I admit that to date, I only viewed the first season of Game of Thrones. One of these days, I’ll watch the rest but there’s so much good television and so little time… I don’t spend much time watching TV, so I am behind even with series that I really like. (Hint: haven’t yet finished the last season of The Sopranos.)

Yet… I get the catch phrase. Winter is coming. And yes, I am filled with a sensation of dread because winter, indeed, is coming. quite possibly the world’s worst winter since… 1914? 1939? 1941? Not sure.

For some reason, I keep thinking about a silly but perhaps relevant analogy: the flight envelope. Move too slow, your airplane falls out of the sky. Move too fast and your airplane is overstressed and disintegrates. The higher your altitude, the smaller the difference between the two, until eventually you run out of options: no matter what you do, you fall out of the sky. That was the tragic fate of AF447 over the Atlantic Ocean 13 years ago.

And I now feel that geopolitics is locked in a very similar pattern. With each and every passing day, our options are becoming more constrained. Take Putin’s nuclear threat, combined with the sham referenda he’s organizing in the occupied Ukrainian territories. He says he’s not bluffing. What if he means it? What are our options if he does deploy a tactical nuke in the battlefield?

There really are no good choices.

If we do nothing, that will only encourage him to go for more. The rest of Ukraine. Moldova. A Kaliningrad corridor. Perhaps the Baltic states since if NATO failed to respond to nukes in Ukraine out of fear of triggering a nuclear world war, he can count on NATO’s restraint in the Baltics, too. Where will he stop? Will he stop?

If we respond tit-for-tat, with a NATO tactical nuke, that risks escalation. The genie is now truly out of the bottle.

The best option I can think of is to use all of NATO’s might to do two things: 1) immediately establish a no-fly zone over all of Ukraine, and 2) use a direct, overwhelming conventional strike to annihilate the unit that launched the nuke.

This still carries the risk of escalation. But at least it would show that the West is not afraid to respond, it just calibrates its response appropriately: to deter, but not to escalate. And of course telegraph this well in advance, to make it clear to Putin that unlike him, the West really isn’t bluffing.

Yet I cannot escape the thought of that flight envelope. When the difference between your minimum speed and your top speed gets reduced to nothing, that means you have no good options left. Whatever you do, you fall out of the sky.

Winter is coming. A winter bringing with it the risk of escalation in Ukraine. A global food crisis as a result of the Ukraine war. An energy crisis (which may be mitigated but cannot be fully averted) in Europe. Growing tensions concerning Taiwan. A democracy crisis throughout the West as right-wing populism prevails and the rule of law suffers.

I am increasingly convinced that October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis, was a pleasant afternoon tea in a kindergarten, surrounded by friendly teddy bears, compared to what we now face, in the fall of 2022.

Back then, the choices were clear and the major players shared a common goal: avoid global confrontation.

Today? The choices are murky and we have leaders who built cults on the shared belief that they are all victims. That they have no choice but to defend themselves. From what, you ask? Well, how about defending yourself from the rule of law when you want to break it. Defending yourself from a country you attacked and tried to destroy or occupy. Defending yourself from a territory that does not want to live under your one-party totalitarian regime. Of course they do not see things this way. And that’s what make things scary.

And that’s why I worry that winter, indeed, is coming, a kind of winter we have not seen in many generations, if ever.

From the opening scenes of the Fallout 3 computer game:

War. War never changes.
Since the dawn of human kind,
when our ancestors first discovered
the killing power of rock and bone,
blood has been spilled in the name
of everything: from God to justice
to simple, psychotic rage.

I looked up a book, States of Matter by David Goodstein, yesterday on Amazon, thinking about purchasing it. Except that Amazon told me that I last purchased this book on February 12, 2020.

I did?

I quickly checked my library database. Many-many years ago, I did a complete inventory of all our books, and since then, I’ve been keeping that database meticulously updated. New books that come to our house land on my desk and stay there until I enter them into the database. This is the only way to keep that database synchronized with reality.

The Goodstein book is not in the database.

