Aug 092017

Here is the kind of news you do not usually expect to see as the lead item of the noon newscast on a local channel in a G7 capital:

I’ve seen stray cats, stray dogs, maybe even stray ferrets… but a stray bull?

I hope it finds its way home soon.

 Posted by at 4:05 pm
Jul 282017

Today my wife and I went out for a walk. We were looking for two monsters.

First, we saw Kumo the spider, standing in the shadow of Maman, the National Gallery’s permanent spider sculpture:

Then, a block away, there was Long-Ma the dragon-horse, loudly snoring in her sleep, occasionally releasing puffs of smoke through her nostrils:

These two mechanical monsters are roaming the streets of Ottawa this weekend, as part of the La Machine street theater event. Even in their sleep, these creatures were magnificently spectacular.

 Posted by at 5:40 pm
Jul 252017

I think I just fell in love (figuratively, not literally) with our former mayor Jim Durrell.

It is because of what Durrell said about the security theater that took place on Canada Day. Forcing people to go through line-ups lasting many hours, herding them like cattle.

It was a disgrace, I thought at the time. It was a demonstration that the terrorists won: we have institutionally succumbed to fear. But I kept my thoughts to myself.

But now a former mayor of this great city said just that, and in no uncertain terms.

Thank you, Jim Durrell. We need more politicians, former or current, to speak the truth.

 Posted by at 12:19 pm
Jul 202017

Within minutes of the posting of my open letter to our Councillor Mr. Fleury, I received a private message from him on Twitter, asking for my phone number. A few hours later, I received a phone call from him. Mr. Fleury took my concerns seriously and offered some important background.

First, he pointed out that as chair of the Ottawa Community Housing Board, he may be the best qualified Councillor when it comes to the subject of the Salvation Army shelter.

He then elaborated on three important points. He acknowledged that the status quo, the Salvation Army’s present, run-down downtown location is not acceptable. He emphasized that the city very much welcomes the Salvation Army’s $50 million proposed investment. But he pointed out that studies suggest that decentralized solutions should be preferred, and that he would very much like the Salvation Army to engage in a process involving the city and its residents, rather than making unilateral decisions that might affect the lives of many of us in Ottawa.

We then both briefly lamented on the fact that it is impossible to control which soundbites in an interview make it to a broadcast or how those soundbites are interpreted when they are presented out of context. (On that note, I hope I am summarizing Mr. Fleury’s points accurately and coherently.)

I very much appreciated this call by Mr. Fleury. It showed that he is taking our concerns seriously, that he is more of a leading voice on this topic than news reports suggest, and that he responds to criticism in a meaningful, constructive way. In short, my trust in Mr. Fleury is not misplaced.

 Posted by at 12:24 pm
Jul 202017

Dear Mr. Fleury:

I was listening this morning to a soundbite on the morning news, your Clintonesque explanation of the difference between meetings and consultations.

Please don’t do this.

I chose to vote for you back in 2010, as I decided that despite being a newcomer, you can be trusted. My trust did not appear misplaced; I voted for you again in 2014.

But now you are giving me reason to pause. Suddenly, you are not a leader but a follower of the NIMBY crowd. A leader would consider the good of the whole of the community and, if necessary, would not be afraid to contradict a minority, no matter how loud their protests.

I do not wish to belittle the concern of those who live near the proposed Salvation Army location. But, well, isn’t it true that no matter where we put it, the facility will anger some? And it’s not like the Concorde Motel, the Salvation Army thrift store, or the pawn shop across the street inspire high confidence in the neighborhood. For all I know, a well-designed, well-managed, well-supervised and well-policed Salvation Army facility may actually improve the appeal of the area.

In any case, please keep in mind that there are more voters in our ward than these NIMBY folks. Including voters who are familiar with the Salvation Army’s current location, and know what an improvement a well-designed facility at a more suitable location might represent. I am not claiming that such voters are a “great, silent majority”. Maybe the Montreal Road location is not ideal. But then, I appeal to you again and act as a leader: instead of lecturing on the difference between two synonyms for an encounter, tell us what you propose as an improved solution.

