Lost in facts

The Brexit and Trump’s victory delivered a blow on the liberal media like an extinction-sized asteroid of stupidity. How could the voters have failed to heed the warnings of so many smart analysts, diligent experts and rational fact-checkers!? How’s that even possible?

Almost like a chorus, the media were instantly ready with the answer: see, we live in an era that’s characterized by Post-Fact Politics. Pushed forward by media organizations like Forbes and NYT, the term “post-truth” became the word of the year in the Oxford Dictionary. A recent piece at HuffPo coined the term “post-truth nation”, stating that the biggest problem of our time is not political or economic, not even rational – but the battle between fact and fiction.

A pleiad of liberal authors are throwing all sorts of theories about the types and nature of post-truth, and the reason for it: the echo-chambers of the social media, the spreading of false non-news, public indifference to outright political lies, or problems with the millenials. All sorts of explanations for what happened in the UK and US last year. But most of them tend to agree that both the voters and politicians are rejecting facts, manipulating the truth, and giving precedence to emotion over experience.

Most of them don’t seem to understand how the hell we ended up in a world of post-truth, and when exactly was the end of that “era of facts” that’s supposed to have preceded it. Was it in the first decade of the new century, when the whole world was debating imaginary WMDs in the build-up to an infamous war? Or was it in the 90s when the Lewinski scandal dominated the media, and everyone in the US was freaking out about the spoiled hooliganized youth and the drug-addicted babies? Or maybe Reagan’s 80s, with all those secret wars in Central America, the Iran-Contra scandal, and the AIDS denialism? Or maybe even further back, Nixon’s “I’m not a crook” speech of the 70s, or the segregation in Alabama of the 60s, or McCarthy’s red scarecrow in the 50s?

Turns out, actual fact does not seem to support the diagnosis that we’ve suddenly found ourselves in a post-fact dystopia. Reactionary panic, collective hysteria and political manipulation have been with us for much longer than that. Which is why se should be skeptical about any claims of Russia-induced fake news epidemic, or the notion that Hillary lost the election because of the social networks.

In reality, the liberals’ nostalgia for the supposed fact-based politics of yore seems to be designed to conceal their own strained relations with truth. The supposedly honest and impartial technocrats and political managers who were so eager to impose neoliberal measures with the same zeal as their right-wing counterparts, rely on a particular set of facts that are meant to substitute those objective truths that they deem inconvenient and detrimental to their agenda.

Thus, the 90s are at the heart of this liberal nostalgia, which, like most other nostalgia, is about a past that never really existed. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dying off of radical politics, the Thatcherite slogan “There is no alternative” became a fact. Today, even though Fukuyama’s idea of “the end of history” may sound naive and absurd, there was a time when he and Thatcher used to describe the world as if there were no political issues left to divide the Western elites, and all they needed to maintain that utopia was to sift off fact from non-fact, and implement the best policies, respectively.

The technocratic obsession with facts, however, rests upon an inherently false post-truth condition: it starts from the belief that the values of economic liberalism (the right to private property, the supremacy of personal interest, and formal freedom without material equality) describe human nature in the best way possible. Based on this notion, liberal economics was devoted to the historic realization of this view of human nature, which in turn was defined as the ultimate human progress.

As a consequence, in the 90s liberalism withdrew from the Cold War battles, and took its place on the throne as the ultimate “best form of governance”. Assuming that they had won the battle for the truth, the liberals no longer viewed democracy as an arena for debate, but more as a marketplace. Their political products were thus shaped up so that they’d appeal to a wide part of the electorate, while appropriating the very definition of capitalist progress. Citing factological methods such as focus groups and sociological polling, they started implementing a sort of “triangulation”, through which they claimed to possess the political center. This strategy was largely developed by Bill Clinton’s advisor Dick Morris, aiming to position Clinton’s candidacy outside and above the traditional left-vs-right divide.

The economic and cultural elites agreed that managing human resources and diversity, in combination with corporate and social responsibility, would solve the problems of gender and racial discrimination. The first dotcom balloon and the growing economy of knowledge convinced people that education would ultimately make class differences obsolete.

Centrist technocrats like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were among the pioneers of this society of facts. They preferred to discuss the scientific management of the public sector, rather than dealing with political principles and values. They embraced false progressivism based on expedience, efficiency and profitability, and they stayed away from any ideas and notions that the dominant political center would potentially feel uncomfortable with – no matter if those were socially fair.

Now that the liberals had conquered fact, they pushed the social conflict outside and beyond the realm of factology, and into the territory of values. Instead of a struggle for dominance and exploitation, we now got cultural wars. It was a field where progressive values felt invincible. They were being sold with a feeling of moral superiority, and then propagated by the spineless party triangulation and through policies that would ultimately undermine the welfare state and the self-organization of the workers.

