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.)

#### November 1999

• Chalabi-connected Iraqi defector “Curveball” – a convicted sex offender and low-level engineer who became the sole source for much of the case that Saddam had WMD, particularly mobile weapons labs – enters Munich seeking a German visa. German intelligence officers describe his information as highly suspect. US agents never debrief Curveball or perform background check. Nonetheless, Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and CIA will pass raw intelligence on to senior policymakers. [Date the public knew: 11/20/05]

#### November 2000

• Congress doubles funding for Iraqi opposition groups to more than $25 million;$18 million is earmarked for Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, which then pays defectors for anti-Iraq tales.

#### February 2001

• “Iraq is probably not a nuclear threat at the present time.” – Donald Rumsfeld
• Saddam “has not developed any significant capability with respect to weapons of mass destruction.” – Colin Powell

#### April 2001

• Lone CIA analyst known only as “Joe” tells top Bush brass that aluminum tubes bought by Iraq can only be for nuclear centrifuges. [Date the public knew: 8/10/03]

#### August 2001

• Memo to CIA from Energy Department experts eviscerates “Joe’s” theory that aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq are for nuclear centrifuges. Memo given to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, who later claims tubes are clear evidence of Iraqi nuke program. [Date the public knew: 5/1/04]

#### September 2001

• Curveball granted German asylum, ceases cooperating. British spy agency MI6 has told CIA that “elements of [his] behavior strike us as typical of… fabricators.” [Date the public knew: 11/20/05]
• Minutes taken by a Rumsfeld aide five hours after the 9/11 attacks: “Best info fast. Judge whether good enough [to] hit SH [Saddam Hussein] @ same time. Not only UBL [Usama bin Laden].”
• Bush briefed by intelligence community that there is no evidence linking Saddam to 9/11. [Date the public knew: 11/22/05]

#### October 2001

• Cherry-picking is now official policy: Rumsfeld sets up own intelligence unit to look for Iraqi links to terrorism. [Date the public knew: 10/24/04]

#### November 2001

• Iraqi “general” later revealed as bogus Chalabi plant claims to have witnessed the Iraqi military training Arab fighters to hijack airplanes. [Date the public knew: 3/1/06]

#### December 2001

• Cheney claims 9/11 hijacker Mohammed Atta met with Iraqi spy in Prague, a claim he’ll repeat long after CIA and Czechs disavow.

#### January 2002

• Under torture in Egypt, Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, top Al Qaeda paramilitary trainer, captured in Pakistan, invents tale of Al Qaeda operatives receiving chemical weapons training from Iraq. “This is the problem with using the waterboard. They get so desperate that they begin telling you what they think you want to hear,” a CIA source later tells ABC. [Date the public knew: 11/18/05]

#### February 2002

• DIA intelligence summary notes that Libi’s “confession” lacks details and suggests that he is most likely telling interrogators what he thinks will “retain their interest.” Also states: “Saddam’s regime is intensely secular and is wary of Islamic revolutionary movements. Moreover, Baghdad is unlikely to provide assistance to a group it cannot control.” [Date the public knew: 10/26/05]

#### March 2002

• Joe Wilson tells CIA there’s no indication that Iraq is buying yellowcake. [Date the public knew: 7/6/03]
• First of Downing Street memos prepared by Tony Blair’s top national security aides. “There is no greater threat now than in recent years that Saddam will use WMD.” British intel reports that there’s only “sporadic and patchy” evidence of Iraqi WMD. “There is no intelligence on any [biological weapons] production facilities.” [Date the public knew: 9/18/04]
• Downing Street memo: “US scrambling to establish a link between Iraq and Al Qaida is so far frankly unconvincing…We are still left with a problem of bringing public opinion to accept the imminence of a threat from Iraq…Regime change does not stack up. It sounds like a grudge between Bush and Saddam.” [Date the public knew: 9/18/04]
• Saddam “is actively pursuing nuclear weapons at this time.” – Cheney on CNN
• Downing Street memo: “There has been no credible evidence to link Iraq with Al Qaida…In the documents so far presented it has been hard to glean whether the threat from Iraq is so significantly different from that of Iran or North Korea as to justify action.” [Date the public knew: 9/18/04]
• Pakistani forces capture Al Qaeda “operations chief ” Abu Zubaydah and CIA ferrets him away to underground interrogation facility in Thailand. Bush told he’s mentally unstable and really only Al Qaeda’s travel agent. [Date the public knew: 11/2/05]