Thank you.

 Posted by at 8:48 am
May 182017

I am no photo artist, and my best camera is, well, my phone. That’s it.

Even so, a few minutes ago I felt compelled to take a couple of photographs. We are a few minutes away from sunset and a big storm just began. Then I looked out my window and I found the building across the street brighter than the sky above.

The light came from the other side of the sky. The Sun was not visible but the sky in that direction was bright enough to light things up.

Photographs (especially, photographs taken with a phone) really don’t do these sights justice. The contrasts were amazing.

 Posted by at 8:29 pm
May 082017

Not only is there severe flooding in our region (I’ve lived in Ottawa for nearly 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything remotely like this) but this “spring” weather is anything but.

In fact, yesterday CTV News almost apologized for their forecast:

And the saddest part? They were not wrong. I see flurries outside.

Fortunately, the flooding doesn’t affect us, despite our proximity to the Rideau River.

 Posted by at 11:57 am
Jan 022017

I captured this close captioning gem several days ago but then promptly forgot about it.

I know, I know, it’s not easy to caption a conversation in real time. But it was still hilariously funny. Thanks for a good morning laugh.

For what it’s worth, as I recall the word that was actually used was “agree”. How that turned into “pee”, I have no idea.

 Posted by at 8:37 pm
Oct 302016

Yesterday afternoon, I received a phone call from our prospective Liberal candidate in the upcoming provincial by-election.

Although I voted Liberal in the past, I was never particularly fond of our previous MPP, Madeleine Meilleur. (It didn’t help that back when she was still city councillor, when I once wrote to her about an issue, she never even bothered to send back an acknowledgement. And this was back in the snail mail days.) So despite my vote, I am not what they call an enthusiastic supporter.

Anyhow, Nathalie Des Rosiers called yesterday, and I had a delightful conversation with her that lasted maybe 10 minutes. For starters, I learned that she spent years working with one of our neighbors, whom I respect highly. She also used a phrase that I welcomed very much: “Evidence-based governance.” Most importantly, she patiently listened to me on the phone, even when I was less than eloquent with my concerns about Ontario politics (apologetically, I had to explain to her that my mind has been preoccupied lately with the US election campaign and the prospect of a Donald presidency.)

All in all, Ms. Des Rosiers left me with a very good impression. I am glad that someone with her attitude and qualifications is running for office, and I hope she succeeds.

 Posted by at 2:38 pm
Jun 122016

Exactly thirty years ago today, I grabbed a suitcase, a bag and my passport, and boarded a train from Budapest to Vienna, with the intent never to return.

A few hours later, I arrived at Vienna’s Westbahnhof, where I left my suitcase at the left luggage office and proceeded to Traiskirchen, to register as an East Bloc refugee. Thus, my new life began.

Little did I know in the summer of 1986 that in a few short years, the Berlin Wall would crumble; that most communist regimes would peacefully transition to pluralist democracies; or that even the mighty Soviet Union would come to an inglorious end after a failed coup.

And a good thing, too, as otherwise I might have stayed put. And then, I could have experienced from the inside what it is like to live in a country in which the great democratic experiment is faltering; one in which xenophobia (if not outright racism) prevails, fueled by a distorted view of history and a perpetual sense of victimhood.

Instead, I ended up a citizen of Canada. July 16 will mark the day of my arrival in Ottawa 29 years ago. I now call this city my home. My memories go back much further, as I had the good fortune to visit here back in the summer of 1973, when I was only 10. So although I didn’t quite grow up here, sometimes it almost feels like I did.