The first cracks in this pseudo-fact based utopia started to appear at the turn of the century. Standard-bearers of right-wing propaganda like Fox News, conspiracy theories and TV preachers who used to be fringe pre-911, suddenly crawled onto the surface after the terror attacks that changed the world. The US (both liberals and conservatives) plunged head-on into a mass patriotic frenzy, which culminated in two disastrous wars.

The liberal elites seemed incapable of countering the rapid politicization of fact by GWB’s administration. The centrist anti-war opposition was mostly manifesting itself through tame discussion on the UN peace-keeping mandates, or the most appropriate weapon-inspection procedures. At that time, Bush’s advisor Karl Rove said, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality”. Lost in fact, the Democrats were unable to offer a viable alternative to that.

For the liberals, now pressed against the wall, Obama’s election was like a return to a world of rationality. But soon after he was sworn in, the Tea Party, climate denialists, and conservatives who skillfully weaponized the public discontent with the elites, brought the art of fact-bending to new heights (or lows). Donald Trump refused to accept Obama’s birth certificate and the DNA expertise acquitting unjustly convicted African American youngsters; GOP congresspeople would frequently toss snowballs around to disprove climate science; purposefully misleading videos almost brought Planned Parenthood on its knees, etc.

The liberals found solace in the rising new generation of fact-based heroes. The statistician Nate Silver developed models that were supposed to add some quantifiable predictability to the political landscape. The media platform Vox, created by Ezra Klein and Matt Iglesias, promised to explain to the readers how complex policy could help them IRL, if only they could invest some of their time to study it. Even satire, embodied by Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, started claiming to be based on fact. For these fact-obsessed liberals, political passions were a source of problems that could only be solved with more rationality.

In the meantime though, the historical events started putting liberal truths in question. The 2008 financial crisis exposed the flaws and failures of liberal economy. The Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements directed the spotlight to some serious structural problems that political triangulation and managerism were not only imcapable, but unwilling to address. These events showed the true worth of liberal factologism: it was designed to serve the self-interest of the elites, and to base society on a framework of select “truths” that were hostile to those facts that were deemed inconvenient. A system that had the arrogance to claim to transcend partisan politics and be based on scientific principle in governing.

Those people who are now bemoaning the end of the era of political truth, belong to the so called “extreme center”. They’re the technocrats and administrators who distrust the real-life experience and suffering of the ordinary people just to the extent that right-wing reactionaries do. They constantly declare their horror from post-truth conservatism, but they don’t mind a lot of approaches that it adopts to economic policy. Since the center has been hugely tilted to the right, the liberals have found themselves essentially advocating for the same types of reforms and policies like the conservatives, albeit “with a human face”: privatization of the pension system, the reign of market principles in education, financial austerity at times of recession, and more and more tax cuts and convenient legislative loopholes for the wealthy (which they’re all part of).

The last presidential election has shown how hollow the “fact-based” liberal politics really is. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was toppled in a race against a candidate who until the very last moment was considered the perfect opponent. For too long they believed that Trump’s vulgarity would do their job for them. They invested much of their efforts in debunking his lies, while failing to formulate a positive vision for real change. And that wasn’t just neglect – it was purposeful. It was meant to suppress a very important truth – which is that there’s no way to boil down politics to just good management and accurate statistics. Policy and governance is much more than that. It should put the people it’s supposed to be serving first and foremost. It should listen to people before having the pretense to be telling them what’s best for them. But it did none of the above. And it was duly punished for that.

Ironically, now the liberal centrists are even further losing touch with reality, looking back with nostalgia to a past era when their opponents supposedly used to be more “worthy” and more inclined to respect their select truths (which they call facts). Some of them, even more ironically, have dared to paint arch-reactionaries like Reagan and Bush Jr in romantic colors and presenting that image as truth, too.

What they’re failing to understand is that Trump’s ascent is not proof that the voters hate truth. It only shows that a large enough number of voters would rather have a pathological liar who promises unachievable change, than a technocrat of the status quo who shamelessly twists facts through their liberal prism. It’s time to stop blaming fake news and realize why so many people really believe them. The simple truth is that the elites of the political class have squandered people’s trust because they’ve always put their own interests first. That’s it. That’s the whole reason for the current predicament.

A possible future swing of the pendulum back to “liberal truth” won’t make the retrograde demagoguery now ruling society magically go away. That could only happen through real democratic revival, one that would send a challenge both to Trump’s authoritarianism and the liberals’ heartless nepotist managerism.

