
sls_x1.zip X-Windows
sls_x2.zip
sls_x3.zip
sls_x4.zip
sls_x5.zip
sls_x6.zip
sls_x7.zip
sls_x8.zip
sls_x9.zip
sls_x10.zip

All the files named sls_Sn.zip must be uncompressed under DOS and
copied onto separate floppies. The bootable LINUX floppy (disk A1)
can be created from sls_a1_3.zip or sls_a1_5.zip using the RAWRITE
program, supplied in RAWRITE.EXE.

information. The files in this archive are text files readable under
DOS (lines end with CR/LF instead of LF only as they do under UNIX).

Please note that while the NVN UNIX does not (indeed, cannot) provide
Also, if you are interested in a specific program, application, or
information file that is not included in the present distribution,
please let me know and I will see if I can obtain and upload it. If
you would like to run OSF/Motif on your LINUX system, you may not
have to wait too long; I am planning to try and obtain Motif in the
near future.

Good luck with your installation and I hope that the next time you
call, it will be with your LINUX system!

UNIX SysOp

Before making this announcement, I already set Linux up on an old 386SX desktop computer that I was no longer using. Within a few months, this computer began to play a permanent role as my Internet server. Although it went through several hardware and software iterations, its basic identity remains the same: it’s the very same server on which these words appear.

Some people call squirrels furry rats. Yet they are cute.

Cute enough, it seems, for people to feed them donuts. Or was this donut stolen?

A moment in a squirrel’s life, caught by my wife earlier today with her cell phone camera.

The New York Times Magazine published an extraordinary report about the recent history of the Middle East.

Civilians fleeing Basra, 2003 – The New York Times

Titled Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart, it presents a comprehensive review of the recent history of Arab lands, ranging from the heyday of secular despots in the 1970s, through America’s ill-fated war in Iraq in 2003, to the present-day civil war in Syria, the fight against ISIS, the ongoing disintegration of Libya. It offers insight through the personal stories of some select characters, including a Kurdish doctor, a day laborer turned ISIS executioner, or a civil rights matriarch.

It is a very long report, filling an entire issue of the magazine. I just read it. It was well worth the time.

The one thing this report failed to offer is a ray of hope. Something that would stop the endless cycle of violence.

Having visited a virtual version of the ghost city of Pripyat recently, last night I thought I’d check out Google Maps. After all, they do have Street View from Pompeii, from inaccessible mountain villages in Nepal, even from places in Antarctica… why not Pripyat?

And sure enough, they do have coverage of Pripyat, much to my no small astonishment. Recent pictures, too, taken in June 2015. You can visit the Pripyat city centre, enjoying the view of the still standing Ferris wheel:

visit a (presumably) radioactive scrap yard:

or for that matter, visit the nuclear power plant itself, complete with new sarcophagus, still under construction:

The city is completely abandoned. However, there are signs of life at the power plant: a few cars, even people occasionally appear in the Street View pictures.

I have never been to the ghost city of Pripyat, evacuated in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

However, in recent days, I spent some of my free time fighting mutants, mercenaries, bandits and fanatics in and around a virtual version of Pripyat, in the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Call of Pripyat.

This game is the third installment in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, made by Ukrainian game developer GSC Game World.

And it is a damn good game (available without crippling DRM, courtesy of GOG.com; which is the only reason I purchased the game, as I do not buy DRM-protected crippleware.) The other two games are pretty darn good, too.

The games combine an iconic science fiction novella by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky with the realities of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (officially the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation.)

The novella, Roadside Picnic, is inspired by a vision of some careless visitors near a forest, who, after a brief stop, leave behind everything from trash to discarded spark plugs, perhaps a pocket knife or a forgotten transistor radio, or maybe even a pool of used motor oil. What do these strange, sometimes dangerous artifacts and anomalies mean to the forest’s animals? Now imagine a visit to the Earth by some equally careless members of an extraterrestrial supercivilization, with us playing the role of the forest’s fauna. What would we make of the often deadly, totally incomprehensible anomalies and artifacts? As such, the Visitation Zones become places of interest to all, including “stalkers”, freelancers who defy government restrictions and risk life and limb as they enter the Zone illegally to retrieve precious artifacts and substances from the Zone.

