Mar 022019
 

Almost forgot: There was some incredulity when Michael Cohen mentioned, during his Congressional appearance on Wednesday, that he “started” Trump’s campaign. In response, Cohen mentioned the Web site, shouldtrumprun.org, which he claimed to have created.

It is true. Here is the earliest capture of this site from archive.org (I highlighted the date and Cohen’s name):

Unfortunately for Trump, it appears that Cohen and his associates stopped paying for shouldtrumprun.org, and it has now been taken over by others, who quickly turned it into a parody site. Lots of fun memes there, worth checking it out.

 Posted by at 10:40 am
Mar 012019
 

There is a Washington Post article today about the frightening possibility of a new Civil War in the United States.

But this is not new. You could hear such talk from certain conservative circles from years. Their view is that the US already reached the point of no return.

By way of example, here is a quote from an e-mail from an American friend that I received a few months ago: “We are already in […] low grade civil war […] but it is definitely hot. […] If we are really lucky, you will only randomly hear about ‘right wing death squads.’ More likely, it will be total war.

Though they blame it on the other side, they basically view a government that accepts viewpoints other than their own as corrupt and broken beyond repair. They are not interested in pluralism or fact-based governance. (Just look at the ban on gun-related research funding by the Federal Government, or the politicization of climate change, with ideology put far ahead of the facts.) In other words, these “patriotic Americans” essentially are declaring war on a democratic, republican form of government because it allows viewpoints other than theirs.

And Democrats are quickly sliding down that same slope nowadays, as they elect increasingly outspoken ideologues with increasingly militant attitudes. The folks who rejected Hillary and were proud to support Bernie (with his unrealistic plans that make no fiscal sense, placing ideology ahead of the facts) are increasingly the folks who determine policy.

Still, I don’t think that the result will be civil war, even if there will be violence in the future. Rather, I fear that it will be a rapid erosion of republican values in favor of an imperial presidency, following the example set by the dying days of the Roman Republic over two millennia ago. Blame, in part, the primary system that supports the ultrapartisan polarization of American society; and the switch from a largely unelected Senate to one that is elected, subject to the politics of the day, and thus unable to fulfill the function that Canada’s Founding Fathers once called “the chamber of sober second thought”.

Trump’s emergency declaration is a dramatic step in this direction. All indications are that he will get away with it. The Senate is unwilling to stop him. The courts might, but they will likely recognize (technically correctly) that it is not up to the courts but up to the President to decide what constitutes an emergency.

And mark my words: I think we will see at least 1-2 more emergency declarations under Trump. And by the time his successor (Democrat or Republican, doesn’t matter) occupies the White House, such emergency declarations will have been normalized, as a standard form of politics. And supporters will cheer whenever a declaration is made in favor of policies they approve.

The next step will take place when a particularly uppity congress shoots one such declaration down with a veto-proof majority. The result of that may very well be a constitutional change that defangs the Senate; e.g., requiring unanimous consent for a veto override.

And when that happens, the transition will have completed in all but name: the President will be Emperor who can rule by decree, with neither Congress nor the Courts serving as effective counterbalance anymore. One more change, elimination of term limits, and there: you will have emperors. And as someone remarked, Trump didn’t even have to spend money on an accelerant to stage a Reichstag fire.

I never thought I would live to see the day when all this turns from speculative fiction into tangible possibility, but here we are: we may yet see a de facto Emperor of America within my lifetime.

Not something I look forward to see, mind you.

 Posted by at 10:05 pm
Feb 112019
 

What do you do when you are confronted with racism when you least expect it?

No, not the overt kind. That would be easy. Obviously if someone used the N-word to descibe a black person, the K-word to describe a Jew, or similar slurs in my presence, I would tell them in no uncertain terms to get out of my face with that caveman racist attitude.

But what if it is something more subtle, more insidious?

Like, when a close friend explains to you how it is not racism but bad experience that turned them suspicious towards black people. That they used to be color-blind until they were defrauded or otherwise mistreated by black people one too many times.

