Jan 162019
 

In the political campaign leading up to the 2018 parliamentary elections in Hungary, an unlikely villain emerged on the election posters of the governing party: the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros. “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh,” screamed the posters, featuring an unflattering black-and-white photograph of the aging philanthropist.

While there was little doubt that this was all part of a cynically engineered election campaign, now we know exactly how it came to be, thanks to a piece of investigative journalism published in Das Magazin, a weekly supplement to several Swiss newspapers. A review of their article was also featured on 24.hu, a leading Hungarian news portal.

The anti-Soros campaign was the brainchild of George Birnbaum and his mentor, the late Arthur Finkelstein, experts on the technique of negative campaigning. They started working for Viktor Orban in 2008, contributing to his success in the 2010 election campaign. They had an easy task: the then ruling Socialist Party was wildly unpopular and thus easy to target. But after Orban’s second election victory in 2014, the Socialist Party was no longer a useful scapegoat. A new enemy was needed.

One obvious target presented itself: International capital, represented by the IMF and the EU, who dictated the conditions accompanying foreign loans that helped Hungary recover from the financial crisis. But an abstract target is not good enough. As Finkelstein once remarked, Americans fought not National Socialism but Hitler in WW2; not Al-Qaeda but Osama bin Laden in the War on Terror.

The narrative was given. One of the leading ideologues of Orban’s party, Maria Schmidt, director of the “House of Terror”, a museum dedicated to the victims of hardline communist terror in the early 1950s, readily provided it: a Hungary that was always the innocent victim, surrounded by enemies, yet protecting its identity and defending Christianity from adversaries ranging from the Ottoman Empire centuries ago to the investment bankers of the present day. All that was needed was a person who embodies this threat.

According to Das Magazin, Finkelstein and Birnbaum used a telephone survey to determine if Soros was known sufficiently well among would-be voters to serve as the target of a negative campaign. He proved to be the perfect enemy. He qualifies as a liberal, and he represents something hated by conservatives: a successful investor who wants to weaken capitalism. On the other hand, as he is not a politician and doesn’t even live in Hungary, he has no means to fight back.

The 2015 migration crisis was the icing on the cake. An essay Soros once wrote predicting a large number of refugees was relabeled the “Soros-plan”, demonstrating that Soros wanted to flood Hungary, and Europe in general, with Muslim “migrants”. By extension, any NGOs supported by Soros became targeted, as well as the Soros-founded Central European University, which was ultimately driven out of the country altogether, moving its main campus to Vienna.

The Soros-project was so successful, it was exported to other “markets”: anti-Soros voices were heard from Columbia to Kenya, from Israel to Australia. Even Donald Trump once asserted that the “caravan” heading towards America’s borders is funded by Soros.

The antisemitic overtone of the campaign is unmistakeable. Ironically, Finkelstein and Birnbaum are both Jewish. Birnbaum denied that the campaign had anything to do with antisemitism. He even claimed, rather improbably, that he did now know that Soros himself was Jewish. But Das Magazin reminds us that Finkelstein has not refrained in the past from supporting a candidate with known antisemitic views and that despite being gay, he also supported anti-gay politicians in the US.

 Posted by at 9:57 pm
Jan 162019
 

Theresa May lost the Brexit vote in Britain’s parliament. This means that still nothing has been decided when it comes to Brexit. Will it be a hard crash? Will Britain withdraw its Article 50 letter? Is there still room for compromise?

I know, I know, it’s not my country and I probably know a lot less about British politics than I should in order to voice a coherent opinion but still… what is about to happen will affect all of us, even outside of Britain, and may have a crucial impact on global stability as the world of 2019 is becoming ever more chaotic.

Many blame Theresa May for this uncertainty. Some call her incompetent. I do not believe that to be true. On the contrary, Theresa May tried to pull off the impossible and she almost succeeded. She was able to negotiate a Brexit plan that the EU accepted, and yet which minimized the negative impact on the British economy.

In other words, she managed to respect the will of the majority while at the same time protecting them from the worst consequences of their stupidity. In the process, she achieved a better deal than I expected under any reasonable set of circumstances.

As to who the true incompetents are… Perhaps incompetent is the wrong word when it comes to characterizing those callously opportunistic British politicians who plunged their country into this crisis in the first place, or the sometimes misguided, sometimes outright xenophobic voters who fell for the siren call to “Make Britain Great Again”.

