Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category.

The coming European renaissance

The unspeakable in flight of the uneatable. One of the sad scenes of today’s Europe does not even take place in continental Europe, and does not even look sad. It happens every Friday afternoon at London’s Saint Pancras railway station as young expats from the continent joyfully board the Eurostar train on their way home for the week-end. They are all smiles, but the scene is nonetheless heartbreaking: why did these young and energetic graduates, some of the best the continent’s universities have trained in science, technology, finance and entrepreneurship, feel compelled to cross the Channel to deploy their talents? Sure, it is a great idea to try your luck abroad, but then the flux should be symmetric. Today, it is largely one-way.

That flux will stop. With Brexit, Britain has condemned itself to irrelevance. What a mournful end for one of the greatest civilizations in the history of humankind, which gave us both Newton and Darwin, as well as habeas corpus and the concept of individual liberty [1]! Faced with an obvious choice between grandeur and decline, a majority of Britons voted for decline and there is no going back. The word “Brexit” was coined to mean “British Exit”; there is no mention of Europe in it, an appropriate omission since Britain did not really choose to exit Europe, it chose to exit the modern world. The best that can now happen to it is that Britain keeps its oil and becomes something like Norway. Even that is not certain; the Scots may decide otherwise.

For a while I felt awfully sorry for my British friends and colleagues. They do not deserve this. Of course they did not vote for Brexit — no one with an ounce of reason did — but they have to suffer the consequences. On the other hand things may not be so bad in the long term. Many of them are Europhiles already; they will just move to more auspicious climes. Already the British are pumping up Paris real estate [2].

In the US, the tragic buffoonery goes on. Some days are more buffoon, others more tragic, but the destruction of one of the most successful societies on earth has started, and even though a majority of Americans are horrified with what is happening to their country the movement seems impossible to reverse because of the particular political system to which the US has now arrived. We may call it gerrycracy: democracy bridled by gerrymandering  (plus the Supreme Court). This system, although a recent invention in its current form, is designed to be self-reproducing, a phenomenon compounded by the evolution of the dominant party, which seems to have lost any sense of decency. The country’s greatness will not disappear in one day or one year; all that the world admires in the US, from Stanford and Harvard and MIT to the Metropolitan Museum and the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Review of Books to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Silicon Valley and Tesla is still up and churning. But the trajectory is set: downhill.

The programmed self-immolation of these two intellectual and economic powerhouses, depressing as it is, provides an extraordinary opportunity for Europe [3]. Here is a mosaic of democracies sharing an acute determination to do everything in their power to ensure that the horrors of their past will never occur again. People in Europe (not just the French) complain all the time, but they have, overall, the best deal in the entire world. Bewildering cultural riches, a non-extreme climate at least so far, decent economic standards, good-quality and largely free education, well-functioning basic services, a social safety net, tolerance for minorities, recognition of private enterprise, the rule of law… Where else on earth?

Europe has its challenges. Those of us who admire Macron’s bravado in inviting (in English) US scientists and engineers to come to France, and who also know how things work in European universities and business, are a little nervous. Convincing as the appeal is, it requires a serious redesign of the European university system and a concerted attack on the bureaucratic shackles and societal pettiness that stifle European creativity at all levels. It is doable. If someone like Macron could overcome the assault of demagogues and defeatists from the left and the right to get elected, he can start, with his counterparts in other European countries, to address the structural problems that hinder European progress. The context is right: the main countries have adults at the helm (in Germany this will remain true whether we get Merkel or Schulz) and the winds of optimism are blowing again. While Europe faces other major issues, present in the headlines everyday and hard enough on their own, the main challenge is economic: Europe needs to get richer. It is remarkable how much more smoothly a society functions, and how much happier people sound, when there is enough money going around. Just look at Switzerland. Macron and some of his international colleagues are the kind of strong and pragmatic leaders who understand this goal. They will also benefit, if Europe does not falter in its collective negotiating strategy, from a welcome windfall: the many billions that the UK will have to pay to disengage from its obligations. They should invest that money where it can make a difference: not the traditional European pork barrels, but science and technology, where it will catalyze Europe’s growth and wealth.

