Jul 072018
 

An interesting article appeared on the Web site of BBC News today.

It describes a US president who is anti-immigration, who has a proclivity for conspiracy theories, and who appoints his own daughter to a prominent role in the White House.

But no, it is not Donald J. Trump. It is Millard Fillmore, who became the 13th president of the United States after the death of Zachary Taylor, under whom Fillmore served as Vice-President.

One of the least known among US presidents perhaps, Fillmore nonetheless played a role in the destruction of the Whig Party and the subsequent rise of the Republican Party and their 1860 nominee for President, Abraham Lincoln. It was also under Fillmore’s presidency that the controversial Compromise of 1850 was accomplished. Whether it postponed the Civil War or was a contributing cause remains a subject of debate to this day.

Fillmore’s political career collapsed after his one term. The Whig Party, already in tatters, did not nominate him in 1852. His life was afflicted by tragedies, as he lost his wife and his only daughter in rapid succession shortly after leaving office.

Uncanny similarities notwithstanding, there are also significant differences between Fillmore and Trump. Though described by Queen Victoria as the handsomest man she had ever seen, Fillmore was no rich playboy; he was born in poverty, and he was worried about making a living after leaving the White House, as he was not independently wealthy. And he was certainly a more humble man than Trump: He refused to accept an honorary doctorate from Oxford, stating that he had no “literary or scientific attainment” that would justify the diploma. Besides, his lack of a classical education meant that he spoke no Latin, yet “no man should accept a degree he cannot read”. Somehow, I doubt that such considerations would prevent the 45th president from accepting such an honor.

In 1856, Fillmore again ran for the presidency as the candidate of the newly formed American Party, but only carried the state of Maryland. He died in 1874.

 Posted by at 6:45 pm
Jun 282018
 

Bashing Trump is a favorite pastime of mine and that of many of my friends. To be sure, there are plenty of reasons to despise the man: His obvious racism, misogyny, narcissism, nepotism, corruption, his authoritarian tendencies, just to name a few.

But putting the focus on these characteristics leads us to miss a very important point. As a Republican president, Trump delivers. He does precisely what his base (who did elect him, after all) were hoping for. Putting conservative justices on the Supreme Court, who might reverse Roe v. Wade and other landmark “liberal” decisions? Check. Sabotaging Obamacare? Check. Making a stand against immigration? Check. A protectionist economic policy? Check. Standing up even against the Republican establishment in Washington? Check.

Trump’s base, by the way, also happen to distrust liberal democracy, and may not be adverse to a more authoritarian, strongman-style rule, so long as it is their strongman. As such, they are far less alarmed by the ease with which Trump gets along with other strongmen and the difficulty he has with the leaders of liberal democracies that are America’s traditional allies. This may even be seen as part of his “alpha male” personality, a sign of his strength.

So even if we take the hatemongering, Islamophobia, racism and other unsavory factors out of the equation, Trump is to many a dream come true: He is delivering precisely what they hoped to see from a Republican president.

And it is because of this that they are willing to turn a blind eye to Trump’s personal shortcomings. It may appear hypocritical, but ultimately, it’s just good old political pragmatism.

For this reason, I think it is deeply misguided to focus on the failings of Trump. This visceral reaction to Trump’s personality does not resonate with his base. If anything, it strengthens their perception that their political opposition is a bunch of disloyal losers: unpatriotic liberals who would rather see the man they despise fail, even if it harms America. (That conservatives behaved exactly like this in their opposition to Obama may not cross their minds. In fact, the very fact that they themselves behaved in this manner may be a reason why they so easily believe that their liberal opposition is no different.)

Is left-wing populism the answer? Supporters of Bernie Sanders undoubtedly think so. But I have my doubts. Why would left-wing populism be any better than its right-wing counterpart? In both cases, we end up with leaders who are dilettantes and demagogues. The problem these days (and this issue is not confined within the borders of America; look at Europe, or look right here, at the Canadian province of Ontario) is the collapse of the center. The end of fact-based governance by an increasingly despised technocratic “elite”.