At first, you think there is hope. You have known this person for a long time. The negative experiences are undoubtedly real. And you know that your friend is, deep inside, a good person. A rational person who can be convinced not to generalize from a few negative experiences and condemn an entire population of human beings on account of the color of their skin. To judge people by their character instead.

You bring up historical examples, pro and con. People from oppressed minorities who demonstrated the strength of their character by the dignified way with which they stood up to oppression, such as Frederick Douglass or Nelson Mandela. Or people who used twisted logic and a false sense of victimhood to justify how they turned from self-professed race-blind innocents into vitriolic racists, such as Adolf Hitler during his years in Vienna.

But then something snaps in you. There comes the moment of realization. It is all pointless. Your moral outrage is ignored or worse, filed away as a hysterical outburst of excessive political correctness, for which you should probably apologize. Your arguments are dismissed because, you know, you were lucky and avoided all those negative experiences and you can afford to remain an idealist unlike your more experienced, more streetwise friend. You try to explain to your friend that adopting a racist attitude means being part of the problem, not part of the solution. To no avail; in fact, you learn that the only reason your friend seemed to favor politicians of a more liberal persuasion is the fear of losing personal benefits. When it comes to race, their views align with the worst.

And it becomes clear at one point that your friend’s dream life is in an affluent, whites-only gated community.

What do you do then? Pretend you haven’t heard anything? Throw away decades of friendship? Or maybe take the easy way out and just turn into a card-carrying Nazi yourself?

I could, of course. I am a tall, middle-aged, white male with (as far as I know) no questionable Mischlingsblut in my veins. I even had some military training. I could click my heels, raise my arm and shout, Sieg Heil!, faster than most semi-literate, drunken Nazis. Jawohl, mein Führer, wir verteidigen die weiße Rasse. And tall as I am, I would look especially impressive in a KKK hood. And then I would have no problems with racism anymore. I could go on and just despise and distrust blacks, Muslims (especially black Muslims, I guess) Asians, Native Americans, Jews, you name it. Anyone who is different from my superior race. Any lesser untermensch. Including, quite possibly, my dear friend.

Trouble is, I still prefer to see a human being, not a monster, staring back at me from the mirror when I brush my teeth in the morning.

So no. Not even from my best, dearest friends. No matter how well-justified they feel in their views. No matter how strongly they feel that they are the victims here.

No, my white friends. You are no more victims of visible minorities than Hitler was a victim of Jews.

And the time to speak up is now. Even if my friends think that I went berserk with political correctness.

No matter how close a friend or family member you are: If you think your racist views are justified, please just bugger out of my sight.

I like to think of myself as a low-maintenance friend. You don’t have to come over to fix my computer. I don’t ask you to help me move. I don’t demand to be invited to your parties (in fact, I prefer not to be invited at all, being the introvert that I am.) I don’t show up, unannounced, to eat your food, crash on your couch, or borrow your car.

But there is one price for my friendship and that, you must pay. No, not to give lip service to some politically correct doctrine. No, I am not asking you to go all kumbaya with people with whom you feel uncomfortable. I am not asking you to donate all your wealth to people you distrust. The price is that I ask you to think. To imagine what it would be like if it was you who lived in a society that judged you by what others have done, simply because you share a visible characteristic with them. To have no place to go, because prejudice follows you everywhere. To be treated with suspicion at all times.

And then think about your duty as a human being to rise above petty, everyday grievances. To consider, at the very least, the possibility that you, too, bear some responsibility to not make our society worse. And don’t dig your heels in deeper. Don’t wallow in your sense of victimhood. Don’t come up with new justifications for your prejudice.

And for heaven’s sake, do not make your racism worse by calling me a blind idiot. Do not insult my intelligence with the cheapest racist excuse I ever heard, the last refuge of the intellectually incompetent hatemongerer: Do not tell me that I don’t see it the way you do because I have not experienced just how bad it really is where you live. Even if I am inexperienced in these matters, there are plenty of people in your neck of the woods who are not following you down that racist rabbit’s hole.