#### April 2002

• Bush calls Zubaydah one of “top operating officials of Al Qaeda, plotting…murder.” Later asks Tenet, “I said he was important; you’re not going to let me lose face on this are you?…Do some of those harsh methods really work?” Zubaydah is then tortured and speaks of all variety of plots. [Date the public knew: 6/20/06]

#### May 2002

• Primary corroborator of Curveball’s claims that Iraq has mobile weapons labs is judged a liar and Chalabi plant by DIA. A fabricator warning is posted in US intelligence databases. [Date the public knew: 3/28/04]
• Based on statements made by Zubaydah, FBI warns of attacks against railroads, Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Liberty, and rushes agents to sites. [Date the public knew: 6/20/06]

#### Summer 2002

• French debunk yellowcake theory: “We told the Americans, ‘Bullshit. It doesn’t make any sense,’” says French official. [Date the public knew: 12/11/05]

#### June 2002

• To a deputy raising doubts about Iraq war, Rice says: “Save your breath. The president has already made up his mind.” [Date the public knew: 1/7/04]

#### August 2002

• “We may or may not attack. I have no idea yet.” – Bush. “There are Al Qaeda in Iraq…There are.” – Rumsfeld. “There is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends…and against us.” – Cheney

#### September 2002

• Tyler Drumheller, CIA’s European operations chief, calls German Embassy in Washington seeking access to Curveball. Germans warn he’s “crazy” and “probably a fabricator.” [Date the public knew: 11/20/05]
• “From a marketing point of view you don’t introduce new products in August.” – White House Chief of Staff Andy Card on rollout of the war
• Bush claims a new UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report states Iraq is six months from developing a nuclear weapon. There is no such report.
• Page 1 Times story by Judith Miller and Michael Gordon cites anonymous administration officials saying Saddam has repeatedly tried to acquire aluminum tubes “specially designed” to enrich uranium. “The first sign of a ‘smoking gun,’ they argue, may be a mushroom cloud.”
• Tubes “are only really suited for nuclear weapons programs…we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” – Rice on CNN
• “We do know, with absolute certainty, that he is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon.” – Cheney on Meet the Press
• Bush repeats aluminum-tube claim before UN General Assembly.
• Cheney tells Rush Limbaugh: “What’s happening, of course, is we’re getting additional information that, in fact, Hussein is reconstituting his biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons programs.” There is no such new intel.
• American relatives of Iraqis sent as CIA moles return from Iraq. All 30 report Saddam has abandoned WMD programs. Intel buried in the CIA bureaucracy. President Bush never briefed. [Date the public knew: 1/3/06]
• Rumsfeld tells Congress that Saddam “has amassed large, clandestine stockpiles of chemical weapons, including VX, sarin, and mustard gas.”
• Classified UK memo notes there’s “no definitive intelligence that [the aluminum tubes are] destined for a nuclear programme.” [Date the public knew: 9/24/02]
• Institute for Science and International Security releases report calling the aluminum- tube intelligence ambiguous and warning that “U.S. nuclear experts who dissent from the Administration’s position are expected to remain silent. ‘The President has said what he has said, end of story,’ one knowledgeable expert said.”
• Britain releases dossier to public saying Iraq could launch biological or chemical attack within 45 minutes. Dossier later determined to be “sexed up.”
• “You can’t distinguish between Al Qaeda and Saddam when you talk about the war on terror.” – Bush
• Citing Libi intel, Rice says: “High-ranking detainees have said that Iraq provided some training to Al Qaeda in chemical weapons development.”
• Classified DIA assessment of Iraq’s chemical weapons concludes there is “no reliable information on whether Iraq is producing and stockpiling chemical weapons.” [Date the public knew: 5/30/03]
• In a Rose Garden speech, Bush says: “The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons.”
• Rumsfeld calls link between Iraq and Al Qaeda “accurate and not debatable.”
• Bush’s address to nation: “The Iraqi regime possesses biological and chemical weapons, is rebuilding the facilities to make more, and, according to the British government, could launch a biological or chemical attack in as little as 45 minutes after the order is given.”

