Sep 242020
 

Reading about Trump’s refusal to commit to the peaceful transfer of power, I suddenly felt the urge to read up on the history of our Canadian provinces during the US Civil War.

As it turns out, Canadian provinces did well economically. And some of Canada’s enduring institutions, seemingly undemocratic yet serving as effective guarantees of political stability and safeguards against excessive partisanship, such as the appointed Senate, were born in the wake of the lessons of that conflict.

Even so, I worry about the future. US elections this November will be unlike any other in living memory, I fear.

 Posted by at 2:06 am
Aug 302020
 

One thing follows another…

I’m listening to old MP3 files on my computer, one of which contains this once popular song by Paper Lace, The Night Chicago Died.

I once read that the band knew nothing about Chicago’s geography; I checked again on the Wikipedia page dedicated to this song.

The page mentions, among other things, how then Chicago mayor Daley hated the song. Daley? The same Daley who demolished Meigs Field airport, the island airport serving downtown Chicago that was the starting location of Microsoft Flight Simulator for many years?

Indeed. (Well, almost. There were two Daleys, father and son, Richard J and Richard M.) And Wikipedia tells me that the island has indeed since been turned into a park and nature preserve. But there are few pictures, so I figured I’d check it out using Google Maps.

So I typed Chicago into Google Maps and was greeted with this message in response:

I don’t know but this seems… a tad embarrassing isn’t it. Unless of course Chicago actually did die last night, and was promptly removed from Google Maps in response.

But no, Chicago is still there. The Google Maps thing was just a glitch. As is Northerly Island, which once hosted that ill-fated airport, its future as uncertain as it has always been in the past century or so.

 Posted by at 5:21 pm
Aug 292020
 

My mind just got blown.

The reason? Photographs like this one:

No, it’s not photoshop. Nor is it a movie prop.

Back in the 1950s, 1960s, early 1970s there really was regular bus service connecting the city of London, United Kingdom, with Calcutta (now Kolkata), India.

It really blew my mind. What a ride! Traveling through Belgium, West Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, West Pakistan (now Pakistan), and finally, India.

I think what really blew my mind was not that the roads were there. Of course. But that a bus, obviously from a Western capital, carrying unarmed passengers, could safely travel through this route. Sure, passengers needed a multitude of visas, even crossing the Iron Curtain (twice!) but nonetheless, the route had to be safe enough, roadside services had to be reliable enough, and the authorities along the route had to be trustworthy enough for a bus operator to be able to offer this regularly scheduled service.

Of course things didn’t stay that way. The India-Pakistan border has become less open each passing year. Afghanistan went to hell in a handbasket with the Soviet occupation, the Taliban, the American invasion in the wake of 9/11. Iran turned into a theocracy with the Islamic revolution. Yugoslavia went up in flames in a bloody civil war. Today, it would be quite impossible* to organize reliable bus service from London to Kolkata.

I cannot help but wonder what it must have been like, for a child in Kolkata, Kabul, Lahore or Tehran, looking at this bus and imagining that faraway, fabulous city of London. I used to feel that sense of awe a little when, as a child in behind-the-iron-curtain Budapest, I saw trains departing the railway station for faraway, magical places like Vienna or Paris; but those were a lot closer, a lot more accessible to us in Budapest than London must have been to a 6-year old on Kabul or Lahore in 1969.


*Or maybe not: Apparently there is an effort under way to establish a bus route, with a gigantic detour through Myanmar, Thailand, China and Russia. I wish them luck.

 Posted by at 1:34 am
Aug 252020
 

I keep reading about ancient Rome. Part of the reason, of course, is that every so often, looking in particular at American politics, I wonder if we are witnessing history repeating itself.

But there was a lot more to ancient Rome than politics and palace intrigue.

Take their roads. They knew how to build roads! Holy Roman macaroni, some of the roads built two thousands years ago are still in use!

I don’t know if Roman roads represented the first properly engineered road network in history, but they certainly were properly engineered.

And there were a lot of roads in ancient Rome. Apparently, they had some 80,000 km of paved roads, and several hundred thousand kilometers of additional roadways criss-crossing the realm.

