Jan 272022

I am restraining myself as I do not wish to contribute to the hate and division that is plaguing our societies. I keep many of my thoughts and suspicions on this topic to myself.

But I still can’t not comment on this “freedom” convoy that is coming to mess up our lives here in Ottawa this weekend.

Freedom to do what? Let me tell you:

  • The freedom to infect others with a severe illness.
  • The freedom to act in a way that can be a direct, tangible threat to the lives of some of the most vulnerable among us.
  • The freedom not to take part in preventing the spread of a severe communicable disease.
  • More broadly, the freedom from any responsibility towards others in our society.

Presenting this as “freedom” offends me deeply, as I personally experienced not being free, having grown up in a communist dictatorship. What is evident to me is that you don’t know what it is like to be deprived of freedom. This is why you cannot tell the difference between a true desire to be free as opposed to just blind, unconstrained selfishness and egotism, the freedom to do whatever the heck you want with no regard to any consequences that might impact the lives of others.

 Posted by at 8:15 pm
Jan 262022

World War III is long overdue.

Back when I started grade school, more than 50 years ago (yikes!) no sane adult expected the world to survive through the rest of the 20th century in one piece, without another major war. Recall that even Star Trek, for all its optimism, assumed that World War III (sometimes called the Eugenics Wars) would break out in 1992.

Yet here we are, the year is 2022, and the world is still largely peaceful. But for how much longer?

Ukraine is rapidly turning into a hot spot that might yet trigger a conflict the world has not seen in many decades. And it appears that we are on a collision course that resembles in some ways the events leading up to World War I. Nobody wants escalation; yet everyone believes escalation is inevitable and necessary.

Russia supposedly wants NATO to stop expanding, stop encircling their country. On the surface, this might seem like a valid concern. Russia, after all, has been one of the great losers of the past half century. The collapse of the USSR, the loss of its system of allied satellite states, internal strife, a struggling economy all add up. Of course having an increasingly authoritarian government serving a corrupt oligarchy doesn’t exactly help either.

On the other hand, Russia’s willingness to use force in the “near abroad”, including Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine rightly troubles other neighboring nations, especially the Baltic states that spent decades under Soviet occupation, incorporated into the USSR. Other Eastern European states also have not forgotten what it was like to be occupied by the Soviet Union. NATO is rightfully concerned that if it does not show resolve, its credibility as a defensive alliance will be destroyed.

And this sets up a tricky situation. Every step Russia takes to push back NATO actually strengthens NATO’s resolve. Every step NATO takes to deter Russia from aggression and to assist Ukraine actually strengthens Russian resolve. Moreover, NATO’s resolve helps Putin set the pretext for an almost certainly unpopular war, by presenting NATO actions as a threat to Russian security. Add to this that a war in Ukraine could do wonders to help Putin’s waning credibility, and that Russians, rightly or wrongly, see political discord in the United States as a sign of weakness and, for them, an opportunity, and we have a perfect storm.

Do I worry unduly? Is it not possible that even if Ukraine goes up in flames, it will remain a regional conflict on the geopolitical map, like Korea or Vietnam were many decades ago? Or perhaps a quick and decisive victory by Putin, like the one he enjoyed in Crimea, would settle this affair in his favor and the world will move on? Perhaps.

But it will also be the biggest military confrontation on European soil since 1945. And if that doesn’t scare the bejesus out of you…

And of course nobody wants a world war. Nobody wants escalating conflict that gets out of hand. That was true back in 1914 as well. But just as in 1914, political ineptitude, miscalculations, overestimation of capabilities, underestimation of opponents, a false sense of urgency to act, may all add up. And there may very well be parasitic opportunists, other nations who will join the circus sensing opportunities. I can easily imagine, unfortunately, Xi’s China entering the fray when they have reason to believe that the West’s attention is elsewhere. And that’s how a regional conflict becomes a global one.

 Posted by at 12:55 am
Jan 172022

Another week has passed in this amazing world of ours.