Such a movement could start with pushing forward the truths that are most inconvenient to the conservatives (whose agenda, let’s face it, is the most immediate threat right now), but then proceed with those ones that are inconvenient for the liberals as well. And because these two groups have largely merged in terms of approach to policy, these truths tend to be the same, with the occasional nuance here and there: namely, that people are struggling big time, they strive for a better life, and for a more just society; and that a just and truly free society cannot exist without social equality. Once we’ve recognized these truths, that knowledge would allow us to change our reality. And that is when facts will really become more important than ever.

The Frozen Dance

Hi folks! Today I’d like to point your attention to this tradition which we celebrate here in Bulgaria every Jan 6, which is Jordan’s Day (we’re very fond of our name days, they almost have the status and weight of birthdays; it’s always nice to have twice as many reasons to drink and celebrate, right?) The ritual follows an old tradition probably predating (but bearing obvious parallels to) Epiphany – or Twelfth Day as it’s known – and all Christianity, rooting back to the ages of the Thracians who lived around these places in Roman times. The dance is called “horo“, a traditional feature of every Balkan feast, where people line up and make a series of elaborate steps in rhythm with the music.

This particular one is a bit special though, because it marks the beginning of the coldest season by… plunging the “horo” into the frozen waters of a small river! It’s done exceptionally by men (for understandable physiological reasons), and it’s meant to send wishes to the God(s?) for health and prosperity throughout the new year. First the leader of the horo goes in to break the ice, then the drummers enter and start the rhythm, and the rest follow, normally by order of seniority. The whole thing lasts for about 10 minutes, and is preceded and then followed by feasts, eating a lot of meat and of course drinking a lot of wine and rakia. Anyway, behold the weirdness!

(Warning! Do not try this at home without proper preparation! And by that, I do mean industrial amounts of alcohol conveniently infused into your blood system!)

This horo is from the small mountain town of Kalofer, home to legendary revolutionaries, and considered part of the historical heartland of the country. The ritual has been there for many years, and it has been attracting ever growing crowds each year.

This of course brings us to the next local tradition, the Kukeri, an even more ancient tradition which we talked about a while ago.

2016’s top songs

This year was quite fruitful in terms of new music discoveries for me. Some of these pieces are really amazing. Most of them were mighty earworms for me for many days and weeks. So, without much further ado, my 2016 Top 50 songs chart looks like this…

EPICA – Divide and Conquer
Megadeth – Trust
The Prodigy – Roadblox
Myrath – Merciless Times
Amorphis – Silent Waters
Florence & The Machine – You’ve Got the Love
Epica – Universal Death Squad
Moonspell – Night Eternal
Opeth – Will O The Wisp
Epica – Edge Of The Blade

Eleine – Gathering Storm
Opeth – Burden
Megadeth – Dystopia
Epica – The Holographic Principle
Sevi – Screw You, Honey
Epica – The Cosmic Algorithm
Ensiferum – Heathen Horde
Epica – Beyond the Matrix
Amorphis – Winter’s Sleep
Moonspell – Domina

Nightwish – Last Ride Of The Day
Katatonia – Old Heart Falls
Clawfinger – Prisoners
Amorphis – Dark Path
Megadeth – Post American World
Opeth – Sorceress
Katatonia – Evidence
Amorphis – Come The Spring
Ghost – Majesty
At The Gates – Slaughter Of The Soul

Skálmöld – Kvaðning
Megadeth – Sweating Bullets
Ensiferum – One More Magic Potion
Katatonia – My Twin
Lacuna Coil – The House Of Shame
Samael – On Earth
Ensiferum – Two Of Spades
Zahara – Imali
Amorphis – On Rich And Poor
Fleshgod Apocalypse – The Violation

Kamelot – My Therapy
Zakk Wylde – Sleeping Dogs
The Prodigy – Wall Of Death
Aeverium – Heaven’s Burning
Ensiferum – My Ancestors’ Blood
Clawfinger – Biggest & The Best
Amorphis – Born From Fire
Fleshgod Apocalypse – The Fool
Florence & The Machine – Shake It Out
Megadeth – The Threat Is Real

Also worth mentioning:

Poem – Passive Observer
Insomnium – Mortal Share
Amaranthe – That Song
Amon Amarth – Twilight Of The Thunder God
Borknagar – Colossus

What a move…

Well, it seems Russia will not only refrain from retaliating to the US expelling some of its diplomats in response for the alleged Russian meddling in the US election – but Putin has also disregarded his foreign minister’s recommendation to reciprocate, and will keep all US diplomats in place, and even invite their kids to the traditional New Year’s festivities in the Kremlin:

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/russia-us-35-diplomats-expelled-9536358

This is a very calculated move by Putin. Despite the fact that he is a dictator, it’s also doubtless that Putin is an astute leader who can assess the situation very quickly – unlike newly elected leader Trump who seems incompetent on virtually any issue. Putin wants to show himself as the good guy here, and I think Trump will no doubt take this bait rather easily.