#### October 2002

• National Intelligence Estimate produced. It warns that Iraq “is reconstituting its nuclear program” and “has now established large-scale, redundant and concealed BW agent production capabilities” – an assessment based largely on Curveball’s statements. But NIE also notes that the State Department has assigned “low confidence” to the notion of “whether in desperation Saddam would share chemical or biological weapons with Al Qaeda.” Cites State Department experts who concluded that “the tubes are not intended for use in Iraq’s nuclear weapons program.” Also says “claims of Iraqi pursuit of natural uranium in Africa” are “highly dubious.” Only six senators bother to read all 92 pages. [Date the public knew: 7/18/03]
• Administration decides not to take out Abu Musab al-Zarqawi because, though he is not yet working with Al Qaeda, any terrorist in Iraq helps case for war. “People were more obsessed with developing the coalition to overthrow Saddam than to execute the president’s policy of preemption against terrorists,” a former NSC member later says. [Date the public knew: 3/2/04]
• Asked by Sen. Graham to make gist of NIE public, Tenet produces 25-page document titled “Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs.” It says Saddam has them and omits dissenting views contained in the classified NIE.
• Knight Ridder reports: “Several senior administration officials and intelligence officers, all of whom spoke only on the condition of anonymity, charged that the decision to publicize one analysis of the aluminum tubes and ignore the contrary one is typical of the way the administration has been handling intelligence about Iraq.”
• NSC memo to White House warning of the Niger uranium claim: “The evidence is weak…the Africa story is overblown.” [Date the public knew: 4/23/06]
• Bush delivers a speech in which he says, “Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof – the smoking gun – that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Also says Iraq is exploring ways of using drones to target the US, although Iraq’s drones have a reach of only 300 miles.
• CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin, writing for Tenet, sends a letter to Congress declaring that the likelihood of Saddam using WMD unless attacked is “very low.”
• Knight Ridder reports: “[...] officials charge that administration hawks have exaggerated evidence of the threat that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein poses… ‘Analysts [...] are feeling very strong pressure [...] to cook the intelligence books,’ said one official”

#### December 2002

• Iraq submits a 12,200-page declaration to the UN documenting all its unconventional arms. US discredits the report because it does not mention the tubes or the Niger uranium.
• Asked by Bush if there’s any reason to doubt existence of WMD, Tenet says: “It’s a slam-dunk case.” [Date the public knew: 4/17/04]

