cultivate culture

Joseph Rotblat
February 23, 2012, 9:27 pm
Filed under: physics, politics, Science, society, technology

A great bio doc is out now on his life. I watched it and was inspired to write this pseudo-summary piece:

Take a look at some other PeaceMag articles, too. It’s a solid publication.

Heads or tails: Approaching the fate of Bitcoin
June 6, 2011, 9:33 pm
Filed under: politics, society, technology

So apparently this already hit the tech world but this is the first time I and maybe you are hearing it. It hurts my brain. A currency of cryptographic keys exchanged on a peer-2-peer network (i.e. a DECENTRALIZED currency). Unclaimed keys are being exhausted as people scramble to crack them using the standard ‘check every possibility’ strategy whose efficiency depends on how much computing power you have. To gain possession of bitcoins (as the currency is called) people are spending REAL $ on buying super PCs (stuffed with GPUs!) to dicpher the keys because they think bitcoins will be worth something. Why do they think so?

The ability to crack a bitcoin key drops with the keys size because of the impractically large amount of computing power required to crack longer keys. In fact, there is a publically known practical limit to the amount of currency (about 21 million bit coins, a ceiling we are appraoching with diminishing returns and will eventually hit by 2140). Thus the bit coin CAN NOT BE INFLATED. It’s supply is fixed, kinda like gold, where the limited supply ensures demand and thus value, so long as everyone agrees they want shiny stuff. So long as people keep thinking that a DECENTRALIZED, UNINFLATABLE currency might catch on, and so continue to spend REAL $ to accumulate bitcoins, the value of the currency will grow.

Bitcoin value has risen one hundred-fold in the last 8 months relative to the USD, a fact that has scared the banks and even the technocrats themselves into calling it the most dangerous open-source project ever created. See this nice sum up¬† for the juicy details on why. “What? Me worry?” I say, “Pfff, these techy visionaries are so off the mark! The infrastructure required to sustain such a currency won’t survive the global crackdown, let alone the consequences of the failure of the bee stock.” You gotta look on the bright side ūüôā Then again, if you’re one of those anarchist traders, this is about as good as it gets.

A civil atrocity
February 4, 2011, 12:08 am
Filed under: politics, society

Having made the move from big English-speaking metropolis to small German-speaking town means I now have lots of downtime. Perhaps in some attempt to remain global, I’ve been using the extra time to follow political events. Of course, Egypt is now the story. I have watched more news coverage in the last week then probably all last year (‘the Daily Show’ aside). I have formed all sorts of critiques about the Western media coverage, the policy (or lack thereof) of ¬†Western governments, and of course what is actually going on in the streets of Cairo. This message is about the latter.

I lived in Cairo for three years when I was a kid. I remember my experiences there as magical. I also met the Tschirgi’s, a family with two sons near my age who have since been like brothers to me. While we all eventually left Egypt, one of the brothers, Mark, went back to live. He is now back in Canada, but only recently, and I get the impression much of him is still in Egypt. Anyway, I’ve been corresponding with him back and forth since the protests began last week. I haven’t heard from him since Tuesday and frankly, I don’t really know what to say to him now.

The degree to which the situation has degenerated in the meantime really depresses me. It makes me think of the tragic turn that a collective, repressed anger can take when not organized. When will the protesters know when to stop and did they know that condition when they started? I don’t know. Worse, the horrible recent turn of events makes me think that the Good vs. Bad story that was so¬†mesmerizing (even climactic as the Bad was localized in the police force which had been pushed off the stage) is just that; a story. Could it be that¬†the sinister underbelly of the Egyptian system, naively forgotten (at least by me), has just been off camera and is only now rearing its ugly head. If these events really were consequences of the crooked¬†tendrils¬†of the Mubarek oppression apparatus, I am afraid that it will not go away until it is starved and slayed by slow and painful reforms. In the meantime, more good-natured Egyptians caught up in the conflict will die, or have loved ones die and maimed and harshly persecuted. I am so sad for the Egyptian people… seeing the less critical of them manipulated, and the over critical of them brutally attacked.

I couldn’t really express myself regarding the whole affair until after this evening when I watched a report showing what looked ¬†like a police van literally plowing through a group of¬†protesters¬†at high speed, no doubt killing some. I was dumbstruck, but I have been moved enough by it that I now feel I have to say something, as unimbeded and naive as it may be.