While the US and the UK are wasting their time, energy and money on non-problems, unimportant problems and self-inflicted problems, on building Maginot walls, on investing in technologies of the past and on closing themselves off from the sources of their own future, Europe should work on what matters. It should, and I think it will, at least as long as the King Ubu in the White House doesn’t get us into WW3 in response to some disagreeable tweet.

In forthcoming articles I will provide more detailed analyses of the various points sketched here. And yes, I know this venue started out as a technology blog and I will continue to talk about void safety, effective concurrent programming and how to verify programs. But the stakes are too high for scientists and engineers to stay neutral. Through what we know, see and understand, it is our duty to help Europe and with it the rest of humankind.

It could just work. I cannot wait for the scene at Paris’s Gare du Nord, a few years from now, on the typical Friday evening: lads and gals from London and Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent, eager to go home and get their hands on some fish and chips, but ready to return on Sunday night to resume their cheerful part in the new European renaissance.

 

References

[1] A remarkable  symbol of personal liberty is Blonde’s answer to Osmin, the head of the Janissaries who attempts to subdue her in Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio (from 1782, seven years before the French revolution!): Ich bin eine Engländerin, zur Freiheit geboren (I am an Englishwoman, born to freedom). Blonde is not even the opera’s heroine but her servant.

[2] Brexit and the “Macron effect” are attracting the British to Paris (in French), in Le Monde, 31 May 2017, available here.

[3] Britain having officially thumbed its nose at Europe, we should from now on use the term to denote the continental part.

[4] Macron’s speech is available here, particularly from 1:34.

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From our “Problems you would like to have” department

Headline of a recent article in the Financial Times, part of a supplement on “Investing in Germany”:

Germany’s coffers are overflowing but optimism is wearing thin

Oh, the humanity!

On reflection, though, better than the other way around.

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Ubu Roi

The character of Ubu, created by Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), deserves to be better known. The Wikipedia entry on Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi (Ubu the King) explains:

According to Jane Taylor, “the central character is notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification”. Jarry’s metaphor for the modern man, he is an antihero — fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil …

“There is”, wrote Taylor, “a particular kind of pleasure for an audience watching these infantile attacks. Part of the satisfaction arises from the fact that in the burlesque mode which Jarry invents, there is no place for consequence. While Ubu may be relentless in his political aspirations, and brutal in his personal relations, he apparently has no measurable effect upon those who inhabit the farcical world which he creates around himself. He thus acts out our most childish rages and desires, in which we seek to gratify ourselves at all cost”.

The derived adjective ubuesque is recurrent in French and francophone political debate.

An English translation of the play can be found here. The original French text (two versions of it) is available here.

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In English this time: a Marseillaise for our age

Sometimes it is better not to know French. You will never quite get what Voltaire, Molière, Beauvoir, Zola, Hugo and Proust really mean and what Carmen and Faust really sing. But at least you will not find out what the Marseillaise really says. It is France’s national anthem and, according to a site dedicated to it, marseillaise.org, “believed by many to be the most stirring of all anthems“. Stirring, sure. Until you pay attention to the words.

I wrote an article on this blog, in French, proposing to shed the Marseillaise from its worst parts. A few people asked me to provide an English version; here it is. A rendition rather than a translation.

July the 14th, “Bastille day”, was France’s national holiday, and the opportunity for singing the Marseillaise. Politicians in towns large and small make a point of intoning it, in tune or (more often) out of it. One assumes — rather, one hopes — that occasionally they feel some embarrassment. You see, they understand French. The rest of the world hears the music, apparently good enough to have led such diverse composers as Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Schumann and Beethoven to cite it in their own works, and has the luxury of ignoring the words. Better so. Here are some of the gems (in my almost literal translation, all those I found on the Web are awful):

It’s us versus tyranny
We have raised our blood-stained flag

and

Do you hear, in the countryside,
The howling of these ferocious soldiers?
They come to snatch our sons and wives from our arms
And slit their throats

and the triumphal part of the chorus:

Let’s march, let’s march!
Let an impure blood
Soak the grooves of our fields!

So kind and welcoming.

What makes someone’s blood so impure that every patriot must take as his sacred duty to spill floods of it?

