Jul 042016
 

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.

 Posted by at 10:26 pm
Jul 042016
 

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.

 

 Posted by at 10:17 pm
Jul 042016
 

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.

 Posted by at 10:52 am
Jul 022016
 

Breaking news on CNN: Elie Wiesel is dead.

wiesel

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.

 Posted by at 4:23 pm
Jun 282016
 

Bold prediction time: After all the hoopla, I am increasingly of the opinion that the Brexit will not happen.

David Cameron broke his promise (or was it a threat?) that in case of a Leave vote, he’d invoke Article 50 talks right away. He didn’t. Rather, he left it to his successor after announcing his resignation.

And “it” is best described as a hot potato and a poison pill rolled into one. Campaign rhetoric notwithstanding, even Brexit’s most ardent supporters know the consequences. First and foremost, a very real possibility of the United Kingdom breaking up. I don’t think there is a British politician out there who wants to go down in history as the person who engineered that breakup. Then there are the economic consequences, some of which are already being felt as the pound collapsed, stock markets tanked, and companies either put plans to make investments in the UK on hold or announced plans to move elsewhere.

And it is true that in the United Kingdom, parliament is sovereign and a referendum is not binding. The UK parliament was against Brexit, and I don’t think that has changed. So if a future government wants parliament’s consent to begin Article 50 talks, they are unlikely to get it. And without such consent…

I suspect that the next three months will be spent trying to figure out a way to annul or ignore the Brexit result, either through a new referendum or through some other means. These months will still be incredibly damaging to the UK economy, and represent a crisis that the EU needed like a hole in the head. But in the end… Brexit just won’t happen.

That’s my fearless prediction for tonight. And for once, I actually hope that I am right. With fingers firmly crossed.

 Posted by at 2:22 am
Jun 242016
 

England only ever had one king named John: John of the Angevin dynasty, also known as John Lackland. Legend has it that his rule was so reviled, it was decided that no royal would ever use the name again.

I am wondering if the name David might be similarly “retired”, now that freshly resigned British PM David Cameron is set to go down in history as the petty, opportunity political leader whose nearsighted election ploy resulted in the eventual breakup of the United Kingdom, not to mention the possible unraveling of the grand vision of a united Europe.

Of course this assumes that there will still be something like a rump United Kingdom of England and Wales for future historians to reside in. But for all I know, by then Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson might end the monarchy altogether, turning the much diminished UK into a republic instead, perhaps with himself installed as president for life.

Or perhaps by then, Europe goes up in flames again. Who knows? All that dissatisfaction that led to the Leave vote (and that fuels populist campaigns elsewhere, like Trump’s in America) tells me only one thing: 70+ years of peace and prosperity is too much of a good thing, it’s too boring.

And it happened before, a century ago. A once proud and mighty Europe, following a century of peace of a kind not seen since Roman days, a century of progress and prosperity, plunged into a war of unspeakable destruction, followed by an even worse war a mere two decades later.

 Posted by at 12:06 pm
Jun 232016
 

Increasingly it appears that a majority of Brits are opting to vote Leave in the “Brexit” referendum.

Sadly, this is what I was expecting to see, even though I was hoping to be proven wrong.

But populist xenophobia seems to have won the day. A rhetoric about foreigners taking over the country prevailed over the message of hope and unity. Fear of foreigners stealing jobs, corrupting schools, overwhelming the health care system, contributing to crime. And this combination of populism, isolationism and xenophobia has a name: fascism. Maybe a kinder, gentler, milder, 21st century version of fascism, but fascism nonetheless.

To be sure, I am not suggesting that anyone who voted Leave is a fascist. Of course not. But what tipped the balance, in my reading, is the populist rhetoric: promises to restore past glories through scapegoating and economic/political isolationism.

In the end, none of that will happen, of course. I expect that the immediate impact of the Brexit vote on the world economy will be grave; the long-term impact on Europe, even worse, and the UK economy will tank. (The pound is tanking already). On the political side, the Brexit vote may trigger a chain reaction in Scotland and Northern Ireland. And on the old Continent, this may be the beginning of the end of this grand experiment of uniting people from the Atlantic coast to the Russian border. What can I say… it was a nice dream while it lasted.