The novella was written 15 years before the Chernobyl disaster and its setting is a fictitious town in Canada. Nonetheless, the parallels between the novella’s fiction and Chernobyl’s reality are eerily striking: abandoned buildings, abandoned military equipment, locations with a dangerous buildup of radiation, not to mention what remained a still operating nuclear power plant for many years at the very center of the Exclusion Zone.

This, then, is the setting of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of games: The Zone, its abandoned industrial facilities, farms, vehicles and equipment, the town of Pripyat, even the nuclear plant itself, complete with its sarcophagus. In the fictitious storyline of the games, the 1986 disaster was followed by another man-made disaster some 20 years later, as the Zone, now largely uninhabited, was used as a place to conduct secret, often unsanctioned research.

Near the end of the third game, the player is presented with a choice of being part of an evacuation (which ends the game) or staying in Pripyat. I opted to stay. (OK, I had a saved game, so of course I could explore both scenarios.) After the helicopters left, I still had to dispatch a few enemies… but after that, there I was, standing in the middle of a square in Pripyat in the dead of night, with no friends, not even enemies, just silence occasionally broken by the howl of mutants in the distance. My safe house was gone, all I had was the equipment I carried… and I was alone.

I was honestly surprised by the intensity of this feeling of loneliness coming from a computer game.

Anyhow, I survived, morning came, and I was able to explore parts of Pripyat that I did not visit during the more intense game playing earlier. And thus, I happened upon a famous Pripyat landmark, the town’s never used Ferris wheel:

The Ferris wheel, along with the rest of Pripyat’s brand new amusement park, was set to open on May 1, 1986; unfortunately, the power plant disaster on April 26 scuttled those plans.

Sadly, I was unable to explore the Ferris wheel up close; it is located outside the region of Pripyat that is accessible to the player. But the area that can be explored is huge and terrifyingly gloomy, looking a little bit like pictures from North Korea:

As to the abandoned Soviet-era facilities, here is a splendid example:

Hey, when I took that screen shot, the Sun was almost shining!

The Sun was not shining, though, when I visited the Chernobyl nuclear plant in one of the earlier installments of the game:

But what a place it was. Mostly quiet deadly, even with the best equipment my game persona could muster.

Oh well, it was fun to play these games. Time to get back to work, though.

Trump’s spokesperson is telling us that any similarities between Melania Trump’s speech last night and Michelle Obama’s eight years ago are purely accidental.

Microsoft Word begs to disagree.

If I had submitted a paper with a paragraph like this to a reputable journal these days, I’m sure their antiplagiarism software would flag it and my paper would not be published.

Then again, imitation is supposedly the sincerest form of flattery.

Today, I took the plunge. I deemed my brand new server (actually, more than a month old already) ready for action. So I made the last few remaining changes, shut down the old server, and rebooted the new with the proper settings… and, ladies and gentlemen, we are now live.

Expect glitches, of course. I already found a few.

The old server, of which I was very fond, had to go. It was really old, the hardware about 7 years. Its video card fan failed, and its CPU fan was also making noises. It was ultra-reliable though. I never tried to make this a record, but it lasted almost three years without a reboot:

\$ uptime
12:28:09 up 1033 days, 17:30, 4 users, load average: 0.64, 0.67, 0.77

(Yes, I kept it regularly updated with patches. But the kernel never received a security patch, so no reboot was necessary. And it has been on a UPS.)

This switcharoo was a Big Deal, in part, because I decided to abandon the Slackware ship in favor of CentOS, due to its improved security and, well, systemd. I know systemd is a very polarizing thing among Linux fans, but my views are entirely pragmatic: in the end, it actually makes my life easier, so there.

Anyhow, the new server has already been up 13 minutes, so… And it is a heck of a lot quieter, which I most welcome.