The problem with this sort of diplomatic “sanctions” is that there is no concrete proof of Russia participating in election meddling at a government level (although we all know they did). In the meantime, we have to keep in mind that any country (especially powerful ones) at any given time is always actively trying to hack any information they can get from another country. These hacking activities have been there for decades and will stay as long as we have the digital world. And as soon as a new medium of information transfer is invented, that one is also going to be employed for espionage.

In a nutshell, Putin has scored another point against Obama here, making him look petty at the end of his term. Of course, Putin is in the stronger position here, because he knows Obama’s days in office are numbered, and he’s losing the last remnants of his influence pretty fast. In other words, he’s beating a dead horse. All in all, America has been trolled yet again.

Another terrible year

Even George R.R. Martin Thinks 2016 Was ‘Too Much to Bear’

“Please, let this wretched year come to an end!”

I don’t know what it was for you like, personally. But 2016 was quite a horrible year for the world, overall. Even despite the statistical fact that we currently live in the most peaceful and least bloody times in recorded history, 2016 presented us with plenty of reasons to think that the world was going crazy.

Ceaseless bloodshed in the Middle East: Syria, Yemen, Libya, and to some degree Iraq. The international community still hasn’t managed to break ISIS, or find a way to counter the rising terrorist threat. The first signs of the Arab Spring were brutally stomped upon by various autocrats, despots and dictators. This will bring serious consequences. The whole region will become a source of political and societal explosion that will rock the world. A decades long war is very likely to loom ahead, with a nightmarish maze of tribes, clans and religions fighting each other to no end.

Europe is shaking as well. Waves of refugees and economic migrants keep washing ashore. The migrant crisis has shown that the words “European solidarity” is but a mere slogan, empty of meaning. The Brexit has started a chain reaction of accelerating dismantling of the very idea of a united Europe. The very core of the European project is now in question, and its main purpose, shared peace and prosperity. Europe feels like it doesn’t know where to go next.

What’s more, the former Soviet satellites are making a U-turn back to the nation-state, re-asserting their own identity in reaction to having been treated as second-rate citizens. Now that the balance of powers in West Europe will change from now on (what with the UK exiting the equation and leaving a void behind), some of the newer EU members will be asserting ever more influential positions, and largely setting the tone of the discourse, and influencing the new rules.

This process is being coupled with the ascent of populists virtually everywhere: Wilders is likely to take over in Holland, France is at the threshold of a revolution, either embodied by Fillon the Catholic and outright Thatcherite, or worse, Le Pen the quasi-fascist. There are elections coming up in Germany as well, although Merkel still looks like the front-runner (the Germans are still betting on stability). She’s likely to retain her position at the helm, but with significantly weakened influence, and probably at the cost of a tough coalition. The populists are also advancing in Germany, and they’ll be a big factor from now on. The swing to the far-right is felt ever more strongly there, and this could ultimately bring to a change of the guard in the longer run. For the time being though, that remains one of the few islands of stability. But for how long – no one can say. The Germans are already pretty angry with the whole migrant thing, especially after the outrageous behavior of some of those it had voluntarily chosen to welcome.

The big uncertainty comes from the Big Bro. Where exactly US president-elect Trump is going to steer international politics, remains a mystery. Will he be predictable? Can America’s allies rely on him? Or are international relations mere “business”, a “deal” in his eyes? Or maybe he would turn out a capable diplomat? Does the US still see itself as a leader in global politics, or it’ll continue the process of withdrawing from international matters and losing influence, but this time willingly? And who would fill that void, and how? Wouldn’t that be a retreat of democracy, and a chance for various despotic systems to assert themselves? And most importantly, will America continue to consider itself part of an alliance, of the Western world, or it would choose to shut itself from the rest of the world, close itself within, look inside, and focus on “making itself great again”? In any case, 2017 is going to be a transition year. Transition to what, though – that’s the big question. And transitions are tough.

2016 also saw the revival of Putin’s Russia, despite the economic obstacles put by her rivals and the inherent structural disadvantages that define its economy and society. Russia is asserting its positions again, growing from a mere regional power (as Obama used to disparagingly characterize it), to a global player. Putin is actively meddling in the Middle East gambit, he’s also pressuring a number of European countries as well. The bad thing is, Russia doesn’t usually have the habit of using diplomatic means to meet its objectives – they’re too quick to resort to military solutions.

Russia is methodically and willingly, cynically practicing a sort of brutal violence that cannot be met with diplomacy – in Syria actively, and in frozen conflicts like Ukraine passively. Russia’s return to the world scene means a return of military interventions, proxy wars, regime change, and nation-building all across the world. The West has no other choice but to respond in kind, if it is to survive as a bloc. Again, Trump’s ambiguous position regarding America’s allies, is emboldening Putin, while causing concerns in the West.