An Internet data scientist and cartographer, Sasha Trubetskoy, created a fantastic map of the major Roman roadways in the style of modern subway maps.

It truly is amazing that two thousand years ago, it was possible to circumnavigate the Mediterranean via paved roads and regular service stations, making it possible for a determined traveler to travel several hundred kilometers in a day.

 Posted by at 4:15 pm
Aug 062020
 

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

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

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

 Posted by at 5:29 pm
Aug 052020
 

A tragedy took place in Beirut yesterday.

The actual power of the massive explosion is yet to be estimated accurately (probably not quite as large as the largest non-nuclear, accidental explosion that took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia 103 years ago though it comes close), but the images and videos are horrifying.

Reportedly, windows were shattered as far as 25 kilometers away from the epicenter.

The audio on one of the many videos showing the moment of the explosion accurately captures the event: “What the actual fuck?” asks a woman’s voice incredulously.

In light of the scope of the disaster, I expect that the final death toll will far exceed the 78 deceased that we know about for now.

It now appears that it was an industrial accident: welding work setting off a fire that in turn spread to a warehouse where thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate was stored.

Naturally, it didn’t prevent America’s “stable genius” from talking about an “attack”. When asked, he even referred to his “generals” who, according to him, told him that it was likely an attack.

I have no doubt that he made it all up on the spot. But his pronouncement had predictable consequences. It was like pouring oil on the fire, as it gave an excuse for every closet antisemite to come out and spread the conspiracy theory that it was an attack by Israel. Twitter accounts spreading this inflammatory nonsense include a Robert de Niro parody account; for a brief moment, I thought it was the real Robert de Niro, which would have been terribly disappointing.

Wildfires in Australia, locusts in Africa, a global pandemic, widespread racial riots in the United States, “murder hornets” spreading in North America… The Internet was already full of joke calendars for this year with disaster memes, as well as speculation that perhaps that infamous Mayan calendar was misinterpreted, as it referred to 2020, not 2012. In light of this catastrophe in Beirut, I am inclined to ask, what next? Alien invasion? The Yellowstone caldera? Global thermonuclear war? Giant asteroid impact? I won’t even try to guess, just note that we still have nearly five months left of this year.

 Posted by at 1:30 am
Jul 162020
 

Seventy-five years ago this morning, a false dawn greeted the New Mexico desert near Alamagordo.

At 5:29 AM in the morning, the device informally known as “the gadget” exploded.

“The gadget” was a plutonium bomb with the explosive power of about 22 kilotons of TNT. It was the first nuclear explosion on planet Earth. It marked the beginning of the nuclear era.

I can only imagine what it must have been like, being part of that effort, being present in the pre-dawn hours, back in 1945. The war in Europe just ended. The war in the Pacific was still raging. This was the world’s first high technology war, fought over the horizon, fought with radio waves, and soon, to be fought with nuclear power. Yet there were so many unknowns! The Trinity test was the culmination of years of frantic effort. The outcome was by no means assured, yet the consequences were clear to all: a successful test would mean that war would never be the same. The world would never be the same.

And then, the most surreal of things happens: minutes before the planned detonation, in the pre-dawn darkness, the intercom system picks up a faint signal from a local radio station, and music starts playing. It’s almost as if reality was mimicking the atmosphere of yet-to-be-invented computer games.

When the explosion happened, the only major surprise was that the detonation was much brighter than anyone had expected. Otherwise, things unfolded pretty much as anticipated. “The gadget” worked. Success cleared the way to the deployment of the (as yet untested) simpler uranium bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima three weeks later, followed by the twin of the Trinity gadget, which ended up destroying much of Nagasaki. The human cost was staggering, yet we must not forget that it would have been dwarfed by the costs of a ground invasion of the Japanese home islands. It was a means to shorten the war, a war not started by the United States. No responsible commander-in-chief could have made a decision other than the one Truman made when he approved the use of the weapons against Imperial Japan.

