Mar 312022

Very well. I have now become convinced that Putler’s army in Ukraine is led by criminally incompetent clowns whose expertise is limited to cruelty and wholesale murder.

So they decide to occupy the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It’s an Exclusion Zone for a reason. Not because Ukrainians are fond of the Strugatsky brothers’ amazing novelette, Roadside Picnic, which describes similar Zones (albeit zones left behind by visiting, “picnicking” extraterrestrials.) They might be; the story really is good (and it formed the basis for Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, as well as the amazing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of video games. Scenes from which, incidentally, now bear alarming resemblance to the ruined cities of Ukraine.)

No, it is called an Exclusion Zone because it contains, you know, radioactive fallout from the world’s worst nuclear disaster: the explosion at reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station that happened in 1986.

Fallout that, until now, was mostly safely buried under fresh soil, causing relatively little harm. That is, until Russian conscripts, led by the aforementioned nincompoop murderers, dug it up with trenches. Soldiers who are now ill with signs of radiation sickness. With generals like the ones leading them, they need no enemies. They are perfectly capable of defeating themselves even without Ukrainian help.

 Posted by at 2:34 pm
Jan 162021

I am reading an interdisciplinary paper, published in Frontiers in Conservation Science, about the likeliness of a much more ghastly future than usually predicted: A future characterized by deteriorating environmental conditions, mass extinctions, a collapsing ecosystem threatening human existence.

The concerns are real. The warnings should be heeded before it’s too late.

But… But, having read the article, I cannot escape the feeling that the authors themselves practice some of what they preach against.

They mention the “weaponization of ‘environmentalism’ as a political ideology”, rightfully expressing concern that as a result, environmental groups are often viewed as “terrorists” in many parts of the world. But then, later on, among the suggested remedies they list “the empowerment of women”.

Now I may be very fond of the idea of empowering women (I am) but I have to ask*: what does this have to do with climate and the ecosystem? Are women inherently better at being environmentally friendly? Do they have special abilities to understand climate science better than men? Or is it, heaven forbid, an actual example of someone, well-intentioned I am sure, sneaking in a desirable political goal by “weaponizing environmentalism” for ideological purposes?

*I could ask similar questions about “strict regulation of markets and property acquisition, reigning in corporate lobbying” (which appeared in the same sentence). While I may sympathize with reducing corporate influence by constraining campaign financing (I consider near unconstrained financing one of the core reasons behind the current democracy crisis in the United States), what on Earth does it have to do with climate or the ecosystem? I would also like to remind the authors that regimes that had strict regulations of markets and property acquisition, such as the socialist regime in which I grew up, have a terrible environmental track record: and yes, they tended to treat environmental groups as terrorists, insurrectionists or worse, precisely because such groups acted independently and refused to be controlled by those governments.

 Posted by at 1:11 pm
Aug 062020

I know, I know, the idea is far from original, and I feel compelled to apologize for turning tragedies into a form of dark humor but still, this calendar that I made last night accurately sums up how I feel about this glorious year of 2020:

And I didn’t even include everything (e.g., BLM protests and accompanying riots). But then, there are nearly five more months to go… plenty of time for more stuff to happen, even without aliens or killer asteroids. Or a massive second wave of COVID-19 infections.

Yes, let’s just say, I am mildly concerned.

 Posted by at 5:29 pm
Jan 012020

A year ago today, I was looking forward to 2019 with skepticism. I expressed concern about a number of things. Not everything unfolded according to my expectations, and that’s good news. What can I say, I hope 2020 will continue the trend of defying pessimistic predictions.

  • The political crisis in the United States continues to simmer with Trump’s impeachment, but it remains less dramatic than I feared;
  • NATO and the EU remain intact for now, though unresolved issues remain;
  • An orderly Brexit is now possible with Johnson’s election victory; I still think the Brits are shooting themselves in the foot with this idiocy, but an orderly Brexit may be the best possible outcome at this point;
  • Sliding towards authoritarianism in places like Hungary and Poland remains a grave concern, but there is also pushback;
  • Russia continues to muck up things in untoward ways, but there was no significant (e.g., military) escalation;
  • China is ramping up its campaign against the Uyghurs with an ever widening system of concentration camps but there was no significant escalation with respect to their neighbors;
  • Japan, sadly, resumed whaling, but so far I believe the impact is minimal;
  • Brazil continues to wreak havoc in the rain forest, but there is pushback here as well;
  • Lastly, Canada did have elections, but populism was crushed (for now at least) with the defeat of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party.