Let’s not forget China, either. Their economic growth may’ve slowed down from its previous bombastic levels, but the thing is, China has matured, and set the stage for jumping to the big stage as well. They’re amping up their military presence in territories that they consider crucial for their geopolitical goals – and they’ll stop at nothing; they’ll gradually and methodically work to achieve them. This will cause another zone of geopolitical clashes, and a dangerous stand-off with other regional and global players.

Again, Germany remains one of the few bastions of stability and sanity (to some extent; though some might disagree, especially given the way they’ve handled the migrant issue) – and they might be compelled to take a more active role in settling things down, even if they don’t necessarily like this. On the other hand, such a more assertive Germany would inevitably cause other EU members to protest, and possibly react. All in all, it’s unlikely that we could find a single area in the world, which would boast of a more stable situation at the end of 2017 than the end of 2016. And the peaceful solutions to the problems seem to be slipping away at an alarming rate already.

Integrate this!

From the diary of an immigrant

Today I was smuggled across the border, and I finally made my way into Saudi Arabia. On the way here, I threw my ID card away (issued at the 1st Precinct of Varna, Bulgaria), so I had to tell the Saudi border control that I was a refugee from Donbass, Ukraine, looking for refuge from Putin’s terror. They immediately believed me, and they put me on the train to Riyadh for free.

Once in Riyadh, I was accommodated at a 4-star hotel (although there were vacancies at the 5-star hotel next door), and I was promised I’d be given an apartment of my own the next day. However, in the morning they started apologizing that the relocation would take one more day. The news made me furious. I tossed away the food that some teary human-rights activists had brought me, I splashed the bottle of mineral water into their faces, and I wreaked havoc across the damned hotel room. The sofa and the armchairs I threw away through the balcony. Some people on the street started yelling back at me, but the hotel manager informed them I had come from a war-torn region, I was bearing the wounds of war on my soul, and I was deeply traumatized, therefore they ought to show some understanding. They did.

On Thursday, the local authorities expelled two Arab pensioners from their publicly owned home in order to make room for me. The ungrateful old stinkers protested for a while, so the police had to come and detain them. Now they’ll be prosecuted on charges of minor hooliganism. As for myself, I was greeted by a bunch of kids with flowers at the entrance to my new neighborhood. The Saudi king suddenly appeared from somewhere, accompanied by a huge entourage, and he stopped by for a minute to shoot a selfie or two with me. I was given 2000 dollars to cover my most immediate needs, and I was promised another two grand would come the next week.

On Friday I was visited by a social worker who had been assigned to take care of me. He brought me a booklet with the first 10 articles of the Saudi Constitution, translated into my supposedly maternal Ukrainian language, and he asked me if I was in need of anything else. I put the booklet in the dustbin and told him to instruct the guy who keeps yelling from the top of that minaret just opposite my balcony to tone it down a notch, ’cause it tends to disrupt my sleep. He duly wrote that down into his notebook.

On Sunday afternoon I went downtown to investigate where their shopping malls are and get some eye-candy. Turns out all their chicks were wrapped in black like cocoons. That made me rather angry, so the next day I filed a complaint at the Municipality. That very same day, the principal of the local college issued a special address to all schoolgirls, urging them to refrain from wearing burqas, because that headgear was offensive to the honorable refugee in town. He recommended that henceforth, they should only put tight shirts and short skirts on, as my particular culture of an advanced Westerner (to them I’m a Westerner anyway) requires me to see bare hips and bosoms daily. The booklet was disseminated to all parents in the neighborhood, for the purpose of proper information and implementation.

I complained to the social worker about their food as well. The mutton was too greasy for my delicate stomach, and the beef was a bit too stringy for my tender teeth. I explained I preferred lean meat – pork steaks perhaps, or fillet in the worst-case scenario. He promised to take measures. Now all kebab chefs in the neighborhood have been instructed not to openly shove their mutton into my face, lest they cause me internal discomfort.

I’m telling you, it ain’t easy being a refugee! Today I had to walk for a thousand feet in order to get my social aid – which is no more than 2000 bucks, damn it! This pissed me off big time, so I vented off at a schoolgirl whom I came across in the park. “Yo bitch, why are you trotting around in this burqa? Weren’t you told to put a miniskirt on?”, I yelled at her. She happened to play it tough with me at first, so I gave her a couple of slaps on her face. I was considering dragging her into the thicket and giving it to her, but then I figured what a pain it’d be to unwrap all those fabrics off her, so I decided to pass. Later I found out her brothers weren’t okay with the beating, so they had filed a complaint against me at the police, and they had even organized some sort of petition against me. The Minister of the Interior himself had to get involved eventually, and show up on the local television to defend me. “We owe Christians some understanding today”, he argued, “and hope that tomorrow when they become a majority here, they’d reciprocate”. That made sense.

