Jul 192019
 

The world is celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of the most momentous events in human history: the first time a human being set foot on another celestial body.

It is also a triumph of American ingenuity. Just as Jules Verne predicted a century earlier, it was America’s can-do spirit that made the Moon landing, Armstrong’s “one small step” possible.

And today, just like 50 years ago, their success was celebrated around the world, by people of all nationality, religion, gender or ethnicity.

But that’s not good enough for some New York Times columnists.

Instead of celebrating the Moon landing, Mary Robinette Kowal complains about the gender bias that still exists in the space program. Because, as we learn from her article, this evil male chauvinistic space program was “designed by men, for men”. Because, you know, men sweat in different areas of their body and all. Even in the office, temperatures are set for men, which leaves women carrying sweaters.

Sophie Pinkham goes further. Instead of celebrating America’s success on July 20, 1969, Pinkham goes on to praise the Soviet space program in a tone that might have been rejected even by the editors of Pravda in 1969 as too over-the-top. Because unlike America, the Soviets put the first woman in space! Their commitment to equality did not stop there: They also sent the first Asian man and the first black man into orbit. Because, we are told, “under socialism, a person of even the humblest origins could make it all the way up.”

Just to be clear, I am not blind to gender bias. We may have come a long way since the 1960s, but full gender equality has not yet been achieved anywhere: not in the US, not in Canada, not even in places like Iceland. And racism in America remains a palpable, everyday reality. Back in 1969, things were a lot worse.

But to pick the 50th anniversary of an event that, even back in the turbulent 1960s, had the power to unify humanity, to launch such petty rants? That is simply disgraceful. Or, as the New York Post described it, obscene.

The New York Post also makes mention of one of the female pioneers of the US space program, Margaret Hamilton, whose work was instrumental in making the Apollo landings possible. Yet somehow, neither Pinkham nor Kowal found it in their hearts to mention her name.

I have to wonder: Are columnists like Pinkham or Kowal secretly rooting for Donald Trump? Because they certainly seem to be doing their darnedest best to alienate as many voters as possible, from what appears to be an increasingly bitter, intolerant, ideological agenda on the American political left.

 Posted by at 6:49 pm
Jul 012019
 

I have been thinking about this supposedly historic meeting between Trump and Kim at the DMZ.

One TV talking head criticized Trump’s last-minute invitation. “These meetings should be preceded by months of preparations by experts,” he said, or something to this effect. I remember, I was actually waking down the stairs towards my kitchen as I exclaimed, “Those experts had 65 years at their disposal.”

In short, I am not going to blame Trump for trying something different. Trying, of course, is not the same as succeeding.

Can Trump succeed? Can this meeting be the beginning of something meaningful, like Captain Picard’s meeting with the Tamarian captain, who was speaking in the allegorical Tamarian language in that famous Star Trek: The Next Generation episode?

Or, far more likely, is it just a misguided attempt by a narcissistic world leader who grossly overvalues his own skills at personal diplomacy, reminding me of the last Kaiser of Imperial Germany, Wilhelm II?

I am not optimistic, but for what it’s worth, I am rooting for Trump. If he succeeds, the world becomes a slightly better, slightly safer place.

 Posted by at 7:02 pm
Jun 182019
 

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 5:44 pm
Jun 132019
 

The news this morning is that former PM Jean Chrétien suggested that Canada should stop the extradition proceedings against Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, as a means to win back the freedom of the two Canadian hostages in China, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. (Yes, I called them hostages.)

The case against Huawei runs a lot deeper, however, than the financial fraud Ms. Meng is alleged by US authorities to have committed.

There is also the question of espionage, including the possibility that Huawei’s 5G equipment cannot be trusted because of firmware or hardware level backdoors.

I repeatedly encountered the suggestion that this issue can be trivially remedied by using end-to-end encryption. Unfortunately, end-to-end encryption, even if properly implemented (ignoring for the moment our own Western governments’ recurrent pleas to have built-in backdoors in any such encryption algorithms), solves only part of the problem.

It still allows Huawei to steal metadata, such as where calls are routed or the amount and nature of data traffic between specific endpoints. Worse yet, no encryption prevents Huawei from potentially sabotaging the network when called upon to do so by the Chinese government.

For this reason, I reluctantly came to the conclusion that the US ban against Huawei is justified and appropriate. It must, of course, be accompanied by a suitable increase in spending on researching 5G communications technologies, because otherwise, we risk shooting ourselves in the foot by banning the use of equipment that is technologically superior to the available alternatives. This is a new situation for the West: The last time the West faced a great power adversary that matched Western scientific and technological capabilities was in the 1930s, with Nazi Germany.

As for Ms. Meng, I think the suggestion to suspend the extradition process is wholly inappropriate. It would signal to the world that Canada is willing to suspend the rule of law for the sake of hostages. However strongly I feel about Messrs. Kovrig and Spavor, however strongly I desire to see them released, this is not a price Canada should be willing to pay.

