Jun 282016

Bold prediction time: After all the hoopla, I am increasingly of the opinion that the Brexit will not happen.

David Cameron broke his promise (or was it a threat?) that in case of a Leave vote, he’d invoke Article 50 talks right away. He didn’t. Rather, he left it to his successor after announcing his resignation.

And “it” is best described as a hot potato and a poison pill rolled into one. Campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, even Brexit’s most ardent supporters know the consequences. First and foremost, a very real possibility of the United Kingdom breaking up. I don’t think there is a British politician out there who wants to go down in history as the person who engineered that breakup. Then there are the economic consequences, some of which are already being felt as the pound collapsed, stock markets tanked, and companies either put plans to make investments in the UK on hold or announced plans to move elsewhere.

And it is true that in the United Kingdom, parliament is sovereign and a referendum is not binding. The UK parliament was against Brexit, and I don’t think that has changed. So if a future government wants parliament’s consent to begin Article 50 talks, they are unlikely to get it. And without such consent…

I suspect that the next three months will be spent trying to figure out a way to annul or ignore the Brexit result, either through a new referendum or through some other means. These months will still be incredibly damaging to the UK economy, and represent a crisis that the EU needed like a hole in the head. But in the end… Brexit just won’t happen.

That’s my fearless prediction for tonight. And for once, I actually hope that I am right. With fingers firmly crossed.

 Posted by at 2:22 am
Jun 242016

England only ever had one king named John: John of the Angevin dynasty, also known as John Lackland. Legend has it that his rule was so reviled, it was decided that no royal would ever use the name again.

I am wondering if the name David might be similarly “retired”, now that freshly resigned British PM David Cameron is set to go down in history as the petty, opportunity political leader whose nearsighted election ploy resulted in the eventual breakup of the United Kingdom, not to mention the possible unraveling of the grand vision of a united Europe.

Of course this assumes that there will still be something like a rump United Kingdom of England and Wales for future historians to reside in. But for all I know, by then Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson might end the monarchy altogether, turning the much diminished UK into a republic instead, perhaps with himself installed as president for life.

Or perhaps by then, Europe goes up in flames again. Who knows? All that dissatisfaction that led to the Leave vote (and that fuels populist campaigns elsewhere, like Trump’s in America) tells me only one thing: 70+ years of peace and prosperity is too much of a good thing, it’s too boring.

And it happened before, a century ago. A once proud and mighty Europe, following a century of peace of a kind not seen since Roman days, a century of progress and prosperity, plunged into a war of unspeakable destruction, followed by an even worse war a mere two decades later.

 Posted by at 12:06 pm
Jun 232016

Increasingly it appears that a majority of Brits are opting to vote Leave in the “Brexit” referendum.

Sadly, this is what I was expecting to see, even though I was hoping to be proven wrong.

But populist xenophobia seems to have won the day. A rhetoric about foreigners taking over the country prevailed over the message of hope and unity. Fear of foreigners stealing jobs, corrupting schools, overwhelming the health care system, contributing to crime. And this combination of populism, isolationism and xenophobia has a name: fascism. Maybe a kinder, gentler, milder, 21st century version of fascism, but fascism nonetheless.

To be sure, I am not suggesting that anyone who voted Leave is a fascist. Of course not. But what tipped the balance, in my reading, is the populist rhetoric: promises to restore past glories through scapegoating and economic/political isolationism.

In the end, none of that will happen, of course. I expect that the immediate impact of the Brexit vote on the world economy will be grave; the long-term impact on Europe, even worse, and the UK economy will tank. (The pound is tanking already). On the political side, the Brexit vote may trigger a chain reaction in Scotland and Northern Ireland. And on the old Continent, this may be the beginning of the end of this grand experiment of uniting people from the Atlantic coast to the Russian border. What can I say… it was a nice dream while it lasted.

And, I suspect, future historians will mark this day as the historic beginning of a process that may yet culminate in another European war in the decades to come. I am sure the Kremlin is celebrating tonight… but Russia may not come out of this as a winner, as geopolitics is no longer a zero sum game, if it ever was.

For now, North America remains an island of stability. But that may not be for long. This continent also produced its homebrew 21st century neo-fascist in the person of Donald Trump. And Trump has a better than average chance of winning the election this coming November.

Tonight is one of those nights when I am really glad that we have no children. Both of us in our fifties, we can afford to sit back and just spectate as the inevitable train wreck unfolds. It is still a devastating sight, but on account of our age, and the fact that we live in Canada, we are among those least likely to suffer the consequences.

Still… I desperately hope that I am misreading things, that my gloomy reading of the events is badly misguided. Maybe Europe will find a way to improve its unity after the British fiasco. Maybe the UK will find a way to strengthen its ties with the rest of the English speaking world. Maybe the economic shock will be short-lived and there will not be another Scottish referendum, much less one in Northern Ireland. Maybe.

But I wouldn’t bet any of our hard-earned savings on any of these maybes.

