And of course it’s purely symbolic, but I keep reminding myself that this year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of The War to End All Wars…
And of course it’s purely symbolic, but I keep reminding myself that this year is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of The War to End All Wars…
Here is the list of nations that supported Russia in the recent UN General Assembly vote on the matter of Russia’s occupation of the Crimean peninsula:
All leading champions of human rights, freedom and democratic values, I see.
Is history thumbing its nose at us? The parallels between the events unfolding between Russia and Ukraine today vs. Germany and Czechoslovakia in the 1930s are unmistakable.
No, I am not going to evoke the hyperbole, comparing Putin to Hitler. (I’ll leave it to Russian propagandists to talk about “fascists” taking over Ukraine.)
But the actual events are another matter.
Consider the parallels between the 1936 Berlin olympics and Sochi.
The parallels between the Third Reich’s prosecution of homosexuals and Russia’s.
The parallels between the Crimea and the Sudetenland.
The parallels between German cries of outrage about the maltreatment of ethnic Germans abroad, and Russia’s.
The parallels between a post WWI Germany, destined to be a Great Power but humiliated by defeat and a vindictive peace treaty, and Russia, destined to be a superpower but humiliated by the collapse of its Soviet empire and encroachment by NATO, Russia’s former arch-enemy.
The analogy is not perfect. Nonetheless we better smarten up before it’s too late. Ironically, the “war to end all wars” started exactly 100 years ago this year… and far from being a deliberate war, it broke out as a result of a series of deadly miscalculations, which in the end caused the deaths of tens of millions, the end of an unprecedented half century of prosperity, the collapse of the existing world order, and guaranteed instability and upheaval (not to mention another, even more devastating World War) in the coming decades.
I spent the first 50+ years of my life in peace and prosperity. I want to live out the rest of my (hopefully long) natural life the same way, not become a civilian casualty of a war more devastating than anything in history.
The Swiss are a proud people. Their country has been peaceful and prosperous since Napoleonic times. Several years ago, when I was in Bern, Switzerland, streetcars bore German-language signs advertising 200 years of safety and security. This was made possible, in part, by a strong and effective defense force, which would make any invasion too costly for a would-be attacker.
Or so I thought. Until yesterday, that is, when in the wake of the recent hijacking of an Ethiopian airliner, which eventually landed in Switzerland, the CBC helpfully explained the reason why the airliner was escorted by French and Italian fighter jets. You see, the Swiss Air Force operates only during normal business hours. Invading armies should take note: Switzerland is closed after 5 PM, so if you are late, you might want to reschedule your invasion plans for the next business day.
One of the many victims of fascism in Hungary was the poet Miklós Radnóti, murdered in November 1944 while serving in a forced labor battalion.
Radnóti’s wife, Fanni Gyarmati, survived the Holocaust and continued a quiet life in Budapest, in the couple’s old apartment, which bears the name of Dr. Miklós Radnóti on its front door to this day.
Astonishingly, Fanni Gyarmati lived for another 70 years following her husband’s tragic death. She passed away today, at the age of 101.
May she rest in peace. May those who were responsible for her husband’s death never find peace. Nor those who are busy whitewashing Hungary’s history as racism and anti-Semitism are once again on the rise in the country of my birth.
According to Radio Free Europe, there are some remarkably law-abiding deer living along the one-time Cold War border between the former West Germany and Czechoslovakia.
The border (barbed wire, complete with electric fences, heavily armed guards, watchtowers and whatnot) is long gone. Yet the deer are still reluctant to cross, and this behavior is passed on from one generation to the next.
Remarkable. I am sure it would meet the approval of those comrades who came up with the idea in the first place that the primary purpose of a nation’s borders is not to keep enemies out, but to keep their own reluctant citizens confined inside.
I just finished reading a fascinating book: Command and Control, by Erich Schlosser.
The subtitle may be somewhat more revealing: “Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety”.
