Mar 232015

Emmy Noether… not exactly a household name, at least outside of the community of theoretical physicists and mathematicians.

Which is why I was so surprised today when I noticed Google’s March 23 Doodle: a commemoration of Emmy Noether’s 133rd birthday.

Wow. I mean, thank you, Google. What a nice and deserving tribute to one of my heroes.

 Posted by at 11:36 pm
Mar 222015

A British monarch was laid to rest today.

No, you didn’t miss anything in the news. Queen Elizabeth II is still the reigning monarch of the United Kingdom or, for that matter, Canada.

The monarch who was laid to rest is none other than Richard III, the last British monarch to have been killed in battle on home soil, 530 years ago this year.

His remains, however, were only found in 2012 and were not positively identified until some time after.

And now, Richard III has found his final resting place.

 Posted by at 7:28 pm
Nov 112014

Today is Remembrance Day in Canada.

Unlike the Remembrance Days of recent years, today is perfect. The Sun is shining, the temperature is going to hit double digits. It is a sparkling, beautiful, almost unnaturally splendid late autumn day.

The combination of exceptional weather and the recent death of Cpl. Cirillo, gunned down last month while guarding the very memorial where Remembrance Day ceremonies will take place, will bring exceptional crowds.

But today is not a day of celebration. It is a day to remember.

To remember the War to End All Wars, which began exactly 100 years ago. Far from ending all wars, it claimed nearly 40 million lives, and redrew the maps of Europe, laying the groundwork for another, even more devastating war less than a quarter century later. To remember all the dead: not just Canadians, not just Allied soldiers, indeed, not only just soldiers but also civilians who suffered and died in even greater numbers.

To remember, for instance, my wife’s great-grandfather, who served in the Austro-Hungarian army at one of the bloodiest fronts of the Great War, along the Isonzo river in present-day Slovenia. His little notebook [in Hungarian] detailing, often in verse, his horrendous experience in the trenches, was found among the papers left behind by my wife’s father when he died.

To remember my great uncle Béla, who taught me to play chess when I was little and who was the first among elder family members who awakened my interest in science and mathematics. Uncle Béla served in both world wars and (if I remember family lore correctly) even spent some time as a POW. A memento, a stringless balalaika, hung on the wall of their tiny, bathroom-less working-class flat in central Budapest, where he lived with his wife, aunt Flóra, until his death.

To remember my grandfather on my mother’s side, whom I never met, as he passed away a year before I was born. He spent some horrendous months as an army engineer near the Don river; he only escaped the devastating defeat of the Second Hungarian Army (and thus, likely death or long-term captivity in Stalin’s gulag) because he was allowed to return to Budapest after contracting pneumonia. Nonetheless, what he went through there probably contributed to his declining health and the massive stroke or brain hemorrhage that struck him just a few years later and left him severely disabled for the last 15 years of his life. He was several years younger than I am at present when his life effectively came to an end.

His wife, my grandmother, was responsible for keeping a family of six (including a newborn baby and two preschoolers, one of them my Mom) alive and fed through the siege of Budapest, when the family spent an entire winter in a basement bomb shelter, even as she herself was coping with illness that nearly took her life.

As I am writing down these thoughts, I am listening to the musical Johnny Johnson, by Kurt Weill. Weill, well-known for his Threepenny Opera, is one of my favorite 20th century composers. He escaped Germany when the Nazis came to power in 1933, to live the rest of his all too short life (he was only 50 when he died) in the United States. It was here that he composed Johnny Johnson, an astonishing anti-war musical. One of my favorite songs has a German and an American priest preaching in canon on the battlefront to their respective troops: one in German, one in English, but preaching the exact same words. But perhaps the most heart-rending scene is at the very end: the protagonist, Johnny Johnson, is now a toymaker selling his “toys for nice little girls and boys” on the street. Unfortunately, nobody is buying: they are more interested in the speech of a politician just a block away, calling for another war.

The title of Johnny Johnson was inspired by the fact the name appeared on United States casualty rolls more often than any other.

 Posted by at 8:49 am
Sep 192014

Keep-calm-and-carry-on-scanSanity prevailed in Scotland last night.

By a comfortable margin, residents of Scotland rejected (ethnic) nationalism. Whatever their thoughts are about the current government in Westminster, it seems they decided that punishing David Cameron with a “Yes” vote would have amounted to biting off the nose to spite the face.