The irony of it is that this liberal world order, for all its failings, kept the world together with no major conflict for the past 70-odd years, a golden age of possibly unprecedented growth and prosperity. (And not just in the first world; just look at global statistics of life expectancy, literacy rates, and other measures that show just how much life improved throughout much of the planet since 1945.) Yet not only is it rejected, it is rejected most vehemently by those who benefited from it the most.

There was another, similar golden era of near unprecedented growth and prosperity: The second half of the 19th century, all the way up to 1914. Yet even as more and more thinkers were convinced that the era of wars between major powers is a thing of the past, the world was heading towards the disaster called the Great War, which plunged the world into chaos, destroyed the prevailing world order, created the circumstances for the rise of the twin evils of communism and fascism, and eventually led to a second world war and the industrial-scale mass murder of the Holocaust.

I don’t know where the world is heading today, but I admit I think about 1914 a lot.

 Posted by at 7:01 pm
Jun 172018
 

Here is a sobering statistic based on some Gallup data. The only president ever who was more popular among same party followers than Trump was… George W. Bush.

Yes. More popular than JFK, Ike, Obama or Reagan, 500 days into the presidency.

Then again, this chart may reflect a disease that goes deeper than Trump: the continuing ideological polarization of America. Here are the same figures, this time in chronological order:

The trend seems unmistakable. After WW2, voters were, it appears, more skeptical. Presidents were approved based on their deeds more than their party affiliation. This appears to have changed in the past 70 years. Now, party affiliation matters more.

Then again… What if Truman, Ford, Carter, G. W. Bush are all outliers? After all, in all their cases the circumstances were unusual, exceptional even. Take them out and what we are left with is a pretty steady approval rating in the vicinity of 80%, give or take.

I don’t know. With a data set of only 13 data points, throwing four away as outliers is a bit excessive.

 Posted by at 9:52 am
Jun 162018
 

When I was a teenager, the classic novel, The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas, was one of my favorites.

And one of my favorite chapters in that book was a chapter with an uncanny (not to mention unusually long) title: “How a Gardener May Get Rid of the Dormice that Eat His Peaches”. In it, Dumas describes a classic hack: exploiting the human in the system. By bribing an operator of France’s early optical telegraph network, the book’s protagonist is able to plant a false message, which ultimately contributes to the downfall of one of his mortal enemies. In short: a targeted cyberattack on a telecommunications network.

What I did not know, however, is that this chapter may have been inspired by real life events. About ten years before Dumas published his novel, the brothers François and Louis* Blanc managed to hack the telegraph network in a manner even more sophisticated than the hack described in Dumas’s book. Yes, the real-life hack relied on bribing operators, too, but it also involved a case of steganography: inserting a coded message that would piggyback on the original telegraph transmission. Not only did the scheme succeed, like any good hack it remained in place and undetected for two years. And when it was finally detected, the Blanc brothers were charged but never convicted; there were, after all, no laws on the books back in the 1830s against misuse of data networks.


*Well, that’s what Wikipedia tells me. It appears that the twins are misidentified as Francois and Joseph in several English-language publications. Francois was later known as The Magician of Monte Carlo, a casino that he owned and where he first introduced the single-0 style roulette wheel.
 
 Posted by at 7:52 pm
Jun 112018
 

I admit I never expected to see this:

I admit I despise both gentlemen in this picture, albeit for different reasons.

However… if this meeting has a positive outcome, I will cheer when they are both awarded the Nobel peace prize.

 Posted by at 9:39 pm
Feb 192018
 

The more I learn about ancient China, the more my respect grows for the Middle Kingdom and its amazing history.

Here is something written by a 9th century Muslim traveler, Abu Zayd al-Sirafi, who visited China during the Tang Dynasty, in 850 A.D. or thereabouts. I found a modern translation that I first came across so incredible, I searched for corroboration. I then came across this 1733 English translation (if I interpret the cover page correctly, by an unnamed English translator using a French translation from the Arabic by Eusebius Renaudot).