It is a book about the safety (or lack thereof) of America’s nuclear weapons. And it was an eye-opening read.
Yes, I knew that there were some incidents in the past during which nuclear weapons were lost, damaged, or destroyed. Yes, I knew that there were incidents of false alarm, when early warning systems in the United States or the Soviet Union indicated an attack even though no such attack was under way.
But like many, I assumed that the weapons themselves were designed to be inherently safe. That by design, the weapons were secure against accidental detonation (even during a serious accident such as the crash of a bomber aircraft) or unauthorized use.
What I did not expect to read about were weapons that could be detonated by a stray electrical signal. A military leadership that resisted anything that could stand in the way of successful deployment of a weapon, including the installation of coded devices (“permissive action links”.) Or even when such coded devices were ultimately installed, in effect sabotaging them by using the code “00000000″ everywhere. What I did not expect to read about were accidents involving nuclear weapons where only a single switch, prone to failure, stood between the world and an accidental thermonuclear explosion.
The book uses a specific incident, the in-silo explosion of a Titan II missile in 1980, as a framework to tell its story. I was shocked by the events leading up to the accident as well as the chaotic, panicky reaction afterwards (including pathetic attempts to hide systemic errors by trying to blame low-ranking airmen for the accident).
The book is mostly about America’s weapon systems, but it is not meant to imply that foolish attitudes towards the deadliest weapon ever invented by humanity are uniquely American. A famous line in the movie classic, Dr. Strangelove, is when Dr. Strangelove yells at the Soviet ambassador in frustration, “Yes, but the… whole point of the doomsday machine… is lost… if you keep it a secret!” In the 1980s, the Soviet Union finished construction of the Perimeter system, an automated system designed to respond with a massive nuclear strike automatically in case the Soviet leadership was incapacitated and the system detected nuclear explosions on Soviet soil. In other words: a doomsday machine. The system is believed to remain operational to this date.
And they kept it a secret.
I am reading about the radio telescope of American amateur radio enthusiast and amateur astronomer Grote Reber.
In 1937, Reber built a 9-meter parabolic reflector in his family’s back yard.
Reber was the first to make a systematic survey of the radio sky, not only confirming Jansky’s earlier, pioneering discovery of radio waves from the Milky Way but also discovering radio sources such as Cygnus X-1 and Cassiopeia A.
For nearly a decade, Reber was the only person in the world doing radio astronomy.
Reber had a long life. He spent his final years in Tasmania, one of the few places on Earth where occasionally, very low frequency radio waves penetrate the ionosphere and are detectable by a ground-based antenna.
Today was the 68th anniversary of the last (for now) use of a nuclear weapon in anger, three days following the first such use. The city of Nagasaki was destroyed by the explosion of Fat Man, the world’s second plutonium bomb; the first one was used less than a month earlier at the Trinity test site in New Mexico.
Since then, more than two thousand nuclear explosions took place on or beneath the surface of the Earth as declared nuclear powers tested their designs.
I was impressed by the size and beauty of Sainte-Agnés church where the mass was taking place, so I went to Google to find out more.
It was, of course, unsurprisingly difficult to find background material, as search results were dominated by recent articles about the disaster. But, after wading through some directory entries and such, I came across a true gem: the story of the “Electrical Priest”, Father Joseph-Eugene Choquette.
When he was not attending to his priestly duties, Father Choquette spent a fair bit of his time as an amateur scientist. And what an amateur he was!
Bringing a player piano to his church (and drawing the ire of his parishioners when they found out that it was not their vicar who was in secret a talented musician) was just one of his many pranks (perhaps an unintended one in this case). Apparently, he also liked to play with electricity, to the extent that visitors to his house were often shocked by a jolt of current when they touched a doorknob or sat down in a booby-trapped chair.
But Father Choquette was interested in more than mere pranks. He also experimented with telephony and electric lighting. Having installed a personal lighting system (powered by a dynamo hooked up to a windmill) that proved to be a success, he proceeded with a more ambitious plan: a generating plant to light the whole town. He remained directly involved with this project until his death; parishioners often found their vicar strapped to a pole 25 feet in the air, working on a faulty transformer.