I am not asking much. I am not asking you to change. I am just asking you to think. And to stop justifying the morally and intellectually unjustifiable. Do the bidding of your inner demons if you must; but don’t try to pretend that they are angels. Not to me, not to yourself.

Can’t do it? Too bad. I will not apologize for this. I will not ask for your forgiveness. This is the price of my friendship. In this day and age, when I am confronted with racism, especially from people closest to my heart, there is one thing I cannot to: I just can’t not speak up.

 Posted by at 6:58 pm
Feb 032019
 

I have been fancying myself as a TV repairman (I know, I know, a completely useless skill set in 2019) ever since I successfully repaired a 25-year old SANYO television set. I figured I would repeat that success with an even older television: my first television set in Canada, a 1986 Mitsubishi CS-1454C portable television. (By “portable”, they mean it weighs less than about 25 pounds and it can be hauled from one room to another without the use of a forklift.)

The problem seemed simple enough: The TV set refused to turn on. Obviously, I expected a faulty power supply or something similar, maybe due to an aging capacitor somewhere.

Alas, nope. The power supply was doing what it was supposed to do, supplying low voltage power to all the relevant parts, including the integrated circuit that was responsible for activating the relay that, in turn, would have turned on the set. But the relay never got the signal that would have turned it on. The transistor that controlled the relay never got the signal either.

Why? Well, the signal to that transistor comes from a microchip:

It comes from pin 28 of a chip labeled μPD-1709CT. What is this chip? Well, it turns out that it is, in fact, a 4-bit microcontroller with about 1.5 kilowords of ROM, factory programmed by the chip manufacturer (NEC) with code supplied by the customer.

I checked, and the microcontroller has everything. It has power, it has a clock signal. It scans the front panel keypad with beautiful, nice square waves on my oscilloscope. The one thing it does not do is outputting a signal on pin 28 when I press the Power button; which, in turn, would have provided a signal for the relay, which in turn would have energized the rest of the unit.

I am therefore forced to conclude that this television is not repairable. Even if I found a replacement chip, chances are that unless it is from the same unit, its program code would be incompatible. (The same family of chips has been used, e.g., in car entertainment systems.) Since I doubt that the manufacturer still provides support for a unit that was sold 32 years ago, the only possible source for a replacement chip would be another, cannibalized television set.

And, of course, the thing is just not worth the effort. An old style, analog television set with a CRT? Years older than half the human beings presently alive on Earth? Still, it was worth a try… I like fiddling with these old devices. Although I much prefer success stories, of course.

 Posted by at 6:12 pm
Jan 232019
 

When I was growing up, everybody expected the world to eventually go up in flames.

I mean, this was during the heyday of the Cold War. Had you asked any adult in the mid-1960s, anywhere in North America or Europe, if the world would survive without nuclear Armageddon to the year 2000, most would have said, not a chance. Even Star Trek predicted a global conflict sometime in the mid-1990s.

Yet here we are, in 2019, and the world is still in one piece. (Yes, despite the efforts of certain, ahem, notable persons. But allow me not to go there at this time.)

And we no longer seem to be concerned with civil defense. But back in the 1950s, 1960s, that was not the case. In the “duck and cover” era, civil defense was very important.

And thus it came to be that Canada’s Emergency Measures Organization even commissioned illustrations that show well-known Ottawa landmarks turned into ruin by war.

The images of the Chateau Laurier, Parliament’s Peace Tower, and the War Memorial appear uncannily realistic. Almost photographic in quality, they could serve as storyboard images for a post-apocalyptic computer game.

Much as I like computer games like that, such as the Fallout or Metro series, I hope we never get to see in reality what these images depict.

 Posted by at 8:01 pm
Jan 162019
 

I run across this often. Well-meaning folks who read introductory-level texts or saw a few educational videos about physical cosmology, suddenly discovering something seemingly profound.

And then, instead of asking themselves why, if it is so easy to stumble upon these results, they haven’t been published already by others, they go ahead and make outlandish claims. (Claims that sometimes land in my Inbox, unsolicited.)

Let me explain what I am talking about.