Theresa May tried the impossible and she almost managed to make it happen. Despite originally supporting the “remain” option, May diligently worked on obtaining a decent separation deal. Still, it was not good enough. May’s political tragedy is that she sought compromise where no compromise was possible. Those who voted against Brexit were unlikely to cheer for any Brexit deal, no matter how sweetened. Those who voted for separation see any compromise as a betrayal of the will of the people; in fact, many are openly in favor of a “hard” Brexit, oblivious or indifferent with regards to the likely consequences.

When Jeremy Corbyn accused her of placing her party’s interests ahead of her nation’s, cameras showed May as she vehemently shook her head. And I think I understand why.

 Posted by at 9:40 pm
Jan 112019
 

I first read about this in George Takei’s Twitter feed. Then I checked it on Snopes, and it is true.

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.

 Posted by at 1:21 am
Jan 092019
 

This editorial cartoon from the New York Daily News is not new; it seems to be from 2016, drawn by Bill Bramhall. I only just saw it though, in the feed of a Facebook friend.

Yet I think it is even more appropriate today, now that we have seen two years of the Trump presidency.

It of course is a reference to one of the scariest scenes from the 1979 movie Alien. I don’t know if the caption (those words were uttered by Ash, the film’s robot antagonist who is willing to sacrifice the spacecraft’s human crew in order to return the alien to his corporate masters ) was part of the original version of the cartoon, but it is this caption that makes the cartoon especially poignant these days.

 Posted by at 10:43 pm
Jan 012019
 

So here is what I expect from 2019.

  • The most severe political crisis in the United States since the Civil War, as investigations close in on Trump and his immediate family, and as House Democrats fail to rein in the firebrands among them;
  • A Trump administration that takes further steps to undermine the traditional system of Western alliances, including NATO and the EU;
  • A severe crisis in Britain as a no-deal Brexit unfolds; or when the government or Parliament come to their senses and “defying the will of the people” make a last-minute about-face;
  • An unfolding political crisis in the EU as member states like Hungary slide further towards authoritarianism, with some of the other European nations all too eager to follow, and the rest feeling helpless in light of their inability to deal with the domestic rise of nationalism and xenophobia;
  • A more assertive Russia that, sensing the weakness of nations it perceives as its main rivals, feels free to take aggressive steps, including the possibility of a more overt war with Ukraine;
  • China, facing an economic slowdown and rising criticism of Xi Jinping’s authoritarianism, turning towards more domestic repression and a more aggressive stance confronting its neighbors and in the South China Sea;
  • Japan, having announced its decision to leave the International Whaling Commission, resuming the culling of whales, because, as we all know, those magnificent creatures take up all the space in the oceans that is needed instead to store discarded bits of plastic;
  • Brazil, with its newly elected right-wing president at the helm, wreaking havoc in the rain forest, which he promised to privatize;
  • And last but not least, a bitter election campaign here in Canada, which will show to the world that this country, too, has its demons, in the form of nationalism, racism and xenophobia, and all all it takes is an unscrupulous populist or two to bring it all to the surface.

There are probably a few more things that I could add to this list, but these are at least some of the reasons why thinking about 2019 fills me with a sense of foreboding.

On a happier note, here is what I ask from Santa, come Christmas 2019: I want to be proven wrong on all of the above points. I desperately want to be wrong, foolishly wrong on all of the above points. Feel free to ridicule me on December 31 if none of my dire predictions come true. Nothing would make me happier.

 Posted by at 11:04 pm
Jan 012019
 

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.

 Posted by at 2:25 pm
Dec 142018
 

The news came a few days ago: Former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig has been arrested in China, in apparent retaliation for the arrest of Huawei’s CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver.

Michael WHAT, I asked? Kovrig? As in, K-O-V-R-I-G?

You see, Kovrig is not at all a common surname. And it so happens that my stepfather’s last name is Kovrig.

Not just that but… we know another Kovrig (no relation, none that we know anyway). My parents came to know this Kovrig as a result of a chance encounter, but ultimately, they helped him purchase an apartment in the same building where they live. So this Kovrig lives two floors above my Mom and my stepfather, in Budapest.

And Michael Kovrig, former Canadian diplomat, is his nephew.