When Father Choquette died, he left much of his equipment and collections to the Sherbrook and Saint-Hyacinthe Seminaries and to the Convent and College of Megantic. That was nearly a century ago. I wonder if any of his belongings still survive somewhere.
By the 1980s, atmospheric nuclear tests were passe. To find out the effects of a low yield nuclear blast on newer military hardware, the US military resorted to the next best thing: a large conventional explosion, codenamed Minor Scale.
How large? About 4.2 kilotons of TNT equivalent. Or roughly 30% of the Hiroshima bomb.
The resulting fireball may look like some wildflower at first sight, but the 19-meter long airplane in the foreground of the picture (just barely visible) helps put things into perspective.
Reassuringly, the US military stated that “Minor Scale” would not be followed by an even bigger, “Major Scale” test explosion.
Browsing the Web this morning, I ran across a reference to a Judge A. Sherman Christensen, also known as the “sheep case” judge, who tried a case in 1955 when Utah ranchers sued the federal government for the death of much of their livestock due to radioacive fallout from atmospheric nuclear tests conducted in Nevada.
Christensen, relying on evidence offered by government expert witnesses, ruled against the ranchers.
Astonishingly, 23 years later Christensen set aside his own judgment, having become convinced that fraud was committed in his courtroom by the Federal government.
Even more astonishingly, an appeals court rejected Christensen’s findings. The ranchers never had a chance. Neither did their sheep.
With four cats in our house, it’s easy to guess that my wife and I are both animal lovers. To be sure, we are partial to felines, but we love most other animals (with obvious exceptions such as flies or mosquitoes) and we are especially troubled when we see animal suffering.
And animals suffer a lot. Especially in wars. Which is why I find the Animals in War Memorial especially poignant.
I happened upon this memorial when I made an unplanned detour on my way to Leicester Square, where I was to meet with Richard Bartle, who was kind enough to come to London to see me. We were supposed to meet under the Shakespeare statue at Leicester Square. When I arrived, there was no Shakespeare statue. Fortunately, I eventually realized that the cordoned off area in the center of the square does, in fact, hide the statue which is currently being renovated. Shortly thereafter, I spotted Richard.
My friend and high school classmate, Laszlo Varro, teaches mathematics these days at the Chinese International School in Hong Kong. He is also an avid traveler, occasionally sending missives from far off places like a small village in Vietnam, a spot off the beaten track in the Arizona desert, or a mountainside in the Andes.
Perhaps this is how it came to be that recently, Laszlo led a group of his students to, of all places, North Korea. They came back with many memories to share, and plenty of pictures and videos. Laszlo put some of those on YouTube.
Of the four clips, perhaps my favorite is the one he titled “Fun in North Korea”, because this is the one clip that offers the most background glimpses at daily lives in the Hermit Kingdom. The daily lives of the privileged, I hasten to add; Pyongyang is a privileged city, and we must not forget that even as we watch these clips, there are tens if not hundreds of thousands who suffer in North Korean labor camps (many born there) and many others may be near starvation.
One thing I found particularly interesting… the North Koreans are elegant. For instance, when schoolgirls sing to honored guests at a school concert, they do so with an almost Japanese grace. Perhaps this, more than anything, indicates to me that North Korean communism is not simply a copy of Eastern European communism, with oafish workers representing the best of the proletariat.
But my friend’s most important message is that Kim Jong-un’s boastful rhetoric notwithstanding, North Korea did not appear to him as a country preparing for war.
The National Post has an interesting set of infographics detailing the strength of North Korea’s conventional forces.
