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
Jul 152019
 

In 1929, probably just weeks before the great stock market crash, people were entertained by the sight of thousands of burning radio sets.

Some suggested that the apparent zeal with which these poor radios were burned had to do with the fact that they were obsolete regenerative receivers, notorious sources of radio frequency interference.

But no, the pictures make it clear that many of these old radios were simple tuned radio frequency (TRF) sets, not regenerative units. Besides, it was not until the early 1930s that superheterodyne receivers began to dominate the market.

No, this was just good old capitalism. People were encouraged to trade in old, “obsolete” radios and purchase new ones. And the wanton destruction of the old sets became a public spectacle.

One can only wonder about the amount of toxic smoke that was produced by this stunt. Not that anyone cared back in 1929.

 Posted by at 10:40 am
Jun 182019
 

So on the one hand… here I am, praising Canada for being true to its values, only to learn yesterday that Quebec’s provincial legislature approved a ban on “religious symbols”. Not once in my life did I worry when I was being served by a person wearing a kippa, a cross, a turban or a headscarf that nature that they might discriminate against me. Should I have been? Perhaps naively, I always felt privileged to live in a society in which persons wearing kippas, crosses, turbans or headscarves were welcome, even into positions of authority. But now I am worried that a person whose religion demands wearing a kippa, a cross, a turban or a headscarf will not be allowed to serve me anymore. And that’s even before I look at the more hypocritical aspects of the bill.

But then, I learn that south of the border, social justice warriors scored another “victory”: at Bowling Green State University, Ohio, they managed to get the name of silent era film star Lillian Gish stripped from the university’s Gish Film Theater because a student union protested on account of her role in the rather racist 1915 silent classic Birth of a Nation.

I fundamentally disagree with the idea of judging the past by the standards of the present. I dare hope that our societies are becoming better over time, and thus our standards are higher, but it is grossly unfair to the memory of those from generations ago when they are judged by standards that did not even exist at the time. But putting all that aside… isn’t it obvious that such acts of cultural intolerance (committed, ironically, in the name of tolerance) are just oil on the fire? That those who are behind the rise of xenophobia, nationalism, racism and intolerance will see such acts as proof that their grievances of valid, that it is truly they (and by “they”, I mean mostly middle-aged or older white men) who are being prosecuted here?

Are these truly the only choices out there? Xenophobic nationalism and Islamophobia vs. social justice militants? Where have all the sane people gone? Please come back wherever you are and help put an end to this madness.

 Posted by at 5:44 pm
May 152019
 

Technology changes. Things that were once revolutionary and new eventually become obsolete.

Sometimes with surprising rapidity.

Which is how I ended up, years ago, buying things that were ultimately not only never used, but were never even taken out of shrink wrap.

Take this 3-pack of high quality SONY 90-minute audio cassettes. When I bought them, I had little doubt that they would be used, and soon, and that future purchases would follow. Never happened.

Or how about this answering machine tape? Back then, I needed them. After all, you never want to be without a spare tape for your answering machine. Except… Well, never mind.

Perhaps a little more surprising is this box of blank DVDs. I have several more boxes of different types, but they have been opened and at least a few disks were put to use. But this box? Completely unused, in the original shrink wrap. Not too long ago, burning a CD or a DVD was something I did almost daily. But when I built new computers a couple of years ago, I no longer even bothered putting DVD drives in them. I have an external USB drive that works fine for software (mostly operating system) installations. And I can still use it, e.g., to rip a CD. But burning one? What for? My USB dongle on my key chain has many times the capacity of a DVD.

I still have never-used floppy disks, too, but not in unopened, shrink-wrapped packages.

Looking around, I am trying to guess what technology will be next, going the way of the dodo. Hard drives, perhaps? Sure they’re being replaced by SSDs but they still offer a price advantage and better reliability as long-term storage. Desktop computers? Unlikely, for content creators or developers like myself. Or maybe things are settling down a bit? I don’t know.

For what it’s worth, I also have a record player and a VCR next to my desk. The VCR was a super-expensive, top-of-the-line VCR that can handle all TV standards, which is why I bought it. I used it to digitize many tapes, including PAL/SECAM tapes from Europe. I have not used that VCR in many years; not even sure it still works. Its display does show the time, but it is very faint. The record player, however, is relatively new. Vinyl has made a comeback of sorts, so record players are being made again. I didn’t buy into the new (retro?) vinyl craze, but we did have a few older records that we liked very much, and which were not readily available on CD, so the player was needed to digitize them as well.

 Posted by at 12:50 pm
May 052019
 

I just finished reading Miranda Carter’s superb book, George, Nicholas and Wilhelm, about the three royal cousins who, often unwittingly, helped pave the road to WWI.

Though the book was written many years before Trump ascended to the White House, the parallels between Wilhelm and Trump are frighteningly inescapable.

