Aug 302022

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.

 Posted by at 8:36 pm
Aug 302022

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.

 Posted by at 7:08 pm
Aug 292022

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.

 Posted by at 7:19 pm
Aug 292022

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.

 Posted by at 4:26 pm
Aug 222022

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…

 Posted by at 6:17 pm
Aug 212022

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.

 Posted by at 11:13 pm
Aug 212022

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.”

 Posted by at 12:08 am
Aug 202022

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?

 Posted by at 10:08 pm
Aug 202022

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.

 Posted by at 2:12 pm
Aug 192022

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.

 Posted by at 1:53 am