It is well known that the despicable Biff Tannen character from the Back to the Future movies was based on a certain real-life despicable mogul by the name of Donald J. Trump. In particular, the “rich Biff” of 1985, having established a casino and real estate empire after receiving a sports almanac from the future back in 1955, was modeled after everyone’s favorite Trump.

In light of this and today’s historic events, it is only appropriate to imagine how the real-life Biff, I mean Trump, would have fared in one of the movies’ iconic scenes:

I hate manure…

Yes, I know it is more than a little crass to share this tweet. Even so, it is far less distasteful than the many racist caricatures that followed Obama’s inauguration and frankly, it makes it a lot easier to deal with this historic day.

I really have no words to describe how I feel about today. But a picture is worth a thousand words.

I just finished listening to Obama’s farewell address.

Now why do I have the feeling that this may be the very last time in my life that I’ll be hearing an American President preach goodness and decency instead of contempt and hate? Uplifting thoughts instead of fear and loathing?

Meanwhile, there appears to be a multitude of clowns on the Interwebs who think repealing Obamacare is okay, because they are insured through the Affordable Care Act:

What can I say? Enjoy your improved healthcare starting next month, folks. Glad I live in pinko commie Canada where we have had decent (albeit far from perfect) medicare for half a century. Of course once Trump, along with his BFF Putin, manage to blow up the world, none of this will matter anymore.

Last night, after I watched the final episode of an amazing Brazilian television series, 3% (yes, that’s the title) on Netflix, I felt compelled to listen to the immortal song Aquarela do Brasil, especially the Geoff Muldaur version that was the title song for Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil.

As I was listening to the song, I realized that along with Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again, it’s one of the songs I’d like to listen to when the world comes to an end.

Runner-ups include Nena’s 99 Luftballons and Anita Kelsey’s version (known from the film Dark City) of Sway (¿Quién será?)

As to why I am thinking about the end of the world…

The horrific bombing of Guernica in 1937 inspired one of the best known of Pablo Picasso’s paintings. Yet images of the ruined city were not enough: The world did nothing, and two years later, another war began that brought the same horror, but on a much larger scale, to all of Europe and many parts of the world elsewhere.

And here we are in 2016, and it seems we learned nothing. Another civil war rages on, this time in Syria. And another rogue great power intervenes with its mighty warplanes, conducting indiscriminate bombings against civilian targets.

Just like in 1937, the world remains largely silent. Appeasing a great power and its power hungry despot is more important than lives. And we forget the lessons of history: despots cannot be appeased. They always want more. The demons of nationalism, awakened by false promises of restored pride, cannot be appeased. They will always demand more.

What horrors will follow in the coming years? Will we see the streets of Europe, perhaps North America, look like Aleppo’s today? Is Aleppo just a prelude to what is yet to come, just like Guernica was 79 years ago?

As I think of this, it brings to my mind a 33-year old German-language hit song, Nena’s 99 Luftballons.  Here is how that song ends (my less-than-perfect translation of the German lyrics; they also produced an English version but it was, well, rather lame):

 Neunundneunzig Jahre Krieg Ließen keinen Platz für Sieger Kriegsminister gibt’s nicht mehr Und auch keine Düsenflieger Heute zieh’ ich meine Runden Seh die Welt in Trümmern liegen Hab ‘n Luftballon gefunden Denk’ an Dich und lass’ ihn fliegen Ninety-nine years of war Left no room for a victor There are no more war ministers Also no more fighter bombers Today as I took a stroll Saw a world, ruined by war There, I just found a balloon Thinking of you, I let it fly soon

Okay, this is hands down the winner as the absolute “I’ll effing be” moment for me today, if not this week (and that’s saying something, with all the shenanigans going on with Trump and his cabinet picks): An electric steam locomotive that I just came across.

Say what?

Yes, an electric steam locomotive. That would be a steam engine, boiler and all, with a pantograph connecting it to an overhead line.

A lunatic scheme, to be sure, but apparently it made sense in 1940s Switzerland. They had steam locomotives aplenty. What they didn’t have was fuel for these locomotives. But they had plenty of cheap hydroelectricity. So even with the incredibly inefficient conversion of electric power into heat into steam pressure into mechanical motion, it still made sense.

Still… these perverted things just look absolutely demented.

