I cannot escape the sensation that the unthinkable is drawing closer and closer with the passing of each and every day.

Today, the Institute for the Study of War released a special update, titled Assessing Putin’s Implicit Nuclear Threats After Annexation.

They assess that “Putin likely intends annexation to freeze the war along the current frontlines” and that if successful, “the Kremlin could reconstitute its forces and renew its invasion“.

They stress that although Putin mentioned nuclear weapons as he did in past speeches, he was “avoiding making the direct threats that would be highly likely to precede nuclear use“.

Nonetheless, the situation is wide open for miscalculation. As the ISW asserts, Putin “likely incorrectly assesses that his nuclear brinksmanship will lead the United States and its allies to pressure Ukraine to negotiate“.

The ISW then informs us that they “cannot forecast the point at which Putin would decide to use nuclear weapons“. That language is perhaps scarier than intended and not just because it raises the obvious question, if they cannot, who can? But also because it may be an accurate reflection of reality, as the question is not “if” but “when”.

Concerning Putin’s efforts, the ISW states that “rushing thousands of untrained and unmotivated Russian men to the front will not meaningfully increase Russian combat power“. And that while “Europe is in for a cold and difficult winter, yet the leaders of NATO and non-NATO European states have not faltered“.

In short: Putin is maneuvering himself and the West into a situation with fewer and fewer options, none of which are palatable.

In the end, the ISW comes to a conclusion that I wholly agree with: “The more confident Putin is that nuclear use will not achieve decisive effects but will draw direct Western conventional military intervention in the conflict, the less likely he is to conduct a nuclear attack“. This is why the West must make it abundantly clear that such a conventional intervention is a foregone certainty if nuclear weapons are used.

Is this enough? I have no idea. But it is the one option that might yet help us avoid turning this mess into WW3. Otherwise, the unthinkable just might happen… not in years, not in months, but possibly within weeks or less.

The trouble is, deep inside I suspect Putin already knows that there are no good outcomes left for him personally. And this is why he may decide, like other pathetic despots have done throughout history, that if he must burn, the world must burn with him. The trouble is, unlike despots of the past, Putin indeed wields the power to burn much of the world.

I don’t always agree with Sabine Hossenfelder but every once in a while, she hits the nail spot on.

Case in point: Her article, published in The Guardian on September 26, about the state of particle physics.

Imagine going to a zoology conference, she says, where a researcher discusses a hypothesis (complete with a computer-generated 3D model) of a 12-legged purple spider living in the Arctic. Probably doesn’t exist but still, how about proposing a mission to the Arctic to search for one? After all, a null result also contains valuable data. Or how about a flying earthworm that lives in caves? Martian octopuses, anyone?

Zoology conferences do not usually discuss such imaginary monsters but, Sabine argues (and she is spot on) this is pretty much what particle physics conferences are like: “invent new particles for which there is no evidence, publish papers about them, write more papers about these particles’ properties, and demand the hypothesis be experimentally tested”. Worse yet, real money is being spent (wasted might be a better word) on carrying out such experiments.

She points out that while it is true that good science is falsifiable, the opposite isn’t always the case: Just because something is falsifiable does not make it good science.

And not just particle physics, I hasten to add. How about cosmology and gravitation? Discussions about what may or may not have happened during the Planck epoch? Exploring exotic spacetime topologies, often in dimensions other than four? And let me not even mention quantum computing or fusion energy…

Perhaps I am a born skeptic lacking imagination, but to me, these are all 12-legged purple Arctic spiders. The science we actually know and have the ability to confirm are general relativity in a spacetime that is by and large the perturbed Minkowski metric; and the Standard Model of particle physics, extended with a neutrino mass mixing matrix. These are the things that work. Not perfectly, mind you. General relativity needs “dark matter” (name aside, we don’t know what it is except that it has a dust equation of state) and “dark energy” (again, it has a name but beyond that, we don’t know what it is beyond its equation of state) to account for galaxy dynamics and cosmic evolution. The Hubble tension, the discrepancy between values of the Hubble parameter measured using different methods, is real. Observations by the James Webb space telescope suggest that we do not understand the “dark ages”, the first few hundred million years after the surface of last scattering (i.e., the epoch when the cosmic microwave background radiation was produced), well. Massive neutrinos invite the question about the apparent absence right-handed neutrinos.

And yes, we are very much in the blind concerning these issues. Nature has not yet provided hints and we are not smart enough to figure out the answers entirely on our own. But how is that an excuse for inventing 12-legged spiders?

I think it isn’t.

Putting aside Trumpism, woke-ism, the politics of the day, populism, the whole kaboodle, here’s something to contemplate.

Tonight, Russia is continuing its efforts to subjugate the independent nation of Ukraine, not refraining from committing serious, intentional, criminal acts against the country’s civilian population to further its goals.

Also tonight, the space agency of the United States, NASA, is conducting a ground-breaking experiment, the first of its kind testing a method that might one day avert a global disaster, protecting the entire planet from an asteroid impact.

DART: View of the asteroid Dimophos 20 minutes to impact

I think it speaks volumes about the different ways in which these countries see their respective roles in the world.

I almost long for Soviet times. The regime was assuredly brutal, but at least it professed to seek noble goals. Not anymore, I guess.

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.