I do not remember ordering it. I do not remember receiving it. Yet it clearly happened: The credit card transaction is there, duly entered into my books. The e-mails from Amazon, duly archived in the appropriate folder.

Now it is true that it happened just two and a half weeks before my last overseas trip. Could it be that I simply forgot about this order in the days leading up to my travel, and then never realized that the order failed to arrive? Perhaps. But then, why do I remember clearly other books that I ordered around the same timeframe? Besides, though my trip was upcoming it was not that close; this order and the supposed delivery happened two weeks before my departure.

I would be less suspicious, mind you, were it not for the fact that another weird thing happened yesterday. I have a tiny promotional toy sitting on my monitor. Yesterday, I found its identical twin brother in a box in which I was looking for something else altogether. This is definitely beginning to feel like that moment in The Matrix when Neo sees a black cat cross the hall… and then, a moment later, the same black cat cross the same hall in the same direction once again.

Still doesn’t help me with the Goodstein book. Should I keep looking for it? Under the rug, perhaps? Cat dragged it off to the litter box? Or should I just write it off and buy another copy?

In recent weeks, I came across two quotes that are worth recording here.

As I watch Florida’s governor playing cheap board games with the lives of Venezuelan refugees, I recall the words of Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco:

We need an enemy to give people hope. Someone said that patriotism is the last refuge of cowards: those without moral principles usually wrap a flag around themselves, and the bastards always talk about the purity of the race. National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion. The enemy is the friend of the people. You always want someone to hate in order to feel justified in your own misery. Hatred is the primordial passion. It is love that’s abnormal.

The hypocrisy of those who cry the loudest for freedom was already evident two centuries prior, to British author Dr. Samuel Johnson:

How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?

The more times change, the more they remain the same, I guess.

One of the many novels by prolific 1930s Hungarian author Jenő Rejtő featured a horrific penal colony somewhere in colonial French Africa. Near the end of the novel, one of the minor protagonists, the military commander of the colony, already in retirement in Rome, recalls the past. As he enjoys the beautiful view from his window, he thinks that “and right now, Bahr el Sudan also exists for sure, and Tiguer, the corporal with the red moustache, is just now hanging a wet blanket, which smells like horses, over the window. This is a strange and unsettling notion.

Sometimes I feel the same way, not so much with respect to distant places in the present, but distant places in the past.

Take this image, a montage of two photographs taken from a wonderful Hungarian photographic archive that someone just shared on Facebook, showing an intersection in downtown Budapest, not far from where I grew up.

The picture predates us living there but not by much; it was taken in 1961, we moved there in 1967, but everything looked pretty much the same. I know this intersection like the back of my hand: the stores, the buildings, everything.

And when I view this image, it comes to life in my mind. It feels tangibly real. I can even smell the smells: the smell of freshly ground coffee (I even remember the noise made by the electric grinder) in that deli store on the corner, the smell of paint and household solvents permeating the hardware store next door. The sound made by those trolley buses as they rolled down the cobblestoned street (only the intersection was asphalt-paved at the time) as it even rattled our fourth-floor living room windows.

It all feels so real… it is a deeply unsettling thought that I am separated from what is depicted in this image not just by distance but also by time. The view that I am looking at is older than I am, as it was taken 62 years ago.

Oops. It’s past midnight already, so technically it was yesterday but to me it is still today, September 12.

The sixtieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous “we choose to go to the Moon” speech. How many more years before another human sets foot on the Moon?

Oh, and it was thirty years ago that Ildiko and I became married.

Yup, that’s us; 1979 vs. 2019.

In the wake of the passing of Elizabeth II, there are once again voices advocating that Canada should shed its “colonial past”, get rid of the institution of monarchy, and transform itself into a republic.

I think it’s an absolutely horrible idea. Why? Well… let me present the ten countries at the top of the 2021 Freedom in the World index:

 Finland Parliamentary Republic Norway Constitutional Monarchy Sweden Constitutional Monarchy New Zealand Constitutional Monarchy Canada Constitutional Monarchy Netherlands Constitutional Monarchy Uruguay Presidential Republic Australia Constitutional Monarchy Denmark Constitutional Monarchy Ireland Parliamentary Republic

Notice that seven out of these ten countries are constitutional monarchies (four of them, in fact, under the same monarch.)