And, I suspect, future historians will mark this day as the historic beginning of a process that may yet culminate in another European war in the decades to come. I am sure the Kremlin is celebrating tonight… but Russia may not come out of this as a winner, as geopolitics is no longer a zero sum game, if it ever was.

For now, North America remains an island of stability. But that may not be for long. This continent also produced its homebrew 21st century neo-fascist in the person of Donald Trump. And Trump has a better than average chance of winning the election this coming November.

Tonight is one of those nights when I am really glad that we have no children. Both of us in our fifties, we can afford to sit back and just spectate as the inevitable train wreck unfolds. It is still a devastating sight, but on account of our age, and the fact that we live in Canada, we are among those least likely to suffer the consequences.

Still… I desperately hope that I am misreading things, that my gloomy reading of the events is badly misguided. Maybe Europe will find a way to improve its unity after the British fiasco. Maybe the UK will find a way to strengthen its ties with the rest of the English speaking world. Maybe the economic shock will be short-lived and there will not be another Scottish referendum, much less one in Northern Ireland. Maybe.

But I wouldn’t bet any of our hard-earned savings on any of these maybes.

 Posted by at 11:39 pm
Jun 122016
 

Exactly thirty years ago today, I grabbed a suitcase, a bag and my passport, and boarded a train from Budapest to Vienna, with the intent never to return.

A few hours later, I arrived at Vienna’s Westbahnhof, where I left my suitcase at the left luggage office and proceeded to Traiskirchen, to register as an East Bloc refugee. Thus, my new life began.

Little did I know in the summer of 1986 that in a few short years, the Berlin Wall would crumble; that most communist regimes would peacefully transition to pluralist democracies; or that even the mighty Soviet Union would come to an inglorious end after a failed coup.

And a good thing, too, as otherwise I might have stayed put. And then, I could have experienced from the inside what it is like to live in a country in which the great democratic experiment is faltering; one in which xenophobia (if not outright racism) prevails, fueled by a distorted view of history and a perpetual sense of victimhood.

Instead, I ended up a citizen of Canada. July 16 will mark the day of my arrival in Ottawa 29 years ago. I now call this city my home. My memories go back much further, as I had the good fortune to visit here back in the summer of 1973, when I was only 10. So although I didn’t quite grow up here, sometimes it almost feels like I did.

Of course I have not forgotten the city of my birth, Budapest. I love the history of that city, I love mundane things about it like its streetcars and other bits of its infrastructure. But it’s no longer my home. I feel like a stranger in town who happens to know the geography and speak the language… but who is far, far removed from its daily life. And sometimes, knowing the language is a curse: such as when I walk down the street and stop at a red light, only to overhear a young person yakking on her phone about that “dirty Jew”. Yes, such language, which I once thought was condemned to the cesspit of history, is not uncommon in Budapest these days, which breaks my heart.

So I consider myself lucky that I left when I did. I consider myself very fortunate that I had the opportunity to become Canadian.

Thirty years is a long time in a person’s life. Thinking back… I don’t really remember what I was like back in 1986. The world was a very different place, to be sure. The year I spent in Vienna… it was educational. At first, when I ran out of the small amount of money I had in my pockets, it was scary. But then… I found a job of sorts. I started to make some friends. People who owed me absolutely nothing were nice to me, helped me, offered me opportunities. And then, the same thing happened in Canada. First, my aunt and her family, who offered me a place to stay and helped me get started. Then, a mere three weeks after my arrival, a per-diem contract. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I was vastly underpaid, but no matter: it was money, real money for professional work, not for washing dishes somewhere. And it allowed me to rent an apartment and begin my new life for real.

Many things happened since then, some good, some bad; but mostly good, so I have no complaints. It has been an interesting journey, which began with a first class ticket (who says a refugee cannot travel in style?) on the Wiener Walzer express train one early June morning in 1986.

 Posted by at 5:40 pm
Jun 072016
 

Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin in 1928. He received the Nobel prize for his discovery in 1945.