Here is how this 1733 text describes China’s social safety net. (And if you are left wondering if perhaps the traveler mistakenly traveled into the future, visiting a late 20th, early 21st century welfare state, you are not alone):

“The Chinese have a Stone ten Cubits high, erected in the public Squares, and on this Stone are graved the Names of all sorts of Medicines, with the exact rates of each; and when the poor stand in need of any Relief from Physic, they go to the Treasury, where they receive the Price each Medicine is rated at.

“There is no Land Tax in China; they only levy so much per Head, according to the Wealth and Possessions of the Subject. When a Male Child is born, his Name is immediately entered into the King’s Books, and when this Child has attained his eighteenth Year, he begins to pay for his Head; but they demand it not of the Man who has seen his eightieth Year; on the contrary he receives a Gratification, by way of Pension, from the public Treasury; and in doing this, the Chinese say, That they give him this Gratification in his old days, in acknowledgment for what they receiv’d of him when he was young.

“There are Schools in every Town for teaching the Poor and their Children to write and read, and the Masters are paid at the public Charge.”

This text was written nearly 1,200 years ago. It took another millennium before public education become the norm in more developed European nations, and at least another century before various forms of social security and public health institutions took root.

I am beginning to appreciate more and more why the Middle Kingdom viewed the period loosely demarcated by the Opium Wars of the 1850s and the Japanese occupation of the 1930s and 1940s as the Century of Humiliation; and why it might appear to many that the recent rise of China as an economic superpower only means a return to the way things were always supposed to be, the way things have been for several millennia preceding the rapid rise of Europe a few centuries ago.

 Posted by at 8:21 pm
Jan 072018
 

Not too long ago (OK, well, 30 years… it doesn’t feel that long anymore) there was another genius on the news: the Genius of the Carpathians, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Here is a joke from that era that, no doubt, could be adapted to fit the “very stable genius”, too.

The US president, the General Secretary of the Soviet communist party, the Pope and Ceausescu are flying somewhere on a plane. Suddenly, the pilot enters the compartment and says, “Gentleman, I have bad news. This airplane is about to crash and we only have four parachutes.”

Immediately, the US president yells, “I am the leader of the free world, I must survive!”, grabs a parachute and jumps.

He is followed by the Soviet leader, who yells, “I am the leader of the worldwide socialist revolution. I must survive!”, grabs another parachute and jumps.

Next comes Ceausescu: “I am the Genius of the Carpathians! I must survive!”, grabs the next parachute and jumps.

The Pope and the pilot remain. The Pope looks at the pilot and says, “My son, I am old and lived a full life. Your whole life is ahead of you. Please take that parachute. I’ll pray for your survival.” The pilot responds, “No need to worry, Holy Father, we have two parachutes left. The Genius of the Carpathians grabbed the fire extinguisher.”

 Posted by at 11:17 am
Dec 062017
 

100 years ago today, as war was raging in Europe, the city of Halifax went up in flames in what remains one of the largest non-nuclear man-made explosions in history.

What began as a series of navigational errors resulted in a collision of two ships in Halifax Harbor, one of which was full of explosives. This ship caught fire and as its crew fled, the burning vessel drifted towards the city. It eventually exploded.

The destroyed Exhibition Building in Halifax, NS, also known as the location where the last body form the explosion was recovered two years later.

By the time it was all over, nearly 2,000 people were dead with many more injured. A large number of people lost their eyesight, as they were watching the harbor from indoors through glass windowpanes. These were shattered by the supersonic shock front of the explosion, the shards turning into shrapnel.

A Mi’kmaq community across the harbor was also destroyed, never to be rebuilt. Many of the residents were killed, while others were housed in segregated shelters, and ultimately dispersed throughout the province.

 Posted by at 10:52 am
Nov 072017
 

In between being sick with a cold and being hopelessly behind with my TODO list, I almost forgot. Today was an remarkable anniversary.

It was 100 years ago today that the Great October Socialist Revolution (which happened on October 25 according to the Julian calendar, which was still in use in Russia in 1917) achieved victory in St. Petersburg and the Utopian communist Soviet state was born.