And perhaps the horrors seen in those two cities played a role in creating a world in which the last use of a nuclear weapon in anger occurred nearly 75 years ago, on August 9, 1945. No one would have predicted back then that there will be no nuclear weapons deployed in war in the coming three quarters of a century. Yet here we are, in 2020, struggling with a pandemic, struggling with populism and other forces undermining our world order, yet still largely peaceful, living in a golden age unprecedented in human history.

Perhaps Trinity should serve as a reminder that peace and prosperity can be fragile.

 Posted by at 12:52 pm
Jun 092020
 

In 1889, a story by Jules Verne (believed to have been written actually by his son, Michel Verne) was published in the American magazine Forum under the title, “In the Year 2889“.

In it, among other things, Verne envisions video conferencing.

Verne’s story was illustrated by George Roux, who is best known for his numerous illustrations for Verne’s science-fiction novels. I suspect that this particular picture was made in 1889 or 1890 (when Verne’s story, which appeared originally in English, was republished in France.)

I find this image mind-boggling. That 130 years ago, back in the 19th century, someone was able to envision… well, something that, for all intents and purposes, looks pretty much like what many of us are doing today.

 Posted by at 12:15 pm
Mar 202020
 

I am reading this article in Mother Jones, worrying about the United States following the fate of the Western Roman Empire, leading to its collapse in 476 AD.

But… Empire?

I think it speaks volumes about America that even a left-wing outlet, like Mother Jones, worries about the end of an Empire… instead of worrying about the end of a Republic.

For these are not the end times for the American Empire. Not even the beginning of the end. It is, to put it plainly, just the beginning. If the analogy with Rome has any validity (and I suspect that it might), what we are witnessing is not the end of an Empire, but its birth.

What we see is not the weakening of the American political entity, quite the contrary. But we do see a transition, as republican values erode, as liberal democracy is abandoned, and the United States inches ever closer to an imperial presidency.

I expressed my concerns about this before. There are certain unmistakable parallels between the history that unfolds in the United States in the present day vs. the history of Rome some 2100 years ago.

The fact that even a Mother Jones commentator misses this point and thinks of his nation as an Empire only reinforces my concerns.

 Posted by at 3:50 pm
Mar 182020
 

Looking at papers presenting predictions about the COVID-19 outbreak, one thing is evident: Things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. Today, we passed the 200,000 mark for confirmed infections worldwide, and the curve continues its super-exponential rise for the time being. We are quite a long way away from “flattening” the curve, and that means that millions will get infected, health care systems will be overwhelmed even in the most advanced industrialized societies, and some of us who could be saved, will die, because there will not be enough hospital beds, respirators, medication, or health care professionals available to help.

Yet… I cannot help but wonder if this calamity is, perhaps, a blessing in disguise. Here is why.

This is the year 2020, when we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the end of one of the most devastating wars in history. Back when I was a young child, growing up watching the Spaceship Orion (Europe’s answer to Star Trek, with, ahem, slightly inferior production values) on our black-and-white television, I don’t think there was a sensible adult anywhere in Moscow or Washington, Ottawa or Budapest, who was not quite certain that by the year 2000, the world would have lived through an even more devastating world war.

Yet WW3 never happened. Instead, here we are, after 75 years of unprecedented peace and prosperity, a Golden Age that brought benefits to more people than at any time in the history of humanity. It is not unreasonable to worry that this Golden Age would not last forever, that eventually, it would crumble, just as the old world order that characterized Western civilization between 1849 and 1914 crumbled when the “lights went out all over Europe” in August 1914.

But imagine… for one moment, imagine what would have happened if the last global pandemic, the Spanish Flu, hit the world not in 1918 but in 1913. Imagine towns and cities shutting down, borders closed, but also nations helping each other, exchanging medical information, improving their communication, all in an at first haphazard, but later increasingly coordinated effort to overcome this scourge. And eighteen months later, when the last wave of infections subsides, global euphoria: A new fraternity of nations who, using the powers of modern science and working together, overcame this challenge and preserved our shared civilization.

