Jun 282016
 

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.

 Posted by at 2:22 am
Jun 242016
 

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.

 Posted by at 12:06 pm
Jun 232016
 

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.

 Posted by at 11:39 pm
Jun 232016
 

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.

 Posted by at 10:07 pm
Jun 152016
 

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.

 Posted by at 11:22 am
Jun 122016
 

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.

 Posted by at 5:40 pm
Jun 092016
 

Dictatorships can be wonderful places, so long as they are led by competent dictators.

The problem with dictatorships is that when the dictators go bonkers, there are no corrective mechanisms. No process to replace them or make them change their ways.

And now I wonder if the same fate may be in the future of Singapore, described by some as the “wealthiest non-democracy”.

The Ministry of Information and the Arts

To be sure, Singapore is formally democratic, with a multi-party legislature. But really, it is a one-party state that has enacted repressive legislation that require citizens engaging in political discussion to register with the government, and forbids the assembly of four or more people without police permission.

Nonetheless, Singapore’s government enjoyed widespread public support for decades because they were competent. Competence is the best way for a government, democratic or otherwise, to earn the consent of the governed, and Singapore’s government certainly excelled on this front.

But I am beginning to wonder if this golden era is coming to an end, now that it has been announced that Singapore’s government plans to take all government computers off the Internet in an attempt to improve security.

The boneheaded stupidity of this announcement is mind-boggling.

For starters, you don’t just take a computer “off the Internet”. So long as it is connected to something that is connected to something else… just because you cannot use Google or visit Facebook does not mean that the bad guys cannot access your machine.

It will also undoubtedly make the Singapore government a lot less efficient. Knowledge workers (and government workers overwhelmingly qualify as knowledge workers) these days use the Internet as an essential resource. It could be something as simple as someone checking proper usage of a rare English expression, or something as complex as a government scientist accessing relevant literature in manuscript repositories or open access journals. Depriving government workers of these resources in order to improve security is just beyond stupid.

In the past, Singapore’s government was not known to make stupid decisions. But what happens when they start going down that road? In a true democracy, stupid governments tend to end up being replaced (which does not automatically guarantee an improvement, to be sure, but over time, natural selection tends to work.) Here, the government may dig in and protect its right to be stupid by invoking national security.

Time will tell. I root for sanity to prevail.

 Posted by at 1:45 pm
Jun 082016
 

Whoops.

Here is what happened in downtown Ottawa, just a 15-minute walk from my home:

rideau-street-ottawa-sinkhole-june-8-2016

That’s one big hole. I hope it doesn’t start swallowing nearby buildings.

And yes, I feel very fortunate today that I do not need to commute to work.

And it has happened before, in 1924:

rideau-1924-sinkhole

 Posted by at 2:56 pm
Jun 072016
 

Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin in 1928. He received the Nobel prize for his discovery in 1945.

A Facebook friend shared his Nobel lecture. Particularly, the following quote:

The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant. Here is a hypothetical illustration. Mr. X. has a sore throat. He buys some penicillin and gives himself, not enough to kill the streptococci but enough to educate them to resist penicillin. He then infects his wife. Mrs. X gets pneumonia and is treated with penicillin. As the streptococci are now resistant to penicillin the treatment fails. Mrs. X dies. Who is primarily responsible for Mrs. X’s death? Why Mr. X whose negligent use of penicillin changed the nature of the microbe. Moral: If you use penicillin, use enough.

Fleming thus foresaw the dangers of emerging antibiotic resistance. Too bad the world failed to listen. Now, a growing number of people die from once treatable (e.g., post-operative) infections because the evolution of bacteria outpaced our ability to develop new antibiotics.

 Posted by at 11:07 am
Jun 062016
 

The Crafoord prize is a prestigious prize administered by the Swedish academy of sciences. Not as prestigious as the Nobel, it is still a highly respectable prize that comes with a respectable sum of money.

This way, one of the recipients was Roy Kerr, known for his solution of rotating black holes.

Several people were invited to give talks, including Roy Kerr’s colleague David Wiltshire. Wiltshire began his talk by mentioning the role of a young John Moffat in inspiring Kerr to study the rotating solution, but he also acknowledged Moffat’s more recent work, in which I also played a role, his Scalar-Tensor-Vector (STVG) modified gravity theory, aka MOG.