A Facebook friend shared his Nobel lecture. Particularly, the following quote:

The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant. Here is a hypothetical illustration. Mr. X. has a sore throat. He buys some penicillin and gives himself, not enough to kill the streptococci but enough to educate them to resist penicillin. He then infects his wife. Mrs. X gets pneumonia and is treated with penicillin. As the streptococci are now resistant to penicillin the treatment fails. Mrs. X dies. Who is primarily responsible for Mrs. X’s death? Why Mr. X whose negligent use of penicillin changed the nature of the microbe. Moral: If you use penicillin, use enough.

Fleming thus foresaw the dangers of emerging antibiotic resistance. Too bad the world failed to listen. Now, a growing number of people die from once treatable (e.g., post-operative) infections because the evolution of bacteria outpaced our ability to develop new antibiotics.

 Posted by at 11:07 am
May 052016
 

And just when you least expect it… Russia celebrates its victories in Syria over ISIL with a class act, an amazing concert by the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra of St. Petersburg, held at the ancient amphitheater that is at the center of Palmyra’s Roman era ruins, badly damaged (not to mention desecrated with barbaric public executions) by the Islamic State.

Russia, of course, intervened not for reasons of altruism but because American indecisiveness offered them an opportunity to prop up Assad’s regime. Nonetheless, I much rather watch an amazing concert like this than public beheadings.

And the music was, in fact, amazing. It included a piece titled Quadrille, from contemporary Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin’s opera Not Love Alone. I think I ought learn a little more about contemporary Russian opera.

The concert was carried live (of course) by RT, complete with a televised greeting by Putin. Not unlike a similar concert that the same orchestra held in South Ossetia, after Russia’s brief war with the Republic of Georgia a few years ago.

 Posted by at 11:12 pm
Apr 262016
 

This is an eerie anniversary.

Thirty years ago today, reactor 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant blew to smithereens.

It’s really hard to assign blame.

Was it the designers who came up with a reactor design that was fundamentally unstable at low power?

Was it the bureaucrats who, in the secretive Soviet polie state, made it hard if not impossible for operators at one facility to learn from incidents elsewhere?

Was it the engineers at Chernobyl who, concerned about the consequences of a total loss of power at the station, tried to test a procedure that would have kept control systems and the all-important coolant pumps running using waste heat during an emergency shutdown, while the Diesel generators kicked in?

Was it the Kiev electricity network operator who asked Chernobyl to keep reactor 4 online for a little longer, thus pushing the planned test into the late night?

Was it the control room operator who ultimately pushed the button that initiated an emergency shutdown?

And the list continues. Many of the people we could blame didn’t stick around long enough: they died, after participating in often heroic efforts to avert an even greater disaster, and receiving lethal doses of radiation.

Some lived. This photo shows Arkady Uskov, who suffered severe radiation burns 30 years ago as he helped save colleagues. He, along with a few other people, recently revisited the control room of reactor 4, and were photographed there by Radio Free Europe. (Sadly, the photos are badly mislabeled by someone who didn’t know that “Arcadia Uskova” would be the name of a female; or, in this case, the genitive case of the male name Arkady Uskov. Thus I also cannot tell if “Oleksandr Cheranov”, whose name I cannot find anywhere else in the literature of Chernobyl, was a real person or just another RFE misprint.)

Surprisingly, the control room, which looks like a set of props from a Cold War era science fiction movie, is still partially alive. The lit panels, I suspect, must be either part of the monitoring effort or communications equipment.

It must have been an uncanny feeling for these aging engineers to be back at the scene, 30 years later, contemplating what took place that night.

Incidentally, nuclear power remains by far the safest in the world. Per unit of energy produced, it is dozens of times safer than hydroelectricity; a hundred times safer than natural gas; and a whopping four thousand times safer than coal. And yes, this includes the additional approximately 4,000 premature deaths (UN estimate) as a result of Chernobyl’s fallout. Nor was Chernobyl the deadliest accident related to power generation; that title belongs to China’s Banqiao Dam, the failure of which claimed 171,000 lives back in 1975.

 Posted by at 5:52 pm
Apr 012016
 

Here is a rather entertaining piece of video evidence demonstrating that at least some lessons of history are not forgotten:

As they say, “We know where assholery leads… You will learn if even we were teachable!” Although judging from the comments on YouTube, not everyone is ready to learn these lessons yet.