And now here we are, entering the roaring twenties! A decade that will bring things like Prohibition and organized crime in the United States, institutionalized antisemitism in Hungary, the rise of fascism in Italy, the Great Depression… no, wait, that was a century ago. Here’s to hoping that humanity got a little wiser in the past 100 years.

Speaking of that century, my wife’s Mom and mine can now both tell us that they lived in every decade of a century, having been born in the 30’s and now living in the 20’s.

 Posted by at 12:33 pm
Aug 222019

The rainforest of the Amazon burns, like it never burned before.

Image credit: NOAA

And nobody gives a flying fig.

I am officially done. I am in my fifties. I don’t have children. I don’t frigging care what the planet will look like 50 or 100 years from now. I don’t plan to be a jerk: I won’t intentionally pollute, but from now on, I no longer care either. If those who are (much) younger than I, those who have children who will inherit this planet are unconcerned, why on Earth should I worry?

The fact that there is no global outrage, no emergency session of the Security Council, no economic sanctions, no threat of an international intervention, just (apart from social media and a few published articles) deafening silence tells me all I need to know.

Screw the planet, my fellow inmates living on this planet are telling me, and finally, I listen.

 Posted by at 11:20 pm
May 052019

There is this wonderful Tom Waits song (Waits may be the only artist I know who presents cacophonic noise as “music” and yet the result is something I don’t hate), Earth Died Screaming. The title is borrowed from The Earth Dies Screaming, a 1964 British film, scenes from which are used in the Tom Waits music video.

The British movie is about an alien invasion. But a friend of mine used this phrase a lot lately as he is posting about environmental disasters, such as the ever growing islands of plastic in the ocean, the rapid, wholesale disappearance of species, or the still callous attitude of greedy humans who continue to engage in wanton destruction.

And then there are the bugs.

It wasn’t that long ago that I read somewhere online the observation that nowadays, when you go on a highway drive on a summer evening, your windshield no longer gets covered with bugs. Sure, some of it might be explained by the more streamlined shape of automobiles, allowing laminar airflow and letting the bugs escape… but it isn’t a very convincing explanation and I, too, noticed that the bugs are no longer a major problem.

And then, I read about vanishing insect populations in National Geographic.

Here are a couple of sentences worth quoting:

“In October 2017 a group of European researchers found that insect abundance (as measured by biomass) had declined by more than 75 percent within 63 protected areas in Germany—over the course of just 27 years.” Or that “within a relatively pristine rainforest in Puerto Rico, the biomass of insects and other arthropods like spiders had fallen between 10- and 60-fold since the 1970s.”

If this doesn’t scare the bejesus out of you, maybe it should.

 Posted by at 11:26 pm
Apr 262016

This is an eerie anniversary.

Thirty years ago today, reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew to smithereens.

It’s really hard to assign blame.

Was it the designers who came up with a reactor design that was fundamentally unstable at low power?

Was it the bureaucrats who, in the secretive Soviet polie state, made it hard if not impossible for operators at one facility to learn from incidents elsewhere?

Was it the engineers at Chernobyl who, concerned about the consequences of a total loss of power at the station, tried to test a procedure that would have kept control systems and the all-important coolant pumps running using waste heat during an emergency shutdown, while the Diesel generators kicked in?

Was it the Kiev electricity network operator who asked Chernobyl to keep reactor 4 online for a little longer, thus pushing the planned test into the late night?

Was it the control room operator who ultimately pushed the button that initiated an emergency shutdown?

And the list continues. Many of the people we could blame didn’t stick around long enough: they died, after participating in often heroic efforts to avert an even greater disaster, and receiving lethal doses of radiation.

Some lived. This photo shows Arkady Uskov, who suffered severe radiation burns 30 years ago as he helped save colleagues. He, along with a few other people, recently revisited the control room of reactor 4, and were photographed there by Radio Free Europe. (Sadly, the photos are badly mislabeled by someone who didn’t know that “Arcadia Uskova” would be the name of a female; or, in this case, the genitive case of the male name Arkady Uskov. Thus I also cannot tell if “Oleksandr Cheranov”, whose name I cannot find anywhere else in the literature of Chernobyl, was a real person or just another RFE misprint.)