And… no Great War. No collapse of the old world order. Instead, countries that previously seemed incapable of reforming themselves, now willing to take the necessary steps, as Russia, Austria-Hungary and Imperial Germany transition to constitutional monarchies, and a new, modern Europe emerges without the devastation of war, without the horrors of the Holocaust… all because of the pandemic that hit the continent before it had a chance to go berserk on its own.

So perhaps… perhaps COVID-19 is our era’s Spanish Flu and it is hitting us in our equivalent of 1913, before our next Great War, instead of devastating us after years of horrific warfare. Perhaps COVID-19 is what our societies need to preserve the values of our existing world order even as we reform it and ensure its survival for decades to come.

Is this a pipe dream? Perhaps. Then again… just thinking about this possibility made me feel substantially less apprehensive about the coming months, despite all my concerns, despite knowing that the worst is yet to come.

 Posted by at 1:39 pm
Feb 262020
 

The United States had Grace Hopper: A diminutive, elderly lady with a stern look on her face, uncannily wearing a rear admiral’s dress uniform as the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the United States Navy, even as she earned the nickname Grandma COBOL, for her role in the development of one of the oldest computer programming languages still in use today.

But there was another female computer scientist with a career just as defining and just as fascinating as that of Rear Admiral Hopper: Xia Peisu, sometimes known as China’s mother of computer science.

Xia Peisu in 1946

Xia Peisu in 1946

I learned about Xia Peisu just now, from a BBC News online article. What an amazing life! I am especially fascinated by Chinese scientists and engineers who never gave up, who continued to work for the benefit of their country even through the indignities of the Cultural Revolution and other political upheavals.

Dr. Xia lived a long life: she passed away in 2014, at the age of 91. She lived to see the modern, interconnected world with computers everywhere. She also lived to see computers as means of oppression and surveillance in the hands of police and totalitarian regimes, China among them. I would have loved to know what she thought of it all.

 Posted by at 11:26 pm
Jan 052020
 

Back in 1944, Astounding Science Fiction magazine published a short story, Deadline by Cleve Cartmill, about a devastating war on an alien planet, and the development of a uranium fission bomb. The details of the bomb were sketchy, but at least a few of the details provided (about isotope separation, about the concern that a fission explosion might “ignite” nearby matter and cause global devastation) were sufficiently accurate to earn the magazine a visit by the FBI.

Something similarly uncanny happened three days ago, when the New York Times published an opinion piece by a former Obama aid about hypersonic missiles. The article included, among other things, the following paragraph: “What if the former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Qassim Suleimani, visits Baghdad for a meeting and you know the address? The temptations to use hypersonic missiles will be many.”

Hours later, Suleimani was killed at Baghdad airport (although not by a hypersonic missile, just an ordinary drone strike.)

I doubt Mr. Trump was acting on the advice of a former Obama aid, so almost certainly, this was pure coincidence. But that is just uncanny.

The consequences of the Suleimani attack, unfortunately, are another matter. One has to wonder if there was any real thinking, any real strategy. Even Fox’s Tucker Carlson chose to question the wisdom of this act, blasting the hawks who may have been responsible for talking Trump into taking this reckless step.

The attack was a godsend to the ayatollahs. It offers them the best possible way out of an wave of protests unprecedented in the history of the Islamic Republic. It finally prompted Iraq’s parliament to vote in favor of the removal of remaining US troops. And it gave Iran an excuse to completely abandon the nuclear deal.

No, I don’t think the ayatollahs will escalate. They don’t have to. The threat of imminent war is always a more effective means to control the population than actual war. And facing an incompetent imbecile, they can just bide their time, while Trump loses whatever goodwill remains among America’s allies towards his administration by threatening Iranian cultural sites in retaliation.

 Posted by at 11:44 pm
Jan 012020
 

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 12:33 pm
Nov 102019
 

Last night was the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the demolition of the Berlin Wall.

It was a momentous event. I spent days glued to CNN, watching things unfold and wondering if I was witnessing the beginning of a new world order or prelude to nuclear Armageddon.

Yet here we are, three decades later, alive and kicking, and still no world war in sight (though looking at global politics in the past decade, I cannot say that I am not worried.)