Of course I have not forgotten the city of my birth, Budapest. I love the history of that city, I love mundane things about it like its streetcars and other bits of its infrastructure. But it’s no longer my home. I feel like a stranger in town who happens to know the geography and speak the language… but who is far, far removed from its daily life. And sometimes, knowing the language is a curse: such as when I walk down the street and stop at a red light, only to overhear a young person yakking on her phone about that “dirty Jew”. Yes, such language, which I once thought was condemned to the cesspit of history, is not uncommon in Budapest these days, which breaks my heart.

So I consider myself lucky that I left when I did. I consider myself very fortunate that I had the opportunity to become Canadian.

Thirty years is a long time in a person’s life. Thinking back… I don’t really remember what I was like back in 1986. The world was a very different place, to be sure. The year I spent in Vienna… it was educational. At first, when I ran out of the small amount of money I had in my pockets, it was scary. But then… I found a job of sorts. I started to make some friends. People who owed me absolutely nothing were nice to me, helped me, offered me opportunities. And then, the same thing happened in Canada. First, my aunt and her family, who offered me a place to stay and helped me get started. Then, a mere three weeks after my arrival, a per-diem contract. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was vastly underpaid, but no matter: it was money, real money for professional work, not for washing dishes somewhere. And it allowed me to rent an apartment and begin my new life for real.

Many things happened since then, some good, some bad; but mostly good, so I have no complaints. It has been an interesting journey, which began with a first class ticket (who says a refugee cannot travel in style?) on the Wiener Walzer express train one early June morning in 1986.

 Posted by at 5:40 pm
Jun 082016


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


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

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

And it has happened before, in 1924:


 Posted by at 2:56 pm
Apr 072016

News item from Google news: Ottawa taxi drivers plan to blockade city bus depots.

Oh really? You jackasses really believe that this is the way to gain support at Ottawa city hall?

OK, they now claim that it’s just a rumor. I am not convinced.

I hope your industry dies, like, yesterday.

Not long ago, I was committed to using regular taxis (on the rare occasions I needed one) and not rely on untested, unproven, new services like Uber.

It was the taxi industry and their thuggish reaction to Uber’s disruptive technology that convinced me otherwise.

Thugs have no place on our city’s streets. Not even when they are masquerading as licensed taxi drivers.

Perhaps if, instead of acting like a criminal gang, you had focused on making your cars cleaner, your service more reliable, your drivers better dressed and better behaved, most of us would still remain committed to your service.

 Posted by at 1:57 am
Mar 182016

Yesterday, I went to see my barber. When I found the shop open, I was delighted that he kept his promise: he planned to retire at the end of last year, but on my last visit, he told me that he’d be keeping the shop open for a while longer. (Yes, it’s been that long since my last haircut. I don’t like haircuts, but when even my wife notices that I am beginning to look like Albert Einstein, I remind myself that you first have to match Einstein’s output as a physicist before you’re allowed to look like him.)

When I entered the shop, I noticed that it was under renovation. But the sign said that it was open! In fact, it was a brand new electronic sign that advertised the business hours. I didn’t see a soul in sight so I hollered, “hello?” and a young, brown-skinned man soon emerged. He assured me that the shop was indeed open for business, so I made the requisite leap in logic and realized that Michel, the old barber, must have retired after all. I asked the young man if he was going to be my new barber.

Soon, I learned a little bit about Paulos the barber. He came to Canada from Ethiopia about five years ago with his brother. Since then, they managed to sponsor several family members. Paulos is a lean, tall 41-year old man, though he looks much younger. He told me that he found the shop advertised on Kijiji and decided to go for it. He told me of his plans to hire 2-3 additional barbers, and create a much more welcoming shop with Wi-Fi and a coffee machine. I took a closer look at his hours: He is keeping the shop open, for now all by himself, from 9 AM until 8 PM every weekday, and until 6 PM on Saturdays.


Meanwhile, Paulos finished my haircut. When I asked him how much I owe, he told me that it’s whatever I used to pay Michel. So I paid the same amount, with tip, that I used to pay.