Let me present, in contrast, the ten countries at the bottom of the list:

 Central African Republic Presidential Republic Tajikistan Presidential Republic Somalia Parliamentary Republic Saudi Arabia Absolute Monarchy Equatorial Guinea Presidential Republic North Korea Socialist Republic Turkmenistan Presidential Republic South Sudan Federal Republic Eritrea Presidential Republic Syria Presidential Republic

With the sole exception of Saudi Arabia (an absolute monarchy) all of them are republics.

I think these lists speak for themselves.

Thankfully, changing the Canadian constitution is a monumental task and I doubt any major political party would have the appetite to initiate something like this.

As for the “colonial past”, this excessive wokeness is beginning to sound almost as crazy as the convoy nutbags’ cries for “freedom”. Enough with the insanity already. Stop trying to turn this wonderful country into a battleground between two competing insane asylums.

Queen Elizabeth II has died.

Inspired by the story of that carbonized loaf that survived the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, my beautiful wife surprised us this morning with a loaf of bread, made according to a recreation of the Roman recipe:

It’s yummy. Looks great and tastes great, too. Those pesky Romans knew what they were doing.

A few days ago I had a silly thought about the metric tensor of general relativity.

This tensor is usually assumed to be symmetric, on account of the fact that even if it has an antisymmetric part, $$g_{[\mu\nu]}dx^\mu dx^\nu$$ will be identically zero anyway.

But then, nothing constrains $$g_{\mu\nu}$$ to be symmetric. Such a constraint should normally appear, in the Lagrangian formalism of the theory, as a Lagrange-multiplier. What if we add just such a Lagrange-multiplier to the Einstein-Hilbert Lagrangian of general relativity?

That is, let’s write the action of general relativity in the form,

$$S_{\rm G} = \int~d^4x\sqrt{-g}(R – 2\Lambda + \lambda^{[\mu\nu]}g_{\mu\nu}),$$

where we introduced the Lagrange-multiplier $$\lambda^{[\mu\nu]}$$ in the form of a fully antisymmetric tensor. We know that

$$\lambda^{[\mu\nu]}g_{\mu\nu}=\lambda^{[\mu\nu]}(g_{(\mu\nu)}+g_{[\mu\nu]})=\lambda^{[\mu\nu]}g_{[\mu\nu]},$$

since the product of an antisymmetric and a symmetric tensor is identically zero. Therefore, variation with respect to $$\lambda^{[\mu\nu]}$$ yields $$g_{[\mu\nu]}=0,$$ which is what we want.

But what about variation with respect to $$g_{\mu\nu}?$$ The Lagrange-multipliers represent new (non-dynamic) degrees of freedom. Indeed, in the corresponding Euler-Lagrange equation, we end up with new terms:

$$\frac{\partial}{\partial g_{\alpha\beta}}(\sqrt{-g}\lambda^{[\mu\nu]}g_{[\mu\nu]})= \frac{1}{2}g^{\alpha\beta}\sqrt{-g}\lambda^{[\mu\nu]}g_{[\mu\nu]}+\sqrt{-g}\lambda^{[\mu\nu]}(\delta^\alpha_\mu\delta^\beta_\nu-\delta^\alpha_\nu\delta^\beta_\mu)=2\sqrt{-g}\lambda^{[\mu\nu]}=0.$$

But this just leads to the trivial equation, $$\lambda^{[\mu\nu]}=0,$$ for the Lagrange-multipliers. In other words, we get back General Relativity, just the way we were supposed to.

So in the end, we gain nothing. My silly thought was just that, a silly exercise in pedantry that added nothing to the theory, just showed what we already knew, namely that the antisymmetric part of the metric tensor contributes nothing.

Now if we were to add a dynamical term involving the antisymmetric part, that would be different of course. Then we’d end up with either Einstein’s attempt at a unified field theory (with the antisymmetric part corresponding to electromagnetism) or Moffat’s nonsymmetric gravitational theory. But that’s a whole different game.

