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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

I have no words.

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.

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.

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.

Watching the endgame unfold in London and Brussels, I have come to the conclusion that Brexit, first and foremost, represents a complete bankruptcy of British politics. (Yes, I know I am not the only one who had this revelation.)

Think about it. The main complaint about Europe is that it is an unwieldy, inflexible bureaucracy, an ungovernable assembly of 28 (soon 27) sovereign nations with conflicting interests. And the EU has its own internal problems, including the rise of the far right, increasingly authoritarian regimes on its eastern flank, and a weakened political center.

Yet throughout the Brexit process, it was Europe that was able to present a unified front. It was Europe who responded to increasingly desperate British requests with flexibility. And each and every time, Europe showed decisiveness, even when the unanimity of 27 nations was required.

Britain, on the other hand, was unable to make a deal with itself. Never mind that, even Britain’s major political parties demonstrated an utter inability to come to terms with themselves. Both the Tories and Labour remain split, and as a result, Britain has a dysfunctional Parliament: No option has the support of a majority of MPs, but they delegitimized their own inability to act, too, when they voted against a “hard” Brexit.

If this is not a complete bankruptcy of the British political system, I don’t know what it is.

Theresa May may still pull off a miracle. She may yet convince MPs to vote for an orderly Brexit. Or perhaps she will get them to vote to withdraw the Article 50 letter. After all, already more than five million (as of the evening of March 24) Britons signed an online petition to revoke the Article 50 letter and remain in the EU.

Either way, if May pulls off either an orderly Brexit or a cancellation, I suspect that she will promptly resign as prime minister, and quite possibly retire from politics. And for many years, she will be despised by millions and loved by few.

But over the years, she will be recognized as one of the greatest statesmen in British history; the captain who never left the bridge of a sinking ship and (depending on the outcome) either saved the ship against all odds, or at least ensured all the survivors’ safety.

I am hoping, however, that those who created this crisis for no reason other than reckless political adventurism and a sociopath’s willingness to exploit the worst demons of racism and xenophobia in British society will be ultimately remembered among the most reviled figures of modern British history, listed on the same pages as, say, Oswald Mosley.

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.