Sadly, the Utopian dreams did not last very long. In between its inability to govern without violence and the threats, both internal and external, that the fledgling communist state faced, it quickly turned to a less Utopian interpretation of Marx’s dream: The “dictatorship of the proletariat”, one-party rule in a totalitarian police state.

Nonetheless… when I was little, growing up in then-communist Hungary behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union seemed eternal. Its successes were spectacular, including how it prevailed against the Nazi war machine in the Great Patriotic War and also how it rushed to the forefront of many areas in engineering and the sciences, including the first orbital spacecraft and the first manned spaceflight.

Alas, the Soviet Union proved less eternal than anyone thought. It was done in by an incompetent, ultraconservative octogenarian leadership and the inherent failures and weaknesses of its command economy. Less than 75 years after it was created, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The red flag over the Kremlin was taken down, and the Soviet federation itself broke up into its constituent states.

And now here we are, on the 100th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, and barely anyone remembers. There are no broadcasts of military parades from Moscow’s Red Square. Not even a brief commemoration in the evening local news on the CBC, or on CNN in between their analysis of Trump’s Asia trip and the results of tonight’s interim elections. If Russia is mentioned at all, it’s only in the context of the Mueller investigation. The revolution that shook the world in 1917 and shaped the world for three quarters of a century afterwards seems mostly forgotten.

Heck, I almost forgot to blog about it.

 Posted by at 10:54 pm
Sep 192017
 

The recent dramatic rise in the number of North Korean missile launches, combined with their successful test of a thermonuclear weapon and their announcement (so far, unverified) that they now have the capability to mount a weapon on top of an intercontinental ballistic missile, in combination with a US president who has a demonstrated willingness to “go rogue”, raises the very real possibility of an armed conflict between the United States and North Korea. A conflict that can quickly and uncontrollably escalate.

And it may all be based on a giant misunderstanding.

The almost unanimous opinion in the West appears to be that the DPRK is a rogue regime. That its megalomaniac dictator finds self-gratification in the building of nuclear missles. And that he represents a direct threat, a clear and present danger to the United States.

But what if this is not the case? What if the DPRK leadership is, ahem, rational?

Rational, that is, but based on a biased, distorted interpretation of the facts.

What if they genuinely believe that it is their regime that is being threatened by the United States? That nuclear weapons represent the only security guarantee against a rogue imperialist superpower?

And what if they actually believe their own propaganda version of history, namely that back during the Korean War, it was the DPRK army, under the leadership of its Great Leader, that defeated America, rather than Mao’s China achieving a stalemate? Or that it was indeed the United States that attacked the peace-loving DPRK instead of the DPRK launching a war against its southern neighbor?

These biases lead to the rational conclusion that, on the one hand, the threats faced by the DPRK are very real and thus a nuclear deterrent is essential; and that, on the other hand, bellicose talk can help remind the United States of a supposedly humiliating defeat and deter it from further aggression.

If this is the case, the proper response is negotiation: credible security guarantees offered to North Korea, tangible proof that there is no intent to attack. Threats, such as those uttered by Trump just a few minutes ago while speaking to the UN General Assembly, achieve the exact opposite: they reinforce North Korean beliefs that the American threat is real and imminent. Far from deterring them from pursuing a nuclear weapons program, it prompts them to accelerate their efforts.

And the almost inevitable outcome of the escalation of this war of words is real war. And when that happens, the proverbial excrement can quickly hit the ventilator. China may choose to get involved; reluctantly, perhaps, but they may believe that getting involved is the lesser of two evils. But that involvement can quickly result in direct conflict between China and the United States, or US allies like Japan. And if by any chance Russia chooses to get involved as well, the situation can quickly escalate into an unintended world conflict.

Cannot happen? Think again. 103 years ago this year, a major European power decided to launch a limited military strike to punish a rogue power, a supporter of terrorism, indirectly responsible for a high-profile political assassination. Within weeks, much of the world was embroiled in a conflict that nobody wanted, nobody believed in, and nobody knew how to win, how to end, or how to get out of. The Great War, the interregnum that followed including the rise of Nazism, the second World War and the rise of authoritarian communism worldwide cost, at the very least, 100 million lives. An experience I’d rather not see repeated, especially not with nuclear weapons involved.