Surprisingly, the control room, which looks like a set of props from a Cold War era science fiction movie, is still partially alive. The lit panels, I suspect, must be either part of the monitoring effort or communications equipment.

It must have been an uncanny feeling for these aging engineers to be back at the scene, 30 years later, contemplating what took place that night.

Incidentally, nuclear power remains by far the safest in the world. Per unit of energy produced, it is dozens of times safer than hydroelectricity; a hundred times safer than natural gas; and a whopping four thousand times safer than coal. And yes, this includes the additional approximately 4,000 premature deaths (UN estimate) as a result of Chernobyl’s fallout. Nor was Chernobyl the deadliest accident related to power generation; that title belongs to China’s Banqiao Dam, the failure of which claimed 171,000 lives back in 1975.

 Posted by at 5:52 pm
Jul 282015

Warning: I don’t usually use strong language in my blog. This post is an exception. Sometimes a spade has to be called a spade… or an asshole has to be called an asshole. If you are offended by strong language, please stop reading now.

I am writing this blog entry on account of the fact that a famed lion in Zimbabwe, a 13-year old male named Cecil, was killed by an asshole. An asshole whose pecker is too limp, I suppose, so he has to supplement his masculinity by killing rare, magnificent animals.

The asshole’s name is reportedly Dr. Walter Palmer, an American dentist from Minnesota. And yes, Dr. Palmer, you are a class one asshole. A disgusting, sad, pathetic, sick moron. (Palmer is on the left in the archival picture below, but his smiling buddy is a sad, pathetic, sick moron, too.)

A picture like this actually makes you feel proud? Happy? The carcass of a beautiful big cat gives you a sense of accomplishment? That you made the world better? Contributed something to humanity? Something for your children to remember you by? Or are you just one of those jackasses who doesn’t care one way or another, so long as you can prove that you have money to waste and creatures to kill?

The killing itself was reportedly quite gruesome. Shot not by a gun but by an arrow (possibly to avoid the noise that might have called attention to the fact that the lion was illegally lured from a nearby national park; the jackasses claim though that this is a way to “honor” the animal) the lion escaped and was tracked for a day or two before it was finally shot dead, skinned, its head removed as a trophy.

To be clear: I eat meat. I am perfectly comfortable with people hunting for food or survival. Yes, that includes hunting for seals, too. But hunting for glory? In the 21st century? When we have the power to destroy most living things on this planet in a matter of minutes? Yes, successful hunters had reasons to be proud back in centuries past when hunting skills were essential for survival. But today? The real heroes are those who help preserve fragile ecosystems, who save species from extinction. The real heroes are those African park rangers, for instance, who earn pennies a day trying to protect such glorious creatures from sickos like Palmer.

This animal was not killed for food or because it threatened someone. It was killed because a pathetic asshole wanted to collect its preserved head as a trophy.

I was hoping that Dr. Palmer is still in Zimbabwe; that he would be caught there and would spend a few years rotting in an unpleasant, dirty, hot, smelly African jail. Sadly, it appears that he is safely back in the US, and he is unlikely to be charged.

Fuck you, Dr. Palmer. Really, really, really fuck you. Fuck you for drawing pleasure from destroying some of the most magnificent things that exist on our shared planet. It is shitheads like you that make me want to get off the planet at the earliest opportunity. You might think that what you have done was legal… but it only shows the kind of human garbage that you really are. So from the bottom of my heart… fuck you.

 Posted by at 9:34 pm
Jun 092014

Trees in Ottawa are being devastated by an invasive species, the emerald ash borer. The city decided to get rid of infected trees as quickly as possible, to prevent the further spread of these bugs and also to avoid accidents that may occur as sick, weakened trees may fall in storms.

Whether or not the city is doing the right thing, I don’t know. The result, however, is devastating. Here is one example: the intersection of Murray and Beausoleil streets right here in our neighborhood. This is what the intersection looked like back in August 2012, when Google’s Street View vehicle roamed the neighborhood:

And this is what the same corner looked like just a few days ago:

The trees are gone. All of them.

I honestly don’t know what to think. I just hope the city knows what they are doing.

 Posted by at 5:17 pm
Sep 072013

After spending a week in Hungary earlier this year, on my way back I stopped in London for three days. London is one of my favorite cities, and I haven’t spent any time there in years. My plan to enjoy myself was simple: get an Oyster card, take the Underground to random places, walk.