 Posted by at 5:56 pm
May 082019
 

The Globe and Mail managed to publish today one of the saddest editorial cartoons I ever saw:

There really is nothing that I can add. The cartoon speaks for itself.

 Posted by at 11:42 am
Mar 292019
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 5:47 pm
Mar 292019
 

Today in the morning news, I heard about an Ottawa bartender was is about to stand trial for criminal negligence because two years ago, some young hockey players who got drunk at her bar ended up dead in a tragic car accident.

Later in the same newscast, I heard about plans by the Ontario government to start selling alcoholic beverages in more supermarkets, big box stores, and convenience stores.

In exactly what insane asylum do these two news items in the same newscast make any sense?

On the one hand, dragging a bartender, one who probably never earned much over minimum wage, to criminal court with the very real prospect of a prison term; on the other hand, making it easier for people to obtain one of the most potent psychoactive drugs known to humanity? Because, you know, the bartender is responsible for what her patrons do after they leave the establishment, but the provincial government bears no responsibility at all for making alcohol more readily available?

The mind boggles.

 Posted by at 3:03 pm
Mar 272019
 

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

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

 Posted by at 2:40 pm
Mar 252019
 

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

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


Apparently I am not the only one with this concern.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Posted by at 1:10 am
Mar 242019
 

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.

 Posted by at 6:49 pm
Mar 022019
 

Almost forgot: There was some incredulity when Michael Cohen mentioned, during his Congressional appearance on Wednesday, that he “started” Trump’s campaign. In response, Cohen mentioned the Web site, shouldtrumprun.org, which he claimed to have created.

It is true. Here is the earliest capture of this site from archive.org (I highlighted the date and Cohen’s name):

Unfortunately for Trump, it appears that Cohen and his associates stopped paying for shouldtrumprun.org, and it has now been taken over by others, who quickly turned it into a parody site. Lots of fun memes there, worth checking it out.

 Posted by at 10:40 am
Mar 012019
 

There is a Washington Post article today about the frightening possibility of a new Civil War in the United States.

But this is not new. You could hear such talk from certain conservative circles from years. Their view is that the US already reached the point of no return.

By way of example, here is a quote from an e-mail from an American friend that I received a few months ago: “We are already in […] low grade civil war […] but it is definitely hot. […] If we are really lucky, you will only randomly hear about ‘right wing death squads.’ More likely, it will be total war.

Though they blame it on the other side, they basically view a government that accepts viewpoints other than their own as corrupt and broken beyond repair. They are not interested in pluralism or fact-based governance. (Just look at the ban on gun-related research funding by the Federal Government, or the politicization of climate change, with ideology put far ahead of the facts.) In other words, these “patriotic Americans” essentially are declaring war on a democratic, republican form of government because it allows viewpoints other than theirs.

And Democrats are quickly sliding down that same slope nowadays, as they elect increasingly outspoken ideologues with increasingly militant attitudes. The folks who rejected Hillary and were proud to support Bernie (with his unrealistic plans that make no fiscal sense, placing ideology ahead of the facts) are increasingly the folks who determine policy.

Still, I don’t think that the result will be civil war, even if there will be violence in the future. Rather, I fear that it will be a rapid erosion of republican values in favor of an imperial presidency, following the example set by the dying days of the Roman Republic over two millennia ago. Blame, in part, the primary system that supports the ultrapartisan polarization of American society; and the switch from a largely unelected Senate to one that is elected, subject to the politics of the day, and thus unable to fulfill the function that Canada’s Founding Fathers once called “the chamber of sober second thought”.

Trump’s emergency declaration is a dramatic step in this direction. All indications are that he will get away with it. The Senate is unwilling to stop him. The courts might, but they will likely recognize (technically correctly) that it is not up to the courts but up to the President to decide what constitutes an emergency.

And mark my words: I think we will see at least 1-2 more emergency declarations under Trump. And by the time his successor (Democrat or Republican, doesn’t matter) occupies the White House, such emergency declarations will have been normalized, as a standard form of politics. And supporters will cheer whenever a declaration is made in favor of policies they approve.

The next step will take place when a particularly uppity congress shoots one such declaration down with a veto-proof majority. The result of that may very well be a constitutional change that defangs the Senate; e.g., requiring unanimous consent for a veto override.

And when that happens, the transition will have completed in all but name: the President will be Emperor who can rule by decree, with neither Congress nor the Courts serving as effective counterbalance anymore. One more change, elimination of term limits, and there: you will have emperors. And as someone remarked, Trump didn’t even have to spend money on an accelerant to stage a Reichstag fire.

I never thought I would live to see the day when all this turns from speculative fiction into tangible possibility, but here we are: we may yet see a de facto Emperor of America within my lifetime.

Not something I look forward to see, mind you.

 Posted by at 10:05 pm
Feb 112019
 

What do you do when you are confronted with racism when you least expect it?