#### January 2003

• CIA balks at being made to bolster weak WMD intel. In a heated conversation with Scooter Libby, CIA’s McLaughlin says: “I’m not going back to the well on this. We’ve done our work.” [Date the public knew: 10/3/05]
• “The Iraqi regime is a threat to any American.” – Bush
• After nearly two months, UN’s Hans Blix says his inspectors have not found any “smoking guns” in Iraq.
• IAEA tells Washington Post, “It may be technically possible that the tubes could be used to enrich uranium, but you’d have to believe that Iraq deliberately ordered the wrong stock and intended to spend a great deal of time and money reworking each piece.”
• UN press release: “It would appear… Iraq had decided in principle to… bring the disarmament task to completion through the peaceful process of inspection.” Weapons inspectors have examined 106 locations and found “no evidence that Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons programme.”
• In State of the Union, Bush says “the 16 words”: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa.” Bush adds Saddam has “tried to purchase high-strength aluminum tubes suitable for nuclear weapons production” and has “mobile biological weapons labs.”
• “Iraq poses a serious and mounting threat to our country.” – Rumsfeld
• Notes of meeting between Bush and Blair make clear Bush intends to invade Iraq even if UN inspectors found no evidence of WMD. Bush told Blair he’d considered “flying U2 reconnaissance planes…over Iraq, painted in UN colours” to tempt Iraqi forces to fire on them, which would constitute a breach of UN resolutions. [Date the public knew: 2/3/06]

#### February 2003

• During UN speech rehearsal, Powell throws draft written by Libby into the air and says: “I’m not reading this. This is bullshit.” [Date the public knew: 6/9/03]
• After reading draft of Powell’s speech, CIA agent emails his superior with concerns about “the validity of the information based on ‘CURVE BALL.’” Noting he’s the only US agent to have ever met Curveball (who was hung over at the time), the agent asks: “We sure didn’t give much credence to this report when it came out. Why now?” Deputy head of CIA’s Iraqi Task Force responds: “Let’s keep in mind the fact that this war’s going to happen regardless of what Curveball said or didn’t say…the Powers That Be probably aren’t terribly interested in whether Curveball knows what he’s talking about.” [Date the public knew: 7/9/04]
• CIA’s Drumheller makes personal appeal to Tenet to delete Curveball’s intel from UN speech. [Date the public knew: 6/25/06]
• Powell asks Tenet to personally assure intel for speech is good. Tenet does. [Date the public knew: 6/25/06]
• In UN speech, Powell says, “Every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.” Cites Libi’s claims and Curveball’s “eyewitness” accounts of mobile weapons labs. (German officer who supervised Curveball’s handler will later recall thinking, “Mein Gott!”) Powell also claims that Saddam’s son Qusay has ordered WMD removed from palace complexes; that key WMD files are being driven around Iraq by intelligence agents; that bioweapons warheads have been hidden in palm groves; that a water truck at an Iraqi military installation is a “decontamination vehicle” for chemical weapons; that Iraq has drones it can use for bioweapons attacks; and that WMD experts have been corralled into one of Saddam’s guest houses. All but the last of those claims had been flagged by the State Department’s own intelligence unit as “WEAK.” [Date the public knew: 7/18/03]
• Reiterating Powell’s claim, Bush says an Iraqi drone loaded with bioweapons could strike US mainland. The US Air Force is on the record as saying that “the small size of Iraq’s new UAV strongly suggests a primary role of reconnaissance.” [Date the public knew: 9/26/03]
• UN’s Team Bravo, led by American bioweapons experts, searches Curveball’s former work site in Iraq and disproves many of his claims. [Date the public knew: 11/20/05]
• In radio address to the nation, Bush warns that “firsthand witnesses [read: Curveball] have informed us that Iraq has at least seven mobile factories” for germ warfare.
• Blix again tells UN Security Council that Iraq appears to be cooperating with inspectors.
• “UN weapons inspectors are being seriously deceived… It reminds me of the way the Nazis hoodwinked Red Cross officials.” – Perle
• US diplomat John Brady Kiesling resigns, citing the “distortion of intelligence” and “systematic manipulation of American opinion.”

