Jun 172022
 

Let’s not mince worlds: the alternative to liberal democracy is tyranny.

Oh, did I say “liberal”? Note the small-l. This has nothing to do with the ideological battles of the day. It’s not about woke nonsense in math textbooks or the number of gender pronouns you need to use to avoid being called a somethingophobe. (Hint: If you are a public figure concerned about being canceled, check every day. The list might change.)

For what does “liberal” (again, small-l) really mean? It means rule of law. It means civil liberties. It means freedom of enterprise. It means political freedoms and limited government.

As for democracy, the Greek roots of the word say it all: power derived from the will of the people.

The alternatives are varied. A regime can be liberal but undemocratic: e.g., a hereditary kingdom that adheres to the values of classical liberalism.

A totalitarian regime is neither liberal nor democratic: power is based on might, an oppressive security apparatus, and liberal values are rejected. I know what it’s like: I grew up in one (albeit a relatively mild case, the “goulash” version of totalitarian communism.)

But then, there is “illiberal democracy”: power derived from the will of the people, but used to suppress liberal values. This has been in vogue lately. Orban of Hungary proudly proclaimed that Hungary is now an “illiberal democracy”. Trump’s America was heading in this direction, as does Johnson’s Britain.

But Russia, especially of late, really shows us the true nature of illiberal democracy, which we appear to have forgotten during the golden era of the past 70-odd years. For “illiberal democracy” is just a euphemism. A euphemism for, let us call a spade a spade, fascism.

To be sure, there are degrees of fascism. Franco’s Spain, for instance, was arguably a great deal more liberal than Hitler’s Third Reich. Perhaps even more liberal than Italy under Il Duce, though I wouldn’t know; I am not well-acquainted with the details of daily life in either regime. And no, I certainly do not mean to suggest that Orban’s Hungary is comparable.

But ultimately, whether it is the Proud Boys in the US trying to hang Mike Pence for not granting their orange Leader a second term in the White House, the Freedom Convoy here in Ottawa trying to have sexual intercourse with the Prime Minister, Johnson’s lot trying to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda (and then in a plot twist, blaming Winston Churchill’s brainchild, the ECHR—established to prevent a recurrence of fascism in Europe, which is especially ironic considering the case—when they are temporarily prevented from doing so) or Putin indiscriminately bombing the hell out of Ukraine, it is the same theme. The leaders are populists who act in the name of their followers, using slogans of nationalism and freedom, but inciting fear, anger and hate, ultimately acting in their own self-interests, for power, for wealth, for influence.

Those who do not remember history are destined to repeat its mistakes. I am not looking forward to this cheap, Hollywood-style remake or reimagining of the 1930s, but it seems to be happening anyway.

 Posted by at 6:20 pm
Jun 102022
 

There are a few things in life that I heard about and wish I didn’t. I’m going to mention some of them here, but without links or pictures. If you want to find them, Google them. But I am mindful of those who value their sanity.

  • In a famous experiment, a researcher subjected rats to drowning. Rats that were previously rescued tried to stay afloat and took longer to die than those who weren’t. Hope changed their behavior.
  • There was an old Chinese method of execution: literally cutting the condemned in half at the waist.
  • Japan’s wartime bioweapons and chemical warfare research facility, the famous Unit 731, was so horrific, Auschwitz-Birkenau is probably like a happy summer camp in comparison (and not because Mengele was nice).
  • Touch a tiny fraction of a milligram of dimethylmercury for more than a few seconds even while wearing a latex glove, and you will almost certainly die a horrible death months later, as your body and mind irreversibly deteriorate. (Someone once said that the very existence of something evil like Hg(CH3)2 is proof that there’s no God, or at least not a benevolent one.)

There may be a few other similarly unpleasant tidbits, but I can’t recall them right now, and that’s good. Mercifully, our human memory is imperfect so perhaps it is possible to unlearn things after all. (Or, perhaps I am hoping in vain, like those unfortunate rats.)