As I left the barber shop, I was shaking my head. Damn immigrants, I thought. They have the audacity to come to this country in search of a better life. And the cheek! Never mind making a living, working extra long hours, they actually plan to create jobs! How dare they.

And the cultural rift. It is hard to find a pair of countries more culturally different than Ethiopia and Canada. Yet he has the chutzpah to do this… finding his place in Canadian society, taking over a business from a retiring French Canadian gentleman and daring to be successful.

What a horrible thing that these immigrants are doing. What hubris… instead of being on welfare and being a burden on society, they dare to make this country better, enrich it with their hard work, contribute to its colorful multiculturalism. It is absolutely intolerable. Just what is this place coming to?

 Posted by at 9:50 pm
Mar 092016

Our long-serving Member of Parliament, Mauril Bélanger, was the recipient of an unprecedented honor today: He was named honorary Speaker of the House.

Unfortunately, we could not hear Mr. Bélanger speak. That is because he is suffering from ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease (its most famous sufferer alive is the physicist Stephen Hawking), which is rapidly progressing; since his initial diagnosis last fall, he lost the ability to speak, so it was his iPad that was speaking for him.

The illness also ended his dream of becoming Speaker of the House, which explains the honor that has been bestowed on him today.

I have a lot of respect for Mr. Bélanger. Over the years, I wrote to him a few times with my concerns, and on more than one occasion I received a personal response, either in the form of a latter or, in one case, in the form of a telephone call. In short, Mr. Bélanger appeared to take the idea of representing his constituents very seriously.

He may have lost the ability to speak but he has not yet lost all his mobility. Although he needed some help, he was able to walk into the Chamber on his own two feet.

It was a moving moment, and I am glad I caught it on the CBC. Thank you, Mr. Bélanger.

 Posted by at 4:30 pm
Mar 032016

I was watching the news this morning. Including the weather. And then I double-checked my calendar, wondering if I perhaps became delusional: Is this really March, or is it still January?

Then again, tonight supposedly it’ll get even colder.

 Posted by at 8:17 am
Dec 242015

Here is the Weather Network’s forecast for today that was made a couple of days ago:

No, they weren’t lying. Here is what my thermometer showed just a few minutes ago:


And it’s already less than what it was; the temperature dropped from 16.4 to 16.2 degrees Centigrade in the past half hour.

May not be impressive for a place like Dubai or Mumbai but lest we forget, I live in Ottawa, supposedly the second coldest capital city on Earth.

Needless to say, we are not going to have a white Christmas this year.

 Posted by at 11:42 am
Nov 292015

The other day, I saw a curious full-page advertisement in the copy of Ottawa Life magazine that came bundled with my morning Globe and Mail.

It contained phrases and symbology that I am no longer accustomed to see. What caught my eye at first was the red background, complete with five-pointed golden stars and an image of a statue containing a group of heroic figures. Stuff once common on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

Presented by the Embassy of the PRC, it was an advertisement in commemoration of the “Victory of the World Anti-Fascist War” as well as the “Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression”. Symbology and awkward language notwithstanding, knowing what I know about the brutality of Japan’s failed conquest of the Middle Kingdom (including the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons), I believe China has every right to celebrate proudly. Western bias notwithstanding, arguably the true starting date of World War 2 is July 7, 1937, the beginning of Japan’s attempt at a full-scale invasion, and it took a full eight years for this nightmare to end (though not the Chinese Civil War).

 Posted by at 5:25 pm
Oct 072015

It’s time for me to write about physics again. I have a splendid reason: one of the recipients of this year’s physics Nobel is from Kingston, Ontario, which is practically in Ottawa’s backyard. He is recognized for his contribution to the discovery of neutrino oscillations. So I thought I’d write about neutrino oscillations a little.

Without getting into too much detail, the standard way of describing a theory of quantum fields is by writing down the so-called Lagrangian density of the theory. This Lagrangian density represents the kinetic and potential energies of the system, including so-called “mass terms” for fields that are massive. (Which, in quantum field theory, is the same as saying that the particles we associate with the unit oscillations of these fields have a specific mass.)