#### March 2003

• IAEA official tells US that the Niger uranium documents were forgeries so error-filled that “they could be spotted by someone using Google.”
• Blix tells UN Security Council that there’s “no evidence” of mobile bioweapons facilities in Iraq.
• “After three months of intrusive inspections, we have to date found no evidence or plausible indication of the revival of a nuclear weapon program in Iraq.”—IAEA’s ElBaradei
• On CNN, Joe Wilson says, “I think it’s safe to say that the US government should have or did know that [the Niger documents were] fake before Dr. ElBaradei mentioned it in his report at the UN yesterday.” Decision to discredit Wilson made at a meeting within the Office of the Vice President. [Date the public knew: 5/3/04]
• “We are doing everything we can to avoid war in Iraq.” – Bush
• Cheney on Meet the Press: “We believe he has, in fact, reconstituted nuclear weapons.” (Cheney later claims he misspoke.)
• Washington Post article headlined “Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq” notes, “As the Bush administration prepares to attack Iraq this week, it is doing so on the basis of a number of allegations against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that have been challenged – and in some cases disproved – by the United Nations, European governments and even U.S. intelligence reports.” Story is buried on Page A13.
• War begins.

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.

Amazing.

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…

I came across this image on a Facebook page dedicated to the former glory of the Soviet Union. It is titled “Russia and the USSR: similar, yet noticeably different.”

There is, unfortunately, far too much truth in what the image depicts. It does not make me wish for Soviet times to return, but it does make me wonder why so much good had to be thrown away along with the bad.

I was reading about Kim Jong Un’s unusual New Year’s message when I came across this video, a documentary by Dutch filmmaker Pieter Fleury, titled North Korea: A day in the life:

Even though it’s a few years old (it was made in 2004) and despite the fact that it was obviously made under the watchful eyes of North Korea’s censors, it still speaks volumes about the world’s last Stalinist state.

I am so not into “franchise” novels, novels that are written-to-order, set in the universe of an established franchise like Star Trek. Like franchise computer games, franchise novels tend to be hollow, weak, transparent attempts to capitalize from the success of the original work.

I like Star Trek. Over the years, I did read the occasional Star Trek “franchise” story, but they did not leave much of an impression. So I was not particualrly motivated to read another.

That said, when I recently read about Provenance of Shadows by David R. George III, a franchise novel written to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the series, for reasons I can no longer recall I became sufficiently intrigued to read the sample chapters on Google Books. They were enough to get me to buy the book. I do not regret doing so.

This book tells the story of an alternate timeline. Namely, the alternate timeline created by the events in the famous Star Trek episode “The City at the Edge of Forever”, in which Dr. McCoy finds himself in 1930 and, as we later learn, by preventing the death of a social worker, gravely alters history. The social worker, Edith Keeler, is a devoted pacifist; in the alternate timeline, she launches a pacifist movement that becomes powerful enough to delay the entry of the United States into World War II. This gives Hitler a chance to achieve victory on the Eastern Front, Japan a chance to conquer much of the South Pacific including New Zealand and parts of Australia, and most alarmingly, gives the Nazi atomic bomb project a head start.

I find this “alternate history” timeline compellingly believable. We tend to think that the defeat of the Nazis was a historical inevitability but it was by no means preordained. Suppose the United States adopts a different posture in the Pacific in the late 1930s and early 1940s, so that Japan has easier access to raw materials and oil, and feels less threatened by the US Navy. Suppose this convinces Japan that defeating the US is not a priority. No Pearl Harbor in 1941 means no opportunity for Stalin to move a huge, well-equipped and experienced winter fighting force from Siberia to Moscow, and the first successful Soviet counteroffensive never happens. There is a good chance, then, that Hitler would have captured Moscow in early 1942 and after that, Stalin’s government may have collapsed. With the resources of the Soviet Union secured, Hitler would have finished “pacifying” Western Europe, including Great Britain. Had this happened, the world in which we live would be a very different place today.

McCoy’s struggles to avoid altering history and later, to understand how he altered history, and his struggles to come to term with his own demons both in this alternate history and also, back in the 23rd century in the original timeline, make this book a compelling read. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

I spent a lot of my misguided youth reading science fiction. I particularly liked short stories.