I have been worried now for many years that the world will end this period of peace and prosperity with another bang, like the one that happened in 1914.

I am not alone with my concerns. I just read an excellent article, written back in July, that argues the same. Indeed, like me, the author considers it an inevitable cycle of history.

As I said in the wake of Trump’s victory, I am in my 50s and I have no children, so I have much less at stake than most. I can afford to be a spectator. Still, I desperately hope that when the world goes bonkers, Canada manages to stay out of it. Is it even possible, in this globalized era? Isn’t Canada just too great a prize, with its abundant land and natural resources? I hope never to find out. But on this day, the eve of the 98th anniversary of the Armistice at the conclusion of The War to End All Wars, I think it is the right question to ask.

Thanks to a friend’s posting on Facebook, I just read the first ever sensible explanation of the reasons for Trump’s victory.

Short version: Forget red and blue states. It’s country vs. city. And the country is losing.

This should be mandatory reading to everyone, Democrat and Republican alike, trying to understand the reasons behind Trump’s “stunning upset”.

Trump just won Ohio.

In the past hour, I managed to convince myself that Trump will win this election.

It’s another one of those moments when I am glad that I have no children and their future to worry about.

Like a little less than a century ago, once again the politics of divisiveness, hate and fear are gaining ground throughout the so-called “civilized” world. What it will lead to, I don’t know, but my pessimism is growing each day. The world has been peaceful and prosperous for too long.

But let me not mince worlds.

• If you voted for Trump because you think Muslims are taking over America, you are an idiot.
• If you voted for Trump because you think coal mining has a future, you are an idiot.
• If you voted for Trump because you think America needs to be protected from Mexico by a wall, you are an idiot.
• If you voted for Trump because you think tearing down trade agreements will bring back manufacturing jobs that were lost to automation, you are an idiot.
• If you voted for Trump because everything was “e-mail server” and “Benghazi” for you, you are an idiot.
• If you voted for Trump because you believe that he will “drain the swamp”, you are an idiot.
• If you voted for Trump because you think it is a good idea in a mature democracy to “lock her up”, you are an idiot.
• If you voted for Trump because you believe global warming is some Chinese scam, you are an idiot.

Those who forget the lessons of history are bound to repeat the mistakes of the past.

But you know what? Why should I care? I am in my fifties. I have no children to worry about. If you want to screw up the world by listening to the siren song of xenophobia and populism, the politics of fear and hatred, be my guest. Enjoy this brave new world of your own creation. Repeat the mistakes of history, this time with even more destruction, even deadlier weapons than ever before.

In any case, Putin must be having a really good day today.

It was 16 years ago today (well, technically yesterday, since it is now past midnight) that our very first cat, our much loved Marzipan, a perfectly ordinary tabby housecat, died.

And it was also 16 years ago today that a plurality of American voters cast their ballots for Al Gore, who nonetheless didn’t become president, because of the way the electoral college works and the way votes were counted in the Sunshine State of Florida.

Today, I am happy to report, none of our kittycats are in any imminent danger of dying, as they are all (as far as we know) in good health. The outcome of tomorrow’s election in the United States is unlikely to be influenced by the health of our feline companions, but still, I take it as a good omen: I desperately hope that the sane person makes it to the White House tomorrow night.

I am just back from a brief road trip to the Big Apple, aka. New York City.

I had three reasons to go there. First, I was invited to a Quora Top Writers meeting. Second, I have recently built a new backup server, to replace the one that has served me faithfully for many years, hosted by my good friend David who lives there. And third, I haven’t been to NYC in ages… and I am quite fond of that city.

I drove. The drive was pleasant and uneventful. The weather could not have been nicer. November indeed… it almost felt like summer! I was wearing a shirt the entire time.

Once the new server was installed (which went without a hitch), David and I visited a fantastic little place in Brooklyn: the Subway Museum. An out-of-service subway station has been converted into this museum, which allows them to host renovated subway cars that remain powered, complete with original lighting fixtures. You can walk through them, even sit down in them, and contemplate what it must have been like to ride the subway in Manhattan while the Great War was raging in distant Europe.

We also visited the new World Trade Center.

Although we didn’t have time to go up to the Observatory level, we did visit the 9/11 memorial. That sad day, which David and I both vividly remember (for instance, we were on the phone when I warned him as the second tower began to topple, which was visible on CNN, so he rushed to his office window in time to see with his own eyes as that tower, too, vanished in a billowing cloud of smoke), left an indelible mark on this great city.