As it is well known, the rate of expansion of the cosmos is governed by the famous Hubble parameter: \(H\sim 70~{\rm km}/{\rm s}/{\rm Mpc}\). That is to say, two galaxies that are 1 megaparsec (Mpc, about 3 million light years) apart will be flying away from each other at a rate of 70 kilometers a second.

It is possible to convert megaparsecs (a unit of length) into kilometers (another unit of length), so that the lengths cancel out in the definition of \(H\), and we are left with \(H\sim 2.2\times 10^{-18}~{\rm s}^{-1}\), which is one divided by about 14 billion years. In other words, the Hubble parameter is just the inverse of the age of the universe. (It would be exactly the inverse of the age of the universe if the rate of cosmic expansion was constant. It isn’t, but the fact that the expansion was slowing down for the first 9 billion years or so and has been accelerating since kind of averages things out.)

And this, then, leads to the following naive arithmetic. First, given the age of the universe and the speed of light, we can find out the “radius” of the observable universe:

$$a=\dfrac{c}{H},$$

or about 14 billion light years. Inverting this equation, we also get \(H=c/a\).

But the expansion of the cosmos is governed by another equation, the first so-called Friedmann equation, which says that

$$H^2=\dfrac{8\pi G\rho}{3}.$$

Here, \rho is the density of the universe. The mass within the visible universe, then, is calculated as usual, just using the volume of a sphere of radius \(a\):

$$M=\dfrac{4\pi a^3}{3}\rho.$$

Putting this expression and the expression for \(H\) back into the Friedmann equation, we get the following:

$$a=\dfrac{2GM}{c^2}.$$

But this is just the Schwarzschild radius associated with the mass of the visible universe! Surely, we just discovered something profound here! Perhaps the universe is a black hole!

Well… not exactly. The fact that we got the Schwarzschild radius is no coincidence. The Friedmann equations are, after all, just Einstein’s field equations in disguise, i.e., the exact same equations that yield the formula for the Schwarzschild radius.

Still, the two solutions are qualitatively different. The universe cannot be the interior of a black hole’s event horizon. A black hole is characterized by an unavoidable future singularity, whereas our expanding universe is characterized by a past singularity. At best, the universe may be a time-reversed black hole, i.e., a “white hole”, but even that is dubious. The Schwarzschild solution, after all, is a vacuum solution of Einstein’s field equations, wereas the Friedmann equations describe a matter-filled universe. Nor is there a physical event horizon: the “visible universe” is an observer-dependent concept, and two observers in relative motion or even two observers some distance apart, will not see the same visible universe.

Nonetheless, these ideas, memes perhaps, show up regularly, in manuscripts submitted to journals of dubious quality, appearing in self-published books, or on the alternative manuscript archive viXra. And there are further variations on the theme. For instance, the so-called Planck power, divided by the Hubble parameter, yields \(2Mc^2\), i.e., twice the mass-energy in the observable universe. This coincidence is especially puzzling to those who work it out numerically, and thus remain oblivious to the fact that the Planck power is one of those Planck units that does not actually contain the Planck constant in its definition, only \(c\) and \(G\). People have also been fooling around with various factors of \(2\), \(\tfrac{1}{2}\) or \(\ln 2\), often based on dodgy information content arguments, coming up with numerical ratios that supposedly replicate the matter, dark matter, and dark energy content.

 Posted by at 10:13 pm
Jan 162019
 

In the political campaign leading up to the 2018 parliamentary elections in Hungary, an unlikely villain emerged on the election posters of the governing party: the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh,” screamed the posters, featuring an unflattering black-and-white photograph of the aging philanthropist.

While there was little doubt that this was all part of a cynically engineered election campaign, now we know exactly how it came to be, thanks to a piece of investigative journalism published in Das Magazin, a weekly supplement to several Swiss newspapers. A review of their article was also featured on 24.hu, a leading Hungarian news portal.

The anti-Soros campaign was the brainchild of George Birnbaum and his mentor, the late Arthur Finkelstein, experts on the technique of negative campaigning. They started working for Viktor Orban in 2008, contributing to his success in the 2010 election campaign. They had an easy task: the then ruling Socialist Party was wildly unpopular and thus easy to target. But after Orban’s second election victory in 2014, the Socialist Party was no longer a useful scapegoat. A new enemy was needed.