 Posted by at 1:19 am
Jun 022022
 

So the other day, I was reading about this maritime legal concept, “general average“: the idea that when parts of a ship or its cargo are sacrificed to save the rest, all cargo owners share the loss.

The concept makes sense, since sailors cannot (and should not) try to pick and choose when it comes to deciding what they save or toss overboard; they should focus on saving as much of the ship and its cargo as possible.

What astonished me is that the roots of this legal concept, which, incidentally, also represents the foundation of the modern concept of insurance, go all the way back to the code of Hammurabi, almost 4000 years ago.

It’s at moments like that that I realize that our magnificent civilization, our Magna Civitas as it was called in Walter M. Miller Jr’s unforgettable A Canticle for Leibowitz, is really much older than we often think.

 Posted by at 6:49 pm
May 312022
 

Apparently, a growing number of people are framing the question concerning Russia’s war in Ukraine in terms of peace vs. justice. Peace would mean some kind of a settlement to end the fighting now, even if it means granting, e.g., territorial concessions to Russia to avoid humiliating Putin. In contrast, continuing to fight for Ukraine’s liberation is about justice.

In my view, it is dangerously wrong to present Russia’s war of aggression in these terms. Peace without justice is simply not possible. Believing otherwise amounts to repeating the tragic errors of 1938: When Britain’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, triumphantly returned from the Munich conference carrying a document with Hitler’s signature, declaring that he brought “peace for our time”.

We all know how “our time” lasted. The grand total of 11 months.

That’s what peace without justice looks like. A despot like Putin is only encouraged by what he sees as weakness, signs of the cowardly decadence of the West. And just as he has now done repeatedly (!) in the past, he will happily ignore any agreement he signs today once he sees an opportunity, once he thinks that conditions are in his favor.

No. We must categorically reject such compromise. Much as we desire peace, we must not confuse lasting, robust peace with an armistice that only allows the despot to regroup, learn from his lessons, and start his aggression anew at the first viable opportunity. And his success might encourage other nations to resort to armed aggression, knowing that the West is too weak, too divided to stand up against them.

It is an unfortunate fact of human history that sometimes the shortest, surest route to “peace for our time” is through the battlefield. I wish the war stopped right now, with no more suffering, no more destruction, no more killing. But if the price we will likely pay is a greater, deadlier war tomorrow, I’d rather we do what it takes to avoid it.

And yes, I recognize that it’s easy for me to say these things from the comfort of an armchair in a peaceful city many thousands of miles away from Ukraine. But you know what? It’s also easy to speculate about these things in Washington or Brussels. How about we ask the Ukrainians? Do they want peace now, even with concessions? Or do they prefer to liberate their homeland and ensure that the Russians will be in no mood to attack again anytime soon?

Because this, after all, is the other lesson of 1938. Nobody asked the Czechs. The decision was made by the great powers without consulting those who would actually be paying the price in blood.

 Posted by at 5:38 pm
May 262022
 

News on CNN: Apparently hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are now in “filtration camps” in Russia. That is to say, concentration camps.

Make no mistake about it, this is just the beginning of evil. As the West continues to flirt with various forms of authoritarianism or illiberalism, Russia has gone full-blown Nazi, with a war of conquest, severe oppression at home, an idolized leader and a national ideology of predestined greatness held back only by some evil international conspiracy.

Our only hope… ONLY hope is that they remain as incompetent and as corrupt as they are, with an ill-prepared military using substandard training and equipment as monies have been syphoned away to finance the oligarchs’ superyachts, and with a Ukrainian nation more capable of defending itself against this horrific aggression than anyone thought possible.

But so long as we have elder statesmen like Kissinger advocating a Munich-style appeasement, the world remains in danger. Bullies cannot be appeased; it just encourages them to come back and ask for more. Kissinger, of all people, should be intimately aware of this lesson of history.

And even if escalation is avoided, the fallout of the conflict, especially the looming global food crisis, can be devastating.

All it takes is a couple of generations to forget the lessons of history and start anew. So we keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

 Posted by at 8:03 pm
May 122022
 

Dear Russia,

In the wake of Finland’s imminent decision to join NATO, you threaten again. You present yourself as the victim of aggression by Nazis.