 Posted by at 11:22 am
Apr 082017
 

Remember what radio used to be like, especially shortwave?

Many stations had an interval signal. This signal, usually just a few musical notes, was played whenever the station would otherwise be silent (e.g., between the end of a program and the time signal at the top of the hour.) I remember many an interval signal fondly.

But one of them, I just cannot identify. Namely this one:

Bugs the devil out of me.

 Posted by at 7:59 pm
Jan 202017
 

It is well known that the despicable Biff Tannen character from the Back to the Future movies was based on a certain real-life despicable mogul by the name of Donald J. Trump. In particular, the “rich Biff” of 1985, having established a casino and real estate empire after receiving a sports almanac from the future back in 1955, was modeled after everyone’s favorite Trump.

In light of this and today’s historic events, it is only appropriate to imagine how the real-life Biff, I mean Trump, would have fared in one of the movies’ iconic scenes:

I hate manure…

Yes, I know it is more than a little crass to share this tweet. Even so, it is far less distasteful than the many racist caricatures that followed Obama’s inauguration and frankly, it makes it a lot easier to deal with this historic day.

 Posted by at 4:24 pm
Jan 102017
 

I just finished listening to Obama’s farewell address.

Now why do I have the feeling that this may be the very last time in my life that I’ll be hearing an American President preach goodness and decency instead of contempt and hate? Uplifting thoughts instead of fear and loathing?

Meanwhile, there appears to be a multitude of clowns on the Interwebs who think repealing Obamacare is okay, because they are insured through the Affordable Care Act:

What can I say? Enjoy your improved healthcare starting next month, folks. Glad I live in pinko commie Canada where we have had decent (albeit far from perfect) medicare for half a century. Of course once Trump, along with his BFF Putin, manage to blow up the world, none of this will matter anymore.

 Posted by at 10:05 pm
Dec 232016
 

Last night, after I watched the final episode of an amazing Brazilian television series, 3% (yes, that’s the title) on Netflix, I felt compelled to listen to the immortal song Aquarela do Brasil, especially the Geoff Muldaur version that was the title song for Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil.

As I was listening to the song, I realized that along with Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again, it’s one of the songs I’d like to listen to when the world comes to an end.

Runner-ups include Nena’s 99 Luftballons and Anita Kelsey’s version (known from the film Dark City) of Sway (¿Quién será?)

As to why I am thinking about the end of the world…

 Posted by at 12:26 pm
Nov 222016
 

The horrific bombing of Guernica in 1937 inspired one of the best known of Pablo Picasso’s paintings. Yet images of the ruined city were not enough: The world did nothing, and two years later, another war began that brought the same horror, but on a much larger scale, to all of Europe and many parts of the world elsewhere.

Die Ruinen von Guernica 5603/37

And here we are in 2016, and it seems we learned nothing. Another civil war rages on, this time in Syria. And another rogue great power intervenes with its mighty warplanes, conducting indiscriminate bombings against civilian targets.

Just like in 1937, the world remains largely silent. Appeasing a great power and its power hungry despot is more important than lives. And we forget the lessons of history: despots cannot be appeased. They always want more. The demons of nationalism, awakened by false promises of restored pride, cannot be appeased. They will always demand more.

What horrors will follow in the coming years? Will we see the streets of Europe, perhaps North America, look like Aleppo’s today? Is Aleppo just a prelude to what is yet to come, just like Guernica was 79 years ago?