Today in the morning I told the social worker I was bored to death, so I ordered him to move a bit faster on the task of finding me some entertainment: a strip club or pride parade maybe, or something of the sort. He blinked at me at first, but I had the patience to explain that we’re already in the 21st century, and everyone should be taught of the new progressive values of the liberal and democratic Western world, because that is the future. I’m not sure he fully understood me, but still, he did write that down in his notebook.

Later in the afternoon, some pollsters came to do some research on me. They asked me some silly questions. I had the patience to be sincere with them, so I admitted I deeply despised and resented the state that had adopted me, but I didn’t mind being fed by it. I also said I wouldn’t mind if those 2000 bucks became 3000 the next week. No problem, I could get over it.

Unfortunately, the scandal with that schoolgirl still seems to be lingering around (heh, did I say lingerie?), so the central national television arranged some debate and invited some members of several NGOs called America For Saudi Arabia, Open-Ass Society, Amnesty for Westerners, and the Arab Helsinki Committee. All of them agreed I had been accused unfairly, and my detractors were all xenophobic bigots, racist fascists, antihumanists, cannibals and Christianophobes. All in all, despicable human beings. Half of them had been abused by their fathers in their childhood, the other half had slept with their mothers. I finished watching the TV show with a smile, now reassured that those who were hatin’ on me were just the scum of the local society, and the truly progressive part were really behind me.

Today the social worker asked me if I wanted to start a job. I told him I still wasn’t feeling quite integrated, so he better stop wasting my time with such nonsense. I’d rather stick to the social aid, thanks. Sure, 3000 bucks ain’t that much, but like they say, it is what it is. I’ll manage somehow. To cut the long story short, I hate it here!

Let’s hope all of this wasn’t for naught…

This is the chart of cosmic exploration in a nutshell (a very large one).

Let’s hope all of this wasn’t for naught… Although it probably won’t come to that, by the looks of it.

Surprisingly, as hostile to the idea of countering climate change as he may have been, there are no indications that Trump would scrap (or neglect) scientific research anywhere near the way Bush Jr did. Sure, he may work to accelerate the transition process to a more private-sector orientated space exploration, which is in a sense what should have been done a long time ago.

Neil de Grasse Tyson has argued for a while that the more trivial form of near-Earth space flight missions should be carried out by the private sector, being the more reliable and less risky segment of space exploration. And the public sector should focus on cutting-edge exploration, because it is not profitable for business but tends to drive scientific and technological progress in the long run. That makes a lot of sense.

Trump may inadvertently be moving into the right direction on this one, even if for the wrong reasons.

On booze, and Russian national security

On the day when a rampant terrorist shot the Russian ambassador in Turkey dead, the Russian people didn’t give a damn about that news, as much as they were shaken by other news coming from the heart of Siberia. And there’s good reason they cared about it so much, because it directly impacts their sense of safety and security – to such an extent that the local authorities declared a state of emergency in Irkutsk, banning all liquid sales. The reason? 60+ people went to meet their creator after having ingested fake alcohol. And that’s not just some obscure footnote in some online media, it’s the News.Ru being the first to report on it. So it must matter a lot, guys!

If that’s not the most Russian thing ever, I don’t know what is.

Just think about it. Those poor sods didn’t die of over-drinking, which is what you would’ve expected. No, it’s the stuff they drank that bought them a one-way ticket to Hell. It’s some sort of hawthorn potion called Boyarishnik (literally: ‘hawthorn’), used for cleaning bathrooms. Something like a liquid lotion. There were three-score fatally affected within a single day. 7 somehow survived – according to the local doc, the reason is they had consummated the potion with potatoes and some soda beverage. The rest had ignored this tiny detail, so they had had at it in full-force without any meal. They gulped the Boyarishnik, and soon they relocated to the netherworld.

If there’s one place such weirdness is seen as the norm, it’s certainly the vastness that is Russia. NTV reported that 33 had died on the spot, another 17 had woken from their coma just for a short while, only to report about the circumstances of the incident… and still another 2 were found dead in the… wait for it… collector tanks of the local heating company?!

Oh, by the way, this massive intoxication happened in the Novo-Lenino residential area of Irkutsk. Those who managed to testify said they had all drunken from the hawthorn concentrate, even though they had clearly read the label, saying it shouldn’t be consumed. Apart from the classical ethanol alcohol, there was also methanol (poison), and antifreeze in the mix. Soviet innovation, you know.

The ensuing investigation found thousands of bottles of the potion in the vicinity, so Irkutsk now has an all-round ban on selling any liquids, even ones with the tiniest possibility of containing alcohol. A similar thing happened about a month ago in neighboring town Sayansk, except back then the scandal was somehow covered up because of the relatively “small” number of casualties.