All too often, MOG is ignored, dismissed or confused with other theories. It was very good to see a rare, notable exception from that rule.

 Posted by at 7:19 pm
Jun 022016
 

This morning, Quora surprised me with this:

Say what?

I have written a grand total of three Quora answers related to the Quran (or Koran, which is the spelling I prefer). Two of these were just quoting St. Augustine of Hippo, an early Christian saint who advised Christians not to confuse the Book of Genesis with science; the third was about a poll from a few years back that showed that in the United States, atheists/agnostics know more about religion than religious folk from any denomination.

As to string theory, I try to avoid the topic because I don’t know enough about it. Still, 15 of my answers on related topics (particle physics, cosmology) were apparently also categorized under the String Theory label.

But I fail to see how my contributions make me an expert on either Islam or String Theory.

 Posted by at 11:18 am
May 212016
 

Not for the first time, I am reading a paper that discusses the dark matter paradigm and its alternatives.

Except that it doesn’t. Discuss the alternatives, that is. It discusses the one alternative every schoolchild interested in the sciences knows about (and one that, incidentally, doesn’t really work) while ignoring the rest.

This one alternative is Mordehai Milgrom’s MOND, or MOdified Newtonian Dynamics, and its generalization, TeVeS (Tensor-Vector-Scalar theory) by the late Jacob Bekenstein.

Unfortunately, too many people think that MOND is the only game in town, or that even if it isn’t, it is somehow representative of its alternatives. But it is not.

In particular, I find it tremendously annoying when people confuse MOND with Moffat’s MOG (MOdified Gravity, also MOffat Gravity). Or when similarly, they confuse TeVeS with STVG (Scalar-tensor-Vector Gravity), which is the relativistic theory behind the MOG phenomenology.

So how do they differ?

MOND is a phenomenological postulate concerning a minimum acceleration. It modifies Newton’s second law: Instead of \(F = ma\), we have \(F = m\mu(a/a_0)a\), where \(\mu(x)\) is a function that satisfies \(\mu(x)\to 1\) for \(x\gg 1\), and \(\mu(x)\to x\) for \(x\ll 1\). A good example would be \(\mu(x)=1/(1+1/x)\). The magnitude of the MOND acceleration is \(a_0={\cal O}(10^{-10})~{\rm m}/{\rm s}\).

The problem with MOND is that in this form, it violates even basic conservation laws. It is not a theory: it is just a phenomenological formula designed to explain the anomalous rotation curves of spiral galaxies.

MOND was made more respectable by Jacob Bekenstein, who constructed a relativistic field theory of gravity that approximately reproduces the MOND acceleration law in the non-relativistic limit. The theory incorporates a unit 4-vector field and a scalar field. It also has the characteristics of a bimetric theory, in that a “physical metric” is constructed from the true metric and the vector field, and this physical metric determines the behavior of ordinary matter.

In contrast, MOG is essentially a Yukawa theory of gravity in the weak field approximation, with two twists. The first twist is that in MOG, attractive gravity is stronger than Newton’s or Einstein’s; however, at a finite range, it is counteracted by a repulsive force, so the gravitational acceleration is in fact given by \(a = GM[1+\alpha-\alpha(1+\mu r)e^{-\mu r}]\), where \(\alpha\) determines the strength of attractive gravity (\(\alpha=0\) means Newtonian gravity) and \(\mu\) is the range of the vector force. (Typically, \(\alpha={\cal O}(1)\), \(\mu^{-1}={\cal O}(10)~{\rm kpc}\).) The second twist is that the strength of attractive gravity and the range of the repulsive force are both variable, i.e., dynamical (though possibly algebraically related) degrees of freedom. And unlike MOND, for which a relativistic theory was constructed after-the-fact, MOG is derived from a relativistic field theory. It, too, includes a vector field and one or two scalar fields, but the vector field is not a unit vector field, and there is no additional, “physical metric”.

In short, there is not even a superficial resemblance between the two theories. Moreover, unlike MOND, MOG has a reasonably good track record dealing with things other than galaxies: this includes globular clusters (for which MOND has to invoke the nebulous “external field effect”), cluster of galaxies (including the famous Bullet Cluster, seen by some as incontrovertible proof that dark matter exists) and cosmology (for which MOND requires something like 2 eV neutrinos to be able to fit the data.)