One obvious target presented itself: International capital, represented by the IMF and the EU, who dictated the conditions accompanying foreign loans that helped Hungary recover from the financial crisis. But an abstract target is not good enough. As Finkelstein once remarked, Americans fought not National Socialism but Hitler in WW2; not Al-Qaeda but Osama bin Laden in the War on Terror.

The narrative was given. One of the leading ideologues of Orban’s party, Maria Schmidt, director of the “House of Terror”, a museum dedicated to the victims of hardline communist terror in the early 1950s, readily provided it: a Hungary that was always the innocent victim, surrounded by enemies, yet protecting its identity and defending Christianity from adversaries ranging from the Ottoman Empire centuries ago to the investment bankers of the present day. All that was needed was a person who embodies this threat.

According to Das Magazin, Finkelstein and Birnbaum used a telephone survey to determine if Soros was known sufficiently well among would-be voters to serve as the target of a negative campaign. He proved to be the perfect enemy. He qualifies as a liberal, and he represents something hated by conservatives: a successful investor who wants to weaken capitalism. On the other hand, as he is not a politician and doesn’t even live in Hungary, he has no means to fight back.

The 2015 migration crisis was the icing on the cake. An essay Soros once wrote predicting a large number of refugees was relabeled the “Soros-plan”, demonstrating that Soros wanted to flood Hungary, and Europe in general, with Muslim “migrants”. By extension, any NGOs supported by Soros became targeted, as well as the Soros-founded Central European University, which was ultimately driven out of the country altogether, moving its main campus to Vienna.

The Soros-project was so successful, it was exported to other “markets”: anti-Soros voices were heard from Columbia to Kenya, from Israel to Australia. Even Donald Trump once asserted that the “caravan” heading towards America’s borders is funded by Soros.

The antisemitic overtone of the campaign is unmistakeable. Ironically, Finkelstein and Birnbaum are both Jewish. Birnbaum denied that the campaign had anything to do with antisemitism. He even claimed, rather improbably, that he did now know that Soros himself was Jewish. But Das Magazin reminds us that Finkelstein has not refrained in the past from supporting a candidate with known antisemitic views and that despite being gay, he also supported anti-gay politicians in the US.

 Posted by at 9:57 pm
Jan 162019
 

Theresa May lost the Brexit vote in Britain’s parliament. This means that still nothing has been decided when it comes to Brexit. Will it be a hard crash? Will Britain withdraw its Article 50 letter? Is there still room for compromise?

I know, I know, it’s not my country and I probably know a lot less about British politics than I should in order to voice a coherent opinion but still… what is about to happen will affect all of us, even outside of Britain, and may have a crucial impact on global stability as the world of 2019 is becoming ever more chaotic.

Many blame Theresa May for this uncertainty. Some call her incompetent. I do not believe that to be true. On the contrary, Theresa May tried to pull off the impossible and she almost succeeded. She was able to negotiate a Brexit plan that the EU accepted, and yet which minimized the negative impact on the British economy.

In other words, she managed to respect the will of the majority while at the same time protecting them from the worst consequences of their stupidity. In the process, she achieved a better deal than I expected under any reasonable set of circumstances.

As to who the true incompetents are… Perhaps incompetent is the wrong word when it comes to characterizing those callously opportunistic British politicians who plunged their country into this crisis in the first place, or the sometimes misguided, sometimes outright xenophobic voters who fell for the siren call to “Make Britain Great Again”.

Theresa May tried the impossible and she almost managed to make it happen. Despite originally supporting the “remain” option, May diligently worked on obtaining a decent separation deal. Still, it was not good enough. May’s political tragedy is that she sought compromise where no compromise was possible. Those who voted against Brexit were unlikely to cheer for any Brexit deal, no matter how sweetened. Those who voted for separation see any compromise as a betrayal of the will of the people; in fact, many are openly in favor of a “hard” Brexit, oblivious or indifferent with regards to the likely consequences.