Even if the van was driven by an adrenaline-intoxicated pro-Mubarek supporter fleeing for what he thought was his life in a predominately anti-Mubarek zone, it is still such a bewilderingly stark, tragic scene. He has murdered¬†indiscriminately, and I really think he will have to alter his world view in a¬†psychotic¬†way to justify his action. That of course, or perhaps he thought it was merited, even before he did it. I don’t know. ¬†What I do know is that horrible events like these are happening daily in Egypt, scarring lives of all those around. At another level, the wounds that these events must be making in the flesh and fabric of the Egyptian nation must leave it weaker and less able to recover from the 30-year¬†oppressive¬†regime that precipitated the protests.

As a digital spectator, I’ve come to realize how easy it is, through all the long range video coverage, to see the valiant Egyptian protesters like ants. The videos taken from above are far enough away to show the sprawling advances and retreats of the two sides, and also far enough away to desensitize the viewer to the horror of actually being there, being rushed by a mob and beaten, sometimes to death. Journalists can apparently no longer get in, which will empower any thuggish element with impunity.

Friday (tomorrow) is shaping up to be the largest protests yet. Whether we agree it is the best thing for Egypt or not, in my opinion Mubarek’s official resignation is the only thing that will stop this now.

I was living in Egypt during the Tianammen Square massacre. I have no recollection of the event, but now I can’t help but think that Tahir square will now have the same legacy if we don’t do something.

Let’s all hope, and talk, and send our support to a ceasing of the violence in Egypt, attainable through international pressure and intervention, lest it erode the human spirit further. I don’t know of more direct means for those of us abroad than talking with your local representative and signing the following petition:¬†

Thanks for hearing me out. Please get involved.

Malawi government: Don’t worry, you’ll get your pension when your dead
November 19, 2010, 9:15 pm
Filed under: politics, society

Sarkozy just signed a bill that this BBC article says was one of the toughest battles of his career. It was a battle that had more people on the street than in any other European nation. And that’s something given the current public backlash to the many ‘austerity measures’ being implemented by EU governments. Young and old alike came together in vociferous rebellion against this “brutal” act that some protesters felt pointed to ‘the dictatorial methods of all the government reforms’. The bill changes the pension age from 60 to 62.

Now, from another BBC article let’s take a look at another country, Malawi, whose government is also implementing a pension age, only for the first time: 55 for women and 60 for men. So, it looks like the Malawians may be getting a better deal than the French, that is until you realize the average life expectancy in Malawi is 50.

Whether the government’s choice of pension age was a step towards realizing a Malawi with European life expectancies or whether it was just an insensitive act of frugality, this ‘austerity measure’ is certainly one¬†for which people should take to the streets.

Impulsive democracy: Canadians crash the Capitol for the Inauguration
April 16, 2009, 12:50 am
Filed under: politics, society

As Canada falls into a conservative bender, I see Obama’s inauguaration as something to distract me from domestic issues. So much so, that Carmen, I, Jake and Edwina, decided to make the trip to inauguation…the night before. We drove all night got to the monument, cheered and drove back. Here is some footage I took of that world wind tour. Alas, my camera froze as we got on the Mall, unbeknownst to me, and some great interview footage was lost…ah well. Enjoy what made it:

Election Day, Obama, Canada, and Hope
November 3, 2008, 9:31 pm
Filed under: politics, society

“So the election is tomorrow.”

Let me share how I think that sentence should be emphasized. “So, THdsc00198E election is tomorrow”.

Lots of people are saying this is an important, even historic day. I agree. But really, the changing of the guard in arguably the most powerful position in the world, is by its nature important, and usually historic in some way or another.

However, tomorrow, in my view, is monumental.

Sure, big political events like the falling of the Berlin wall and 911 were impactive. But our world suffers from social inequities as well as political and ethnic battles, and the former are usually sidelined, even though they probably play a larger role in the latter than it seems. Racism is still rampant if less out in the open, and having a black person in the oval office (as President), is such a powerful image in the struggle for racial equality, and frankly in the American Dream, that even I, a Canadian, am in awe. The contrast provided by the trivial Canadian election last month has many of us Canadians looking at the US for hope.