So let’s take stock. Who did what in Europe since 1945?

In 1953, you used your military force to crush an uprising against hardline communist tyranny in East Germany.

In 1956, you did the same thing in Budapest, inflicting severe damage on my city of birth, still recovering from the devastations of WW2.

In 1968, you crushed the Prague Spring with tanks.

Kudos to you: You refrained from the direct use of military force in Poland in 1980, though you supported the regime that imposed martial law.

After the Soviet collapse, as the newly independent Russian Federation you supported separatists in the Transnistria region of Moldova.

You waged not one but two wars in Chechnya in the 1990s, with tens of thousands killed and cities like Grozny leveled.

In 2008, you launched a war against Georgia, seizing territory and creating two phony mini-republics.

In 2014, you launched another war, against Ukraine, seizing the Crimea and parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, creating a permanent war zone, even shooting down a civilian airliner that flew over the area on a scheduled route.

And now you attempted a full-scale war, hoping to decapitate Ukraine, Blitzkrieg-style, and resorting to horrific, genocidal tactics of purposefully targeting civilians when your ineptitude and Ukrainian resistance thwarted your plans.

But you are the good guys. I get it. Meanwhile, what did evil, imperialist, Nazi NATO do? How many times were you attacked by NATO nations? What territories were seized by NATO?

Oh, I get it. NATO bombed Belgrade. Never mind that the goal was not to seize territory or even change a regime, simply to stop the (now well-documented) ongoing genocide in Kosovo. Because, I get it, that’s what Nazis do: they stop genocide. And you, the good guys?

This video speaks for itself.

Still wondering why Finland is keen on joining NATO?

They don’t want to end up like this hapless car dealership owner and his security guard.

Killed by Putler’s Russist thugs.

 Posted by at 5:57 pm
May 092022
 

It’s now Monday, May 9, 2022. And it is an anniversary of sorts.

No I am not talking about Putin and his planned “victory” parade, as he is busy desecrating the legacy of the Soviet Union’s heroic fight in the Great Patriotic War against a genocidal enemy.

I am referring to something much more personal. This sentence:

I watched The Matrix, for the first time. I’ve seen Dark City, and I loved it. I have heard all sorts of bad things about The Matrix, so I had low expectations. I was pleasantly surprised. Maybe not as well done as Dark City, it was nevertheless a surprisingly intelligent movie for a blockbuster.

Not very profound or insightful, is it.

But it happens to be my first ever blog entry, written when I still refused to call a blog a “blog”, calling it instead my “Day Book”, in the tradition of the late Jerry Pournelle.

So there. Will I be around twenty years from now? Perhaps more pertinently, will the world as we know it still be around?

What can I say? I am looking forward to marking the 40th anniversary of my blog on May 9, 2042, with another blog entry, hopefully celebrating a decent, prosperous, safe, mostly peaceful world.

 Posted by at 3:01 am
May 072022
 

There are things I am learning about the Roman Empire that I never knew. What a magnificent society it really was.

For instance, the Romans were not only master builders of sewers and roads, but also invented traffic management. Julius Caesar restricted the use of private vehicles to the last two hours of daylight. Business deliveries had to be made at night.

The Embattled Driver in Ancient Rome

What blew me away, however, was their use of… plumbing? I mean, aqueducts are one thing, but to have bona fide valves, water faucets in businesses and homes? Now that blew me away.

And speaking of sewers, the Romans might have been master sewer builders but it appears some form of a sewer system may have existed almost ten thousand (!!!) years earlier in a settlement in Anatolia. That’s just… wow.

 Posted by at 11:49 pm
Apr 142022
 

I’ve been finding parallels between the events in Ukraine and 1914 (when Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia), 1938 (when the Western world acquiesced to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in the hope that it would bring “peace for our times”, to use Chamberlain’s words), 1939 (Hitler’s attack on Poland) and 1943 (Hitler’s historic defeat at Stalingrad.)