MOG and the acoustic power spectrum. Calculated using \(\Omega_M=0.3\), \(\Omega_b=0.035\), \(H_0=71~{\rm km}/{\rm s}/{\rm Mpc}\). Also shown are the raw Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) three-year data set (light blue), binned averages with horizontal and vertical error bars provided by the WMAP project (red) and data from the Boomerang experiment (green). From arXiv:1104.2957.

There are many issues with MOG, to be sure. Personally, I have never been satisfied with the way we treated the scalar field so far, and I’d really like to be able to derive a proper linearized version of the theory in which the scalar field, too, is accommodated as a first-class citizen. How MOG stands up to scrutiny in light of precision solar system data at the PPN level is also an open question.

But to see MOG completely ignored in the literature, and see MOND used essentially as a straw man supposedly representing all attempts at creating a modified gravity alternative to dark matter… that is very disheartening.

 Posted by at 5:23 pm
May 202016
 

CNN reports that ACARS messages received from MS804 in the minutes before its disappearance indicate a fire on board.

I was able to find online a copy of the screenshot discussed by CNN:

CNN’s talking heads are still discussing the terrorism theory, but in light of these data, it looks increasingly unlikely. It is very difficult to imagine a terrorism scenario that begins with one of the cockpit windows.

 Posted by at 8:25 pm
May 182016
 

In the fourth volume of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy”, we learn that just before the Earth was about to be destroyed by the Vogons to make way for a new interstellar bypass, the whales left. They left behind a simple parting message: “So long and thanks for all the fish.”

Which makes me feel rather alarmed now that I am learning that hundreds of North Atlantic right whales went missing. I hope it’s not a bad sign.

 Posted by at 7:55 pm
May 182016
 

A question on Quora made me reminisce about old computer games that make me feel somewhat nostalgic.

I’ve been involved with computer games both as a player and in a professional capacity for a very long time.

Long before I laid my hands on a personal computer, I was an avid player of Trek on a PDP/11. This was a game written for text terminals, simulating the mission of the Starship Enterprise through Klingon-infested space:

Another game of similar vintage, which I used to play on a peer-to-peer QNX network, is Hack:

Then there was the Commodore-64. Here are two Commodore-64 games that I remember fondly. Impossible Mission:

And Jumpman:

After the Commodore-64 came the Amiga. One of the first games I played on the Amiga 500 was the absolutely surrealist Mind Walker:

Very weird game. Memorable, algorithm-generated music. Ahead of its time.

Moving on to the PC (actually, I first played these on the Atari ST), there are the classic INFOCOM games. (Yes, I am taking the liberty of classifying pure text adventure games as “video games”.) Best known perhaps is Zork:

But there was also the unforgettable apocalyptic story of Trinity:

The equally unforgettable A Mind Forever Voyaging in which you get to play a disembodied artificial intelligence:

And the hilarious Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with its fiendishly impossible puzzles:

Still on the text game front, back in 1991 I began playing what was for me the first multiplayer online game, British Legends, aka. MUD (Multi-User Dungeon):

Meanwhile, on my PC, I was busy playing Duke Nukem, its platform versions first, eventually moving on to Duke Nukem 3D (which exists to this day in a community supported 32-bit high-resolution version, complete with NSFW imagery):

And then came Myst, the “killer app” for CD-ROMs:

Last but not least, a game that gave me tremendous amounts of joy, Lands of Lore: Guardians of Destiny (with none other than Patrick Stewart lending his voice acting skills to the CD version):

I remember all these games very fondly. And they are all still eminently playable, and very enjoyable, to this day.

 Posted by at 3:42 pm
May 112016
 

No, I am not using expletives.

Or rather, I’ve been using some expletives, but *#0808# is not code for one of them.

It is an actual code that I can enter into my Samsung phone to get to a service menu that allows me to re-enable USB functions that somehow got turned off.

Although it took only about 15 minutes to find this particular code, it marked the end of a rather frustrating 24 hours. Last night, as it was just about to complete installing 24 Microsoft updates, my workstation locked up. The incomplete installation of updates managed to mess up my Microsoft Office setup, and made it impossible to install some still missing updates. Which meant that I had to use System Restore to get back to a known-good state first, and then redo the updates.

As a result, much of my day was consumed (and it’s not like I slept much last night either.) And as if that wasn’t enough, my phone also suddenly decided that it didn’t want to connect to my workstation anymore… hence my need for the aforementioned code.