Now after the fact, the Russian media report on the fact that this sort of alcohol substitute has been quite popular among Russians because of the lower price compared to real alcohol. The deeper the economic crisis gets, the more rampant this problem becomes. In this sense, the prevalence of fake-alcohol intoxication is a fine indicator for the real economic state of affairs in Russia. In 2010-2014 for example, such drinks had killed 45,000 people in Russia. This, within half a decade. Seems like Russians don’t really need wars or terrorism to threaten them – they’re already losing entire cities worth of population to bad alcohol on an annual basis.

But let’s face it. Despite the localized, temporary measures, nobody is able to stop Russians from passionately loving alcohol. Just try to ban it nationwide, and you’ve got a revolution on your hands. And because legal alcohol is expensive, and they can’t stop drinking, they come up with all sorts of ingenuous alternatives. In October, the town of Kaluga witnessed a huge scandal, because suddenly a street vending machine popped up in the city center, where one could buy thornapple tincture for 20 roubles (30 euro-cents). Without any regulation or oversight. One could drop a coin, get a 100 g bathroom-washing chemical containing some alcohol, then drink it. Needless to say, a long line immediately formed behind this machine, dead-drunk folks queueing all day for the elixir of oblivion. This caused quite some outcry.

Then there was a similar vending machine in Chita in the Far East. This new fad spread so widely, federal MP Nikolai Govorin proposed a bill banning alcohol vending machines altogether, plus forceful court-imposed rehabilitation for alcoholics. On top of that, PM Dmitry Medvedev has now officially commented on the Irkutsk tragedy, finally recognizing it as “a grave problem”, and the illegal alcohol trade as “a national-security threat”.

He’s very correct, of course. Russia don’t need no Chechens, Taliban, Ukrainians, Americans, sorosoids or Europeans. The real threat to Russia is this innocent liquid called alcohol, which keeps decimating the Broad Russian Soul at the rate the Mongols did: low-quality alcohol, fake methyl alcohol, lotions, perfumes or dish-washing liquids, you name it. Turns out, as soon as the Russian sniffs alcohol, all national security goes down the sink. Literally. So, don’t be tellin’ me nuffin’ about no Russian hackers tilting US elections for Trump or anything like that! That wouldn’t make any sense – not in a country where you’d hardly find enough sober people to do a job so specific and sophisticated.

An old acquaintance of mine once used to work in Siberia for a few years. Bulgarians mostly used to work in the Republic of Komi during commie times, near the Urals. You make good money there, which you don’t have where to spend – and alcohol becomes your regular companion in those frozen forests. So he spent a couple years in Syktyvkar. He came back a complete Russian-style drunkard, but at his rare times of sobriety he used to say, “I saw such wonders there that I can’t find the words to describe – but at some point it would all sink into an alcoholic haze for me, when the vodka took over. Down and down you spiral, until it all merges into a blur. Even the Mariana Trench has been better explored than the drunken Russian!” At some point he went back to Russia (this time Moscow). Not because he needed the money, but because he “couldn’t drink here as much as he wanted” (and mind you, I’m talking of Bulgaria here!) In a few months, the terrible news came that he had been found frozen to death in a ditch, a couple blocks away from his home – a half-empty vodka bottle in hand, a smaller one in the pocket of his coat.

That was a long time ago. Communism may’ve fallen since then, but the Russian’s love for alcohol hasn’t faltered even one bit in the meantime. Hackers, terrorists, and national security? Pfeh! Those are a joke. Just give’m vodka, hawthorn concentrate and bathroom-washing lotion, sit back, and watch!

The Madman approach re-visited

Some are arguing that Trump’s unconventional and unpredictable, Twitter-enhanced behaviour regarding international affairs in the early stages of his ascent to the presidency, is not the workings of a madman, or more precisely, not just some random emoting of a spoiled teenage kid who has somehow incidentally found himself at the political scene and doesn’t know what to do with his position. They are arguing that it’s a well-calculated tactic called the Madman approach, previously employed by Nixon, where he is trying to make himself look dangerously unpredictable in the eyes of America’s adversaries (and even the allies).

The purpose is to intimidate everybody into making concessions they wouldn’t have made in more “normal” circumstances. Latest example: his reaction about that stolen naval drone, which the Chinese were prompt to return after he tweeted some passive-aggressive remarks that they should “keep it”.