A few days before, still in Budapest, I badly twisted an ankle. Still, even this did not deter me, although it did slow me down; occasionally, I felt the need to sit down and rest my aching and swelling foot a little.

That’s precisely what happened one early evening in central London, where I found a tiny little park tucked in between two large office buildings near the Thames. Despite the fact that I was in the center of a world metropolis, it was eerily quiet in this spot, except for the loud singing of birds.

As soon as I sat down, I spotted a bunch of pigeons eating some crumbs from the pavement and occasionally fighting each other off. It was fascinating. My phone was with me, so I started capturing the scene on video.

Don’t expect anything spectacular. Just a bunch of pigeons living their lives in a big city. I don’t even like pigeons; many believe that they are flying rats, and I think they have a point. Still… these guys were funny. And the surrealist quiet of the spot I found right in the heart of a big city created an atmosphere that I will forever remember.

 Posted by at 10:11 am
Sep 062013

Two days ago, a woodpecker appeared on our linden tree. By the time I managed to grab my phone, it was gone.

Today, the bird reappeared and kindly stayed long enough for me to shoot a few minutes of video.

Nothing exciting here. Just a woodpecker doing what woodpeckers do, on a dead branch of our tree. I just found the bird fascinating, and I found it especially fascinating that a somewhat uncommon bird like this one would appear on a tree in a busy city.

 Posted by at 11:47 pm
Aug 092013

Today was the 68th anniversary of the last (for now) use of a nuclear weapon in anger, three days following the first such use. The city of Nagasaki was destroyed by the explosion of Fat Man, the world’s second plutonium bomb; the first one was used less than a month earlier at the Trinity test site in New Mexico.

Since then, more than two thousand nuclear explosions took place on or beneath the surface of the Earth as declared nuclear powers tested their designs.

 Posted by at 2:33 pm
Apr 252013

Twenty seven years ago tonight, an ill-prepared overnight crew at reactor #4 at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in the Ukraine began an unauthorized experiment, originally scheduled to run during the day, and designed to test how much power the reactor was able to supply while it was shutting down, keeping emergency systems powered while waiting for backup generators to kick in. Trouble is, this particular reactor type was known to have instabilities at low power even at the best of times. And these were not the best of times: the reactor was operated by an inexperienced crew and was suffering from “poisoning” by neutron-absorbing xenon gas due to prolonged low-power operations earlier and during the preparation for the test.

The rest, of course, is history: reactor #4 blew up in what remains the worst nuclear accident in history. A large area around the Chernobyl plant remains contaminated. The city of Pripyat remains a ghost town. And a great many people were exposed to radiation.

The number of people killed by the Chernobyl disaster remains a matter of dispute. Most studies I’ve read about estimate several thousands deaths that can be attributed to the accident and the resulting increased risk of cancer. But a recent paper by Kharecha and Hansen (to be published in Environ. Sci. Technol.) cites a surprisingly low figure of only 43 deaths directly attributable to the accident.

This paper, however, is notable for another reason: it argues that the number of lives saved by nuclear power vastly exceeds the number of people killed. They assert that nuclear power already prevented about 1.8 million pollution-related deaths, and that many million additional deaths can be prevented in the future.

I am sure this paper will be challenged but I find it refreshing. For what it’s worth, I’d much rather have a nuclear power plant in my own backyard than a coal-fired power station. Of course the more powerful our machines are, the bigger noise they make when they go kaboom; but this did not prevent us from using airplanes or automobiles either.

 Posted by at 9:34 pm
Dec 182012

I came across this a while back; one of the most astonishing places on Earth, near the village of Derweze (also spelled as Darvaza) in Turkmenistan.

Situated in an already lunar looking landscape in the Karakum desert, there is a crater that is unlike anything on the real Moon: it’s a crater full of fire. The ground collapsed here in 1971 after Soviet geologists were drilling for oil and found natural gas instead. The gas was ignited in the hope that it would safely burn off in days… it has been burning ever since.

 Posted by at 8:13 am
Nov 052012

It appears that there is middle ground after all between pro-nuclear complacency and anti-nuclear alarmism.