When Jeremy Corbyn accused her of placing her party’s interests ahead of her nation’s, cameras showed May as she vehemently shook her head. And I think I understand why.

 Posted by at 9:40 pm
Jan 112019
 

I first read about this in George Takei’s Twitter feed. Then I checked it on Snopes, and it is true.

There really was a 1958 episode of a television Western (an episode titled The End of the World, of the series Trackdown), in which a character named Trump, a con artist, proposes to build an impenetrable wall to protect a town’s inhabitants.

Snopes confirms: the episode is real. In fact, the full episode is available on YouTube.

 Posted by at 1:21 am
Jan 092019
 

This editorial cartoon from the New York Daily News is not new; it seems to be from 2016, drawn by Bill Bramhall. I only just saw it though, in the feed of a Facebook friend.

Yet I think it is even more appropriate today, now that we have seen two years of the Trump presidency.

It of course is a reference to one of the scariest scenes from the 1979 movie Alien. I don’t know if the caption (those words were uttered by Ash, the film’s robot antagonist who is willing to sacrifice the spacecraft’s human crew in order to return the alien to his corporate masters ) was part of the original version of the cartoon, but it is this caption that makes the cartoon especially poignant these days.

 Posted by at 10:43 pm
Jan 092019
 

So I figured I’d try Office 2019. It came out a few months ago, and I have the MSDN license and everything, so why not give it a test drive. I downloaded the DVD installation image, and ran setup.

Immediately, I was presented with a cryptic error message:

What the devil does this mean? I am installing from a Microsoft-provided DVD image. Surely, it has all the required files?

The “Go online…” link was of no use. Just some generic stuff about installation failures.

A quick online search, however, revealed the culprit: Office 2019 won’t install unless Office 2016 is removed first.

Not something I am inclined to do at this time, not without thoroughly testing Office 2019 first to make sure that it behaves the way I like it (I am especially worried about Outlook and my encrypted imap connection, which can be a bitch to set up.)

In any case… in the software industry, 30 years ago already we had installers that gracefully recognized an existing installation of the same package, and offered either an upgrade or a side-by-side install. Or, worst case, they offered a meaningful error message, informing the hapless user that the prior version must be uninstalled first. Because, you know, chances are anyone installing Office 2019 might already have a copy of Office 2016 installed on their system?

I guess none of that is needed in 2019. After all, what kind of a dumb user am I if I don’t immediately understand Error code 30182-1 (2)?

 Posted by at 9:25 pm
Jan 062019
 

I almost forgot: a couple of months ago, I was interviewed over the telephone by a journalist who wanted to know my thoughts about one of my favorite moments in manned space exploration: The Apollo 8 “Genesis” moment, the reading of the opening verses of the Old Testament, on Christmas Day, 1968, by the astronauts of Apollo 8 as their spacecraft emerged from behind the Moon.

Today, something reminded me of this interview and I did a quick search. Lo and behold, there it is: My words, printed in The Boston Globe on December 23, 2018:

“It was a beautiful moment, and Genesis is part of our Western cultural heritage,” said Viktor Toth, an atheist and a senior research fellow at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, who played the lead role in the investigation of the Pioneer Anomaly, the mysterious acceleration of the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts in deep space. “This was an awe-inspiring thing: Human beings for the first time cut off from the Earth, and then they reemerged and saw the Earth again. The message was entirely appropriate.”

Though shortened, this pretty accurately reflects what I actually said during that roughly 10-minute conversation with the journalist.

 Posted by at 10:12 pm
Jan 042019
 

Even as China was celebrating the first successful landing of a spacecraft on the far side of the Moon, NASA’s New Horizons continued to radio back data from its New Year’s Day encounter with Ultima Thule: a strange, “contact binary” asteroid in the Kuiper belt, far beyond Pluto.