It is easy to lose perspective as we struggle with the pandemic and make our way through everyday problems. But we shouldn’t. These days, I must admit, I worry more often than ever that our world is heading towards conflict and upheaval, in some ways a repeat of the mistakes made back in 1914, ending a golden era.

A golden era I say? You bet. Yes, I recognize it’s not for everyone, far from it. Far too many people on this planet still struggle for the basic necessities of life; die in conflict; or live miserable lives under oppressive regimes. Yet it is also true that never before did such a large percentage of humanity live as well as today, with access (at least) to most basic necessities, some level of medical care, schooling, a degree of public safety, with at least some of their basic rights respected.

Meanwhile those of us living in luckier corners of the world enjoy everyday luxuries that not even the kings and queens of the past could dream about. Case in question: the other day, my beautiful wife visited a grocery store and came home with a package of assorted fruits, not perfectly fresh, which the store sold at a discount rather than throwing it away. One of the fruits was a kiwi fruit. As I was munching on it (yum!) it just hit me. Here I am, in Ottawa, in the middle of a very cold winter day (it was I think -26 C outside) eating a … kiwi fruit? Not a carrot. Not a potato. A kiwi fruit. Probably not all the way from New Zealand, “only” from California, but still!

Let that kiwi fruit be a reminder of what we might be throwing away if we allow the politics of the day to radicalize us. If we allow politicians to choose conflict that might escalate and get out of hand. “We have no choice” is not an acceptable excuse. It was what the leaders of Europe said back in 1914 when they plunged the world into a conflict of unprecedented scale. But choices do exist.

The world in which I grew up was the world of the Cold War. Yet it was a world led by politicians who experienced war first hand, and for whom avoiding conflict (or at least, avoiding escalation) was a top priority. This was even true for the septuagenarian Soviet elite. Whatever their intentions were concerning the USSR and the spread of communism, plunging the world into another global conflict was not considered an acceptable outcome.

Today? I am not so sure. There are flashpoints we know about (Ukraine, South China Sea) and flashpoints that we may not even have considered yet. More troubling, the world is now led by my generation: a generation that takes peace and prosperity for granted, a generation that believes they have an inalienable right to munch on a kiwi fruit even in the middle of a harsh Canadian winter, and who take it for granted that kiwi fruits appear magically on supermarket shelves whenever they desire to eat some.

That, of course, is not true. But if we have to find it out the hard way, it will be too late.

This is what happened in 1914. No kiwi fruits or supermarkets just yet, but still, that fateful year was preceded by an unprecedented golden era that, in many parts of the world (especially in Europe and North America but not only there) brought about amazing progress. Then, myopic politics ended it all. And now I worry that there will be a repeat performance, and as the world plunges into chaos, just as in 1914, we’ll be told that “we have no choice”.

We do.

 Posted by at 2:15 am
Jan 112022

My name is not the rarest, but also not terribly common. I never met another Viktor Toth in person, but over the years, I came across a few and I’ve at least been in close contact with one.

The first Viktor Toth I read about as a teenager was featured with his girlfriend in some silly magazine for young Pioneers in then-communist Hungary.

Around the same time, I also read about a Viktor Toth in a small town in Hungary, who butchered his unfortunate wife with an axe. Yikes!

When I came to Ottawa, Canada, I was surprised to learn that there was already a Victor Toth in the local phone book. I never met him, but I did end up working with a gentleman who knew him.

It was still relatively early in the Internet era when I first searched for my own name, in the context of the small Hungarian town of Visegrad where I once lived. Much to my surprise, I found a Viktor Toth but it wasn’t me. It was a Hungarian astronomer who organized a conference that happened to take place in that small town. (Much later, he and I got in touch and even collaborated a little, contributing an article to a Hungarian popular science magazine about the future of radio astronomy in the country.)

There is a Viktor Toth who is an internationally renowned jazz saxophonist; unfortunately the type of improvisation-based modern jazz he plays is not my favorite subgenre, but he seems very well regarded.

And finally, there’s the Viktor Toth who recently put his pet rat into a virtual reality harness and had him play Doom. For the record, the only rat I own is this one, and he definitely doesn’t play Doom:

 Posted by at 12:25 am