I didn’t take any pictures at the Quora meeting. There were several attendees with professional photo gear… I am sure that the pictures they took will surface somewhere eventually. But I did meet some amazing people and had some very interesting conversations. A great evening, even though my voice is still hoarse from all the shouting (the restaurant had very bad acoustics.)

One of my guilty pleasures is watching dash cam videos on YouTube. On my way home, I was given the opportunity to produce a dash cam video of my own, as I witnessed a near miss right in front of me:

I was using my mobile phone as a dash cam throughout the trip. Not because I was hoping to catch an accident, but I thought it might be a good idea just in case, and perhaps it might even help me record some memorable sights.

Fifteen years ago this morning, I was late going to bed. Very late. I was a night owl those days, and I was still up and working a few minutes before nine o’clock, when CBC Newsworld told me that an airplane hit the World Trade Center. I switched to CNN and their live coverage, in time to see the second tower hit. For a brief moment, I actually wondered if this was simply an accident, with someone flying a little too close to the action. It was hard to judge sizes on those television pictures, so I really did not realize at first that I was seeing a 767. The plane seemed so small. And the idea that someone was doing this on purpose was still too difficult to grasp.

I didn’t go to bed that day. Instead, I spent a fair bit of that time on the phone that morning with my friend David, whose office in Manhattan was just a few blocks away from the twin towers. We were on the line when the second tower fell. I saw it first: as the antenna began to sway, I knew what was coming. David watched it from his window. Later in the day, David and his wife were among the tens of thousands who were evacuated on foot from lower Manhattan; it was not until several days later that they were allowed back to visit their office.

Fifteen years. Young adults walk among us who are too young to remember that day. Thankfully, the world has not gone completely bonkers. Sure, air travel is even more unpleasant these days (not that it was such a pleasurable experience on September 10, 2011), and the consequences of America’s disastrous war in Iraq continue to impact the world. But there is no world war, and while the threat of terrorism remains with us, you are far more likely to die from falling down the stairs in your own home.

It was 25 years ago today that a Finnish chap by the name of Linus Torvalds made an announcement about a new operating system that he developed in the preceding few months. Nothing big and professional, he assured us, just a hobby project basically… but here it was, and he already got a command shell and the GNU C compiler working.

I have been using Linux for 23 of those 25 years. I became familiar with Linux when I took over sysop duties of the UNIX forum of the long defunct NVN (National Videotex Network).

I no longer have the original SLS (SoftLanding Linux) floppy images, though I am pretty sure even without checking they can be found in several archives online.

But I do have the announcement that I posted on the NVN UNIX forum page almost exactly 23 years ago, on September 1, 1993:

Welcome to the LINUX distribution on NVN!

The UNIX Forum data library now contains the complete set of files
making up the Softlanding Software (SLS) distribution of LINUX, the
popular *FREE* UNIX operating system clone.

The files are the most recent (version 0.99 patchlevel 12) as of
today, August 28, 1993.

The files were used by the UNIX SysOp to install a complete LINUX on
an 80386SX20 PC, with 4 Mb of RAM, a 68 Mb and a 42 Mb MFM hard disk
drive, an ATI VGAWonder super-VGA card with 512 kb video RAM, a
Microsoft mouse, a 5.25" high density floppy drive, and a 3.5" high
density drive, and an ATI2400etc/i internal modem. Brief assessment:
it works like a charm. So well, in fact, that I decided to keep it
and permanently convert my old 386SX to a LINUX host. I am already
using it as a dial-in system for my friends and business associates.

The files in this distribution are:

sls_info.zip miscellaneous text information files
rawrite.zip needed to create the A1 bootable LINUX disk
sls_a1_3.zip bootable floppy image for 3.5" 1.44 Mb drives
sls_a1_5.zip bootable floppy image for 5.25" 1.2 Mb drives
sls_a2.zip Minimum base system
sls_a3.zip
sls_a4.zip
sls_b1.zip Base system extras
sls_b2.zip
sls_b3.zip
sls_b4.zip
sls_b5.zip
sls_b6.zip
sls_b7.zip
sls_c1.zip Compilers
sls_c2.zip
sls_c3.zip
sls_d1.zip Documentation
sls_d2.zip
sls_s1.zip Essential component source
sls_t1.zip TeX
sls_t2.zip
sls_t3.zip
sls_x1.zip X-Windows
sls_x2.zip
sls_x3.zip
sls_x4.zip
sls_x5.zip
sls_x6.zip
sls_x7.zip
sls_x8.zip
sls_x9.zip
sls_x10.zip