I am reading the story of the second atomic bombing, the bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.

It succeeded against all odds, after almost everything that could possibly go wrong, did.

Like, having a plutonium core bouncing around on the floor of an airplane in turbulence.

A misunderstood radio message (that was itself sent in clear violation of the rules of radio silence) that led many on the ground believe that the B-29 carrying the bomb was lost.

A failed rendezvous attempt that caused the airplane, already hindered by a faulty pump, to burn precious fuel.

A bomb that was incorrectly assembled, leading to a late-night repair that involved using a soldering iron, powered by a string of extension cords connecting two an outlet two rooms away, in the presence of high explosives.

And last but definitely not least, a bomb that appeared to arm itself mid-flight, with an ominous, blinking red light, and a crew that was frantically looking for the reason in the manual, until finally they reset some switches to the appropriate positions.

Yes, it was wartime. Things don’t always go as planned in wartime. And in the end, the bomb was delivered, Japan surrendered, and WW2 ended without additional bombs, without an invasion that would have been incredibly costly in terms of human lives. And the crew managed to make it to a safe (albeit scary) landing in Okinawa, flying on fumes.

More than 77 years later, August 9, 1945 still marks the last time (for now) when a nuclear weapon was used in anger. When I was a child, I daresay no sane adult believed that we’d live to see, never mind 2022, the year 2000 without nuclear Armageddon. Yet here we are. So maybe there’s hope for us yet.

In the early days of Internet e-mail and Usenet, responding to messages one paragraph, one sentence at a time has become fashionable. For instance, if King Arthur were to have received an e-mail from the silly Frenchmen occupying a castle, accusing the good King of being the son of a hamster mother and a father who smelled of elderberries, he might have responded thusly:

> your mother was a hamster
Are you accusing my Mother of sexual infidelity?
> your father smelled of elderberries
Who're you calling a drunkard, you hopeless retards?

In my experience, electronic conversations using this format often very quickly deteriorated into name-calling, or worse. And I think I can even tell why. Picking and choosing which words to quote and them quoting them out of context is a perfect method to manufacture outrage. So in my personal conversations, with very rare exceptions, I now avoid the quote-reply format altogether. Isn’t it much more pleasant to read a polite, fully formed message?

Thank you for your concerns regarding my parents. I assure you, good Sirs, that my mother was not a member of the rodent family. She bore no resemblance whatsoever to the rodents you mention, either in appearance or behavior. Concerning my father, I clearly recall that he never enjoyed elderberry-flavored beverages. He preferred to enjoy tea, mildly flavored with honey.

The quote-reply format is still okay when it comes to technical discussions, which may readily lend themselves to being presented in the form of individual points, each of which may have a specific technical solution. But in a personal conversation, I think that a fully formed response shows a degree of respect towards the other party and also helps avoid letting the discussion deteriorate into a string of accusations, a bitter argument with ad hominem insults.

Almost two thousand years ago, on August 24, 79 AD, in the fine town of Herculaneum, Celer, slave of Quintus Granius Verus had a loaf of bread baked. The loaf never left the oven and they never had a chance to eat any of it. They were interrupted by the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Celer is known to have survived the cataclysm, as his name later appears on a list of freed slaves. The bread also survived, albeit not in edible form. The carbonized loaf was discovered by archeologists in 1930.

To think… a loaf of bread, intact, in such good shape, the stamp of its owner is clearly visible and legible. And it speaks volumes of a highly organized society, in which such stamped loafs of bread were regularly prepared at communal bakeries.

Darnit, it must have been tasty, too. There are modern recipes attempting to recover the flavor and texture of the original. One of these days, we ought to give it a try.

The reputable think tank, the Atlantic Council, published a list of 23 lessons from the Ukraine war.

The details are well worth reading, but I thought I’d post here a brief summary of the lessons themselves.

