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.

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.

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.

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.

One hundred years ago today, at 11 AM Paris time (the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month), the War to End All Wars itself ended.

We know what happened in the century that followed. Communism. Fascism. Totalitarianism. Another World War. The Holocaust. Invasion and civil war in China. Nuclear bombs dropped in anger. The Cold War. Korea. Colonial and post-colonial wars like Vietnam.

Yet there is hope that we are becoming wiser. The world as a whole has been largely peaceful for 73 years. No more world wars, no more wars between major powers. Nuclear weapons, so far, proved to be peacemakers instead of annihilating civilization. More people live in peace, have their basic rights respected, have access to a basic education, safe drinking water, basic health care and sufficient nutrition than ever before.

But… When I was in my 20s, politicians in power were all leaders who have seen war. Leaders who were less interested in winning wars than in avoiding them. Put the likes of Kennedy or Khrushchev, Nixon or Brezhnev, even Stalin in a room, and while they might have disagreed on just about everything, they would have agreed on this one.

Not anymore. Our fearless leaders today have not experienced war. Therefore, they may no longer consider avoiding major war a supreme imperative. And when I listen to the rhetoric of Trump, Putin, even French President Macron when he speaks in favor of a joint European army, I realize that for these leaders, war is no longer something they fear, but rather, something they are confident they can win.

Which is why it is especially important to celebrate November 11, 1918, for what it really is: The end of a nightmare. A nightmare in which even the victors weren’t truly victorious, as they all lost a lot and gained very little. A nightmare that ended decades of peace and prosperity and plunged the world into decades of darkness. For the peace that followed was an uneasy one: instead of a safer world, communism was born and the seeds of fascism were sown in 1917-18.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

I really have no words to describe how I feel about today. But a picture is worth a thousand words.

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.

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…