All the files named sls_Sn.zip must be uncompressed under DOS and
copied onto separate floppies. The bootable LINUX floppy (disk A1)
can be created from sls_a1_3.zip or sls_a1_5.zip using the RAWRITE
program, supplied in RAWRITE.EXE.

information. The files in this archive are text files readable under
DOS (lines end with CR/LF instead of LF only as they do under UNIX).

Please note that while the NVN UNIX does not (indeed, cannot) provide
Also, if you are interested in a specific program, application, or
information file that is not included in the present distribution,
please let me know and I will see if I can obtain and upload it. If
you would like to run OSF/Motif on your LINUX system, you may not
have to wait too long; I am planning to try and obtain Motif in the
near future.

Good luck with your installation and I hope that the next time you
call, it will be with your LINUX system!

UNIX SysOp

Before making this announcement, I already set Linux up on an old 386SX desktop computer that I was no longer using. Within a few months, this computer began to play a permanent role as my Internet server. Although it went through several hardware and software iterations, its basic identity remains the same: it’s the very same server on which these words appear.

The New York Times Magazine published an extraordinary report about the recent history of the Middle East.

Civilians fleeing Basra, 2003 – The New York Times

Titled Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart, it presents a comprehensive review of the recent history of Arab lands, ranging from the heyday of secular despots in the 1970s, through America’s ill-fated war in Iraq in 2003, to the present-day civil war in Syria, the fight against ISIS, the ongoing disintegration of Libya. It offers insight through the personal stories of some select characters, including a Kurdish doctor, a day laborer turned ISIS executioner, or a civil rights matriarch.

It is a very long report, filling an entire issue of the magazine. I just read it. It was well worth the time.

The one thing this report failed to offer is a ray of hope. Something that would stop the endless cycle of violence.

Having visited a virtual version of the ghost city of Pripyat recently, last night I thought I’d check out Google Maps. After all, they do have Street View from Pompeii, from inaccessible mountain villages in Nepal, even from places in Antarctica… why not Pripyat?

And sure enough, they do have coverage of Pripyat, much to my no small astonishment. Recent pictures, too, taken in June 2015. You can visit the Pripyat city centre, enjoying the view of the still standing Ferris wheel:

visit a (presumably) radioactive scrap yard:

or for that matter, visit the nuclear power plant itself, complete with new sarcophagus, still under construction:

The city is completely abandoned. However, there are signs of life at the power plant: a few cars, even people occasionally appear in the Street View pictures.

I have never been to the ghost city of Pripyat, evacuated in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.

However, in recent days, I spent some of my free time fighting mutants, mercenaries, bandits and fanatics in and around a virtual version of Pripyat, in the game S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Call of Pripyat.

This game is the third installment in the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series, made by Ukrainian game developer GSC Game World.

And it is a damn good game (available without crippling DRM, courtesy of GOG.com; which is the only reason I purchased the game, as I do not buy DRM-protected crippleware.) The other two games are pretty darn good, too.

The games combine an iconic science fiction novella by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky with the realities of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (officially the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Zone of Alienation.)

The novella, Roadside Picnic, is inspired by a vision of some careless visitors near a forest, who, after a brief stop, leave behind everything from trash to discarded spark plugs, perhaps a pocket knife or a forgotten transistor radio, or maybe even a pool of used motor oil. What do these strange, sometimes dangerous artifacts and anomalies mean to the forest’s animals? Now imagine a visit to the Earth by some equally careless members of an extraterrestrial supercivilization, with us playing the role of the forest’s fauna. What would we make of the often deadly, totally incomprehensible anomalies and artifacts? As such, the Visitation Zones become places of interest to all, including “stalkers”, freelancers who defy government restrictions and risk life and limb as they enter the Zone illegally to retrieve precious artifacts and substances from the Zone.

