Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Happy Thanksgiving to my American Readers

 Happy American Thanksgiving. May you be safe from Covid 19 and Republican Relatives.

When our grandparents and parents were still living, our families used to gather a few times each year, Easter, Canadian Thanksgiving, and Christmas. But as the older generations passed away and we scattered around the globe, it is rare that the cousins or second cousins get together. The older generations were the glue that held us together. I miss the good times when we were young.

What? No mashed potatoes? Criminal

Thursday, November 18, 2021

Pascal's Wager and My Take on Religion and Morality

The existence of a philosophical argument known as Pascal's wager came to my attention about 20 odd years ago when a Christian colleague was addressing a group of Ukrainian young people in an English Club. These are semi-formal groups who gather to practice their English.

Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) was a seventeenth-century French philosopher, theologian, mathematician, and physicist. Pascal's wager posits that human beings wager with their lives that God either exists or does not. You can read all to gory details here in Wikipedia  

My colleague explained it this way. As we cannot prove that God exists or does not exist (though there are still some idiots arguing about it) then we should live as though he exists. If we are right, we go to Heaven, and if we are wrong, we lose nothing. If we live as though God does not exist, and we are right we lose nothing, and if we are wrong, we go to Hell. 

I tucked that away in the back of my mind and mulled it over for a lot of years. It felt to simplistic and too much like threatening people into believing in something they may not necessarily embrace.

It finally dawned on me that whether God exists or not, has no bearing on how I live my life. Religion draws its morality from people, not the other way around. Atheists and agnostics are no less moral than religious and in too many cases much more so. We do not have far to look today to find a myriad of examples of believers of all stripes acting in ways highly inconsistent with the teachings of their professed religion. 

 Plato took a run at it 2000 years ago, arguing that if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods' approval that makes them good. More recently, Albert Einstein wrote in 1930 that "A man's ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hopes of reward after death."

This article puts it rather nicely. Religion does not determine your morality.

Many Christians don’t believe in magic, but even the ones who do, don’t think they should kill those who use it, even though one could interpret passages in the Bible to be suggesting exactly that. . .

There is a moral behaviour advocated by the Bible that gets rejected by most people. Why? Because they think it’s morally wrong.

They ignore that part of the moral teachings of the Bible. Instead, they tend to accept those moral teachings of the Bible that feel right to them. This happens all the time, and a good thing too. . .

We see that people can choose religious beliefs, churches and even whole religions based on the morality that they already have. And this is the morality that atheists have too. . .

Experimental evidence suggests that people’s opinion of what God thinks is right and wrong tracks what they believe is right and wrong, not the other way around. 


Thursday, November 11, 2021

Chinese Simmentals and Canadian Sarcasm

 Scanning photos from the 1990s before I had a digital camera brought back a great many memories of adventures in various parts of the world. Many in China as that was where I made several trips as part of trade missions or as technical support for a genetics export company.

This one trip took me back into the mountains SW of Beijing to see a cattle herd that had been bred up to Simmental for so many generations they were, for all intents and purposes, purebred. The village and pasture land were located on a high plateau and the road into the place was typically bad. Rough, unpaved, in many places mountain on one side and a drop off on the other. Driving over it in daylight was an adventure in itself.

We set off in the morning, four of us, in a Toyota Land Cruiser SUV: Livestock specialist and senior bureaucrat, livestock specialist and interpreter, driver, and livestock specialist and Canadian. We got there in mid-late afternoon. The village bureaucrats met us and we toured the cattle herd. It had the makings of a good herd but was very much on the thin side. 

Too often in my travels I have seen breeders with big productive animals that forgot they need better quality feed in order to take advantage of their genetics. As one goes from goats to sheep to beef cattle to dairy cattle the quality and quantity of feed requirements goes up.

The buyers sure loved the calves though. Once they hit the feedlot and compensatory growth kicked in, those calves made money. Trucking the calves back down the mountain was not a job I would look forward to.

By the time we were done touring it was getting dark and of course we had to sit down to a banquet. It was getting late and starting to rain. The village mayor suggested we had better stay the night and go back in the morning. Now I have stayed in guest houses in villages but none this small and I could well imagine what it would be like. There was also a community outhouse which was impossible to get up wind of and which likely went with the guest house accommodations.

My Chinese counterparts were visible horrified at the thought of staying the night, so I thought I would help. I came down hard on the side of the mayor  and was all in favour of staying the night. We kept this discussion going for some time and my group was really having a hard time of it, trying to be polite. I kept a straight face though how, I have no idea.

Finally we just up and left. On that road, in the rain. No idea when we got back to Beijing as I curled up in the back seat and went to sleep. If we were going off the road into a canyon, I did not want to know about it.

Some days I am just plain evil.

L-R: driver, interpreter, me, senior bureaucrat

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Grocery prices again

 We do not got to town any more than absolutely necessary. And for the past two weeks, Tanya has been cleaning the house one room per day like it has never been cleaned before. I fetch and carry and have Pledge-ed allegiance to anything that looked like wood. Friday she finished and Saturday we went for groceries. Critters and hoomans were out of everything. Good time for me to learn Ukrainian words for items and check out what we are paying in CAD. USD is for other readers.