As a matter of fact, it happened, three quarters of a century ago. Hundreds of thousands of French people learned that their blood was now officially non-conformant. There are a few more episodes of that kind in the country’s history. They are not, to put it politely, the most glorious, and not the most appropriate to recall for celebration in the national anthem.

In the days before the festivities, hearing a 7-year old sing (in tune) the impure blood that must soak the grooves, I wondered what kind of thoughts such slogans can evoke among schoolchildren, who are instructed to memorize them and sing along. What about the blood-stained flag? What about the tyrants (Matteo Renzi? Mario Draghi?) who unleash on us their ferocious soldiers, not only to howl, but to snatch, from our arms, our sons and our wives, and slit their throats?

It is time to reform this racist and hateful song.

We need not quarrel about history. The song had a role. The revolution faced enemies, it was defending itself. When we commemorate that revolution today, we think not of Robespierre and the murder of Lavoisier (the creator of modern chemistry, whose executors famously explained that “the republic has no use for scientists“); we think of its message of liberty and fraternity. Enough blood, battles, ferocity. Sing what unites us today.

A national anthem should not, of course, be changed every year as a response to changes in fashion. By nature, it will always be a bit off. But after two hundred and thirteen years of existence, including one hundred and thirty-six of service as national anthem, it is time to shed the Marseillaise of the most shameful remnants of its original text. The music will stay; but the words must adapt to today’s France, which does not whine about a troubled past but looks forward to a bright future.

Only weak peoples seek unity only through the detestation of others. Their songs are full of rejection and negation. Strong peoples, for their part, invoke positive images. Which phrase better projects the proud attitude of a nation that believes in its destiny: “it’s us versus tyranny“, or “with us, marches democracy”? “Their impure blood” or “our pure hearts”? “Slit throats” or “admire”? Be the judge.

There have been proposals for alternative Marseillaises before, but they tend to be mirror images of the original, falling into their own excesses, such as a rabidly anti-militaristic version which can only exacerbate divisions. We will not gain anything by replacing ancient grievances by modern insults.

The following version, illustrated below by the first verse and the chorus (and given in a literal English translation not meant for singing, whereas the French text respects the prosody and versification of the original Marseillaise) pursues a different goal: not antagonizing people, but uniting them; highlighting not differences, but affinities; and allowing everyone to bellow it: with no shame; instead, with pride.

Children of the fatherland, come along
The day of glory has come
With us, marches democracy
We have raised our shining flag.
Do you hear, in the countryside,
The murmur of those envious peoples?
They come to our towns and mountains
And cannot stop admiring them.

(Chorus)

Together, citizens!
Let us make our union stronger!
Let our pure hearts
Vibrate in unison.

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A Marseillaise for our age

[This blog is normally in English, but today’s article is particularly relevant to French speakers. The topic: freeing a national anthem of its hateful overtones.]

Mardi dernier quatorze juillet, une fois de plus, la Marseillaise a retenti un peu partout. C’est le jour où les hommes politiques s’essayent à l’entonner, juste ou (plus souvent) faux. On peut s’imaginer, en fait on espère, qu’ils sont ici et là un peu gênés. “D’un sang impur, abreuve les sillons!“. Vraiment ? Qu’est-ce qui rend un sang si impur que tout bon patriote ait le devoir de le faire jaillir ?

Certes, c’est arrivé, il y a trois quarts de siècle, quand on a soudain avisé des centaines de milliers de Français que leur sang était désormais classé non conforme. Il y a quelques autres épisodes de ce genre dans l’histoire du pays ; ce ne sont pas — pour dire les choses poliment — les plus reluisants, et certainement pas ceux que le chant national devrait glorifier.

À entendre ces jours-ci une petite tête blonde de sept ans chanter (juste) le sang impur qui doit abreuver les sillons, je me suis demandé quelles pensées ces slogans pouvaient bien éveiller pour les enfants des écoles à qui l’on enjoint de les répéter en choeur. Et l’étendard sanglant ? Et les tyrans (Matteo Renzi ? Mario Draghi ?) qui nous envoient leurs féroces soldats non seulement mugir mais, jusque dans nos bras, égorger nos fils, nos compagnes?