Not sure how I landed on this page (maybe I was reading too many gloomy assessments of the post-Brexit world?) but here it is anyway: An incredible collection of dioramas by artist Lori Nix, titled The City, depicting a post-apocalyptic world:

A world without humans. Scary visions. Real life examples exist, of course, in places like abandoned sections of Detroit or the Zone around Chernobyl, to name just a couple of prominent ones.

Recently, someone on Quora asked where one would place a time capsule to survive a trillion years. Yes, a trillion. Ambitious, isn’t it? Meanwhile, we have yet to learn how to build things that survive a mere thousand years or less. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that humans constructed, or can construct, that will survive in any recognizable form for a trillion years, be it on the Earth, in space, or on another planet.

I just came across the wittiest explanation yet of the Brexit fiasco.

It would be funny, too, if it weren’t so painfully true. This particular paragraph says it all: “To recap: One old university friend pushed the country to a constitutional and economic crisis to gain power from another old university friend, but got stabbed in the back by a third old university friend, at which point he decided not to bother after all. GOOD TO KNOW IT WAS ALL WORTH IT.

Fortepan is an amazing Hungarian archive of historical photographs.

Recently, a new batch of pictures was uploaded, from the archives of Budapest Police. The pictures were uploaded without commentary; all we know is that they originate from the late 1950s and the early 1960s.

As I browsed through the images, one of them in particular caught my attention, taken in the year of my own birth no less:

I don’t think I need to elaborate. This was not meant to be an artistic photograph, just documentary evidence in a police file. Still… it’s been a while since I last saw a picture that expresses desperation so powerfully.

I wonder who was the unfortunate person whose belongings are seen here. I wonder what drove her to this fateful moment. I wonder if she survived. No information is provided other than a registration number, HU.BFL.XV.19.c.10: When I Google it, all I learn is that this picture belongs in a collection of crime scene negatives, taken between 1956 and 1992 and stored in 93 small boxes at the National Archives of Hungary.

Breaking news on CNN: Elie Wiesel is dead.

What a life. What a story. Fewer and fewer people remain who can give a first hand account of the horrors that took place in Nazi death camps. I can only hope that it does not mean that history, once forgotten, gets to repeat itself.

Bold prediction time: After all the hoopla, I am increasingly of the opinion that the Brexit will not happen.

David Cameron broke his promise (or was it a threat?) that in case of a Leave vote, he’d invoke Article 50 talks right away. He didn’t. Rather, he left it to his successor after announcing his resignation.

And “it” is best described as a hot potato and a poison pill rolled into one. Campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, even Brexit’s most ardent supporters know the consequences. First and foremost, a very real possibility of the United Kingdom breaking up. I don’t think there is a British politician out there who wants to go down in history as the person who engineered that breakup. Then there are the economic consequences, some of which are already being felt as the pound collapsed, stock markets tanked, and companies either put plans to make investments in the UK on hold or announced plans to move elsewhere.

And it is true that in the United Kingdom, parliament is sovereign and a referendum is not binding. The UK parliament was against Brexit, and I don’t think that has changed. So if a future government wants parliament’s consent to begin Article 50 talks, they are unlikely to get it. And without such consent…

I suspect that the next three months will be spent trying to figure out a way to annul or ignore the Brexit result, either through a new referendum or through some other means. These months will still be incredibly damaging to the UK economy, and represent a crisis that the EU needed like a hole in the head. But in the end… Brexit just won’t happen.

That’s my fearless prediction for tonight. And for once, I actually hope that I am right. With fingers firmly crossed.

England only ever had one king named John: John of the Angevin dynasty, also known as John Lackland. Legend has it that his rule was so reviled, it was decided that no royal would ever use the name again.

I am wondering if the name David might be similarly “retired”, now that freshly resigned British PM David Cameron is set to go down in history as the petty, opportunity political leader whose nearsighted election ploy resulted in the eventual breakup of the United Kingdom, not to mention the possible unraveling of the grand vision of a united Europe.

Of course this assumes that there will still be something like a rump United Kingdom of England and Wales for future historians to reside in. But for all I know, by then Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson might end the monarchy altogether, turning the much diminished UK into a republic instead, perhaps with himself installed as president for life.