I always found nationalism distasteful. I don’t care if it is the nationalism of the oppressor or the oppressed. To be sure, it is easy the sympathize with the oppressed. But the solution to nationalist oppression is not to encourage the nationalism of the oppressed (so that they can then go and do some oppressing of their own, like, for instance, Hungarians did with their own minorities during the 1848-49 revolution against Austria). The solution is to put an end to the ideology that led to oppression in the first place. Governments should be responsible for governing the people in the territory that they control, regardless of ethnicity. And fragmenting the world into more, tinier countries in the 21st century just makes no practical sense.

To their credit, the Scots held a referendum with a clear, unambiguous question. “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” No shenanigans about sovereignty-association or a new economic-political partnership. And they seemed entirely civil about it.

Thank you, Scotland, for being wise. For not creating a precedent for the Balkanization of continental Europe.

Now… please don’t do this again, not in my lifetime anyway :-)

 Posted by at 3:20 pm
Aug 152014

The other day, I was watching The Tramp and the Dictator, a documentary about Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film, The Great Dictator, in which I came across this gem:

The speaker is Rep. Martin Dies from Texas, who later became known as the founder of the infamous House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities (initially nicknamed the Dies committee). A month earlier, Mr. Dies also presented his views to a radio audience.

Unfortunately, the words uttered by some anti-immigration politicians and activists today in the United States are little different from the words uttered nearly 80 years ago by Mr. Dies.

 Posted by at 7:38 pm
Aug 042014

One hundred years ago, the British Empire (and, by extension, Canada) declared war on the German Empire. The War to End All Wars began in earnest.

This reminds me that we have in our possession this small hand-sewn notebook which belonged to my wife’s great-grandfather. He served in the Great War, as a conscript in Austria-Hungary’s army. He fought in the trenches against Italy, alongside the Isonzo river.

His notebook was his diary, written mostly in the form of poetry, during some of the heaviest fighting in the summer of 1915.

I have not (yet) made an attempt to translate any of it into English; the content that is linked above is in Hungarian. But pictures are worth a thousand words: here is my wife’s great-grandfather, with his wife, photographed some time before 1914.

 Posted by at 7:15 pm
Jun 282014

Exactly 100 years ago today, a south Slav nationalist teen, Gavrilo Princip, became a part of weaponized history when he shot to death the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, prince Franz Ferdinand along with his wife, Sophie. The shots shattered the dream of the “Century of Reason”: Instead, the 20th century came to be remembered as a century of global upheaval, the two deadliest global wars in history, the birth and ultimately, death of the worst totalitarian empires the world ever saw and the rise of a new kind of empire, as a result of which many now call the 20th century the American Century.


Today should be a day of remembrance. And in many ways it is… especially in Sarajevo, where they just erected a statue of the young assassin who set out to change the world and arguably, became one of history’s most successful rebels ever as a result.

And no, contrary to popular belief, Princip was not eating a sandwich at the time.

 Posted by at 10:26 am
Apr 162014

Am I the only one who feels that the way the situation is escalating in Ukraine is eerily reminiscent of 1980s vintage TV movies depicting the events leading up to WW3?

Probably not.

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…

 Posted by at 7:00 pm
Mar 302014

People or, for that matter, nation states are known by the company they keep.

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:

  1. Armenia
  2. Belarus
  3. Bolivia
  4. Cuba
  5. North Korea
  6. Nicaragua
  7. Sudan
  8. Syria
  9. Venezuela
  10. Zimbabwe

All leading champions of human rights, freedom and democratic values, I see.

 Posted by at 10:57 am
Mar 162014

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.

 Posted by at 6:41 pm
Feb 192014

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.


 Posted by at 1:48 pm
Feb 152014

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.

 Posted by at 9:42 am
Feb 032014

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.

 Posted by at 9:47 pm
Oct 112013

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.

 Posted by at 11:01 am
Sep 202013

Grote_Antenna_WheatonThe world’s first parabolic radio telescope was, astonishingly, built in someone’s back yard.

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.

 Posted by at 2:55 pm
Aug 092013

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.

 Posted by at 2:33 pm
Jul 272013

I was watching RDI’s coverage of the memorial ceremony that was taking place last hour in Lac-Mégantic, the location of the horrific derailment a few weeks ago that claimed so many lives.

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.

 Posted by at 1:10 pm
Jul 172013

The beauty of the picture is misleading.

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.

 Posted by at 6:13 pm
Jul 172013

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.

 Posted by at 4:58 pm