The cats get Whiskas and a small amount of meat morning and night as a 'treat'. Lucky gets dry dog food at night and rice and meat in the morning. Chicken livers is one of his favourites. I'm going to make pork and beans and chili. The government invested in the poultry and pork industry to ensure there was affordable protein for the masses. Beef is catch as catch can and usually from retired dairy cows. The beef roast we bought has ZERO fat and will be ground for chili. I'll have to add oil to fry it. Bread is highly subsidized. According to the Kyiv Post, 60% of the population is below the official poverty line so government keeps basics affordable.

Sometimes our supermarket brings in luxury items which do not always sell. There was a 750 g T-bone steak, well marbled but black as your boot, marked down 33%. I bought it for $12 CAD. Cheaper than going to a restaurant in the big city.

Here is the list of items we bought and prices in UAH, CAD, USD. Click on it to make it readable

Thursday, November 4, 2021

The Nomonhan War 1939

And now for something completely different 😀😀😀.

In 1995, while traveling through the Hulunbuir Grasslands of Inner Mongolia, my friend Hao Te and his son took me to the site of a small war on the border with Mongolia that played a decisive part in a much bigger war. Unless you are Russian or Japanese you will likely have never heard of Nomonhan. I certainly had not but filled that gap with John Colvin’s book by that title. Out of print but available on AbeBooks.

Hao Te and I on the east edge of the battle field

Hao Te's son and I at a border marker between Mongolia and Inner Mongolia

Site of a Buddhist shrine used as a Japanese command post,
 destroyed by Russian fighter bombers

The Nomonhan Incident or Khalkhin Gol War, depending on whether you are Japanese or Russian, was a series of battles fought over a stretch of grassland about 90 km long and 15-25 km wide. The Japanese, having conquered Manchuria in 1931 and set up a puppet state, Manchukuo, came up against the border of the Soviet Union and Mongolia, a Soviet satellite.

The Kwantung Army, which controlled Manchukuo, had some of the best Japanese divisions. The western region of Manchukuo was garrisoned by the relatively newly formed and least experienced 23rd Infantry Division with outdated equipment, HQ’d at Hailar, 150 km away. The Soviet and Mongolian borders were held by the 57th Special Corps, deployed from the Trans-Baikal Military District, 750 km away from their supply base but with good dirt trail roads. Mongolian troops were mainly cavalry (of course) and light artillery.

Dirt trails are remarkable good roads.

In 1939, the Japanese were already at war with China. For more on that read “Forgotten Ally; China’s World War II 1937-1945” by Rana Mitter The Kwantung Army was under orders from Tokyo NOT to do anything that would start a full-scale war with Russia as facing both China and Russia was a non-starter. However, their leaders were loose cannons, and decided that the border between Manchukuo and Mongolia should be the Khalkhin Gol (Khalkha River) a few km to the west of the actual border.

Map showing the location of the disputed area.

While 1400 to 1800 sq. km (600 to 700 sq. miles) of grasslands with a village or two thrown in, would make a nice ranch, one must question the wisdom of losing several 10s of thousands of soldiers and many hundreds of planes, tanks, trucks, aircraft, horse etc. to decide ownership. Even the Lincoln County or Wyoming Cattle Wars never got that big. However, the Kwangtung Army thought it was God’s gift to warfare and the Soviets were still suffering from the humiliation of the severe beating the Japanese navy gave them in 1904-1905. Sooo!

In May 1939, the Japanese started harassing the Soviet troops on the east side of the Khalkhin Gol or Khalkha River. In June, Stalin sent Georgy Zhukov with troops and equipment, including an aviation unit of fighter-bombers, to the area with instructions to put a stop to that nonsense. In late June, the Japanese Army Air Force, without permission from Tokyo, bombed the Soviet airbase, risking escalation. But at the end of June, the Commander of the 23rd Japanese Infantry Division got orders to clear out the “invaders” on the east side of the river.

Shtern, Choibalsaan and Zhukov at Khalkhin Gol

They opened a two-pronged encircling maneuver in early July which Zhukov beat back, nearly encircling the Japanese at one point and driving them well back of the river. The Japanese attacked in force again in late July and were forced to partially withdraw after failing to break Soviet lines. Zhukov decided enough was enough and launched a massive attack on August 20th, destroying the 23rd completely. From May to August, the Soviets lost 10,000 more men and many times more equipment than the Japanese. Since replacements were easy come by, their tactics reflected the Soviet disregard for life. In the meantime, the Soviets and Japanese signed an agreement not to attack each other.

The consequences of this small war with fewer than 50,000 casualties were immense:

  • ·         The Soviet victory encouraged Stalin to sign the 23 August Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.
  • ·         The victory avenged the disaster at the 1905 Battle of Tsushima and restored Soviet prestige
  • ·         Zhukov burnished his credentials and returned to Moscow a hero.
  • ·         Moscow got to practice a coordinated offensive attack by motorized forces and aircraft.
  • ·         Japan saw that the Soviets would not be an easy opponent and turned south, focusing on China and the oil fields of SE Asia which eventually took them into conflict with USA.
  • ·         Stalin felt free to reduce his defensive strength facing Japan to the bare minimum during the darkest early days of World War II in 1941.

A number of references were used in writing this but the best for those who want more detail is Wikipedia

Also a new book on the subject is being released this month. The Nomonhan War 1939: Soviet-Japanese Clash at the Khalkhin Gol