 Posted by at 11:39 pm
Jun 232016

Ever since I first laid my hands on INFOCOM’s legendary titles like Zork, A Mind Forever Voyaging, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I’ve been a sucker for high quality computer adventure games.

Over the years, the genre evolved from text-based games to point-and-click graphical adventures, often set in freely explorable worlds. Myst remains a perfect example.

And then came The Longest Journey, one of the most epic adventure games ever created. Sure, its graphics and user interface are somewhat primitive by present-day standards, but the game was exciting, interesting, and—not unlike the best science fiction stories out there—it also served as a cautionary tale.

Then came its sequel, Dreamfall; a strangely flawed game with a moving storyline but stupid quirks like ill-designed action sequences that were more frustrating than enjoyable. Still, it was a great game because its story was great. But it was also unfinished.

Finally, after a successful crowdfunding campaign, came Dreamfall Chapters. Among other things its title reflects the fact that the game was released in five installments, or Books. The latest, Book Five: Redux, came out just a few days ago.

I now played this game to the end, and I remain deeply moved by its ending.

Yet I am also creeped out by the extent to which elements of the game—elements first released almost two years ago!—resemble present-day politics. Most notably, a political election campaign fought between a xenophobic populist whose party promises a new dawn, and a female center-left politician whose campaign turns out to be rather more corrupt than many thought. Sounds familiar? I emphasize, this part of the story was written in 2014 or before. Life imitating art? A mere coincidence? Or prophetic vision?

Cautionary tales are the best that the science fiction genre can offer. Dreamfall Chapters certainly did not disappoint.

 Posted by at 10:07 pm
Jun 152016

The CRTC told me that it is the cable companies’ fault. The cable company told me that it is the provincial emergency agency that makes the decision. The provincial agency, on its Web site, tells me that these alerts are at the discretion of the television channel.

But the reality is that they are interrupting all channels, as well as recorded programs, with pointless messages: some are tests, some are amber alerts from half a continent away (yes, Ontario is a huge province.)

If they did this to the public airwaves, that might be forgivable. But they are messing with a privately owned service for which I am paying good money. Serious money, as anyone can attest who is paying for a cable subscription nowadays.

I am uploading this video to YouTube because I hope to use it to bring attention to this blatant abuse, all in the name of the public good, of course. Alerts such as this that completely hijack all channels for a whole minute should be reserved for genuine, imminent, major emergencies such as a tornado, flash flood, military or terrorist attack. They should not be tested recklessly, and they should not be used excessively for events that do not meet the criteria that define a serious, imminent, life threatening emergency that actually affects the region in which the alert is shown.

I wonder if a clever lawyer might find a way to sue the government for illegally appropriating private property.

 Posted by at 11:22 am
Jun 122016

Exactly thirty years ago today, I grabbed a suitcase, a bag and my passport, and boarded a train from Budapest to Vienna, with the intent never to return.

A few hours later, I arrived at Vienna’s Westbahnhof, where I left my suitcase at the left luggage office and proceeded to Traiskirchen, to register as an East Bloc refugee. Thus, my new life began.

Little did I know in the summer of 1986 that in a few short years, the Berlin Wall would crumble; that most communist regimes would peacefully transition to pluralist democracies; or that even the mighty Soviet Union would come to an inglorious end after a failed coup.

And a good thing, too, as otherwise I might have stayed put. And then, I could have experienced from the inside what it is like to live in a country in which the great democratic experiment is faltering; one in which xenophobia (if not outright racism) prevails, fueled by a distorted view of history and a perpetual sense of victimhood.

Instead, I ended up a citizen of Canada. July 16 will mark the day of my arrival in Ottawa 29 years ago. I now call this city my home. My memories go back much further, as I had the good fortune to visit here back in the summer of 1973, when I was only 10. So although I didn’t quite grow up here, sometimes it almost feels like I did.

Of course I have not forgotten the city of my birth, Budapest. I love the history of that city, I love mundane things about it like its streetcars and other bits of its infrastructure. But it’s no longer my home. I feel like a stranger in town who happens to know the geography and speak the language… but who is far, far removed from its daily life. And sometimes, knowing the language is a curse: such as when I walk down the street and stop at a red light, only to overhear a young person yakking on her phone about that “dirty Jew”. Yes, such language, which I once thought was condemned to the cesspit of history, is not uncommon in Budapest these days, which breaks my heart.

So I consider myself lucky that I left when I did. I consider myself very fortunate that I had the opportunity to become Canadian.

Thirty years is a long time in a person’s life. Thinking back… I don’t really remember what I was like back in 1986. The world was a very different place, to be sure. The year I spent in Vienna… it was educational. At first, when I ran out of the small amount of money I had in my pockets, it was scary. But then… I found a job of sorts. I started to make some friends. People who owed me absolutely nothing were nice to me, helped me, offered me opportunities. And then, the same thing happened in Canada. First, my aunt and her family, who offered me a place to stay and helped me get started. Then, a mere three weeks after my arrival, a per-diem contract. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was vastly underpaid, but no matter: it was money, real money for professional work, not for washing dishes somewhere. And it allowed me to rent an apartment and begin my new life for real.