A few years ago, I was about to be offered an opportunity to take part in a Chinese research effort. My participation would have involved access to data that Chinese authorities might have viewed as military secrets. I backed out for this very reason. The last thing I needed in my life was the possibility, however remote, that I would end up in Chinese custody, accused of espionage. Later, I was wondering if I simply made a fool of myself; Was there any real danger that I might get into trouble, or was I simply pretentious?

Kovrig’s arrest is a wake-up call. This time, lightning struck uncomfortably close. Much as I regret not taking part in that very interesting and promising piece of research (and it would have been an honor to be invited) I am glad I backed out.

I hope Kovrig is released soon. I hope his arrest helps others realize that beneath the spectacular economic growth and the undeniable successes, China is still fundamentally a communist police state, whose methods of choice are bullying and violence.

 Posted by at 5:07 pm
Nov 112018
 

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.

 Posted by at 11:36 am
Oct 282018
 

The other day, a conservative friend of mine sent me a link. It was to a paper purportedly demonstrating that conservatives were more ideologically diverse than their liberal counterparts.

I found this result surprising, rather striking to be honest, and contrary to my own experience.

The study, as it appears, has not been published yet but it is available in an online manuscript archive. It certainly appears thorough. So how could it come to its striking conclusions?

I think I figured out the answer when I looked at the appendices, which provide details on how the research was conducted. Here is a set of questions that were used in two of the four studies discussed in the paper:

  1. It is the responsibility of political leaders to promote programs that will help close the income gap between the rich and the poor.
  2. There is no “right way” to live life; instead, everyone must create a way to live which works best for them.
  3. Spending tax dollars on “abstinence education” rather than “sex education” is more effective in curbing teen pregnancy.
  4. The more money a person makes in America, the more taxes he/she should pay.
  5. The use of our military strength makes the United States a safer place to live.
  6. America would be a better place if people had stronger religious beliefs.
  7. The traditional (male/female) two-parent family provides the best environment of stability, discipline, responsibility and character.
  8. America’s domestic policy should do more to ensure that living and working conditions are equal for all groups of people.
  9. Flag burning should be illegal.
  10. Our society is set up so that people usually get what they deserve.
  11. Taxation should be used to fund social programs.
  12. Gay marriage threatens the sanctity of marriage.

When I look at this list, it is clear to me that questions 1, 2, 4, 8 and 11 are standard “liberal” pushbutton items, whereas the rest are “conservative” in nature.

But look more closely. Items 1, 2, 4, 8 and 11 are, insofar as liberal views are concerned, very mild and mainstream. Closing the income gap? Taxing income? (Not even a mention of progressive taxation.) Social programs? I know of no liberal who would disagree with these broad concepts. In fact, I can think of many conservatives who would readily subscribe at least to some of these ideas.

Now look at the conservative questionnaire items. Flag burning? A great many conservatives in the US believe firmly that this right is strongly protected by the First Amendment. Gay marriage? Sure, it’s an issue for some, but for many conservatives, it’s either something that they are neutral about (or may even support it) or often, it’s an issue that comes up more as a matter of states’ rights vs. the federal government, without a priori opposing the idea.

In short, when I looked closely I realized that whereas the “liberal” questions accurately reflect the liberal mainstream, the “conservative” questions are more representative of a liberal caricature of what conservatives are thought to be. By way of example, the “liberal” analog of some of these “conservative” questions would be something like, “Research that demonstrates differences on the basis of gender or race should be banned”, or some similar conservative caricature of liberal “identity politics” or “social justice warriors”.

The results, therefore, are not surprising after all. Since most liberals agree on mainstream liberal ideas, the liberal side comes across as ideologically monolithic; and since many conservatives take issue with narrowly defined, often religiously motivated line items, they come across as more diverse, more heterogeneous.

Ironically, then, the liberal bias of the researchers resulted in a paper that, contrary to their expectations, appeared to show that the conservative side is more ideologically tolerant than their liberal counterparts. In reality, though, I think the paper merely demonstrates the garbage-in-garbage-out principle that is so well known in computer science: when your research is flawed, your results will be just as flawed.

 Posted by at 5:11 pm
Oct 282018
 

Allow me to preface this post with the following: I despise Donald J. Trump, the infantile, narcissistic, racist, misogynist “leader of the free world” who is quite possibly a traitor and may never have become president without help from his Russian buddy Putin. Also, when it comes to matters that I consider important, I am a small-l liberal; I support, for instance, LGBTQ rights, the right to have an abortion, or the legalization of cannabis, to name a few examples. I celebrate the courage of #MeToo victims. I reject racism and misogyny in all forms, open or covert.