What this means for the future, I don’t know. Like Trump, Wilhelm was at least as much a symptom as he was a cause: A symptom of a society with deep divisions and unresolved problems. Like the war that began in 1914, a future conflict may end up destroying the fruits of an unprecedented era of prolonged prosperity and progress, leading to chaos and disaster instead. And given the advances in technology and the proliferation of weaponry, including nuclear weapons, a future conflict will be much, much worse than anything the world has seen, including the horrors WWII.

Carter seems to have the same sense of apprehension, if her article published in The New Yorker last year is any indication. And she warns, rightfully in my opinion, that just as it was the case with Wilhelm, the real consequences may only come long after Trump is gone in the White House.

Oh well. To cheer myself up, I began reading Mary Beard’s SPQR instead, a modern history of ancient Rome. Oh wait… the Rome that transitioned from a popular republic to an autocratic empire? Yes, the very same.

 Posted by at 11:20 pm
Mar 292019
 

Listening to Donald Trump again and again reminds me of the late days of the Roman Republic, notably Octavius, also known as Augustus, first Roman emperor.

Here are a few interesting, especially relevant passages from the Wikipedia article on Augustus.

Recall the debate about whether or not a sitting president can be indicted? “Octavian had the Senate grant him, his wife, and his sister tribunal immunity.

Or how about the funding of Trump’s wall? “Octavian made another bold move in 44 BC when, without official permission, he appropriated the annual tribute that had been sent from Rome’s Near Eastern province to Italy.

Last but not least, all those concerns about the “deep state”, and all those uncanny conspiracy theories promoted mostly by folks who are the most likely to be hurt by, and least likely to benefit from Trump’s authoritarian ambitions: “Many of the political subtleties […] seem to have evaded the comprehension of the Plebeian class, who were Augustus’ greatest supporters and clientele. This caused them to insist upon Augustus’ participation in imperial affairs from time to time. Augustus failed to stand for election as consul in 22 BC, and fears arose once again that he was being forced from power by the aristocratic Senate.

So there you have it: when the people believe that a dictator protects them against their own representative government, when the people believe that the dictator is above the law, when the people believe that the dictator has legitimate powers to appropriate public funds, democracy is under an existential threat.

 Posted by at 5:47 pm
Mar 272019
 

It was just three days ago that I boldly predicted that either after a successful, orderly Brexit or a cancellation of the Article 50 letter, Theresa May will resign. This prediction just came true, with the announcement that this is indeed Theresa May’s intent.

Here I am, hoping that the rest of my predictions also come true: that there will now be an orderly process one way or another, and that over time, people will come to recognize her efforts to make it happen.

 Posted by at 2:40 pm
Mar 252019
 

The other day, before the Mueller report came out, I described the political present throughout the Western world by comparing it to “history flashback” chapters in dystopian science-fiction novels.

But then, the next day, I saw someone present a Venn-diagram not unlike this one:


Apparently I am not the only one with this concern.

Then the Mueller report came, exonerating Trump at least on the issue of collusion. Not unexpected. I may have hoped for a different outcome but really, it wasn’t in the cards. Trump wasn’t conspiring to become president: he was conspiring to get a Trump Tower built in Moscow. He is not Putin’s co-conspirator; he’s at best Putin’s pawn.

But that’s the least of America’s problems, when the US Senate is increasingly behaving like another senate two millennia ago: the Senate of the Roman Republic, when it (for various reasons, all having to do with the politics of the day) became the enabler of Gaius Julius Caesar and his successor, Gaius Octavius Thurinus.

As the US Senate basically let Trump get away with usurping their power, allocating funds for his phony wall emergency, a line in the sand was crossed. This is precisely the Roman prescription: Using a variety of real or phony emergencies, the leader of the Republic first acquires and then holds on to an ever increasing number of emergency powers, until one day, he becomes emperor in all but name. Even if he is then assassinated, the new reality becomes normalized, and one of his successors will eventually declare himself ruler for life. The process may take decades, but the outcome is the end of democracy.

Any American who thinks it “cannot happen here” needs to be mindful of the fact that Romans were just as proud of their republican traditions as Americans today.

The crisis goes beyond the United States. Liberal democracy is in trouble throughout the Western world. Take Europe: Brexit, the rise of the far-right on the western side of the continent, the emergence of semi-authoritarian governments on the eastern flanks make one wonder if Europe can both remain united and retain its liberal democratic values.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, Democrats are drawing precisely the wrong lesson. Instead of working to preserve rational, fact-based governance, they decided that their problem has been all along that they are not ideological enough! And sadly, opposition forces throughout the Western world are following suit.

But ideology will not solve rising inequality, the stagnation of the middle class, the re-emergence of blatant racism. Excessive political correctness is no solution either. The antidote to rigid ideology is not more, or more rigid, ideology.

Recently I saw someone on Facebook describe the state that the world is in as an “extinction level event” threatening liberal democracy. And that’s precisely what I fear.

 Posted by at 1:10 am