No, not the overt kind. That would be easy. Obviously if someone used the N-word to descibe a black person, the K-word to describe a Jew, or similar slurs in my presence, I would tell them in no uncertain terms to get out of my face with that caveman racist attitude.

But what if it is something more subtle, more insidious?

Like, when a close friend explains to you how it is not racism but bad experience that turned them suspicious towards black people. That they used to be color-blind until they were defrauded or otherwise mistreated by black people one too many times.

At first, you think there is hope. You have known this person for a long time. The negative experiences are undoubtedly real. And you know that your friend is, deep inside, a good person. A rational person who can be convinced not to generalize from a few negative experiences and condemn an entire population of human beings on account of the color of their skin. To judge people by their character instead.

You bring up historical examples, pro and con. People from oppressed minorities who demonstrated the strength of their character by the dignified way with which they stood up to oppression, such as Frederick Douglass or Nelson Mandela. Or people who used twisted logic and a false sense of victimhood to justify how they turned from self-professed race-blind innocents into vitriolic racists, such as Adolf Hitler during his years in Vienna.

But then something snaps in you. There comes the moment of realization. It is all pointless. Your moral outrage is ignored or worse, filed away as a hysterical outburst of excessive political correctness, for which you should probably apologize. Your arguments are dismissed because, you know, you were lucky and avoided all those negative experiences and you can afford to remain an idealist unlike your more experienced, more streetwise friend. You try to explain to your friend that adopting a racist attitude means being part of the problem, not part of the solution. To no avail; in fact, you learn that the only reason your friend seemed to favor politicians of a more liberal persuasion is the fear of losing personal benefits. When it comes to race, their views align with the worst.

And it becomes clear at one point that your friend’s dream life is in an affluent, whites-only gated community.

What do you do then? Pretend you haven’t heard anything? Throw away decades of friendship? Or maybe take the easy way out and just turn into a card-carrying Nazi yourself?

I could, of course. I am a tall, middle-aged, white male with (as far as I know) no questionable Mischlingsblut in my veins. I even had some military training. I could click my heels, raise my arm and shout, Sieg Heil!, faster than most semi-literate, drunken Nazis. Jawohl, mein Führer, wir verteidigen die weiße Rasse. And tall as I am, I would look especially impressive in a KKK hood. And then I would have no problems with racism anymore. I could go on and just despise and distrust blacks, Muslims (especially black Muslims, I guess) Asians, Native Americans, Jews, you name it. Anyone who is different from my superior race. Any lesser untermensch. Including, quite possibly, my dear friend.

Trouble is, I still prefer to see a human being, not a monster, staring back at me from the mirror when I brush my teeth in the morning.

So no. Not even from my best, dearest friends. No matter how well-justified they feel in their views. No matter how strongly they feel that they are the victims here.

No, my white friends. You are no more victims of visible minorities than Hitler was a victim of Jews.

And the time to speak up is now. Even if my friends think that I went berserk with political correctness.

No matter how close a friend or family member you are: If you think your racist views are justified, please just bugger out of my sight.

I like to think of myself as a low-maintenance friend. You don’t have to come over to fix my computer. I don’t ask you to help me move. I don’t demand to be invited to your parties (in fact, I prefer not to be invited at all, being the introvert that I am.) I don’t show up, unannounced, to eat your food, crash on your couch, or borrow your car.

But there is one price for my friendship and that, you must pay. No, not to give lip service to some politically correct doctrine. No, I am not asking you to go all kumbaya with people with whom you feel uncomfortable. I am not asking you to donate all your wealth to people you distrust. The price is that I ask you to think. To imagine what it would be like if it was you who lived in a society that judged you by what others have done, simply because you share a visible characteristic with them. To have no place to go, because prejudice follows you everywhere. To be treated with suspicion at all times.

And then think about your duty as a human being to rise above petty, everyday grievances. To consider, at the very least, the possibility that you, too, bear some responsibility to not make our society worse. And don’t dig your heels in deeper. Don’t wallow in your sense of victimhood. Don’t come up with new justifications for your prejudice.

And for heaven’s sake, do not make your racism worse by calling me a blind idiot. Do not insult my intelligence with the cheapest racist excuse I ever heard, the last refuge of the intellectually incompetent hatemongerer: Do not tell me that I don’t see it the way you do because I have not experienced just how bad it really is where you live. Even if I am inexperienced in these matters, there are plenty of people in your neck of the woods who are not following you down that racist rabbit’s hole.

I am not asking much. I am not asking you to change. I am just asking you to think. And to stop justifying the morally and intellectually unjustifiable. Do the bidding of your inner demons if you must; but don’t try to pretend that they are angels. Not to me, not to yourself.

Can’t do it? Too bad. I will not apologize for this. I will not ask for your forgiveness. This is the price of my friendship. In this day and age, when I am confronted with racism, especially from people closest to my heart, there is one thing I cannot to: I just can’t not speak up.

 Posted by at 6:58 pm
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