Ultima Thule will remain, for the foreseeable future, the most distant celestial object visited by spacecraft. While there is the odd chance that New Horizons may find another target within range (as determined by the on-board fuel available, which limits trajectory corrections, and the aging of its nuclear power source that provides electricity on board), chances are it won’t happen, and it won’t be until another deep space probe is launched, quite possibly decades from now, before we get a chance to see a world as distant as Ultima Thule.

Another piece of news from the New Horizons project is that so far, the probe found no moon orbiting Ultima Thule. No Moon At All.

 Posted by at 8:46 pm
Jan 032019
 

OK, the far side of the Moon is not really dark, but it is kind of hard to see. But now, from the department of unqualified good news: China successfully landed its spacecraft, Chang’e 4 (named after the Chinese Moon goddess), on the dark side of the Moon, and it has already sent us back some pictures.

This is big. Really big. To make it happen, China first had to launch a lunar orbiter, Queqiao (“Magpie bridge”), in order to maintain communication with the lander. And being on the far side of the Moon, the lander is completely shielded from radio signals from the Earth, which means an unprecedented opportunity to study radio signals of extrasolar origin.

Chang’e 4 also carried a rover, Yutu-2, which has since been deployed.

By any reasonable measure, this is a huge success for China’s space program, and for humanity overall. Hopefully, both lander and rover will remain operational and able to fulfill their scientific objectives.

 Posted by at 9:40 pm
Jan 012019
 

So here is what I expect from 2019.

  • The most severe political crisis in the United States since the Civil War, as investigations close in on Trump and his immediate family, and as House Democrats fail to rein in the firebrands among them;
  • A Trump administration that takes further steps to undermine the traditional system of Western alliances, including NATO and the EU;
  • A severe crisis in Britain as a no-deal Brexit unfolds; or when the government or Parliament come to their senses and “defying the will of the people” make a last-minute about-face;
  • An unfolding political crisis in the EU as member states like Hungary slide further towards authoritarianism, with some of the other European nations all too eager to follow, and the rest feeling helpless in light of their inability to deal with the domestic rise of nationalism and xenophobia;
  • A more assertive Russia that, sensing the weakness of nations it perceives as its main rivals, feels free to take aggressive steps, including the possibility of a more overt war with Ukraine;
  • China, facing an economic slowdown and rising criticism of Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism, turning towards more domestic repression and a more aggressive stance confronting its neighbors and in the South China Sea;
  • Japan, having announced its decision to leave the International Whaling Commission, resuming the culling of whales, because, as we all know, those magnificent creatures take up all the space in the oceans that is needed instead to store discarded bits of plastic;
  • Brazil, with its newly elected right-wing president at the helm, wreaking havoc in the rain forest, which he promised to privatize;
  • And last but not least, a bitter election campaign here in Canada, which will show to the world that this country, too, has its demons, in the form of nationalism, racism and xenophobia, and all all it takes is an unscrupulous populist or two to bring it all to the surface.

There are probably a few more things that I could add to this list, but these are at least some of the reasons why thinking about 2019 fills me with a sense of foreboding.

On a happier note, here is what I ask from Santa, come Christmas 2019: I want to be proven wrong on all of the above points. I desperately want to be wrong, foolishly wrong on all of the above points. Feel free to ridicule me on December 31 if none of my dire predictions come true. Nothing would make me happier.

 Posted by at 11:04 pm
Jan 012019
 

Today, I answered a question on Quora about the nature of \(c\), the speed of light, as it appears in the one equation everyone knows, \(E=mc^2.\)

I explained that it is best viewed as a conversion factor between our units of length and time. These units are accidents of history. There is nothing fundamental in Nature about one ten millionth the distance from the poles to the equator of the Earth (the original definition of the meter) or about one 86,400th the length of the Earth’s mean solar day. These units are what they are, in part, because we learned to measure length and time long before we learned that they are aspects of the same thing, spacetime.

And nothing stops us from using units such as light-seconds and seconds to measure space and time; in such units, the value of the speed of light would be just 1, and consequently, it could be dropped from equations altogether. This is precisely what theoretical physicists often do.