I made an attempt to create a condensed version:
But if it’s too condensed, it kind of loses its punch, so it might be wiser to study the original. The bottom line: they have a scary number of surface ships, submarines, landing craft, torpedoes, aircraft both relatively modern (e.g., Mig-29) and ancient (biplanes!), and a huge army with a large number of artillery pieces, shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles, SCUDs, you name it. Probably some non-conventional (chemical) stuff, too, that they would not hesitate to use. And on top of that, maybe a few crude nukes, albeit without decent delivery systems.
Then again… remember Saddam Hussein’s scary conventional army back in 1991, the world’s third or fourth largest at the time, and battle-tested during the Iraq-Iran war, equipped with SCUDs and WMDs? Didn’t do him much good, did it. Seeing SCUDs arrive in Saudi neighborhoods was a scary sight, but in the end, the damage they did was negligible. So maybe the numbers do not tell the whole story after all.
Still, a war in the Korean peninsula would be devastating for South Korea especially, but also for the world economy. And although I have no doubt that North Korea would vanish as a result, reintegrating the North would be a task that’s perhaps even harder than winning the war.
One of the most outrageous assertions concerning the run-up to the Iraq war is that the US intelligence community made a series of honest mistakes and that in fact, most foreign intelligence agencies agreed that Iraq probably possessed weapons of mass destruction.
This is a pack of lies (incidentally, still perpetrated by talking heads on Sunday television.)
Left-wing magazine Mother Jones published an updated timeline of the events leading up to the war. The recurring theme: ALL the WMD evidence used to create support for the war was cherry-picked, uncorroborated, or outright fabricated, and this fact was KNOWN to the Bush White House. Indeed, it was known to many outside the White House, including laypeople like myself, who chose not to be blinded by the White House’s pro-war propaganda blitz.
Here is an excerpt from the Mother Jones timeline, focusing solely on the intelligence estimates and ignoring other data points (e.g., justifying torture, underestimating the cost of war, failing to plan for the occupation.)
So that’s it. I don’t think there is much doubt here. The case for the war on Iraq was based on trumped up evidence, purposeful misuse of intelligence data, the silencing of detractors, lies, intentional fabrications, dubious confessions obtained using torture, and purposefully ignoring expert contrary opinions both within the US intelligence community and from abroad.
Later rationalizations shifted the picture slightly, trying to pretend that the war was based on the fact that the possibility that Iraq had WMDs could not be excluded with absolute certainty, and that Hussein himself was interested in creating ambiguity. This may be technically true but it misses the point: Iraq was not attacked on the premise that they may have a few leftover chemical shells filled with mustard gas or that they may, at some unspecified future date, restart WMD programs. Iraq was attacked on the premise that Hussein’s active, reconstituted nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs represent a clear and imminent threat to the security of the United States.
It was bullshit then, and it is bullshit today.
I was already blogging 10 years ago, perhaps blogging more than these days as before the advent of social media, almost no-one ever yelled back. Anyhow, we are now rapidly approaching the anniversary of the day I dubbed “black Thursday” in my blog (I actually changed the background color to black, causing me no small amount of grief when years later, I converted my static HTML blog by writing a simple homebrew blog engine and I had to write workaround code to process the custom formatting.)
Back then, I used to express my disappointment and disgust with the campaign of lies that led up to this war by presenting some relevant statistics in my blog. Perhaps this is a good opportunity to do it again:
|War budget requested by President Bush, assuming hostilities end in 30 days||$75,000,000,000.00|
|Actual cost of the Iraqi war to the US and allies according to the LA Times||$1,700,000,000,000.00|
|Weapons of Mass Destruction found in Iraqi possession||0|
|Number of people killed in the 9/11 terrorist attacks||2,996|
|Number of US troops killed in Iraq||4,409|
|Number of US troops wounded in Iraq||31,926|
|Number of Iraqi civilians killed, conservative estimate by Iraq Body Count||~120,000|
|Debt-to-GDP ratio of the United States (public debt) at Bush’s inauguration||56%|
|Debt-to-GDP ratio of the United States at the end of Bush’s term||84%|
And the end result of this valiant effort? Iraq is now strongly under the influence of Iran, which became a major regional power that is no longer contained by Saddam Hussein’s regime. The credibility of the United States remains low. The United States economy is hindered by a recession that is combined with debt-to-GDP levels unprecedented since the end of WW2.