The novella was written 15 years before the Chernobyl disaster and its setting is a fictitious town in Canada. Nonetheless, the parallels between the novella’s fiction and Chernobyl’s reality are eerily striking: abandoned buildings, abandoned military equipment, locations with a dangerous buildup of radiation, not to mention what remained a still operating nuclear power plant for many years at the very center of the Exclusion Zone.

This, then, is the setting of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of games: The Zone, its abandoned industrial facilities, farms, vehicles and equipment, the town of Pripyat, even the nuclear plant itself, complete with its sarcophagus. In the fictitious storyline of the games, the 1986 disaster was followed by another man-made disaster some 20 years later, as the Zone, now largely uninhabited, was used as a place to conduct secret, often unsanctioned research.

Near the end of the third game, the player is presented with a choice of being part of an evacuation (which ends the game) or staying in Pripyat. I opted to stay. (OK, I had a saved game, so of course I could explore both scenarios.) After the helicopters left, I still had to dispatch a few enemies… but after that, there I was, standing in the middle of a square in Pripyat in the dead of night, with no friends, not even enemies, just silence occasionally broken by the howl of mutants in the distance. My safe house was gone, all I had was the equipment I carried… and I was alone.

I was honestly surprised by the intensity of this feeling of loneliness coming from a computer game.

Anyhow, I survived, morning came, and I was able to explore parts of Pripyat that I did not visit during the more intense game playing earlier. And thus, I happened upon a famous Pripyat landmark, the town’s never used Ferris wheel:

The Ferris wheel, along with the rest of Pripyat’s brand new amusement park, was set to open on May 1, 1986; unfortunately, the power plant disaster on April 26 scuttled those plans.

Sadly, I was unable to explore the Ferris wheel up close; it is located outside the region of Pripyat that is accessible to the player. But the area that can be explored is huge and terrifyingly gloomy, looking a little bit like pictures from North Korea:

As to the abandoned Soviet-era facilities, here is a splendid example:

Hey, when I took that screen shot, the Sun was almost shining!

The Sun was not shining, though, when I visited the Chernobyl nuclear plant in one of the earlier installments of the game:

But what a place it was. Mostly quiet deadly, even with the best equipment my game persona could muster.

Oh well, it was fun to play these games. Time to get back to work, though.

Not sure how I landed on this page (maybe I was reading too many gloomy assessments of the post-Brexit world?) but here it is anyway: An incredible collection of dioramas by artist Lori Nix, titled The City, depicting a post-apocalyptic world:

A world without humans. Scary visions. Real life examples exist, of course, in places like abandoned sections of Detroit or the Zone around Chernobyl, to name just a couple of prominent ones.

Recently, someone on Quora asked where one would place a time capsule to survive a trillion years. Yes, a trillion. Ambitious, isn’t it? Meanwhile, we have yet to learn how to build things that survive a mere thousand years or less. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that humans constructed, or can construct, that will survive in any recognizable form for a trillion years, be it on the Earth, in space, or on another planet.

I just came across the wittiest explanation yet of the Brexit fiasco.

It would be funny, too, if it weren’t so painfully true. This particular paragraph says it all: “To recap: One old university friend pushed the country to a constitutional and economic crisis to gain power from another old university friend, but got stabbed in the back by a third old university friend, at which point he decided not to bother after all. GOOD TO KNOW IT WAS ALL WORTH IT.

Fortepan is an amazing Hungarian archive of historical photographs.

Recently, a new batch of pictures was uploaded, from the archives of Budapest Police. The pictures were uploaded without commentary; all we know is that they originate from the late 1950s and the early 1960s.

As I browsed through the images, one of them in particular caught my attention, taken in the year of my own birth no less:

I don’t think I need to elaborate. This was not meant to be an artistic photograph, just documentary evidence in a police file. Still… it’s been a while since I last saw a picture that expresses desperation so powerfully.

I wonder who was the unfortunate person whose belongings are seen here. I wonder what drove her to this fateful moment. I wonder if she survived. No information is provided other than a registration number, HU.BFL.XV.19.c.10: When I Google it, all I learn is that this picture belongs in a collection of crime scene negatives, taken between 1956 and 1992 and stored in 93 small boxes at the National Archives of Hungary.

Breaking news on CNN: Elie Wiesel is dead.

What a life. What a story. Fewer and fewer people remain who can give a first hand account of the horrors that took place in Nazi death camps. I can only hope that it does not mean that history, once forgotten, gets to repeat itself.