Whiny Canadian Conservatives

Published at 17:17 on 31 March 2022

Much whining is made from Conservatives about how unfair the world is, because the Liberals got less votes than them, but still got to form a government. And now the NDP has agreed to enter into a confidence and supply agreement, maintaining the status quo for another three years. Doubly unfair!

Not quite. First off, let us review the results (via Wikipedia) of the most recent Federal election (only last year):

Party% VoteSeats% SeatsCoefficient
Bloc Québécois7.64329.461.23
New Democratic17.82257.390.41

(More about that mysterious “coefficient” column later; it’s important! But I digress.)

Anyhow, pay attention to the two parties that just entered into that supposedly “unfair” agreement: collectively, they got 50.44% of the vote. Barely a majority, but a majority nonetheless. Suddenly, this agreement is looking a lot less unfair. But wait, there’s more: the Greens are also a left-of-centre party, and the Bloc advocates a social-democratic flavor of Quebec nationalism. Add those votes and we are now up to 60.41% voting for centre-left politics of some sort.

But you would never realize that, given how much the Conservatives whine about how life is so unfair, because they got more votes than the Liberals did, yet don’t get to form a government. Now, they do have a little bit of a point; the Liberals are arguably over-represented. This is where my coefficient comes in; it is the ratio of the percentage of seats in the House of Commons to the percentage of the overall popular vote. A number greater than 1 indicates a party is over-represented, and a figure less than one indicates it is under-represented.

No party has a coefficient as high as the Liberals’ 1.42, so they are over-represented, no doubt about it. But the Conservatives are at 1.06, just about parity. If you want to see who’s getting the shaft, look at the NDP. A fair system would mean 60 NDP MP’s; instead, there are only 25. No other party falls so short in absolute numbers of seats, though the Greens and particularly the People’s Party fare worse percentage-wise.

There are definitely criticisms to be made about first-past-the-post, but to insinuate that it is undemocratically giving Canada a centre-left government is not one of them. A completely fair allocation of Commons seats, in line with popular vote percentages, would achieve the same basic outcome.

On Siding with NATO

Published at 07:41 on 29 March 2022

There is a subset of the Left — probably not a majority, but definitely more than just a few people — that is very “both sides” about the war in Ukraine, refusing to see either side as being worthy of support. “Why are you siding with the US empire,” they ask.

My answer is: for the exact same reason I “sided with the Soviet empire” on the issue of East Timor in the 1980’s, when I first became aware of it: because that side was on the morally right side of that issue, defending a weaker nation that had been brutally invaded by a stronger one. The US Empire was strongly backing the invading nation, Indonesia, and the Soviet one was aiding the mostly leftist rebels fighting the invaders.

Just because both empires are seriously morally compromised does not mean that every last position either one takes on any issue taints that side of the issue beyond hope. That is not political strategy, that is oppositional defiant disorder. It is possible for a morally compromised empire — and all empires are evil — to nonetheless take a stand on a particular issue that is the morally correct one.

As morally compromised as the entire first Cold War was, it was also the case that the nations of Western Europe were much better places for human freedom than the nations of Eastern Europe. If you can’t acknowledge that plain fact, then you are simply not paying attention.

Once one got outside Europe, of course, the picture quickly got a lot murkier. The USA and its allies often supported brutal and kleptocratic colonial (and post-colonial neoimperialist) power structures. The USSR and its allies often opposed these same power structures (pity that the ones they set in place were seldom any better).

That the First World media generally ignores happenings in the Second and Third Worlds worked to the advantage of the US Empire, because, to reiterate, in Europe, the confrontation was also distinctly one between a world with more freedom and a world with less.

What this all calls for is nuance over simplicity. It is possible to acknowledge that what the West is doing in response to the invasion of Ukraine is generally what should be done, without going to the level of then concluding that anything the West does anywhere must be supported.

Why Biden Shouldn’t Have Said That

Published at 07:57 on 27 March 2022

Basically, because although NATO is on paper a multilateral organization, the USA is clearly and by far its most powerful and influential member, and therefore its de facto leader. Thus, any remarks of such character by a U.S. president help make Russia’s case that this whole thing is about a confrontation between NATO and Russia.

Since NATO is clearly more powerful than Russia and its allies, that, in turn, helps Putin reframe the narrative from one in which Russia is the aggressor to one in which Russia is being threatened by a yet more powerful alliance bent on ganging up against it. And the more Putin can do that, the more secure his position becomes.