Yet I am appalled by some of the things that happened lately in academic circles, sadly justifying the use of the pejorative term “SJW” (social justice warrior) that is so popular on the political right. A few specific cases:

  1. Last month, the European nuclear research institution CERN held a workshop with the title, High Energy Physics and Gender. One of the speakers was the Italian physicist Alessandro Strumia. Strumia offered a semi-coherent presentation, whimsically titled Experimental test of a new global discrete symmetry. In it, Strumia argued that men are over-represented in physics because they perform better. In the presentation, he offered some genuine data, but he also offered what may be construed as a personal attack, in the form of a short list of three names: those of two women who were hired by Italy’s nuclear research institute INFN, along with Strumia’s, who was rejected despite his much higher citation count. Strumia’s research is questionable. His conclusions may be motivated by his bitterness over his personal failures. His approach may be indefensible. All of which would be justification to laugh at him during his presentation, to not accept his work for publication in the workshop proceedings, and perhaps to avoid inviting him in the future.

    But CERN went a lot further. They retroactively removed Strumia’s presentation altogether from the conference archive, and have since administratively sanctioned him, putting his future career as a physicist in question. When this response was questioned by some, there came the retroactive justification that his one slide containing the three names constitutes a “personal attack”, violating CERN policy.

    I don’t agree with Strumia. I don’t like him or respect his research. But I have to ask: If he is not allowed to offer his views at a conference dedicated to “high-energy physics and gender” without fear of severe repercussions, where can he?

    Now you might ask why he should be given a platform at all. Because this is (supposedly) science. And science thrives on criticism and controversial views. If we only permit views that preach to the choir, so to speak, science dies. I’d much rather risk getting offended by clowns like Strumia from time to time.

  2. Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, we learned of Helen Pluckrose, James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian, who prepared and submitted 20 completely bogus papers to reputably social science journals. Here are a few gems:
  • The paper titled Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity in Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon argues that dog parks are “rape-condoning” places of rampant “canine rape culture”. Accepted, published and recognized for excellence in the journal Gender, Place and Culture.
  • The paper, Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use argues that heterosexual men should practice anal self-penetration using sex toys in order to decrease transphobia and increase feminist values. Accepted and published in Sexuality & Culture.
  • The paper, An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant demonstrates how papers, even when they rely on made-up bogus data, are accepted when they problematize the attraction of heterosexual males to women. Accepted and published in Sex Roles.
  • The paper with the ominous title, Our Struggle is My Struggle: Solidarity Feminism as an Intersectional Reply to Neoliberal and Choice Feminism was accepted for publication in the journal Affilia, despite the fact that it is just a paraphrasing of Adolf Hitler’s opus Mein Kampf (My struggle), with feminist and grievance-related buzzwords replacing Nazi hate terms.
  1. How could such nonsensical papers be accepted for publication? Perhaps because life, in this case, imitates art: because of papers like those written by Rochelle Gutiérrez, who apparently believes that mathematics education as currently practiced is just a vehicle to spread white supremacism. In her paper, When Mathematics Teacher Educators Come Under Attack (published by the journal Mathematics Teacher Educator of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) she argues (citing her earlier work) that there exists “a direct link between White supremacist capitalist patriarchy and mathematics”. In an earlier paper, she introduces her invention, “Mathematx” (supposedly an ethnically neutral, LGBTQ-friendly alternative to the white supremacist term “mathematics”), with the intent to “underscore with examples from biology the potential limitations of current forms of mathematics for understanding/interacting with our world and the potential benefits of considering other-than-human persons as having different knowledges to contribute.” The reader might be forgiven if they thought that these were just further hoax papers by Pluckrose, Lindsay and Boghossian, but nope; these papers are for real, penned by an author who plays an influential role in the shaping of mathematics education in the United States.
  2. Meanwhile, another paper has been “disappeared” in a manner not unlike how persons were “disappeared” in communist or fascist dictatorships. Theodore P. Hill’s paper, An Evolutionary Theory for the Variability Hypothesis, discusses the mathematical background of what has been known as the “greater male variability hypothesis”: an observation, dating back to Charles Darwin’s times, that across a multitude of species, males often show greater variability in many traits than females. (Simply put, this may mean that a given group of males may contain more idiots and more idiot savants than an equal size group of females.)