Il est temps de réformer ce chant raciste et haineux. Qu’il ait joué son rôle n’est pas la question. La révolution avait ses ennemis, elle se défendait. Quand nous l’invoquons aujourd’hui, cette révolution, ce n’est pas à Robespierre et à l’assassinat de Lavoisier (la république n’a pas besoin de savants) que nous devrions faire appel, mais à son message de liberté et de fraternité. Assez de sang, de batailles, de férocité. Place à ce qui nous définit vraiment aujourd’hui.

Il ne s’agit pas de changer tous les ans d’hymne national en réponse aux modes. Il sera toujours, par nature, un peu déphasé. Mais après deux cent treize ans de Marseillaise, dont cent trente-six ans de service continu comme chant officiel du pays, il est temps de se séparer des relents les plus honteux de son texte d’origine. La musique restera, assez bonne pour avoir été reprise par Schumann, Tchaikowsky, Beethoven, Rossini et bien d’autres ; mais les paroles doivent être adaptées à ce qu’est la France moderne, tournée vers  l’avenir.

Seuls les peuples faibles ne savent s’unir qu’à travers la détestation des autres. Leurs chants sont emplis de rejets et de négations. Les peuples forts s’appuient, eux, sur des images positives. Quelle formule projette le mieux  l’attitude fière d’une nation confiante en son avenir : “contre nous, de la tyrannie“, ou “avec nous, la démocratie” ? “Un sang impur” ou “nos coeurs purs” ?  “Égorger” ou “admirer” ?Jugez-en.

Il existe des Marseillaises alternatives, mais souvent elles ne sont que le miroir de la première, avec leurs propres excès ; voir par exemple cette version sympathique de prime abord mais d’un anti-militarisme qui ne peut que diviser encore. Point n’est besoin de remplacer les anciens cris par des insultes nouvelles.

La version qui suit — chantable, respectant la métrique,  et dont je fournirai les autres couplets si elle provoque autre chose que des invectives — a un tout autre but : non pas diviser, mais réunir ; attiser non pas les différences mais les affinités ; et permettre à chacun de la chanter à pleine voix : sans honte ; au contraire, avec fierté.

Allons enfants de la patrie
Le jour de gloire est arrivé
Avec nous la démocratie
L’étendard vaillant est levé (bis)
Entendez-vous, dans les campagnes,
Frémir tous ces peuples envieux ?
Ils viennent, jusque sous nos cieux,
Admirer nos villes, nos montagnes.

(Refrain)

Ensemble, citoyens !
Renforçons notre union !
Que nos cœurs purs
Vibrent à l’unisson.

 

Résidence de l'ambassade de France, Berne, 14 juillet 2015

Résidence de l’ambassade de France, Berne, le 14 juillet 2015

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The biggest software-induced disaster ever

 

In spite of the brouhaha surrounding the Affordable Care Act, the US administration and its partisans seem convinced that “the Web site problems will be fixed”.

That is doubtful. All reports suggest that the problem is not to replace a checkbox by a menu, or buy a few more servers. The analysis, design and implementation are wrong, and the sites will not work properly any time soon.

Barring sabotage (for which we have seen no evidence), this can only be the result of incompetence. An insurance exchange? Come on. Any half-awake group of developers could program it over breakfast.

Who chose the contractors?

When the problems first surfaced a few weeks ago, anyone with experience and guts would have done the right thing: fire all the companies responsible for  the mess and start from scratch with a dedicated, competent and well-managed team.

The latest promises published are that by the end of the month “four out of five” of the people trying to register will manage to do it. Nice. Imagine that when trying to make a purchase at Amazon you would succeed 80% of the time.

And that is only an optimistic goal.

The people building the site do not have infinite time. In fact, the process is crucially time-driven: if people do not get health coverage in time, they will be fined. But what if they cannot get coverage because the Web sites do not respond, or mess up?

Consider for a second another example of another strictly time-driven project: on January 1, 2002, twelve countries switched to a common currency, with the provision that their current legal tender would lose its status only a bare two months later. The IT infrastructure had to work on the appointed day. It did. How come Europe could implement the Euro in time and the US cannot get a basic health exchange to work?