But perhaps it’s 1904-1905, when the Russian Empire waged a naval war against the Japanese Empire.

The specifics are different (for starters, the Russo-Japanese war was started by Japan), but the similarities abound: The general expectation was that a major European power, Russia, will easily prevail over the perceived inferiority of an “Asiatic” empire. Instead, Russia was humiliated, and the political backlash directly led to the 1905 revolution, itself a precursor to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution.

And here we are, in 2022, with Russia humiliated again by an enemy that was widely perceived as inferior. Beyond the tactical defeats, the strategic, political blunders are palpable: threats of Russian aggression have not only breathed fresh life into the NATO alliance, but also prompted traditionally (and fiercely) neutral Sweden and Finland to take concrete steps towards NATO membership.

And now, the Moskva. I am not sure but I am beginning to think that this 12,500 ton guided missile cruiser is the largest warship sank by enemy action since WW2. I mean, if this does not reek criminal recklessness and incompetence on behalf of the Russian leadership, both political and military, I don’t know what does.

Does this mean that a revolution is in the works? Are Putin’s days numbered? Perhaps, but I wouldn’t bet on it. And the nuclear wildcard is… there. Perhaps Putin will resort to nukes if all other options fail. Or perhaps a palace revolution widens into civil war, and the world may yet witness the consequences of the first ever nuclear civil war. Whatever happens, I doubt it will be pretty.

 Posted by at 10:37 pm
Apr 032022
 

Hungary’s elections are coming to a close. All indications are that not only did Viktor Orban win, he won big: it appears he will retain his two -thirds constitutional supermajority in Hungary’s parliament. Yey-ho, illiberal democracy!

And they had the audacity to campaign as the party of peace: by confronting Putin, they argued, the opposition wants war and it is the government’s cowardly attitude that will somehow save the country from getting bogged down in conflict. (Because, you know, this attitude worked so well in the last major war in Europe, which witnessed Hungary as Hitler’s last ally, deporting over 600,000 of its own citizens to Nazi death camps, and having much of the country destroyed when the frontlines finally reached it in 1944-45.)

Meanwhile, Putin’s popularity in Russia is through the roof: The “Nazis” of Ukraine must be crushed, say people on the streets, and perhaps then Poland is next!

In America, Trump’s followers are regrouping, hoping to take back the House, the Senate, and eventually the White House, lining up behind their authoritarian leader to whom the rule of law means nothing unless it serves his personal interests.

Even here in Canada, all in the name of democracy of course, hundreds of unruly truckers blocked my city for nearly a month, and what is worse, their effort was (and remains) supported by millions. Perhaps still a small minority but still: It is a minority that is supporting a movement that is openly unconstitutional and insurrectionist.

And the sad thing is, we’ve all seen this before. The world went through something eerily similar a century ago. The Bolsheviks were popular in Soviet Russia. Mussolini was popular in Italy. Franco was popular in Spain. Hitler was popular in Germany. Even in places like the US and the UK, the likes of Charles Lindbergh or Oswald Mosley had considerable following.

I could ask the pointless question, why? Social scientists and historians probably offer sensible answers. But that doesn’t help. So long as people, even well-educated people, are willing to believe pseudoscience, ridiculous conspiracy theories, half truths, insinuations, and above all messages of hate: the compulsion to hate (or at least fear or distrust) someone, anyone, be it Ukrainians (or Russians), hate “migrants”, hate liberals, hate homosexuals, hate “others” however their other-ness is defined…

Screw you, world. I’m going back to physics. Just leave me alone, please.

 Posted by at 5:30 pm
Apr 012022
 

With apologies to the late Dr. Seuss (indeed I have no delusions about my talents as a cartoonist), I felt compelled to make a few, ahem, creative adjustments to one of his classic caricatures, as the message appears just as relevant today as it was more than eight decades ago, when some overly “patriotic” Americans were trying to be BFFs with another murderous tyrant.

The original was published on June 2, 1941. The lessons of history should not be forgotten.