All is well that ends well, though, and in the end I managed to install everything. It’s just that those hours of my life that I lost, I’ll never get them back.

It also reinforced my conviction that I made the right decision when, a few days ago, I decided to invest some money and purchase parts for a new workstation and server. It’s about bleeping time… this machine served me well for over seven (!) years, and seven years in this profession is almost an eternity.

Still waiting for some of the parts though. Although I ordered everything from the same supplier, NewEgg.ca, the shipments come from at least four different locations in North America.

 Posted by at 8:47 pm
May 052016
 

And just when you least expect it… Russia celebrates its victories in Syria over ISIL with a class act, an amazing concert by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra of St. Petersburg, held at the ancient amphitheater that is at the center of Palmyra’s Roman era ruins, badly damaged (not to mention desecrated with barbaric public executions) by the Islamic State.

Russia, of course, intervened not for reasons of altruism but because American indecisiveness offered them an opportunity to prop up Assad’s regime. Nonetheless, I much rather watch an amazing concert like this than public beheadings.

And the music was, in fact, amazing. It included a piece titled Quadrille, from contemporary Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s opera Not Love Alone. I think I ought learn a little more about contemporary Russian opera.

The concert was carried live (of course) by RT, complete with a televised greeting by Putin. Not unlike a similar concert that the same orchestra held in South Ossetia, after Russia’s brief war with the Republic of Georgia a few years ago.

 Posted by at 11:12 pm
Apr 292016
 

When you contribute on Quora as I do, Quora may reward you by declaring you a “most viewed writer” in select topics.

What I didn’t realize is that Quora’s powers reach not only beyond planet Earth, but also beyond the boundaries of our physical universe.

A few months ago, Quora declared me most viewed not just in this universe but in parallel universes:

But if you thought this cannot be topped, here is the latest: I am now a most viewed writer in the whole multiverse!

Wow. I really feel special.

 Posted by at 11:13 am
Apr 262016
 

This is an eerie anniversary.

Thirty years ago today, reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew to smithereens.

It’s really hard to assign blame.

Was it the designers who came up with a reactor design that was fundamentally unstable at low power?

Was it the bureaucrats who, in the secretive Soviet polie state, made it hard if not impossible for operators at one facility to learn from incidents elsewhere?

Was it the engineers at Chernobyl who, concerned about the consequences of a total loss of power at the station, tried to test a procedure that would have kept control systems and the all-important coolant pumps running using waste heat during an emergency shutdown, while the Diesel generators kicked in?

Was it the Kiev electricity network operator who asked Chernobyl to keep reactor 4 online for a little longer, thus pushing the planned test into the late night?

Was it the control room operator who ultimately pushed the button that initiated an emergency shutdown?

And the list continues. Many of the people we could blame didn’t stick around long enough: they died, after participating in often heroic efforts to avert an even greater disaster, and receiving lethal doses of radiation.

Some lived. This photo shows Arkady Uskov, who suffered severe radiation burns 30 years ago as he helped save colleagues. He, along with a few other people, recently revisited the control room of reactor 4, and were photographed there by Radio Free Europe. (Sadly, the photos are badly mislabeled by someone who didn’t know that “Arcadia Uskova” would be the name of a female; or, in this case, the genitive case of the male name Arkady Uskov. Thus I also cannot tell if “Oleksandr Cheranov”, whose name I cannot find anywhere else in the literature of Chernobyl, was a real person or just another RFE misprint.)

Surprisingly, the control room, which looks like a set of props from a Cold War era science fiction movie, is still partially alive. The lit panels, I suspect, must be either part of the monitoring effort or communications equipment.

It must have been an uncanny feeling for these aging engineers to be back at the scene, 30 years later, contemplating what took place that night.

Incidentally, nuclear power remains by far the safest in the world. Per unit of energy produced, it is dozens of times safer than hydroelectricity; a hundred times safer than natural gas; and a whopping four thousand times safer than coal. And yes, this includes the additional approximately 4,000 premature deaths (UN estimate) as a result of Chernobyl’s fallout. Nor was Chernobyl the deadliest accident related to power generation; that title belongs to China’s Banqiao Dam, the failure of which claimed 171,000 lives back in 1975.

 Posted by at 5:52 pm