Still… seeing several right-wing European politicians, including Hungary’s Orban (2:16), with Donald Trump’s toupee… priceless.

 Posted by at 1:50 pm
Mar 122016
 

Yet another chapter from the playbook of the late Weimar Republic: Even as he calls Bernie Sanders a “communist”, Trump now blames his political oppositions, supporters of Sanders and MoveOn.org among them, for the violence, the “planned attack” that erupted in Chicago last night. Which reminds me strongly of how the NSDAP presented itself as the party of law and order that would end the by then rampant violence between NSDAP supporters and communists on the streets of Germany in the early 1930s.

To his credit, Republican candidate Marco Rubio I think understands this.

It was astonishing to watch his body language, his slumped shoulders, as he shook his head when responding to a journalist’s question about his commitment to support Trump if Trump were to win the nomination: “I don’t know. I mean that I already talked about the fact that I think Hillary Clinton would be terrible for the.., for this country. But the fact that you are even asking me that question… er, I still at this moment continue to intend to support the Republican nominee, but… getting harder every day.”

What Rubio said in the minute or two preceding this comment is also worth watching.

 Posted by at 3:13 pm
Jan 282016
 

This is NASA’s week of tragedy.

Today is the 30th anniversary of the loss of the space shuttle Challenger with seven souls on board. One of my notable memories of this event is that it was the first time that I recall that the national broadcaster in then still communist Hungary didn’t dub a speech of Ronald Reagan. I think the speech was actually carried live (it took place at 5 PM EST, which would have been 11 o’clock at night in Hungary; late, but not too late) and it may have been subtitled, or perhaps not translated at all, I cannot remember. For me, it was also the first disaster that I was able to record on my VCR; for days afterwards, my friends and I replayed and replayed the broadcasts, trying to make sense of what we saw. (Sadly, those tapes are long lost. My VCR was a Grundig 2000 unit using a long-forgotten standard. After I left Hungary, I believe my parents used it for a while, but what ultimately happened to it and my cassettes, I do not know.)

Yesterday marked the 49th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that claimed the lives of three astronauts who were hoping to be the first to travel to the Moon. Instead, they ended up burned to a crisp in the capsule’s pure oxygen atmosphere, with no chance of escape. Arguably though, their tragedy resulted in much needed changes to the Apollo program that made it possible for Apollo 11 to complete its historic journey successfully.

And finally, in four days it will be exactly 13 years since the tragedy of Columbia, which disintegrated in the upper atmosphere at the conclusion of a successful 16-day mission. I remember that Saturday all too well. I was working, but I also had CNN running on one of my monitors. “Columbia, Houston, comm check” I heard many times and I knew something already that those in the mission center didn’t: CNN was already showing the multiple contrails over Texas, which could only mean one thing: a disintegrating vehicle. And then came the words, “Lock the doors”, and we knew for sure that it was all over.

Of course the US space program was not the only one with losses. The Soviet program had its own share of tragedies, including the loss of Vladimir Komarov (Soyuz 1 crash, April 24, 1967), three astronauts on boar Soyuz 11 (depressurization after undocking while in space, June 30, 1971), and several deaths on ground during training. But unlike the American cases, these Soviet deaths were not all clustered around the same date.

 Posted by at 3:35 pm
Nov 292015
 

The other day, I saw a curious full-page advertisement in the copy of Ottawa Life magazine that came bundled with my morning Globe and Mail.

It contained phrases and symbology that I am no longer accustomed to see. What caught my eye at first was the red background, complete with five-pointed golden stars and an image of a statue containing a group of heroic figures. Stuff once common on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

Presented by the Embassy of the PRC, it was an advertisement in commemoration of the “Victory of the World Anti-Fascist War” as well as the “Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression”. Symbology and awkward language notwithstanding, knowing what I know about the brutality of Japan’s failed conquest of the Middle Kingdom (including the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons), I believe China has every right to celebrate proudly. Western bias notwithstanding, arguably the true starting date of World War 2 is July 7, 1937, the beginning of Japan’s attempt at a full-scale invasion, and it took a full eight years for this nightmare to end (though not the Chinese Civil War).