 Posted by at 12:22 am
Mar 312022
 

Very well. I have now become convinced that Putler’s army in Ukraine is led by criminally incompetent clowns whose expertise is limited to cruelty and wholesale murder.

So they decide to occupy the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It’s an Exclusion Zone for a reason. Not because Ukrainians are fond of the Strugatsky brothers’ amazing novelette, Roadside Picnic, which describes similar Zones (albeit zones left behind by visiting, “picnicking” extraterrestrials.) They might be; the story really is good (and it formed the basis for Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, as well as the amazing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of video games. Scenes from which, incidentally, now bear alarming resemblance to the ruined cities of Ukraine.)

No, it is called an Exclusion Zone because it contains, you know, radioactive fallout from the world’s worst nuclear disaster: the explosion at reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station that happened in 1986.

Fallout that, until now, was mostly safely buried under fresh soil, causing relatively little harm. That is, until Russian conscripts, led by the aforementioned nincompoop murderers, dug it up with trenches. Soldiers who are now ill with signs of radiation sickness. With generals like the ones leading them, they need no enemies. They are perfectly capable of defeating themselves even without Ukrainian help.

 Posted by at 2:34 pm
Mar 182022
 

Today, we saw President Putin in public, at a celebration commemorating the annexation of Crimea 8 years ago.

Suddenly that reminded me of something else: Germany celebrating the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria that occurred in March 1938.

But Putin, it seems, had eclipsed Hitler as the all-time genius of national greatness. After all, he managed to accomplish in mere three weeks what took Adolf more than three long, painful, blood-soaked years.

Putin managed to get from his equivalent of the Polish border to his Stalingrad in just three weeks.

That is, what initially began as a form of Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, rapidly deteriorated into an unwinnable war of attrition, with long, unsustainable supply lines, fighting against a much better motivated, better led, better supplied foe.

Ukraine is paying an incredibly heavy price, but by their fierce resistance, they might just be saving the world from global thermonuclear war.

Of course, rather than losing (which will likely see him hanged, just like other incompetent autocrats before him, with Mussolini serving as a relevant example) Putin may well decide that burning much of the world is preferable. At that point, I hope that those around him, however subservient or corrupt, will find the moral courage, the spirit of true patriotism not to carry out orders that would amount to much of humanity (including Russia) committing a form of collective suicide. That they won’t let this murderous sicko, this petty KGB thug turn our magnificent civilization into ashes and dust, into radioactive mushroom clouds.

 Posted by at 11:57 pm
Mar 112022
 

Several years ago, while playing one of the computer games from the renowned Fallout series (to those unfamiliar with it: the games are set in an alternate retrofuturistic world, centuries after the apocalypse of the Great War of 2077 that ended civilization — in-game radio stations, however, play music mostly from the Golden Age of American radio, from the 1930s to the 1950s, including the iconic I don’t want to set the world on fire by The Ink Spots) I put together a “doomsday” playlist of songs I want to listen to while I await the fateful flash. (Here in Ottawa Lowertown, chances are that we will see the flash but won’t live long enough to hear the kaboom.)

Unfortunately I have no public links: the MP3 files reside on my computer along with the playlist itself. But I thought I’d share the list nonetheless, as most of the songs are easy to find. In any case, I think the titles alone tell a story.

  • I don’t want to set the world on fire – The Ink Spots
  • Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Is That All There Is – Peggy Lee
  • Yesterday – The Beatles
  • C’est la vie – Emerson, Lake and Palmer
  • Non, je ne regrette rien – Edith Piaf
  • I did it my way – Frank Sinatra
  • 99 Luftballons – Nena
  • Here is the news – 21st century man – Electric Light Orchestra
  • Mother – In the flesh – Pink Floyd
  • Rejoice in the Sun – Joan Baez
  • Adios Nonino – Astor Piazzolla
  • Blondie – Philip Glass remix – Daft Beatles
  • November – Tom Waits
  • Brazil – Geoff Muldaur
  • Strange fruit – Billie Holiday
  • Sway (from Dark City) – Anita Kelsey
  • Kurt Weill’s Ballad of the soldier’s wife – P. J. Harvey
  • Sweet Dreams – Eurythmics
  • Round midnight – Thelonious Monk
  • We’ll meet again – Vera Lynn

There you have it.