Biden said what is obviously true: both Russia and the world as a whole would be better off without a fascist like Putin in charge. But by the very fact of saying it, he made that goal more difficult to achieve.

To reiterate: with great power comes great responsibility.

Biden Shouldn’t Have Said That

Published at 17:36 on 26 March 2022

“For God’s sake, this man [Putin] cannot remain in power.”

As much as I agree with the sentiment, the President of the United States has no business saying such things.

I can say such things… and get away with them. Biden cannot. I am just some random guy with a blog. Biden is President of the United States. As the old saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.

Ukraine is Here to Stay

Published at 08:23 on 25 March 2022

Any complete occupation would have been a very heavy lift for Russia even if they had done everything else right… and so far they have done just about everything wrong. So, assuming this all heads to what seems to be the obvious eventual conclusion, it means the invasion will have the exact opposite of its intended outcome.

The latter was for Ukraine to be cemented as an integral part of Russia. Instead, Ukraine (long an area with politics and culture that had been diverging from Moscow) will now have as part of its history a hard-fought war to preserve its independence from Russia. Wars of national liberation typically become part of the defining mythology of nations, and there no reason to suspect this will not be the case here.

Ukraine’s history also includes the Holodomor. Put those two together and there is a logical popular narrative emerging: Russia is the historic enemy of Ukraine.

Instead of being defined as an integral part of Russia, Ukraine is being defined by history as an irreconcilably distinct nation that is in no way part of Russia.

It will be, in this way, much like Finland, which had its own struggles for independence in the 20th century, one which involved several periods of conflict with first Russia then the USSR. Virtually nobody thinks of Finland as being the least bit Russian today.

One Month On

Published at 21:24 on 24 March 2022

It’s going significantly better for Ukraine, and significantly worse for Russia, than I had imagined, and I had imagined it wouldn’t precisely go well for Russia. (This is, in fact, why I incorrectly predicted Russia would not attempt a full-scale invasion: because such an invasion was so unlikely to work out well for them.)

I am not going to strut around and make predictions of an imminent Ukranian victory any time soon, as much as I would like to see such a thing, and as much as some sources are predicting . Mostly, this is because the fog of war is very real: yes there are some encouraging reports that make it look like a big Russian retreat is imminent, but the accuracy of those reports is difficult to verify, and both sides lie in wars.

But still, I was expecting the formal government in Ukraine to fall pretty promptly. (I was then expecting an armed resistance to make life hell for the occupiers.) I certainly didn’t expect the Russian side to stall out so soon, and to still not have taken any major cities a month in. I would have in fact waved off any such predictions as Pollyanna-ish in the extreme.

It bears keeping in mind, however, that “going significantly better” than expected is still in the context of there being a war going on, and war is a very ugly thing.

As bleak as the latter point is, though, we are still in a much better place than if Putin had been rewarded, once again, with a very cheap price to be paid for his aggression. That would have not only encouraged Putin to launch follow-up actions, it would have probably encouraged other dictators, particularly the one in Beijing.

Creating an Executable JAR for Unix and Linux

Published at 20:46 on 21 March 2022

One of the annoying things about any JVM language is that to run the result of compiling your code, you have to type something like:

java -cp somefile.jar domain.name.name2.SomeClass arg1 arg2 …

Or at best:

java -jar somefile.jar arg1 arg2 …

Wouldn’t it be great if you could just type the command name followed by arguments, like you can do with a compiled C or C++ program? The normal way to do this is to write a shell script and make it executable, but this is a tad clunky (now there are two files, the shell script and the JAR that it invokes). It would be nicer to have just a single executable.

Well, you can!

echo "#!/usr/bin/env java -jar" > somename
cat somefile.jar >> somename
chmod +x somename

And that is it! You now have an executable binary that is an archive of Java bytecode instead of native machine code. (Of course, it requires a suitable java interpreter to exist on your PATH.)

Best of all, while all of this sounds hackish, it is not just luck that a JAR file with some leading junk tacked on to it is still treated as a valid JAR file. No, this is basically guaranteed to work. You see, JAR files contain their header data at the end, not the beginning, and Java simply ignores all data earlier than what is described in the header.

And since the Macintosh is just a UNIX system under the hood, this trick works for Macs.

The War is Unpopular in Russia

Published at 10:19 on 12 March 2022

Some people are claiming Russians support Putin’s war, citing polling data to back this up, but let’s think about what those polls are saying for a moment in the broader political context.