Dormant, written by A. E. Van Vogt, is set in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War and the first atomic explosions. The hero (if it can be called that) of the story is a giant slab of rock, which turns out to be a sentient machine that has lain dormant at the bottom of the sea for untold millions of years until it was woken by trace amounts of radioactive energy as a result of nuclear fallout in the ocean. When this 400-foot slab of rock climbs out of the sea and up a hill, it attracts the attention of the US military, which ultimately decides to destroy it with an atomic weapon. The sudden flood of energy was all Iilah (for the rock had a name) needed to wake up fully and remember its mission; after which, it destroys itself in a gigantic explosion, dislodging the Earth from its orbit and causing it to plunge into the Sun. For Iilah’s purpose was to destroy a solar system. And even if it had known that the war it was designed to fight ended eons ago, robot bombs are not designed to make up their own minds.

This story was written by Van Vogt in the 1940s but much to my delight, I just came across a sequel published on the Web in 2012. Written by a Bruce Munro and titled After Dormancy, it gives humanity, in the author’s own words, “a slightly happier ending…”

I came across this picture on Facebook the other day, a photo of the cheapest car radio made in Hungary back in the 1970s. It was a very basic radio manufactured by Hungary’s dominant electronics manufacturer Videoton. We had the exact same type of radio in the exact same model car (a Lada 1200 if I am not mistaken) when I was in grade school.

The same 49-meter shortwave band that was the preferred band used by Cold War era propaganda stations broadcasting in Hungarian, including Radio Free Europe, Voice of America, the BBC, Deutsche Welle, even The Vatican.

We lived in the town of Visegrad at the time, only 40 km north of Budapest but separated from the capital by some hills. Because of the terrain, reception of Budapest stations was often spotty. Which may explain why this little car radio had trouble tuning to the 2 MW transmitter of Radio Kossuth, located in central Hungary, but had no trouble at all with the reception of the aforementioned propaganda stations; those were always crystal clear.

As to why a communist-era state-owned electronics factory was manufacturing a car radio with such excellent short wave sensitivity, I have no idea. Perhaps, in an early experiment with capitalism, they were trying to respond to market demand?

One of the best known Russian science-fiction authors from the Soviet era, Boris Strugatsky, died today at the age of 79. Together with his brother Arkady (who died in 1991), they wrote some astonishing, unique novels, including some of my favorites: Monday Begins on Saturday and It’s Hard to be a God. But they are perhaps best known for the short story Roadside Picnic, immortalized in film by Andrei Tarkovsky under the title Stalker.

The sordid saga around the resignation of Gen. Petraeus continues. It became such a tangled story, Gawker.com actually published a flowchart to make it easier to decipher.

Meanwhile, however, The Guardian raises some very troubling points:

• In response to Ms. Kelley’s initial complaint about a vaguely offensive e-mail, the FBI devoted substantial resources and engaged in highly invasive surveillance for no reason other than to do a personal favor for a friend of an agent;
• Without any evidence of an actual crime, and without a search warrant, they gained access to Ms. Broadwell’s e-mail account;
• Again, without any evidence of any actual wrongdoing, they also got their hands on e-mails exchanged not only between Ms. Broadwell and Gen. Petraeus but also between her and Gen. Allen.

The Guardian comments about the “sweet justice” aspect of all of this: namely that America’s security surveillance system that is running amok is targeting the very people in charge of that system, such as the head of the CIA. However, I do not share their implied optimism; I don’t think the growth in surveillance will stop anytime soon. We are nowhere near close to anything like the McCarthy era’s pivotal “have you no sense of decency?” moment. For that, a lot more good people will have to be harmed a lot more gravely first.

Today is Remembrance Day. I find it appropriate that this country remembers the sacrifice of its veterans more than the glory of war.

Appropriately, I am reading the autobiography of Claude Choules, the last military veteran to die who served in both World Wars.

I began this blog of mine a little over ten years ago, although it took a bit longer than that before I was able to bring myself around and actually call it a “blog”. (I originally called this a “Day Book”, a term I borrowed from Jerry Pournelle.)