Or perhaps by then, Europe goes up in flames again. Who knows? All that dissatisfaction that led to the Leave vote (and that fuels populist campaigns elsewhere, like Trump’s in America) tells me only one thing: 70+ years of peace and prosperity is too much of a good thing, it’s too boring.

And it happened before, a century ago. A once proud and mighty Europe, following a century of peace of a kind not seen since Roman days, a century of progress and prosperity, plunged into a war of unspeakable destruction, followed by an even worse war a mere two decades later.

Increasingly it appears that a majority of Brits are opting to vote Leave in the “Brexit” referendum.

Sadly, this is what I was expecting to see, even though I was hoping to be proven wrong.

But populist xenophobia seems to have won the day. A rhetoric about foreigners taking over the country prevailed over the message of hope and unity. Fear of foreigners stealing jobs, corrupting schools, overwhelming the health care system, contributing to crime. And this combination of populism, isolationism and xenophobia has a name: fascism. Maybe a kinder, gentler, milder, 21st century version of fascism, but fascism nonetheless.

To be sure, I am not suggesting that anyone who voted Leave is a fascist. Of course not. But what tipped the balance, in my reading, is the populist rhetoric: promises to restore past glories through scapegoating and economic/political isolationism.

In the end, none of that will happen, of course. I expect that the immediate impact of the Brexit vote on the world economy will be grave; the long-term impact on Europe, even worse, and the UK economy will tank. (The pound is tanking already). On the political side, the Brexit vote may trigger a chain reaction in Scotland and Northern Ireland. And on the old Continent, this may be the beginning of the end of this grand experiment of uniting people from the Atlantic coast to the Russian border. What can I say… it was a nice dream while it lasted.

And, I suspect, future historians will mark this day as the historic beginning of a process that may yet culminate in another European war in the decades to come. I am sure the Kremlin is celebrating tonight… but Russia may not come out of this as a winner, as geopolitics is no longer a zero sum game, if it ever was.

For now, North America remains an island of stability. But that may not be for long. This continent also produced its homebrew 21st century neo-fascist in the person of Donald Trump. And Trump has a better than average chance of winning the election this coming November.

Tonight is one of those nights when I am really glad that we have no children. Both of us in our fifties, we can afford to sit back and just spectate as the inevitable train wreck unfolds. It is still a devastating sight, but on account of our age, and the fact that we live in Canada, we are among those least likely to suffer the consequences.

Still… I desperately hope that I am misreading things, that my gloomy reading of the events is badly misguided. Maybe Europe will find a way to improve its unity after the British fiasco. Maybe the UK will find a way to strengthen its ties with the rest of the English speaking world. Maybe the economic shock will be short-lived and there will not be another Scottish referendum, much less one in Northern Ireland. Maybe.

But I wouldn’t bet any of our hard-earned savings on any of these maybes.

Ever since I first laid my hands on INFOCOM’s legendary titles like Zork, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I’ve been a sucker for high quality computer adventure games.

Over the years, the genre evolved from text-based games to point-and-click graphical adventures, often set in freely explorable worlds. Myst remains a perfect example.

And then came The Longest Journey, one of the most epic adventure games ever created. Sure, its graphics and user interface are somewhat primitive by present-day standards, but the game was exciting, interesting, and—not unlike the best science fiction stories out there—it also served as a cautionary tale.

Then came its sequel, Dreamfall; a strangely flawed game with a moving storyline but stupid quirks like ill-designed action sequences that were more frustrating than enjoyable. Still, it was a great game because its story was great. But it was also unfinished.

Finally, after a successful crowdfunding campaign, came Dreamfall Chapters. Among other things its title reflects the fact that the game was released in five installments, or Books. The latest, Book Five: Redux, came out just a few days ago.

I now played this game to the end, and I remain deeply moved by its ending.