Evan Osnos, writing for The New Yorker, points out that “America’s hundred-and-four nuclear reactors handled hurricane Sandy with far less trouble than other parts of the power grid”. But he goes on to note that a higher storm surge could have caused grave trouble, just as the tsunami did in Japan. He quotes a former nuclear engineer who said that complacency “is precisely that kind of closed or narrow mindedness that allowed Fukushima to happen.” The United States has a significant number of vulnerable plants. Whereas in Japan, the history of the island is known going back well over a thousand years (a history, specifically the history of the tsunami of 869, that Fukushima’s designers chose to ignore, with tragic consequences.) In the US, records only go back a little over three centuries, so if anything, more caution should be warranted.

But Osnos is not advocating shutting down the industry. “the key is not to pretend that the nuclear industry is a house of cards,” he writes, “but to prevent a non-disaster from becoming a disaster.”

Unfortunately, our memory for disasters tends to be alarmingly short. Osnos points out that after a flood wreaked havoc with New York’s subways in 2007, some 30 million dollars were spent on flood protection… and that’s it. Then it was all forgotten. One can only hope that Sandy will leave a more lasting impression when it comes to disaster preparedness, especially when nuclear plants are concerned.

 Posted by at 7:40 am
Jul 052012

News flash this morning: the first (of hopefully many) Japanese nuclear reactor is back online.

On March 11, 2011, the fifth biggest earthquake in recorded history, and the worst recorded earthquake ever in Japan, hit the island nation. As a result, some 16,000 people died (the numbers may go higher as some are still listed as missing). Most were killed by the natural disaster directly, as they drowned in the resulting tsunami. Some were killed as technology failed: buildings collapsed, vehicles crashed, industrial installations exploded, caught fire, or leaked toxins.

None were killed by the world’s second worst nuclear accident to date, the loss of power and resulting meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. Some of it was due, no doubt, to sheer luck. Some if it due to the inherent safety of these plants and the foresight of their designers (though foresight did not always prevail, as evidenced by the decision to place last-resort emergency backup generators in a basement in a tsunami-prone area). The bottom line, though, remains: no-one died.

Yet the entire nuclear power generation industry in Japan was shut down as a result. Consequently, Japan’s conventional emissions rose dramatically; power shortages prevailed; and Japan ended up with a trade deficit, fueled by their import of fossil fuels.

Finally, it seems that sanity (or is it necessity?) is about to prevail. The Ohi nuclear power plant is supplying electricity again. I can only hope that it is running with lessons learned about a nuclear disaster that, according to the Japanese commission investigating it, was “profoundly manmade”; one “that could have been foreseen and prevented”, were it not for causes that were deeply rooted in Japanese culture.

 Posted by at 8:35 am
Jan 222012

A couple of weeks ago, somewhere I saw a blog comment that mentioned a book, Rad Decision, written by nuclear engineer James Aach.

Back in the late 1970s, when I got my hands on The Prometheus Crisis by Scortia and Robinson, I just couldn’t put the damn thing down; I read through the night and I finished the book by the morning. So naturally, I couldn’t resist the temptation to buy the last in-stock copy of Aach’s book on

And I am glad I did. My concerns that it would be a trashy, amateurishly written novel quickly dissipated. Indeed, in a sense it is a lot better than The Prometheus Crisis: the crisis in Aach’s book is far less dramatic, but the story is believable, the characters perhaps more credible.

My only concern: while this book teaches a lot about nuclear power (and why we should not fear it), its likely audience already knows. Those who would benefit the most from reading it, well, won’t.

 Posted by at 7:39 pm
Oct 222011

Years ago, I expressed my (informed, I hope) skepticism concerning climate change in the form of several questions. One of these questions has been answered in a very resounding way by a most thorough independent analysis: yes, the warming trend is real and statistically significant.

So then, my questions are:

Is global warming real?
Is it a future trend?
Is it man-made (caused by CO2 emissions)?
Is it bad for us?

The fundamental dilemma is that on the one hand, it seems irresponsible to advocate the spending of trillions of dollars (and potentially wrecking an already fragile global economy) before all these questions are answered. On the other hand, by the time we have all the answers, it may be too late to act.

But then, perhaps none of it matters. I do not believe that harebrained schemes like carbon trading are ever going to work. Humanity will continue to burn fossil fuels in ever increasing quantities in the foreseeable future, and atmospheric CO2 will inevitably increase. Ultimately, we may be faced with choices such as geoengineering or simple adaptation: moving from coastal lands to higher ground, evacuating areas that become unsurvivable in the summer, but also taking advantage of longer growing seasons or more fertile areas in the north.

 Posted by at 1:36 pm