As I think of this, it brings to my mind a 33-year old German-language hit song, Nena’s 99 Luftballons.  Here is how that song ends (my less-than-perfect translation of the German lyrics; they also produced an English version but it was, well, rather lame):

Neunundneunzig Jahre Krieg
Ließen keinen Platz für Sieger
Kriegsminister gibt’s nicht mehr
Und auch keine Düsenflieger

Heute zieh’ ich meine Runden
Seh die Welt in Trümmern liegen
Hab ‘n Luftballon gefunden
Denk’ an Dich und lass’ ihn fliegen

Ninety-nine years of war
Left no room for a victor
There are no more war ministers
Also no more fighter bombers

Today as I took a stroll
Saw a world, ruined by war
There, I just found a balloon
Thinking of you, I let it fly soon

 Posted by at 10:57 am
Nov 202016
 

Okay, this is hands down the winner as the absolute “I’ll effing be” moment for me today, if not this week (and that’s saying something, with all the shenanigans going on with Trump and his cabinet picks): An electric steam locomotive that I just came across.

Say what?

Yes, an electric steam locomotive. That would be a steam engine, boiler and all, with a pantograph connecting it to an overhead line.

A lunatic scheme, to be sure, but apparently it made sense in 1940s Switzerland. They had steam locomotives aplenty. What they didn’t have was fuel for these locomotives. But they had plenty of cheap hydroelectricity. So even with the incredibly inefficient conversion of electric power into heat into steam pressure into mechanical motion, it still made sense.

Still… these perverted things just look absolutely demented.

 Posted by at 3:20 pm
Nov 102016
 

I have been worried now for many years that the world will end this period of peace and prosperity with another bang, like the one that happened in 1914.

I am not alone with my concerns. I just read an excellent article, written back in July, that argues the same. Indeed, like me, the author considers it an inevitable cycle of history.

As I said in the wake of Trump’s victory, I am in my 50s and I have no children, so I have much less at stake than most. I can afford to be a spectator. Still, I desperately hope that when the world goes bonkers, Canada manages to stay out of it. Is it even possible, in this globalized era? Isn’t Canada just too great a prize, with its abundant land and natural resources? I hope never to find out. But on this day, the eve of the 98th anniversary of the Armistice at the conclusion of The War to End All Wars, I think it is the right question to ask.

 Posted by at 8:05 pm
Nov 092016
 

Thanks to a friend’s posting on Facebook, I just read the first ever sensible explanation of the reasons for Trump’s victory.

Short version: Forget red and blue states. It’s country vs. city. And the country is losing.

This should be mandatory reading to everyone, Democrat and Republican alike, trying to understand the reasons behind Trump’s “stunning upset”.

Here is the link again: http://www.cracked.com/blog/6-reasons-trumps-rise-that-no-one-talks-about/

 Posted by at 11:44 pm
Nov 092016
 

Trump just won Ohio.

In the past hour, I managed to convince myself that Trump will win this election.

It’s another one of those moments when I am glad that I have no children and their future to worry about.

Like a little less than a century ago, once again the politics of divisiveness, hate and fear are gaining ground throughout the so-called “civilized” world. What it will lead to, I don’t know, but my pessimism is growing each day. The world has been peaceful and prosperous for too long.

But let me not mince worlds.

  • If you voted for Trump because you think Muslims are taking over America, you are an idiot.
  • If you voted for Trump because you think coal mining has a future, you are an idiot.
  • If you voted for Trump because you think America needs to be protected from Mexico by a wall, you are an idiot.
  • If you voted for Trump because you think tearing down trade agreements will bring back manufacturing jobs that were lost to automation, you are an idiot.
  • If you voted for Trump because everything was “e-mail server” and “Benghazi” for you, you are an idiot.
  • If you voted for Trump because you believe that he will “drain the swamp”, you are an idiot.
  • If you voted for Trump because you think it is a good idea in a mature democracy to “lock her up”, you are an idiot.
  • If you voted for Trump because you believe global warming is some Chinese scam, you are an idiot.

Those who forget the lessons of history are bound to repeat the mistakes of the past.

But you know what? Why should I care? I am in my fifties. I have no children to worry about. If you want to screw up the world by listening to the siren song of xenophobia and populism, the politics of fear and hatred, be my guest. Enjoy this brave new world of your own creation. Repeat the mistakes of history, this time with even more destruction, even deadlier weapons than ever before.

In any case, Putin must be having a really good day today.

 Posted by at 12:04 am