It’s a risky tactic, granted – especially at a moment when the world has become increasingly volatile, and even the slightest spark could ignite one powder keg or another. And especially given the fact that the US has at least nominally tried to present itself as a balancing factor, a peace-bringer, the one who settles conflicts rather than inflaming them. But I suppose that is not a very sexy way to Make America Great Again, right? I suppose it makes America look meek and cowardly in the eyes of the ultra-patriotic wing, and frankly, a bit boring in its predictability. The revamped Nixon approach, now turned Trump approach of the Madman, might be viewed by some as one that brings a refreshing change of pace, a more direct (and honest?) approach to international relations – as opposed to the more covert, more professional way Obama (and many of his predecessors) conducted their geopolitical games: covert spec ops, relentless nation-building, subtle regime change, influencing foreign societies in a political and economic way, blackmailing world leaders, using corporations as Economic Hit-men to bring lesser countries into submission, and fighting limited-scope undeclared wars (drone strikes, etc).

I’ll admit Trump is more calculating than people give him credit for, but he is probably more P.T.Barnum than Nixon. As controversial and hated as he was, it is undeniable that Nixon was also quite brilliant. He had a very high IQ, was well-read, and was an intellectual in his own twisted sort of way (he still was a bastard, granted). Trump is the guy who bullied and manipulated the academic system into passing him along because of who his father was and how much money he had. He has said it outright that with guys like him anything goes, just because they are famous and rich. And now he might take a play or two from the Nixon handbook, but to compare the two would be to compare an intellectual giant and an intellectual midget.

That still doesn’t mean he won’t excel at copy-pasting Nixon’s tactics. It yet remains to be seen how that would work out, of course, but the first signs are already there.

Russian ambassador in Turkey is shot

Those who organised yesterday’s shooting of Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador in Turkey, likely wanted to take a revenge at Russia for her actions in Syria and to disrupt the ongoing warming up between Turkey and Russia. It seems they have failed in this, because no signs of another freezing of these relations are seen. The Turkish foreign minister is still going to visit Moscow for a trilateral meeting with Iran and Russia on Syria. The only thing the assassination will change is probably the level of security measures before the meeting.

Of course Russia will not just forgive and forget the death of their ambassador, so there will be some tensions. Especially because the memory of the downed Russian fighter jet is still so fresh.

And of course, because it is Russia and Turkey that we are talking about here, the conspiracy theories of CIA involvement popped up almost immediately. You see, America wanted to disrupt the plans of Russia, Iran and Turkey, so they staged this event. Another, even crazier version is that Russia may have sent spec ops agents to kill its own ambassadors in order to gain the upper hand at those negotiations (compassion, and all that). Sounds too cynical to me, even for Russia.

In reality, the further development of the Russian-Turkish relations mainly depends on Turkey’s behaviour from now on: how efficiently it will react, what measures it will take. It is hard to imagine that this act was inspired by the Turkish authorities. Whether the incident was due to negligence or not, Russia is right to demand the restoration of order, but without spoiling their relations with Turkey, because they are even more important now, given the latest developments in Aleppo.

Russia would hardly want to provoke a conflict – it is obvious that the attack was on Russia, not Turkey, because it is not in Turkey’s interests to spoil their relations with Russia just after having amended them somewhat.

It is very unlikely that there would be another fallout between Russia and Turkey, although some challenges are inevitable. The two countries are among the main targets of terrorism, they are at the frontline in the struggle against terrorism, so they will have to proceed with the negotiations no matter what. And these negotiations will have to be constructive, no matter the differences. And of those there sure are many. But this monstrous act is now a chance for them to become even more sane and constructive. Because it is evident that neither side is safe.

This was an act not on the ambassador, but against Russia, and their interests. It was obviously a well-planned terror act; what remains to be specified is whether it was committed by a lone wolf or a group. It does not seem too possible that a single person did this on their own, though. It takes a lot of organisation to infiltrate a guarded event of this sort.

Ultimately, the most important question is, who gains from this act? First and foremost, it is those who do not want Russia and Turkey to negotiate a solution of the Syrian situation. Another important aspect is the economic cooperation between these two countries, particularly the gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey. There are a number of influential regional players who do not want that project to become reality. In any case, the trail leads outside of Turkey. Whether it is somewhere in the Gulf or beyond the Atlantic, I suppose we will never learn for sure. What matters now is that neither side should take hasty steps, even though the temptation to “do something, anything” and retaliate is great, and war is in the air every time a diplomat of this calibre is killed (just to remind how World War I started).

Russia is already paying a steep price for getting involved in the Middle Eastern quagmire – first the downed fighter jet, then the passenger plane over Sinai, and now the killed ambassador. The cost is getting greater by the day, although they may have gained a tactical victory on the field for the time being. Getting so heavily involved means the threat of Paris- and now Berlin-style attacks on Russian soil are imminent. Perhaps the Russian people would hold their leaders accountable for it at some point, but for now, they seem to revel in their victories happening at the presumably safe distance of thousands of miles away.