 Posted by at 12:23 pm
Mar 102022
 

World War Z used to mean a fictitious war with zombies. Not anymore: the Latin letter Z apparently became a symbol for supporters of Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine.

What prompts people to support Putin? What makes a religious leader declare unconditional loyalty to a decidedly un-Christian murderous dictator, even as a 91-year old survivor of the Nazi siege of Leningrad is struggling to remain alive in Kharkiv, besieged by Russian troops?

Is it the success of propaganda and disinformation? Russian nationalism? Self-deception, being able to convince oneself that it’s the rest of the world who act as blind “sheeple”? Being blinded by the charisma of the strongman, the macho warlord?

Meanwhile, decisions are being made with consequences that will fundamentally change the world in which we live, and quite possibly result in untold numbers of death and suffering.

History is no guide. Things can go either way. In 1914, the world opted to intervene when one of the “sick men of Europe”, Austria-Hungary attacked a much smaller neighbor. Had the world stayed idle, limiting its contribution to material help only, the Serbs would have won against the demoralized, badly led, ill-trained troops of the Monarchy. But the world felt compelled to step in, and the result was decades of devastating war and totalitarianism.

But in 1938, the world opted not to listen to political have-beens like a certain Winston Churchill, a warmongerer who was advocating war with Germany. This clown would plunge the world into another World War, they argued, as they celebrated the diplomatic triumph of Neville Chamberlain, who returned from Munich with a document signed by Adolf Hitler, representing “peace for our times”. Of course we know that Churchill was right all along, and had the world opted to confront Hitler in 1937 or even 1938, the resulting war would have been much less severe, much less devastating than the one that actually ensued.

Then again, a less devastating war would have meant no US involvement in Europe, no Marshall plan, no post-war golden era that characterized much of the world in the past 77 years. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

All that is my way of saying that I don’t envy those who need to make these decisions. We are at a historical crossroads: These decisions may determine the fate of our civilization for decades to come, and a wrong move can very possibly result in hundreds of millions of lives lost.

What can I say? I am worried. Scared even. We go about our business as usual, planning to do things next week, next month, next year. But will the world as we know it still be around next week, next month, next year? With the end of the pandemic in sight, we again contemplate travel, such as my wife visiting her Mom later this year. But Hungary is right there on the border with Ukraine. Will it still be peaceful? Will it still be safe?

It’s easy to blame individuals for the ills of the world, and Putin deserves a lot of blame. But I think it’s naive to expect that things would go back to normal if only some sane Russian with access had the presence of mind and the courage to get rid of him. There are historical processes at work here, and the past 77 years already represented an exceptionally long, exceptionally (perhaps uniquely) prosperous period in human history. And if there is one lesson that history consistently teaches us, it’s that nothing lasts forever, not even a golden age.

 Posted by at 11:23 pm
Mar 042022
 

Hitler mocked it. For Colin Powell’s 2003 speech announcing the war in Iraq, they covered it up.

And now the whole of Ukraine is beginning to look like Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece.

 Posted by at 8:02 pm
Feb 272022
 

This photo of a WWI/WWII memorial in Vácrátót, Hungary, just appeared in my feed moments ago in a group dedicated to historic photographs.

Yet it reminds me not of the past but the present: the observation that almost all the refugees streaming from Ukraine to Europe are women and children, as men stay behind to fight.

 Posted by at 4:02 pm
Feb 242022
 

These words, uttered by Putin, are the words of a madman:

Whoever tries to interfere with us, and even more so to create threats to our country, to our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history. We are ready for any development of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have been made. I hope that I will be heard.

Enjoy these good days with warmth, food security, functioning Internet and a working infrastructure. They may not last much longer, no matter where you live in the world. And when the nukes come, thank Putin.

 Posted by at 1:25 am