For now, though, here is a nice picture with which to celebrate, courtesy of a Twitter account dedicated to giant military cats.

 Posted by at 9:48 am
Oct 112019
 

I just saw the news: Alexei Leonov died.

Leonov was a Soviet cosmonaut. The first man to ever take a spacewalk (which, incidentally, nearly killed him, as did his atmospheric re-entry, which didn’t exactly go as planned either.)

Leonov was also an accomplished artist. Many of his paintings featured space travel. Here is a beautiful picture, from a blog entry by Larry McGlynn, showing Leonov with one of his paintings, in 2004 in Los Angeles.

So Leonov now joins that ever growing list of brave souls from the dawn of the space age who are no longer with us. Rest in peace, Major General Leonov.

 Posted by at 2:01 pm
Aug 202019
 

I have been reading dire predictions about the increasingly likely “no deal” Brexit that will take place this Halloween.

Today, I ran across two things that drove the point home for me more than anything else.

First (actually, this came second, but let me mention it first), this warning by GoDaddy to their UK-based customers who happen to hold a .EU Internet domain name:

And then there is this: An article from three years ago by a Fedja Buric (judging by the name, probably from the region) who offers a sobering comparison between the breakup of Yugoslavia and Brexit.

It may have been written back in 2016, but I think its dire warning is even more relevant today, now that a no-deal Brexit is rapidly becoming a near certainty.

 Posted by at 9:00 pm
Jul 192019
 

The world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of the most momentous events in human history: the first time a human being set foot on another celestial body.

It is also a triumph of American ingenuity. Just as Jules Verne predicted a century earlier, it was America’s can-do spirit that made the Moon landing, Armstrong’s “one small step” possible.

And today, just like 50 years ago, their success was celebrated around the world, by people of all nationality, religion, gender or ethnicity.

But that’s not good enough for some New York Times columnists.

Instead of celebrating the Moon landing, Mary Robinette Kowal complains about the gender bias that still exists in the space program. Because, as we learn from her article, this evil male chauvinistic space program was “designed by men, for men”. Because, you know, men sweat in different areas of their body and all. Even in the office, temperatures are set for men, which leaves women carrying sweaters.

Sophie Pinkham goes further. Instead of celebrating America’s success on July 20, 1969, Pinkham goes on to praise the Soviet space program in a tone that might have been rejected even by the editors of Pravda in 1969 as too over-the-top. Because unlike America, the Soviets put the first woman in space! Their commitment to equality did not stop there: They also sent the first Asian man and the first black man into orbit. Because, we are told, “under socialism, a person of even the humblest origins could make it all the way up.”

Just to be clear, I am not blind to gender bias. We may have come a long way since the 1960s, but full gender equality has not yet been achieved anywhere: not in the US, not in Canada, not even in places like Iceland. And racism in America remains a palpable, everyday reality. Back in 1969, things were a lot worse.

But to pick the 50th anniversary of an event that, even back in the turbulent 1960s, had the power to unify humanity, to launch such petty rants? That is simply disgraceful. Or, as the New York Post described it, obscene.

The New York Post also makes mention of one of the female pioneers of the US space program, Margaret Hamilton, whose work was instrumental in making the Apollo landings possible. Yet somehow, neither Pinkham nor Kowal found it in their hearts to mention her name.

I have to wonder: Are columnists like Pinkham or Kowal secretly rooting for Donald Trump? Because they certainly seem to be doing their darnedest best to alienate as many voters as possible, from what appears to be an increasingly bitter, intolerant, ideological agenda on the American political left.

 Posted by at 6:49 pm
Jul 162019
 

Fifty years ago today, fifty years ago this very hour in fact, at 9:32 AM EDT on July 16, 2019, Apollo 11 was launched.

Moonbound Apollo 11 clears the launch tower. NASA photo

And thus began a journey that, arguably, remains the greatest adventure in human history to date.

I was six years old in 1969, hooked on the novels of Jules Verne. With Apollo 11, Verne’s bold imagination became the reality of the day.

 Posted by at 9:25 am