That context is the polling taking place in a country with basically no freedom of expression, a country where opposition media is banned, a country where peaceful protesters are arrested and tortured, a country where people are randomly accosted by police on the street so that messages on their smartphones can be checked for anti-Putin sentiments.

Imagine that you are a Russian. You know the risks involved in opposing the government. A random stranger approaches you on the street, or calls your phone, and claims to be an opinion researcher. S/he asks you if you support or oppose the most significant policy the government is currently engaged in. For all you know, he or she may in fact be a member of the FSB, Putin’s secret police. How do you answer?

It’s pretty obvious that all answers to any poll about issues of consequence in a country like Russia are answers given under significant duress.

As such, anything less than overwhelming support for the government is basically meaningless for purposes of concluding actual support. By “overwhelming” I mean 95% at minimum. Lukewarm support in the 60–70% range probably means significant overall opposition to the issue being polled about (and is probably as opposition-y as one can reasonably hope to see).

And the actual level of professed support for Putin’s war shown in that poll is… 58%!

Mark my words, the “majority” opinion expressed in that poll says the exact opposite of what a majority says in more normal circumstances.

What is the Endgame?

Published at 08:22 on 10 March 2022

That is easy: Russian forces slink back across the border in defeat and leave Ukraine, much like they did some decades earlier with respect to Afghanistan.

How do we get there? Most likely, same way we got to the Afghanistan endgame: a long, brutal, bloody process that the Russians eventually tire of.

It’s all genuinely horrible, particularly for the people of Ukraine.

The only practical alternative, because we can only control our reaction to Putin and not Putin himself, is to relax the sanctions, stop aid to Ukraine, and let Putin have what he wants. Of course, that teaches Putin the lesson, par excellence, that he can get away with grabbing whatever he wants, because the West really is weak and timid and will just let him have it. It is, after all, precisely what Putin learned from the generally non-confrontational responses to his invasions of Crimea and Donbas. And that, in turn, merely paves the way to even worse bloodshed later.

Well, there is also the alternative of dramatic escalation, i.e. entering the conflict and having NATO face Russia directly. In other words, World War III. We have seen over the past two weeks the quality of the Russian military, so it is pretty clear that Russia would start losing such a war, badly. At that point Russia will turn to its nuclear arsenal, and we all know where things end up from there. Note that a no-fly zone is such an escalation, because it will result in NATO shooting down Russian planes.

So the only other class of alternative is so dramatically worse than the other alternatives, that no sane person would want to consider it. This is why even hard-headed military types like the head of NATO want nothing to do with a no-fly zone in Ukraine.

This lack of any good response, and the resulting certainty of a period of prolonged bloodshed and suffering, is in fact what upset me the most when I heard the news that Putin had launched a full-scale invasion. When I have talked earlier about the responses being as good as I could have imagined, I meant they were so given the overall circumstances, which are pretty bleak.

So make no mistake: what the West is doing is definitely going to prolong an already bloody war, and guarantee a huge amount of civilian deaths and utter destruction for the infrastructure of Ukraine, and cause no shortage of misery throughout Russia as well. Yet it is simultaneously the best response possible.

And that is the real tragedy of the current situation.

Freedom Fries All over Again

Published at 20:12 on 9 March 2022

People are talking about cutting Russia off from the Internet entirely. Talk about a special kind of stupid: we should want Russians to be able to easily access information from outside Russia. Sure, this means cutting deals with Russian Internet providers. So be it. The goal is to undermine Putin by weakening the economy that supports his war. It is not to isolate Russia completely. Providing accurate information to Russians about what their dictator is doing also helps undermine his regime.

Russian pianists are being banned from international competitions, not because of anything they personally did, but simply because they are Russian. Even Russian cats are being banned from cat shows. I guess some people think the cats voted for Putin in the last election.

Worse yet, here in North America, Russian restaurants are being boycotted and vandalized, even ones whose owners publicly oppose the war in the Ukraine and have organized benefits for the people of Ukraine. Because it doesn’t matter. They are of Russian ancestry, or exhibiting aspects of Russian culture, and therefore they are evil.

Frankly, this is freedom fries all over again. Yes, Putin is a dictator. Yes, he needs to be taught a lesson, lest he keep trying take neighbouring nations over. But there is standing firm against a dictator, and then there is Russophobia. The two are not one and the same.