And it took another president, Barack Hussein Obama, to find and kill the mastermind behind the September 11 attacks, Osama bin Laden… who, incidentally, was not in any way connected with Saddam Hussein’s regime.
I arrived back from Dallas late last night, after an uneventful flight.
While in Dallas, I decided to re-visit the site of Kennedy’s assassination. I had a very good reason to do so: I wanted to photograph the actual school book depository this time.
You know, when you stand on that corner, there is a very prominent red building that looks just like the place: it’s on the corner, it’s red brick, it even has a museum store at its ground floor. Nonetheless, it’s not the building you are looking for. 501 Elm Street is not the former school book depository; it is called the Dal-Tex Building, and except for some conspiracy theories, it has nothing to do with Kennedy’s murder.
No, the right building looks a lot more inconspicuous from street level, hidden by some large trees.
The place where I was standing was in fact the very spot where Kennedy was hit. Or rather, the sidewalk nearest to the spot; I didn’t think it would be a good idea to try to stand in the middle of a traffic lane. In any case, while a small white X does mark the spot on the asphalt, there is an actual plaque next to the sidewalk that is a tad more informative.
While I was walking towards the Kennedy site, I saw some strange buildings. In fact, I noticed them the previous day already, but as I was trying to hide from the occasional squalls of rain, I took no pictures then. Amidst well maintained office towers, sparkling clean streets and whatnot, I was confronted by the sight of several entire office towers that were empty and abandoned.
Weird. Is this a sign of a bad economy hitting Dallas, or just the normal fate of office buildings past their prime, waiting for orderly demolition?
And on my way back to my hotel, I saw something that made me laugh real hard. Wednesday was a cold day by Dallas standards, only about +10 degrees Centigrade, and a strong wind on top of that. The few people who braved the sidewalks looked like they were dressed for an arctic expedition. (I was just wearing an ordinary man’s jacket. I wonder what they thought of my attire.) So I was walking down this street and suddenly, I came across this bunch of flying rats, I mean city pigeons, huddling on a grating embedded in the sidewalk, which was presumably venting warm air.
A pity that there were no stray cats nearby.
Anyhow, my talks delivered, my meetings done, I was ready to fly back to Ottawa, which I did in due order, arriving home at the not altogether ungodly hour of 11 PM, allowing me to enjoy a good night’s sleep in my own bed for a change.
Travel demons were out to get me yesterday. First, my flight from Ottawa to Chicago was canceled and I was rebooked on a later flight. (At least I did get to Dallas eventually.) Next, the Dallas Sheraton was overbooked for whatever reason (maintenance, they say) and instead of being able to go to bed (finally) at 2 AM, I was shuffled over to the Hyatt. (At least it was something nearby, not all the way across town in Fort Worth.) Third, the room the Hyatt first assigned to me turned out to have been already occupied by a very morose person who quite understandably did not take it kindly that someone was trying to barge in on him in the middle of the night. (At least his door was securely locked, so I did not actually manage to barge in.) Fourth, the room I finally ended up in was rather noisy, in part because of a neighbor listening to a very loud television at 4 AM, in part because of the trains right under my window. (At least I was on a high floor.)
Yet if things didn’t turn out this way, I would not have woken up to a very unexpected, deeply historic sight through my window.
Yes, the infamous Book Depository building. The very place from which Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly fired his fatal bullet, when I was just a few months old.
In a wood frame house in which four cats roam, placing an actual burning candle in a window would be an invitation for disaster, so allow me to use this virtual candle flame to mark our remembrance of the six million Jews and countless other souls who were murdered wholesale in the Shoah, also known as The Holocaust. I wish I could say with absolute certainty that it will never happen again…