    Unlike Strumia, Hill does not appear to have a personal agenda. The stated goal of the paper was neither to promote nor to refute the idea but to see whether a simple mathematical basis might exist that explains it. After being rejected (even following initial acceptance) by other journals, it was finally published in the New York Journal of Mathematics, only to be taken down (its page number and identifier assigned to a completely different paper) three days later after the editors received a complaint and a threat of losing support.

    One of the justifications for this paper’s removal (and for these types of actions in general) is that such material may discourage young women from STEM fields. Apart from the intellectual dishonesty of removing an already published paper due to political pressure, I think this is also the ultimate form of covert sexism. The message to young women who are aspiring engineers and scientists is, “You, womenfolk, are too weak, too innocent to be able to think critically and reject ideological bias masquerading as science. So let us come and defend you, by ensuring that you are not exposed to vile ideas that your fragile little minds cannot handle.”

I call these incidents “irritants” when it comes to free speech.

On the one hand, publications dedicated to social science and education publish even the most outrageously bogus research so long as it kowtows to the prevailing sociopolitical agenda.

On the other hand, obscure research is thrust into the spotlight by intolerant “SJW”-s who seek to administratively suppress ideas that they find offensive. While this goal is technically accomplished (Strumia’s presentation and Hill’s paper were both successfully “unpublished”), in reality they achieve the exact opposite: they expose these authors to a much greater audience than they otherwise would have enjoyed. The message, meantime, to those they purportedly protect (e.g., women, minorities) is one of condescension: these groups apparently lack the ability to think critically and must be protected from harmful thoughts by their benevolent superiors.

Beyond all that, these actions also have negative consequences on academic life overall. In addition to suppressing controversial research, they may also lead to self-censorship. Indeed, I am left to wonder: Would I have the courage to write this blog entry if I myself had an academic career to worry about?

Last but not least, all this is oil on the fire. Those on the right, fans of Jordan Peterson and others, who are already convinced that the left is dominated by intolerant “SJW”-s, see their worst fears confirmed by these irritants, and thus their hostility increases towards the scientific establishment (including climate science, political economics, genuine social science research on refugees and migration, health, sexual education, etc.) with devastating consequences for all of us living on this planet.

If we truly believe in our small-l liberal values, it includes defending free speech even when it is vile speech. It also includes respecting others, including women and minorities, not misguidedly protecting them from hurtful ideas that they are supposedly too weak and fragile to handle. And it includes defending the freedom of scientific inquiry even if it is misused by self-absorbed losers. After all, if we can publish the nonsensical writings of Gutiérrez, surely the world won’t come to an end if Hill’s paper is published or if Strumia’s presentation remains available on the CERN workshop archive.

 Posted by at 5:09 pm
Oct 282018
 

I admit that until today, I have not even heard of gab.com. Or if I have, it escaped my attention.

Today, I visited the site, and I was taken aback by the amount of vile hate, white supremacist and anti-Semitic garbage, lunatic right-wing conspiracy theories, falsified history, and yes, even calls for violence.

Unfortunately, gab.com shares the fate of vixra.org, the uncensored/unmoderated alternative to the Internet physics manuscript archive arxiv.org: instead of a credible, balanced alternative, it became a fringe magnet.

That said, the imminent shutdown of gab.com is precisely the wrong response, for way too many reasons to count. First, free speech is worthless if we don’t tolerate speech that offends us. Second, it plays right into the hands of the lunatic right-wing fringe, confirming their worst conspiracy theories and affirming their views of leftist intolerance. Third, in the era of the Internet, it is really not possible to shut a site or a service down (witness sci-hub, by way of example.) At best, it’s a whack-a-mole game.

If we don’t stand up to support gab.com’s right to exist today, we give up a very important right. Those who think censorship is the answer will not stop here. Martin Niemöller’s poem (First they came…) applies. They will come for others, in the name of all that’s good and decent, until the only voices that remain are those bland, compliant ones that the powers-that-be consider acceptable.