Yet I am also creeped out by the extent to which elements of the game—elements first released almost two years ago!—resemble present-day politics. Most notably, a political election campaign fought between a xenophobic populist whose party promises a new dawn, and a female center-left politician whose campaign turns out to be rather more corrupt than many thought. Sounds familiar? I emphasize, this part of the story was written in 2014 or before. Life imitating art? A mere coincidence? Or prophetic vision?

Cautionary tales are the best that the science fiction genre can offer. Dreamfall Chapters certainly did not disappoint.

The CRTC told me that it is the cable companies’ fault. The cable company told me that it is the provincial emergency agency that makes the decision. The provincial agency, on its Web site, tells me that these alerts are at the discretion of the television channel.

But the reality is that they are interrupting all channels, as well as recorded programs, with pointless messages: some are tests, some are amber alerts from half a continent away (yes, Ontario is a huge province.)

If they did this to the public airwaves, that might be forgivable. But they are messing with a privately owned service for which I am paying good money. Serious money, as anyone can attest who is paying for a cable subscription nowadays.

I am uploading this video to YouTube because I hope to use it to bring attention to this blatant abuse, all in the name of the public good, of course. Alerts such as this that completely hijack all channels for a whole minute should be reserved for genuine, imminent, major emergencies such as a tornado, flash flood, military or terrorist attack. They should not be tested recklessly, and they should not be used excessively for events that do not meet the criteria that define a serious, imminent, life threatening emergency that actually affects the region in which the alert is shown.

I wonder if a clever lawyer might find a way to sue the government for illegally appropriating private property.

Exactly thirty years ago today, I grabbed a suitcase, a bag and my passport, and boarded a train from Budapest to Vienna, with the intent never to return.

A few hours later, I arrived at Vienna’s Westbahnhof, where I left my suitcase at the left luggage office and proceeded to Traiskirchen, to register as an East Bloc refugee. Thus, my new life began.

Little did I know in the summer of 1986 that in a few short years, the Berlin Wall would crumble; that most communist regimes would peacefully transition to pluralist democracies; or that even the mighty Soviet Union would come to an inglorious end after a failed coup.

And a good thing, too, as otherwise I might have stayed put. And then, I could have experienced from the inside what it is like to live in a country in which the great democratic experiment is faltering; one in which xenophobia (if not outright racism) prevails, fueled by a distorted view of history and a perpetual sense of victimhood.

Instead, I ended up a citizen of Canada. July 16 will mark the day of my arrival in Ottawa 29 years ago. I now call this city my home. My memories go back much further, as I had the good fortune to visit here back in the summer of 1973, when I was only 10. So although I didn’t quite grow up here, sometimes it almost feels like I did.

Of course I have not forgotten the city of my birth, Budapest. I love the history of that city, I love mundane things about it like its streetcars and other bits of its infrastructure. But it’s no longer my home. I feel like a stranger in town who happens to know the geography and speak the language… but who is far, far removed from its daily life. And sometimes, knowing the language is a curse: such as when I walk down the street and stop at a red light, only to overhear a young person yakking on her phone about that “dirty Jew”. Yes, such language, which I once thought was condemned to the cesspit of history, is not uncommon in Budapest these days, which breaks my heart.

So I consider myself lucky that I left when I did. I consider myself very fortunate that I had the opportunity to become Canadian.

Thirty years is a long time in a person’s life. Thinking back… I don’t really remember what I was like back in 1986. The world was a very different place, to be sure. The year I spent in Vienna… it was educational. At first, when I ran out of the small amount of money I had in my pockets, it was scary. But then… I found a job of sorts. I started to make some friends. People who owed me absolutely nothing were nice to me, helped me, offered me opportunities. And then, the same thing happened in Canada. First, my aunt and her family, who offered me a place to stay and helped me get started. Then, a mere three weeks after my arrival, a per-diem contract. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was vastly underpaid, but no matter: it was money, real money for professional work, not for washing dishes somewhere. And it allowed me to rent an apartment and begin my new life for real.

Many things happened since then, some good, some bad; but mostly good, so I have no complaints. It has been an interesting journey, which began with a first class ticket (who says a refugee cannot travel in style?) on the Wiener Walzer express train one early June morning in 1986.