Now most massive particles in the Standard Model acquire their masses by interacting with the celebrated Higgs field in various ways. Not neutrinos though; indeed, until the mid 1990s or so, neutrinos were believed to be massless.

But then, neutrino oscillations were discovered and the physics community began to accept that neutrinos may be massive after all.

So what is this about oscillations? Neutrinos are somewhat complicated things, but I can demonstrate the concept using two hypothetical “scalar” particles (doesn’t matter what they are; the point is, their math is simpler than that of neutrinos.) So let’s have a scalar particle named \(\phi\). Let’s suppose it has a mass, \(\mu\). The mass term in the Lagrangian would actually be in the form, \(\frac{1}{2}\mu\phi^2\).

Now let’s have another scalar particle, \(\psi\), with mass \(\rho\). This means another mass term in the Lagrangian: \(\frac{1}{2}\rho\psi^2\).

But now I want to be clever and combine these two particles into a two-element abstract vector, a “doublet”. Then, using the laws of matrix multiplication, I could write the mass term as


Clever, huh?

But now… let us suppose that there is also an interaction between the two fields. In the Lagrangian, this interaction would be represented by a term such as \(\epsilon\phi\psi\). Putting \(\epsilon\) into the “0” slots of the matrix, we get


And here is where things get really interesting. That is because we can re-express this new matrix using a combination of a diagonal matrix and a rotation matrix (and its transpose):


which is equivalent to




which tells us that \(\tan\theta=2\epsilon/(\rho-\mu)\), which works so long as \(\rho\ne\mu\).

Now why is this interesting? Because we can now write


What just happened, you ask? Well, we just rotated the abstract vector \((\phi,\psi)\) by the angle \(\theta/2\), and as a result, diagonalized the expression. Which is to say that whereas previously, we had two interacting fields \(\phi\) and \(\psi\) with masses \(\mu\) and \(\rho\), we now re-expressed the same physics using the two non-interacting fields \(\hat\phi\) and \(\hat\psi\) with masses \(\hat\mu\) and \(\hat\rho\).

So what is actually taking place here? Suppose that the doublet \((\phi,\psi)\) interacts with some other field, allowing us to measure the flavor of an excitation (particle) as being either a \(\phi\) or a \(\psi\). So far, so good.

However, when we attempt to measure the mass of the doublet, we will not measure \(\mu\) or \(\rho\), because the two states interact. Instead, we will measure \(\hat\mu\) or \(\hat\rho\), corresponding to the states \(\hat\phi\) or \(\hat\psi\), respectively: that is, one of the mass eigenstates.

Which means that if we first perform a flavor measurement, forcing the particle to be in either the \(\phi\) or the \(\psi\) state, followed by a mass measurement, there will be a nonzero probability of finding it in either the \(\hat\phi\) or the \(\hat\psi\) state, with corresponding masses \(\hat\mu\) or \(\hat\rho\). Conversely, if we first perform a mass measurement, the particle will be either in the \(\hat\phi\) or the \(\hat\psi\) state; a subsequent flavor measurement, therefore, may give either \(\phi\) or \(\psi\) with some probability.

In short, the flavor and mass eigenstates do not coincide.

This is more or less how neutrino oscillations work (again, omitting a lot of important details), except things get a bit more complicated, as neutrinos are fermions, not scalars, and the number of flavors is three, not two. But the basic principle remains the same.

This is a unique feature of neutrinos, by the way. Other particles, e.g., charged leptons, do not have mass eigenstates that are distinct from their flavor eigenstates. The mechanism that gives them masses is also different: instead of a self-interaction in the form of a mass matrix, charged leptons (as well as quarks) obtain their masses by interacting with the Higgs field. But that is a story for another day.

 Posted by at 9:47 pm