1. Lesson for Western diplomacy: Don’t second-guess Ukrainians
2. Lesson for global diplomacy: Putin’s regime can’t be trusted—and needs to be defeated
3. Lesson for US foreign policy: The United States can no longer rely on strategic ambiguity
4. Lesson for US national security: Washington must contend with Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran at the same time
5. Lesson for military operations: Equipment doesn’t win wars. People do.
6. Lesson for military planning: Nimble modern weapons can defeat larger, conventionally armed forces—especially when on the defensive
7. Lesson for deterrence: Troop deployments work better than threats of economic sanctions
8. Lesson for the global economy: The new tools of conflict are economic—and they are powerful
9. Lesson for economic statecraft: Don’t separate sanctions from longer-term foreign-policy objectives
10. Lesson for economic statecraft: Sanctions work, but they are messy and take time
11. Lesson for wartime strategic communications: Influence operations are a day-in, day-out job
12. Lesson for hybrid warfare: Don’t ignore the fundamentals
13. Lesson for the energy sector: Decades of energy diplomacy can disappear with one brutal invasion
14. Lesson for global intelligence: Russia is not ten feet tall
15. Lesson for would-be invaders: You can’t hide preparations for a full-scale invasion
16. Lesson for cybersecurity: The private sector should play a critical military-operational role in cyberspace
17. Lesson for US homeland security: Ignoring the home front is a serious mistake
18. Lesson for US assistance policy: Invest deeply in key resilient partners
19. Lesson for NATO: The Alliance is a uniquely valuable institution that requires enduring political and financial investment
20. Lesson for Ukraine: There’s no way back for relations with Russia
21. Lesson for China: Today’s Ukraine is not tomorrow’s Taiwan
22. Lesson for Middle East policymakers: America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all the alternatives
23. Lesson for Germany and its allies: Seize this moment for a strategic reversal

I fear that there are many more lessons yet to come, some with potentially devastating consequences outside of the conflict zone.

Looks like classic capers are alive and well, even here in sleepy (usually, when free of trucker convoys) Ottawa.

Breaking news: Perhaps one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century, Yousuf Karsh’s immortal portrait of Sir Winston Churchill, was stolen from the Chateau Laurier, with a cheap imitation hung on the wall in its place.

Wow. Thieves with impeccable taste, thieves who appreciate history, still exist. Perhaps not all is lost in this bewildering world.

Of course, it being a photograph, unless it was signed or in some other way marked as special, it’s just, well, a copy. I hope the original negatives are in a safe place. Still, gotta love it. In this day and age of Internet scam artists, such old-school crime…

I have a sign next to our front door, on the inside, warning those who are stepping out:

Occasionally I wonder if I might be overreacting to the state of things in this world. Not today.

I admit, my first reaction was that it must be a satire site. As far as I can tell, it is not.

Now someone please tell me how the world is not one nice, big, comfy insane asylum.

Another thing I’ve been meaning to mention all the way back in May: This new national security policy document, produced by a task force at the University of Ottawa.

It is a sobering read, coming on top of earlier concerns raised by CSIS. The main theme is a degenerating international security environment. But a key concern is democratic backsliding in the United States.

In a section titled Democracy under siege, the authors note that “[w]e are witnessing a renewed contest of ideologies, pitting liberal democracy against autocracy”. Mentioning the protests in Ottawa and elsewhere early in the year, they observe that “[t]he protestors were non-state actors, some of whom advocated for the overthrow of the democratically elected government. […] The protests also involved widespread intimidation of the media […] It also quickly became apparent that there were ties between far-right extremists in Canada and the United States.”

Continuing, they assert that “[t]he protests also pointed to a broader and potentially existential question for Canada: the implications of democratic backsliding in the United States. Should scenarios of widespread political violence in our southern neighbour materialize, how should Canada respond? This question would have been fanciful only a few years ago, but it is very real today.”

So there we have it. Long a de facto guarantor of Canada’s national security, the United States has become a potential source of concern. How can Canada respond? The authors’ conclusions offer little comfort: “We live in an increasingly dangerous and unpredictable world, a reality driven home by recent events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the pandemic, and domestic protests against government health measures. Canada cannot isolate itself from the many and varied security threats facing the world. Our ‘fire-proof’ house has vanished.”