But then… I commented that something very similar takes place in aviation, where different units are used to measure horizontal distance (nautical miles, nmi) and altitude (feet, ft). So if you were to calculate the kinetic energy of an airplane (measuring its speed in nmi/s) and its potential energy (measuring the altitude, as well as the gravitational acceleration, in ft) you would need the ft/nmi conversion factor of 6076.12, squared, to convert between the two resulting units of energy.

As I was writing this answer, though, I stumbled upon a blog entry that discussed the crazy, mixed up units of measure still in use worldwide in aviation. Furlongs per fortnight may pretty much be the only unit that is not used, as just about every other unit of measure pops up, confusing poor pilots everywhere: Meters, feet, kilometers, nautical miles, statute miles, kilograms, pounds, millibars, hectopascals, inches of mercury… you name it, it’s there.

Part of the reason, of course, is the fact that America, alone among industrialized nations, managed to stick to its archaic system of measurements. Which is another historical accident, really. A lot had to do with the timing: metric transition was supposed to take place in the 1970s, governed by a presidential executive order signed by Gerald Ford. But the American economy was in a downturn, many Americans felt the nation under siege, the customary units worked well, and there was a conservative-populist pushback against the metric system… so by 1982, Ronald Reagan disbanded the Metric Board and the transition to metric was officially over. (Or not. The metric system continues to gain ground, whether it is used to measure bullets or Aspirin, soft drinks or street drugs.)

Yet another example similar to the metric system is the historical accident that created the employer-funded healthcare system in the United States that American continue to cling to, even as most (all?) other advanced industrial nations transitioned to something more modern, some variant of a single-payer universal healthcare system. It happened in the 1920s, when a Texas hospital managed to strike a deal with public school teachers in Dallas: For 50 cents a month, the hospital picked up the tab of their hospital visits. This arrangement became very popular during the Great Depression when hospitals lost patients who could not afford their hospital care anymore. The idea came to be known as Blue Cross. And that’s how the modern American healthcare system was born.

As I was reading this chain of Web articles, taking me on a tour from Einstein’s \(E=mc^2\) to employer-funded healthcare in America, I was reminded of a 40-year old British TV series, Connections, created by science historian James Burke. Burke found similar, often uncanny connections between seemingly unrelated topics in history, particularly the history of science and technology.

 Posted by at 2:25 pm
Dec 302018
 

This is Master Rufus.

Master Rufus would like to wish a Happy New Year to all our family, friends, indeed all good people who stumble upon this blog post.

 Posted by at 11:58 pm
Dec 242018
 

A quote from 50 years ago is the most appropriate one tonight, considering that our world is just as troubled as the world of 1968:

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.

 Posted by at 5:25 pm
Dec 142018
 

The news came a few days ago: Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig has been arrested in China, in apparent retaliation for the arrest of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

Michael WHAT, I asked? Kovrig? As in, K-O-V-R-I-G?

You see, Kovrig is not at all a common surname. And it so happens that my stepfather’s last name is Kovrig.

Not just that but… we know another Kovrig (no relation, none that we know anyway). My parents came to know this Kovrig as a result of a chance encounter, but ultimately, they helped him purchase an apartment in the same building where they live. So this Kovrig lives two floors above my Mom and my stepfather, in Budapest.

And Michael Kovrig, former Canadian diplomat, is his nephew.

A few years ago, I was about to be offered an opportunity to take part in a Chinese research effort. My participation would have involved access to data that Chinese authorities might have viewed as military secrets. I backed out for this very reason. The last thing I needed in my life was the possibility, however remote, that I would end up in Chinese custody, accused of espionage. Later, I was wondering if I simply made a fool of myself; Was there any real danger that I might get into trouble, or was I simply pretentious?

Kovrig’s arrest is a wake-up call. This time, lightning struck uncomfortably close. Much as I regret not taking part in that very interesting and promising piece of research (and it would have been an honor to be invited) I am glad I backed out.

I hope Kovrig is released soon. I hope his arrest helps others realize that beneath the spectacular economic growth and the undeniable successes, China is still fundamentally a communist police state, whose methods of choice are bullying and violence.

 Posted by at 5:07 pm