Many things happened since then, some good, some bad; but mostly good, so I have no complaints. It has been an interesting journey, which began with a first class ticket (who says a refugee cannot travel in style?) on the Wiener Walzer express train one early June morning in 1986.

 Posted by at 5:40 pm
Jun 092016

Dictatorships can be wonderful places, so long as they are led by competent dictators.

The problem with dictatorships is that when the dictators go bonkers, there are no corrective mechanisms. No process to replace them or make them change their ways.

And now I wonder if the same fate may be in the future of Singapore, described by some as the “wealthiest non-democracy”.

The Ministry of Information and the Arts

To be sure, Singapore is formally democratic, with a multi-party legislature. But really, it is a one-party state that has enacted repressive legislation that require citizens engaging in political discussion to register with the government, and forbids the assembly of four or more people without police permission.

Nonetheless, Singapore’s government enjoyed widespread public support for decades because they were competent. Competence is the best way for a government, democratic or otherwise, to earn the consent of the governed, and Singapore’s government certainly excelled on this front.

But I am beginning to wonder if this golden era is coming to an end, now that it has been announced that Singapore’s government plans to take all government computers off the Internet in an attempt to improve security.

The boneheaded stupidity of this announcement is mind-boggling.

For starters, you don’t just take a computer “off the Internet”. So long as it is connected to something that is connected to something else… just because you cannot use Google or visit Facebook does not mean that the bad guys cannot access your machine.

It will also undoubtedly make the Singapore government a lot less efficient. Knowledge workers (and government workers overwhelmingly qualify as knowledge workers) these days use the Internet as an essential resource. It could be something as simple as someone checking proper usage of a rare English expression, or something as complex as a government scientist accessing relevant literature in manuscript repositories or open access journals. Depriving government workers of these resources in order to improve security is just beyond stupid.

In the past, Singapore’s government was not known to make stupid decisions. But what happens when they start going down that road? In a true democracy, stupid governments tend to end up being replaced (which does not automatically guarantee an improvement, to be sure, but over time, natural selection tends to work.) Here, the government may dig in and protect its right to be stupid by invoking national security.

Time will tell. I root for sanity to prevail.

 Posted by at 1:45 pm
Jun 082016


Here is what happened in downtown Ottawa, just a 15-minute walk from my home:


That’s one big hole. I hope it doesn’t start swallowing nearby buildings.

And yes, I feel very fortunate today that I do not need to commute to work.

And it has happened before, in 1924:


 Posted by at 2:56 pm
Jun 072016

Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin in 1928. He received the Nobel prize for his discovery in 1945.

A Facebook friend shared his Nobel lecture. Particularly, the following quote:

The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant. Here is a hypothetical illustration. Mr. X. has a sore throat. He buys some penicillin and gives himself, not enough to kill the streptococci but enough to educate them to resist penicillin. He then infects his wife. Mrs. X gets pneumonia and is treated with penicillin. As the streptococci are now resistant to penicillin the treatment fails. Mrs. X dies. Who is primarily responsible for Mrs. X’s death? Why Mr. X whose negligent use of penicillin changed the nature of the microbe. Moral: If you use penicillin, use enough.

Fleming thus foresaw the dangers of emerging antibiotic resistance. Too bad the world failed to listen. Now, a growing number of people die from once treatable (e.g., post-operative) infections because the evolution of bacteria outpaced our ability to develop new antibiotics.

 Posted by at 11:07 am
Jun 062016

The Crafoord prize is a prestigious prize administered by the Swedish academy of sciences. Not as prestigious as the Nobel, it is still a highly respectable prize that comes with a respectable sum of money.

This way, one of the recipients was Roy Kerr, known for his solution of rotating black holes.

Several people were invited to give talks, including Roy Kerr’s colleague David Wiltshire. Wiltshire began his talk by mentioning the role of a young John Moffat in inspiring Kerr to study the rotating solution, but he also acknowledged Moffat’s more recent work, in which I also played a role, his Scalar-Tensor-Vector (STVG) modified gravity theory, aka MOG.

All too often, MOG is ignored, dismissed or confused with other theories. It was very good to see a rare, notable exception from that rule.

 Posted by at 7:19 pm
Jun 022016

This morning, Quora surprised me with this:

Say what?

I have written a grand total of three Quora answers related to the Quran (or Koran, which is the spelling I prefer). Two of these were just quoting St. Augustine of Hippo, an early Christian saint who advised Christians not to confuse the Book of Genesis with science; the third was about a poll from a few years back that showed that in the United States, atheists/agnostics know more about religion than religious folk from any denomination.

As to string theory, I try to avoid the topic because I don’t know enough about it. Still, 15 of my answers on related topics (particle physics, cosmology) were apparently also categorized under the String Theory label.

But I fail to see how my contributions make me an expert on either Islam or String Theory.

 Posted by at 11:18 am