In 2002, I wrote about Brian Herbert’s prequels to his father’s, Frank Herbert’s, Dune series of books.

In 2003, I introduced my Halloween cat. I wrote about Moscow schools banning Halloween. I wrote about electronic voting in Ontario using a Linux-based system, and about a stray cat in our neighborhood that may have been killed by the Humane Society.

In 2004, I wrote about Halloween cats (including our very first cat, Marzipan and his Halloween dance) and about the shutdown of Mirabel airport.

In 2005, I was wondering if Condoleeza Rice, with her glowing eyes, might actually be a Goa’uld System Lord from Stargate SG-1.

In 2006, it was time to celebrate NASA’s decision to reinstate the final Hubble repair mission after all.

In 2007, I was speculating about ant colonies and group consciousness.

In 2008, I had nothing to say. Fittingly, this was the last time I used my old, homebrew blogging engine.

After switching to WordPress, in 2009 I complained about daylight savings time. I still think that switching to daylight savings time is a ridiculous gimmick that does far more harm than good in a post-industrial society.

In 2010, I was complaining about snow in October.

2011 was a scary Halloween indeed: it was on that very day that the world’s population supposedly reached 7 billion. Also on that day, the debt-to-GDP ratio of the United States reached 100%. And there was a major snowstorm in New England.

And here comes 2012, the scariest Halloween yet since I started blogging: a good one third of Manhattan is still in darkness, large sections of New Jersey are ruined, millions are still without power, scores are dead, and the remnants of Sandy are heading in our direction, bringing rain, cold, perhaps even some snow.

But for what it’s worth, Happy Halloween to all!

While Felix Baumgartner was getting ready to jump out of his capsule at an altitude of 39 km to begin his supersonic skydive, something else supersonic was taking place elsewhere: The man who first broke the sound barrier, Chuck Yeager, flew faster than sound again in the back seat of an F-15 Eagle. Way to go, General Yeager! I hope I will be at least half as healthy as you are when I turn 89.

Wow. If these plots are to be believed, Voyager 1 may have reached the heliopause at last:

This is, well, not exactly unexpected but still breathtaking.

The discovery of the heliopause was one of the “holy grail” science objectives of the extended “interstellar” mission of the twin Voyager spacecraft. If confirmed, it means that Voyager 1 is the first man-made object to have entered the interstellar medium, traveling through a region in the outer solar system that is no longer dominated by charged particles from the solar wind. (Gravitationally, this is still very much our Sun’s domain; there are comets out there with elliptical orbits that extend to many thousands of astronomical units.)

Not bad for a spacecraft that was launched over 35 years ago and flew by Saturn just a few months into the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Its twin finished its flyby of Neptune when the Berlin Wall was still standing. And they are both still alive and well. Voyager 1 is more than 120 astronomical units from the Sun these days. It takes about 17 hours for its radio signal to reach the Earth. If all goes well, it has sufficient electrical power to operate its on-board instruments for another decade or so.

55 years ago today, the Space Age began when the Soviet Union launched “Elementary Satellite 1″, better known as Простейший Спутник-1; or, in Latin transliteration, as (Prosteishii) Sputnik-1.

Inadvertently perhaps, but Sputnik-1 also launched what is nowadays called “radio science”: observations that utilize a spacecraft’s radio signal to determine the spacecraft’s position (and thus, the forces that act on the spacecraft) and the properties of the medium through which the signal travels. In the case of Sputnik-1, this meant deducing the density of the upper atmosphere (from the drag force acting on the satellite) and the electromagnetic properties of the ionosphere.

Sputnik-1 spent a total of about three months in orbit (22 days operational) before it fell back to the Earth. By then, the Space Race was running full steam ahead, culminating in the manned Apollo Moon landings in 1969… an accomplishment that, today, seems to be more in the realm of fiction than back in 1957.