 Posted by at 5:25 pm
Nov 292015
 

Everyone, meet the early 5th century saint, Christian theologian and philosopher, Augustine of Hippo. This is the oldest surviving portrait of him:

Why am I so impressed by Augustine? Well, some 1600 years ago he gave the perfect answer to anyone attempting to read science into holy texts. In his opus, The Literal Interpretations of Genesis, Augustine wrote:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about [science] and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics […] The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and […] the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

Of course, you could replace the word Christian with, say, Muslim and [Holy] Scripture with [Holy] Koran, and the meaning remains exactly the same.


As a curious footnote, when I checked my blog to see if I might have written about Augustine before (I haven’t) I noticed that the only other occurrence of “Augustine” here is in the context of the US space program, which was reformulated under the Obama administration in response to the recommendations by the Augustine Commission. Even more curious is that there were two Augustine Commissions, set up 20 years apart, chaired by the same Norman Augustine, former CEO of Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin. Nothing to do with St. Augustine, of course.

 Posted by at 9:52 am
Nov 232015
 

A friend of mine reminded us on Facebook that the tragic events of Paris last week did not represent the worst massacre of civilians in the City of Light after World War II.

No, that title may belong to the events of October 17, 1961. It was on that day that Paris riot police, headed by former Vichy war criminal Maurice Papon, massacred up to 200 Algerians. (The actual numbers remain in dispute, as the French government only acknowledged more than three deaths in 1998.)

This fact raises so many questions. Foremost among them, why do those lives matter less? Is it only because 54 years is a long time and events were forgotten? Or would the ethnicity or religion of those massacred in 1961 have anything to do with it?

Whatever it is, I think it’s high time to come back from the hype and return to the plane of reality. Just this morning, I was listening to the CBC on the car radio and heard that Brussels remains under lockdown for the third day, with the subway not running. Which prompted me to shout at my poor, uncomprehending radio: “They didn’t even shut the London Underground down during the Blitz!”

 Posted by at 8:34 pm
Nov 212015
 

One of my favorite science fiction novels is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. In the distant post-apocalyptic future that is the setting of the novel, a piece of sacred memorabilia attributed to the founder of a monastic order, Isaac Edward Leibowitz, is in fact a 20th century shopping list.

As it turns out, something similar exists in real life. However, Gal Sal was no saint; he was the owner of two slaves, En-pap X and Sukkalgir. Their names are recorded on a more than 5,000 year old clay tablet that probably served as a receipt or title of sorts.

OIM-A2513

Though the dates are somewhat uncertain and there are other tablets of similar age, this trio may be the first people in history whose names have been preserved for posterity.

No heroic deeds. No epic battles. No dealings with gods or otherwordly spirits.

Just a receipt. Bureaucracy may, after all, be the oldest profession.

 Posted by at 11:36 pm
Nov 142015
 

The historical parallels are inescapable.

Three quarters of a century ago, the governments of the United States and Canada, in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, declared their own citizens of Japanese descent a threat to national security. This was demanded by a vengeful citizenry who could not tell the difference between the militant government of Tokyo and loyal Americans and Canadians of Japanese descent: they saw “slanty-eyed traitors” everywhere.

As a result, one of the worst atrocities in North American history took place, depriving several ten thousand Canadians and over a hundred thousand Americans of basic rights, and herding them into places that, while more civilized than their counterparts in the Third Reich or the Japanese Empire, were nonetheless concentration camps. Their internment ended in the United States in the wake of a Supreme Court decision in early 1945; in Canada, it lasted until 1949.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, many European citizens wish to follow the same road. They blame the attacks on an open immigration policy. They blame all Muslims immigrants and call those who support them “traitors”. In this case, the determining factor is not race but religion, but it amounts to the same thing: Discrimination against millions for the crimes committed by a few.

You would think that the so-called “civilized world” is better than this. But all it takes is one heinous attack for the old formulas of racism and xenophobia to surface. We are no better than our ancestors.

This is what the ISIS bastards fail to realize by the way. They think they shock us with their snuff films on YouTube. Just as the Japanese generations ago, they will realize too late that when it comes to wholesale murder, we may be the biggest bastards after all.

 Posted by at 1:22 pm