And, “there is nothing false about hope”, even for us Canadians. That line (from Obama’s New Hampshire speech) is powerful. The… rendition of it has millions of hits on youtube. It’s effect here in Canada has passed into the streets. I recently bought an Obama “Yes We Can” teeshirt. I will wear it into pieces I am sure. There are hundreds around, in shops and on people. I have turned on the radio and twice in the last month heard different songs about Obama (my favourite were the reggae varieties!).¬† Near my house there is a market. While buying groceries one day I saw a sheet posted to a public phone (very clearly just some individual’s statement) with Obama’s face and the word ‘messiah’ written underneath.dsc001961

‘Messiah’ is a hefty title, but when in the recent history of the world have you ever had to defend why someone doesn’t merit that title. I think that individual actually has at least some ground to stand on: no one in any case I can think of has or had a projected future centered around them that has been anywhere near as optimistic the one the optimists project with Obama. I have heard that Bush actually thinks God put him in the white house (not sure how true that is). Let’s consider for a minute what Obama might think of himself in this projected future.

For effect, pretend you are Obama. Imagine waking up in the morning and thinking: “if everything goes accordingly my plan, I will change the world and am the most suited person in the world to do so, and(!) in fact many people think it is my responsibility to do so”. How unbelievable is it that someone wakes up with that thought and may be right?

Still pretending you’re Obama, now think of when you and your wife discussed the presidential bid, way back a year ago or more. You talked about the impact on your family, the prestige, all the good and bad stuff. If you get elected, there is a chance that because of what you represent, someone might try to kill you. You agreed (as the Obama’s must have) that the opportunity to take this role outweighs the value of your life, and ultimately your family. Imagine having that conversation with your spouse! That’s crazy!

Sure, the reality of his presidency will be much less utopian than the change he is projecting (he’s got his work cut out for him). Nevertheless, I think tomorrow by itself is a major shift in the social evolution of the world. The Mayans say we are entering a new cycle in 2012. Our world has been plagued by wars and injustices for millennia. Maybe this is the turning point.

And maybe not, but if it is, what a great story to be living through…and we can hope can’t we?


Vision for 2020: blow yo’ ass up with space lasers!
May 11, 2008, 11:40 pm
Filed under: society, technology

FIve years ago, I got into the anti-“ballistic missile defense” movement after flipping through two documents that I just refound on the net.

The first was a report by MIT and the Union of Concerned Scientists called “Counter Measures” (the document is hundreds of pages, but they have since made a short video :), you’ll need realplayer). It argued that the system is doomed to fail both technically and practically.

The second was “Vision for 2020“, a United States Space Command document from 1996 outlining their goals from missile defense up to the year 2020. This document showed BMD as only the first stage in a plan that leads the US into “dominating the space dimension of military operations to protect US interests and investments. Integrating Space Forces in war-fighting capabilities across the full spectrum of conflict.” Also, it writes the “control of space is the ability to assure access to space‚Ķand an ability to deny others the use of space, if required.” The image on page 15 of a satellite laser weapon blasting what is very clearly Iraq supports this notion of preemptive attack through space.

At that time, Canada was being asked by the States to join the missile defence system. Working with other students and with the help of the group Science for Peace, we did a public lecture on the issue. I really got into it. That Halloween, I even dressed up as BMD:

So, five years later, I check in again. What’s happened since? Well…

In 2005, Canada, through the words of Paul Martin, officially ‘pulled out’ of missile defense shield. However, it seems this was more of a gesture to quell public dissent than to actually affect policy. Canadian companies, scientists, and military have continued to work towards manifesting a missile defense shield.

In 2006, Bush and the US government came out with a new “National Space Policy“. Unfortunately, it’s even more aggressive (encouraging a move to “develop and deploy space capabilities that sustain U.S. advantage.”).

Nevertheless, there have been some specific decisions by the Canadian government slowing the advancement towards the militarization of space. Most recently (just a couple days ago), Industry Canada blocked the sale of Canada’s space industry’s star company, MDA, to Alliant Techsystems, a big arms manufacturer involved in missile defense. MDA is the developer of the Canada Arm and Radarsat II (a superduper detection system). This move should not be taken lightly. It is the first time in the history of the country that Industry Canada has blocked any such sale (where both seller and buyer were in agreement). Though this move was not directly against missile defense, it shows that the Canadian government cares about the soviergnty of its space industry, and that soviergnty conflicts with the vision for 2020.

So in closing, the last five years seem to have strengthened the argument that missile defense is much more about industrial relations and growth, than about potential enemies and the capability to defend against them. There may be some people that think those political and economic benefits (to some) warrant taking steps towards the weaponized space envisioned in VIsion for 2020. I still don’t.