I’ve been wanting to write about this all the way back in April, when folks became rather upset after Florida rejected some school math textbooks. A variety of reasons were cited, including references to critical race theory and things like social-emotional learning.

Many were aghast: Has the political right gone bonkers, seeing shadows even in math textbooks? And to a significant extent, they were correct: when a textbook is rejected because it uses, as an example, racial statistics in a math problem, or heaven forbid, mentions climate change as established observational fact, you can tell that it’s conservative denialism, not genuine concern about children’s education that is at work.

But was there more to these rejections than ludicrous conservative ideology? Having in the past read essays arguing that mathematics education is “white supremacist”, I certainly could not exclude the possibility. Still, it seemed unlikely. That is, until I came across pages like Mrs. Beattie’s Classroom, explaining “How to spark social-emotional learning in your math classroom“.

Holy freaking macaroni! I thought this nonsense exists only in satire, like a famous past Simpsons episode. But no. These good people think the best way to teach children how to do basic math is through questions like “How did today’s math make you feel?” — “What can you do when you feel stressed out in math class?” — “What self-talk can you use to help you persevere?” or even “How can you be a good group member?” The line between reality and satire does not seem to exist anymore.

In light of this, I cannot exactly blame Florida anymore. Conservatives may be living in a deep state of denial when it comes to certain subjects (way too many of them, from women’s health the climate change) but frankly, this nonsense is almost as freakishly crazy. If I were a parent of a school age child in the United States today, I’d be deeply concerned: Does it really boil down to a choice between schools governed by some form of Christian Taliban or wokeism gone berserk?

I think I just realized something about Trump’s popularity among American Evangelicals.

And that is that there’s precious little difference between Trump and the version of god these good folks worship.

The god they worship (and fear) is nothing like the Abrahamic god that I learned about when I studied religion. Not the all-knowing, wise, benevolent heavenly father who is best known for granting his creations free will, and promising them an afterlife that rewards lives lived with decency and compassion, with caring for others.

No, the Evangelical god is a shallow, vain, vengeful creature who keeps strict records of church attendance, and who severely punishes those who do not show due reverence. An omnipotent bully, who doesn’t really much care what you do, how you live your life, so long as you show up for Sunday mass and dutifully pretend devotion. Who, rather than advising you to avoid judging others, encourages you to do so, and who will help you find excuses for your own behavior, including greed, even violence, justifying your life choices even as you trample over the lives of others. A deity that is the enemy of free will: one that you serve best by forcing your views and way of life onto others, through aggressive proselytizing or worse, corrupting the laws of the land to reflect your religion.

The same kind of corrupt, self-aggrendizing personality who uses positions of authority not to serve people but to bully them.

In light of that it should come as no surprise that Trump struck a chord with these good folks. After all, he behaves precisely like their vision of their favorite deity.

As the Rolling Stone article from which I lifted the image above suggests, this is what happens when people embrace a thoroughly unholy (and, I daresay with conviction, un-Christian) union of religion and politics, warping them both in the process.

In 1996, my wife and I went on a cross-country trip, driving to New Orleans and then all the way to California, before we returned to Ottawa.

One novelty during this trip was that we had a cell phone. That was a brand new experience.

Not only that, I had an analog cell phone modem. With that modem, I was able to connect to my server here in Ottawa and even get my e-mail!

Of course, cellular reception was patchy. Once we reached less populated parts of the United States in the west, there was cell phone coverage near population centers but not elsewhere. Still… being connected was an experience. And it was during this trip that we briefly stopped at a parking lot near a secondary highway, and noticed a small sign at the edge of the lot: AT&T was warning contractors to call before digging, marking an optical cable underground. Data! The Internet! That was a serious wow moment.

But all that was 26 years ago. Today I am reading something else: Tanzania is installing Internet service on Mount Kilimanjaro. I wonder if that involves both peaks:

Incidentally, the same Guardian article also tells me that China may have had cellular service on Mount Everest as early as 2007. Wow.

OK, I just made a meme.

Yes, they keep calling.

On an unrelated note, may the unforgettable Nichelle Nichols rest in peace.