Here is a possible scenario: the sites do not work (cannot handle the load, give inconsistent results). A massive wave of protests ensues, boosted by those who were against universal health coverage in the first place. Faced with popular revolt and with the evidence, the administration announces that the implementation of the universal mandate — the enforcement of the fines — is delayed by a year. In a year much can happen; opposition grows and the first exchanges are an economic disaster since the “young healthy adults” feel no pressure to enroll. The law fades into oblivion. Americans do not get universal health care for another generation. Show me it is not going to happen.

The software engineering lessons here are clear: hire competent companies; faced with a complicated system, implement the essential functions first, but stress-test them; deploy step by step, with the assurance that whatever is deployed works.

The exact reverse strategy was applied. As a result, we face the prospect of a software disaster that will dwarf Y2K and other famous mishaps; a disaster that software engineering textbooks will feature for decades to come.

 

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Memories of a dark time

 

A few years back my mother started writing her memoirs. She only completed a few chapters, hand-written, and I offered to type them up. There was not enough material to approach a publisher (my fault, for not pushing her to write more); the text has remained unpublished. I am making it available now: see here.

It is in French; if there is enough interest I will translate it. (Although the text is not very long, it is well written so the translation should be done carefully.) For reference I have included below the entry about my mother in one of many books about the period.

Here as a taste of the text is a translation of a short extract from chapter 5 (Grenoble, 1942, where her mission in the resistance network was to find safe havens for Jewish children):

 Along with hosting familes there were religious boarding schools, and I should pay homage to a young Mother Superior, whose name I unfortunately forgot, who accepted some of our little girls cordially and without any afterthoughts. From schools for boys, however, how many rejections we had to suffer!

I also have to evoke that other Mother Superior, stern and dry, who after making me languish for several days while asking for the approval of her supervisors finally consented to see four or five little girls. I arrived with five of my charges, whom my neighbor had brought to me after their parents were arrested on that very morning. I can still see the high-ceilinged parlor, the crucifix on the wall, the freshly waxed and shining floor, the carefully polished furniture and a tiny figure with curly brown hair, all trembling: the eldest girl, who at the point of entering stepped back and burst into tears.  “One does not enter crying the house of the Holy Virgin Mary”, pronounced the Mother Superior, who had me take my little flock back to Grenoble, without further concerning herself with its fate.

And this note from the final chapter about the days of the Liberation of France, when under a false name she was working as a nurse for the Red Cross in the Limoges area:

This time it was the collaborationists’ turn to flee. I almost became a victim in a tragicomic incident when once, doing my daily rounds, I had to show my papers to a young FFI [members of the internal resistance army], aged maybe eighteen, who claimed the papers were fakes. Indeed they were: I still had not been able to re-establish my true identity. I tried to explain that as a Jew I had had to live under a borrowed name. He answered that by now all the “collabos” claimed to be Jewish to escape the wrath of the people…

 To understand the note that follows it is necessary to know a bit about the history of the period: the Drancy camp, OSE (see the Wikipedia entry), the Garel network. For the 100-th anniversary of OSE a documentary film was produced, featuring my mother among the interviewees; see a short reference to the movie here.

Biographical entry

From: Organisation juive de combat — Résistance / Sauvetage (Jewish Combat Organization: Resistance and Rescue), France 1940-1945, under the direction of Jean Brauman, Georges Loinger and Frida Wattenberg, Éditions Autrement, Paris, 2002.
Comments in brackets […] are by me (BM).

Name: Meyer née Kahn, Madeleine
Born 22 May 1914 in Paris
Resistance networks: Garel
Resistance period: from 1941 to the Liberation: Rivesaltes (Pyrénées-Orientales), Font-Romeu (Pyrénées-Orientales), Masgelier (Creuse), Lyons, Grenoble, Limoges
Supervisors
: Andrée Salomon, Georges Garel