 Posted by at 2:26 pm
Sep 092018
 

OK, so we’ve had Trump for nearly two years now, and we know that the White House has become a combination of kindergarten and insane asylum. My conservative friends still support Trump because he “delivers”, and are willing to completely overlook the fact that this president is not only a bumbling dilettante, an offensive excuse of a human being (waste of skin, to borrow a phrase from Lexx, a science-fiction series from a few years ago) but quite possibly a traitor to his nation, too, working for Putin’s Russia.

But if I hoped that Trump’s opposition is any better, they bitterly disappoint each and every day.

Take, for instance, the made-up controversy of a Kavanaugh aide presumably flashing “white power” hand signs while sitting behind Kavanaugh during his Supreme Court hearing, visible to cameras. Never mind that the hand sign was, in fact, a perfectly ordinary OK sign. Never mind that it was a well-documented Internet hoax from last year that suggested that this OK sign is, in fact, a secret hand gesture used by white supremacists. None of that stops many of my liberal friends from tweeting and retweeting the meme, complete with obscenities and death threats. Fact checking is for wimps, I guess.

And now I am reading about the bitter fate of a paper exploring the mathematics behind a controversial hypothesis dating back to Darwin’s times, called the “Greater Male Variability Hypothesis” (GMVH). The GMVH basically asserts that there are more idiots and more geniuses among men than women. It was Darwin who first noted that such greater variability is prevalent across many species in the animal kingdom. But politically correct guardians of science publishing would have none of that. Poor Darwin… the right hates him because he dares to challenge the idea that the world was created 6,000 years ago, but now the left hates him, too, because he dares to offer us politically incorrect science. The paper by Theodore P. Hill was first accepted and then rejected by journals, including a journal that already published the paper online, only to replace it with another a few days later. Never even mind the attack on academic freedom that this represents, but how about blatant sexism? You know, those impressionable young female scientists, fragile little flowers that they are, who cannot handle scientific truth and must be protected at all costs, unlike their ever so manly male colleagues…

One of the guests on Fareed Zakaria’s show today on CNN was Jonathan Haidt, one of the authors of the book, The Coddling of the American Mind. The authors explore the consequences of what they dub “safetyism”: Keeping children away from danger, real or perceived, at all costs, thus denying them a chance to become independent human beings. The result, according to the book, is that rates of anxiety, depression, even suicide are rising at an alarming rate, even as both students and professors on college campuses walk on eggshells, less they offend someone with a careless word, or heaven forbid, a hand gesture…

All in all, I am ready to conclude that the world is going bonkers, and those who seek salvation from Trump’s political opposition on the left (or seek salvation left-wing political opposition to right-wing populism and nativism elsewhere in the world) are deluding themselves.

 Posted by at 7:09 pm
Sep 052018
 

Regardless of what I think of Trump’s dilettantism, adventurism or downright treasonous behavior, two wrongs do not make a right.

Anonymous senior officials secretly sabotaging the duly elected president? That is a cure that may be much worse than the disease. It amounts to no less than a bloodless coup.

Yes, I purposefully included a picture of Trump’s inauguration as a reminder that, for all his shenanigans, he is the duly elected president. There are constitutional means to remove a president through impeachment or through the 25th Amendment. The constitution, as far as I know, does not entitle anonymous, unelected officials, no matter how well-intentioned, to sabotage a president. That creates a precedent that is far worse than Trump’s incompetence or even (if my suspicions are proven true) treasonous behavior.

 Posted by at 8:40 pm
Aug 252018
 

Imagine a health care system that is created and managed without the help of doctors. Imagine getting radiation treatment without the help of medical physicists.

Imagine an education system that is created and managed without educators.

Imagine a system of highways and railways created and managed without transportation engineers.

Imagine an electrical infrastructure that is created and managed without electrical engineers. Nuclear power plants without physicists. An economy that is managed without professional economists. A communications infrastructure created and managed without radio engineers, software and network engineers.

This is Doug Ford’s vision for the province of Ontario, presented by none other than Doug Ford himself through his Twitter feed, as he proudly proclaims that his government, his party, won’t listen to academics: the very people that we pay so that they learn and offer their professional knowledge for the benefit of the public.

Guess this is what happens when ideology and blatant populism trump facts. (Pun unintended, but disturbingly appropriate.)

 Posted by at 3:35 pm
Jul 162018
 

There is a joke I heard a long time ago about Khrushchev and Hungary’s communist leader Kádár going bear hunting. It seems perfectly appropriate to retell using Putin and Trump instead, especially in light of their meeting and, ahem, spectacular press conference in Helsinki today.

