Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Memory and Symbols and Omelets

On arriving at Northwestern University many years ago, I was kind of surprised to discover that there was a Nazi on the faculty. Or so said a publication I found in the student center, which went into great detail about what it said were his beliefs and why the university had to reject him, ignore his tenure and fire him.

It turns out, of course, that he wasn't actually a Nazi. He was a Holocaust denier, which is gross and evil enough, but he didn't teach history. He taught in the school of engineering. He had written a book outlining his beliefs shortly after gaining tenure, and the university had an officially recognized student organization whose sole purpose -- spelled out in its name, even -- was to get him fired. For his part, he stayed on the side of the line that kept him under tenure's umbrella. He never claimed official university sanction for his views and he never brought them into his classroom. Other than an article or two here and there he never wrote anything else about the Holocaust beyond his one book, although it seems he kept some level of activity among similarly-minded people.

By the time I was a senior the official committee to get rid of the guy had kind of fizzled out and folded into a larger committee which included that point of view. I remember a discussion with one of its members, an earnest freshman whom I asked, "Who pays attention to a history book written by an engineering prof?" I was assured that his work held great currency among several groups, a list of which I was provided. I later checked them out, and as far as I could tell they were groups that already believed what the guy said.

All of this came to mind when reading the cover story in the latest issue of National Review, an essay reflecting on the centennial of the October Revolution that paved the way for Imperial Russia to become the Soviet Union and spread misery, death and dopey dorm-room utopias across the globe ever since.

Article author Douglas Murray notes that the 20th century spawned two hideous totalitarian ideologies that murdered millions of people, Nazism and Communism. Today, any kind of association with Nazism or its ideas draws scorn upon the belief holder, in the same way that his denial of the Holocaust brought scorn and exacting scrutiny on the professor at my alma mater. Openly wearing a swastika symbol is a good way to get mocked and perhaps assaulted. Its appearance as graffiti on a college campus will prompt official investigations and consequences on the perpetrators, if they can be determined.

Nazism is rightly discredited and rightly judged as an ideology of evil, always linked to the horrid results of its most comprehensive attempt at implementation. Whatever positive benefits it had for Germany in the years leading up to WWII are rightly judged not worth its cost to Jews, a host of other ethnic minorities and anyone else that its thuggish leadership disliked.

No such scarlet badge of shame is awarded to Communism, Murray notes. Its modern devotees have few, if any, official student committees on campuses seeking the ouster of professors who may be among them. Even though when you add up the Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, Eastern Europe, North Korea and so on, the number of people who needed to die to enable the worker's paradise is probably in the nine digits (and counting), the thought of shunning Communist ideas is nowhere nearly as automatic as that of shunning Nazi thought. Professors who denied the reality of the Khmer Rougue's killing fields were given platforms to do so. Although the weight of evidence of Pol Pot's attempt at genocide eventually convinced many, some people today still suggest that the idea of more than a million dead (out of a population of only 7 million) is exaggerated.

Even the iconography is treated differently. A quick internet search for T-shirts with swastikas comes up with that symbol inside the universal red-circle-and-line "not allowed" design or heavily Hindi-styled to make it clear that the picture represents the Indian symbol rather than the later German one. Shoppers who want the plain Reich-styled version have to hunt some pretty creepy sites. But a similar search for a hammer and sickle will find all kinds of artsy representations on high-profile T-shirt sites. It's not hard to find Alberto Korda's picture of the murderous Che Guevara on a shirt, poster or other item either.

Murray's essay is worth reading. It's an historical sketch of Communism's history, from the view of an admitted opponent in a magazine that's never going to be a friend of that movement. Readers may make such correctives as they believe the evidence warrants, and you may not agree with either him or me either way.

There's no mystery at all as to why anyone who'd like to give Nazism a second bite at the apple are roundly dismissed and rejected. Their ideology is demonstrably harmful and tainted. But it's still curious as to why Karl Marx's fan club seems to have no end of second chances. George Orwell once noted that he seemed to find Communism's excesses excused by its defenders in light of the necessity to stand firm against imperialism and oppression. If you want to make an omelet, he said he was told, you have to break some eggs. All well and good if you're not one of the eggs, but he noted that even if you accepted the premise, none of his opponents seemed ever to have an answer to the question, "Yes, but where's the omelet?

Monday, October 16, 2017

Flash Bang

For astronomers, the exciting thing about this particular bang was that they saw it with traditional measuring instruments and with gravity-wave detectors. All of the previous gravity-wave detections have not been visible to other instruments -- sort of like hearing a sound but not knowing where it came from. But now something has been both seen and "heard," so to speak, which has the telescope set mainlining caffeine to stay awake and watch it.