In July of 1942, Madeleine Kahn was sent by Andrée Salomon and Georges Garel to work at Rivesaltes [a horrendous “transit camp”, see here] as a social worker. She worked there for several weeks and helped improve the life of people interned there; she managed to extricate from the camp a number of children that she took to Perpignan and moved to several hosting places such as Font-Romeu and Le Masgelier. In Le Masgelier [a center that hosted Jewish children], she was assigned the mission of convoying to Marseilles, for emigration to the United States, Jewish children who were of foreign origin and hence in a particularly dangerous situation. [These were children from Jewish families that had fled Germany and Austria after Hitler’s accession to power and were particular sought by the Nazis.] The local authorities had put them up in the castle of Montgrand, already used as a hosting camp for elderly Austrian refugees. The Germans’ arrival  into the Southern half of France [until 1942 they were only occupying the Northern half of the country] abruptly stopped the departures for the US, and the authorities changed the children’s status to prisoners, held in appalling conditions. Madeleine Kahn remained alone with the children. All escape attempts failed. They were only freed after a long time, and sent back in some cases to their families and in others to Le Masgelier.

In November of 1942, Georges Garel and Andrée Salomon put Madeleine Kahn in charge of organizing the reception and hiding of children in the Isère area [the region around Grenoble], which by then was still part of the Italian-occupied zone. [Italian occupation was generally felt much lighter than the German one, in particular regarding persecution of Jews.] The mission was to find hosting families or religious institutions, catholic or protestant, and in advance of such placement to prepare the children to their new [false] identities and help separate them from their parents [when still alive and not deported]. It was also necessary to obtain the support of some authorities, such as Mme Merceron-Vicat from the child support administration and Sister Joséphine of Our Lady of Sion. After a while Madeleine was joined by Dr. Selinger and Herta Hauben, both of whom were eventually deported. Later on she collaborated with Fanny Loinger [another key name in the Jewish resistance], who for safety reasons took over in Isère and particularly in the Drôme.

After the departure of the Italians [and their replacement by the Germans], the situation became extremely dangerous and she had constantly to move the children around.

Warned that she was being tracked, Madeleine Kahn hurried to reclaim two babies that had been left in the La Tronche nursery. The director refused to give her Corinne, aged one, as earlier on three Germans had come for her, wanting to take her to Drancy [the collection point in France for the train convoys en route for Auschwitz], where her parents were being held. Upon seeing the child’s age, the Germans had left, announcing they would come back with a nurse. Instantly, Madeleine summons her friends in various [resistance] organizations and the process sets into motion: produce a fake requisition order in German with a fake seal stenciled from a war prisoner’s package; hire a taxi; make up a nurse’s uniform for Renée Schutz, German-born in Berlin as Ruth Schütz. Equipped with the requisition order, the false German nurse arrives at the nursery while Madeleine acts as a sentry to stop the Germans if needed. Corinne, the baby, is saved. [I became friends with her in the nineteen-seventies.]

The duped Germans were enraged. From an employee of the nursery they obtained Madeleine’s address, but she had left. The landlady gave them the address of Simone, Madeleine’s sister. [Simone was not a member of the network but knew all about it.] Interrogated under torture, she gave nothing away. All attempts to free her failed. She was deported to Auschwitz from where [adopting along the way an 8-year-old girl whose parents had already been deported, who clung to her, causing her to be treated like mothers with children, i.e. gassed immediately] she never returned.

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The most beautiful monument of Europe

 

The most beautiful of all monuments in Europe is not the palace of Versailles, notwithstanding the Hall of Mirrors with its endless reflections of chandeliers and pillars, notwithstanding the fairy-tale grace of the Trianons, notwithstanding the sumptuous Hall of Congresses where the 1919 peace conference put a formal end … read the entire text. Le plus beau des monuments d’Europe n’est pas Versailles, malgré sa Galerie des Glaces où se reflètent à l’infini les lustres et les pilastres, malgré ses Trianons, malgré son imposante Salle du Congrès où prit officiellement fin, en 1919, … lire le texte complet en français.

 

Yes, I know, this is supposed to be a technology blog.

There are, however, times like right now when intellectuals should not remain silent — especially engineers and scientists.

I wrote the text referenced above several years ago; I don’t remember the exact date but it sounds very much Maastricht-aftermath. I have circulated it to a few friends, but think the time has come to publish it.

I am quite aware that unfolding events may make it look ridiculous. And then what? I will have done my tiny bit to bring people back to reason.

Note: I do not remember the provenance of the photograph. If informed, I would be happy to add the proper acknowledgment.

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