Putin and Trump go hunting. They shoot a bear. On their way back to the hunting lodge, they stop at a McDonalds for Trump to grab a burger. Putin stays outside. When Trump gets back to their pickup truck, the bear is gone.

“Vladimir, where is the bear?” asks Trump.

“What bear?” responds Putin.

Trump looks perplexed. “You see, we just went hunting, right?”

“Right,” says Putin.

“And we went up this hill, right?”

“Right,” says Putin.

“And then we spotted a bear, didn’t we?”

“That we did,” says Putin.

“Which we then shot.”

“We shot him dead alright.”

“And then we put him on the truck.”

“We did indeed,” confirms Putin.

“And then we stopped here at this McDonalds. I went in, and you stayed outside with the bear, right?”

“That is indeed so,” says Putin.

“So then, where the devil is the bear?” asks Trump.

“What bear?” responds Putin.

 Posted by at 8:46 pm
Jul 072018
 

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.

 Posted by at 6:45 pm
Jun 282018
 

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.

 Posted by at 7:01 pm
Jun 232018
 

I am reading a year-and-a-half old article in The Nation, written by Susan McWilliams about the prophecies of a 50 year old book coming true.

The book is Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.

The article makes a compelling argument that Thompson’s observations aptly describe the rise and reasons of success of “Trumpism”. As I was reading its paragraphs, I was reminded of conversations I had recently with supporters of Trump. The sentiment of “total retaliation” described in the article closely captures my experience. What I saw was an automatic, almost visceral distrust of anything “liberal”. Trump supporters embrace things like racism not because they are racist, but because it is a way to piss off, to troll “liberals”. They reject things like climate science mainly because it comes from a scientific establishment that is seen as liberal, hence inherently untrustworthy.

Most compellingly, my conversations confirm the article’s main point: Trumpists are not looking for solutions because they do not really believe that solutions exist. Hence the ethos of “total retaliation”: nothing matters anymore, so long as they can piss off those lefty liberals some more. Children in detention camps? Great, look how those nasty liberals are squirming. The First Lady wearing a jacket with a questionable message? Look, she is even better at trolling liberals than her husband! Self-defeating tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum? Excellent, that will really piss off that wacko commie Trudeau and his cult of personality in liberal haven Canada. Let our alpha male leader show that wimp who the boss is!

In short, there is no point being a good sport when the game is rigged against you. You might as well just piss on the playing field and storm off in anger. Punching a few random folks who stand in the way helps driving the point through.

Trump, Brexit, the rise of governments mistakenly labeled as “populist” in Europe, but which really distinguish themselves by being anti-science and anti-immigrant, presenting the media or human rights and antipoverty organizations, all perceived as bastions of the liberal world order, as the enemy; they all fit the picture drawn by McWilliams, base on the prophetic words of Thompson.

I never read Thompson’s book, but now I feel compelled to look for a copy.

 Posted by at 11:20 am
Jun 212018
 

Donald J. Trump is a very vain person. His vanity knows few limits.

He even had his properties decorated with a fake TIME magazine cover, featuring his image.

Therefore, he must feel very proud now that TIME decided to use his picture on the cover of next week’s issue.

Congratulations, Mr. Trump. You earned it.

 Posted by at 3:39 pm
Jun 202018
 

And in case anyone wonders why these “evildoers” from South America are ignoring American law and cross the border illegally…

They do so because they are prevented from legally presenting themselves at a port of entry by US border agents.

Today, I e-mailed our Member of Parliament, Mona Fortier, asking her to urge our government and our Prime Minister to suspend the “safe third country” agreement with the United States. A country that behaves in this manner is not a safe third country by any stretch of definition.

Dear Ms. Fortier,

As one of your loyal constituents, I’d like to urge you to press our Government and our Prime Minister to consider suspending the Safe Third Party agreement with Trump’s America. What is happening in the United States is unconscionable (and in a case of life imitating art, eerily resembling story elements from The Handmaid’s Tale) and now, especially with that country’s withdrawal from the UN Human Rights Council, I believe this step would not only be justified but outright necessary, in order to protect our Canadian values, which, I know, you, your party, and our Government strongly believe in.

Sincerely,

Viktor T. Toth

 Posted by at 4:47 pm