As the story notes, astronomers think that this discovery could open up entirely new ways of studying what's out there. One of them quoted didn't have too many concrete predictions, but he did say, "...it's going to be exceptional."

I'd put some money on that.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Hints of Tint

At Vintage Everyday, another group of Victorian-era photographs given color by modern technology. I enjoy these, as they are good reminders that only the film was monochrome in the days of our grandparents and so on; the world had the same amount of color it has had always.

Saturday, October 14, 2017


Chuck Yeager became the first human being to fly an airplane faster than the speed of sound in controlled flight on this day 70 years ago. Before him, it's certainly possible that some planes headed into steep dives passed the sound speed mark, but they were rarely controlled when doing so and the fact that they often plunged into the ground made confirming their airspeed difficult.

A couple of years ago, Yeager Tweeted some of his memories of the flight and the tests leading up to it. He's apparently still pretty sharp at 94 and continues to make appearances today, and obviously has fun with Twitter. Although unlike the venomous charlatan (™George Will) in the White House, other people have fun with his Tweets as well.

Friday, October 13, 2017

From the Rental Vault: The Bitcoin Heist (2016)

The advances of technology in security pushed "heist" movies into the realm of high-tech thrillers -- and now that technology has sneaked into the realm of the actual currency itself with Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies, the stakes get higher. Ham Tran, a rising director in Vietnamese moviemaking, combined the tech and the caper to make his 2016 crowd-pleaser Sieu Trom, or in English The Bitcoin Heist.

Police inspector Dada is on the trail of a hacker and computer criminal called the Ghost. But when an attempt to arrest him goes wrong and nets only a lowly accountant, she is publicly shamed and suspended from the force. Her suspension is a cover, though, for her to recruit a team of folks to take him on from outside the law. This latitude lets her enlist people she's arrested herself and put their skills to use to infiltrate the Ghost's operation and get evidence that will let the legal authorities arrest him.

Tran keeps his action humming and the story doesn't ask much of the cast beyond working some familiar stereotypes -- the charismatic light-fingered con man, the aging forger, the nimble cat burglar and so on. They have a little extra touches of depth, like a past relationship between Dada and the con-man/magician Jack. Or that cat-burglar Linh and forger Luhan are daughter and father, and tween Linh gets a crush on Jack that embarrasses him and irritates Luhan. The story gives Linh and Luhan a couple of sweet bonding moments as well.

Heist comes together easily, taking advantage of Tran's familiarity with what has been a regular crew of actors. It's light, despite attempts to give some weight to the story of hacker Vi, played by Vietnamese rapper and pop star Suboi. It also doesn't really know where or how to end, stretching things out for one last con and twist despite not really setting the stage for them. Tran would have done better not aiming so high and just letting the caper nature of his story carry it over the finish line instead of getting artsy and serious. But the zippy running time and the competent cast counterbalance the missteps and make Heist a fun little...er...heist picture.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Decisions, Decisions

So recently two intermittently-talented celebrities suggested that fans who also supported Donald Trump were less than welcome. Earlier this week Eminem got more press than he had in years by using an awards show performance to freestyle a rap against the president. Seth Meyers, who used to be on Saturday night live and now occupies one or another of the late-night talk show desks, has chimed in, suggesting that its time for people who watch his show who are also fans of Trump to make a decision.

I can see how it might be a problem for some, but as it turns out we can solve the matter easily with just a slight tweak of the initial conditions. Both men, as well as a number of other performers, suggest that people must choose between supporting Trump or being their fans. But I think that if you properly frame the situation by eliminating the "either/or" aspect of it the way forward is obvious. I am not a fan of Donald Trump, Messrs. Meyers and Mathers. But neither am I a fan of either of you, so I trust you can now rest easy at night.

Oh, and go away, so that we can get some people to offer substantive discussions about the president's failures and flawed policies instead of pseudo poetry and smirking.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A Whatsit By Any Other Name...

As they often do, the good folk at Mental Floss offer up a list of some interesting and obscure words, grouped together under some theme or another.

However, the headline of the story overpromises: "10 Things You Didn’t Know Had Names." I did know what "badinage" meant and from time to time I even use it in a sentence. Thus, I believe writer Adrienne Crezo owes me a word. Which one? Well, if I knew that it wouldn't qualify for the list now, would it?