Nov 302017
 

Here is a short segment from a piece of music that I am trying to identify:

For the life of me, I cannot. It is especially annoying because I heard this piece of music on SiriusXM Symphony Hall earlier this morning, but I didn’t get the title and cannot find a playlist.

This music was played during the end credits of the main evening newscast in the 1960s, perhaps the early 1970s, on Hungary’s state owned television network.

Update (Dec 3, 2017): Mystery solved. It is the Scherzo from Schumann’s 2nd symphony:

 Posted by at 1:01 am
Nov 262017
 

OK, so today was a Sunday, I have recently finished some projects, so I had a bit of time to work on long overdue things around the house. Actually, it had to do with an attempt to repair an old TV, which needed to be vacuumed first, as it contained more than two decades’ worth of accumulated dust. But quickly, my attention turned to our vacuum cleaner instead.

It is a Kenmore vacuum cleaner, one of the house brands of soon-to-be-defunct Sears Canada. It is reasonably decent. But…

Well, it has a HEPA filter. It is supposed to filter the exhaust of the vacuum, to ensure that it contains no microscopic particles. The HEPA filter is a small rectangular piece made of cardboard and other materials that fits behind a cover on the back of the vacuum. The vacuum was barely a few weeks old when this cover first fell off. Putting it back on didn’t help; it fell off increasingly often. Taping it on didn’t do the trick either. Eventually, I affixed it with two screws, and it seemed to hold afterwards. Even then though, I had a nagging suspicion that there is something odd about this vacuum cleaner…

But first, let me digress. Let me mention a building, a six-story apartment building in the Hungarian city of Pécs, which is the building where my wife grew up. This building is odd, as its stairwell and elevator shaft are housed in an entirely separate building, connected to the main building on each level by a hanging corridor. Rumor has it that the original architect simply forgot to include a stairwell and elevator shaft in the design. Kind of hard to believe but…

Anyhow, back to my vacuum cleaner. My nagging suspicion was this: after the air goes through the HEPA filter, where does it go? It is surely not going to exhaust through the solid plastic filter cover (the one that kept falling off.)

Lately, our vacuum cleaner was making weird noises. When I looked at it more closely today, I noticed that one of the screws that I used to affix the HEPA filter cover was gone, and that the filter cover was slightly off. The weird noise was the air whistling through the resulting gap. Well… this did it. Hard as it is to believe, I was forced to conclude that whoever designed this vacuum cleaner forgot to include an exhaust in the design.

Out came my trusty drill (bought at a Sears store eons ago when Sears was still the best source for quality tools) and a few minutes later, the filter cover had a bunch of holes in it:

I put the cover back on, affixed it with screws again, and tested the vacuum cleaner. It was working just fine, running more smoothly than ever, and significantly cooler to the touch than ever before. And when you put your hands over the holes that I made, you could feel the tremendous outrush of air… air that previously had no place to go other than exhausting through cracks between plastic bits. No wonder the pressure was high enough to push off the HEPA filter cover even when screws were holding it in place.

Before writing this blog entry, just to be sure, I double checked. I don’t want to make a fool of myself after all. But no… there truly is no exhaust, none whatsoever, on this vacuum cleaner.

What engineer in his right mind designs a vacuum cleaner with no exhaust?

Hmmm. Maybe an engineer from the same school that trained the architect who designs buildings without stairwells.

 Posted by at 11:03 pm
Jun 212017
 

I just finished watching a 2016 Hungarian documentary film about the early days of the computer game industry in Hungary.

I was also interviewed via Skype for this film, albeit not much of my conversation with the filmmaker remained in the final cut. But that’s okay… it is, in a sense, fitting, because after the first few “heroic” years, I was no longer taking part in games development, whereas others continued and produced some amazing software.

Anyhow, I enjoyed this film. I met familiar faces (though I admit I would not have recognized all of them on the street after 30-odd years) but I also found out details about those days that I just didn’t know. I don’t necessarily agree with everything that was said in the film, but by and large, I think it paints an interesting, reasonably complete, accurate and balanced picture of what computer game development was like, what it meant to us in the early 1980s behind the Iron Curtain.

For what it’s worth, I bought my downloadable copy. (No DRM.) I think films like these deserve our support.

 Posted by at 5:35 pm
Mar 212017
 

Retired counterintelligence officers rarely give interviews. It is even more unusual for them to do so without anonymity.

Yet this is exactly what Ferenc Katrein, a former Hungarian counterintelligence officer did, when he was interviewed by the independent Hungarian news portal index.hu.

The full interview is available in English.

Katrein tells us of a secret service offensive that is waged by Russia against the European Union. He speaks of a corrupt Hungarian leadership that offered an opportunity for many Russian citizens to enter and even settle in the country in return for a modest investment with little or no effective background checks. He speaks of the role of Russia in far right movements in Europe, and their campaigns of disinformation.

All in all, it is a rare glimpse into how a counterintelligence service works on the eastern fringes of the European Union, and the extraordinary challenges that Europe faces in light of an aggressive (and in many ways, unrestrained) Russian foreign policy agenda.

 Posted by at 11:54 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
Nov 012015
 

The other day, the current American ambassador in Budapest, Colleen Bell, gave a speech in which she offered some strong criticism of the authoritarian tendencies of Mr. Orban’s government. Needless to say, supporters of that government denounced the speech and also questioned the moral authority of the United States in light of that country’s less than perfect history.

This reminded me of Ms. Bell’s predecessor, Eleni Kounalakis, who recently published her memoirs.

Her tone is very diplomatic, but she retells some interesting incidents, including one that occurred during the visit of Eric Holder to Budapest. It was a brief exchange between the the first African-American Attorney General of the United States and his Hungarian counterpart, Peter Polt. It speaks volumes about the differences between the way top government officials think in Hungary vs. the United States:

I could see that Holder was disturbed by the description of the Magyar Gárda, the Hungarian radical nationalist militia, as well as by its politics and methods. Polt told his counterpart, ‘I want to assure you that we go to great lengths to ensure that they are not able to march in our streets. We have outlawed their uniforms and will not allow them to gather. It would be as unacceptable as if you were to let the Ku Klux Klan march on the steps of Washington.’ At these words, I saw Holder’s face flinch almost imperceptibly.

“‘I didn’t think I would find myself in Hungary defending the rights of the Ku Klux Klan,’ Holder replied slowly and carefully. ‘But we do, in fact, allow them to peacefully demonstrate in our country.’

 Posted by at 6:23 pm
Nov 012015
 

Here is a perfectly ordinary object. A paperclip.

But this particular paperclip has a bit of history.

It was attached to a typewritten document dating back to the early 1980s. It was written by some young Hungarian researchers who were entrusted with cataloging the manuscript collection of Hungarian Communist Politburo member Gyorgy Aczel. Aczel was arguably the best educated in the Politburo. He was also known as the architect the “three T-s” cultural policy of the goulash communist state. The T-s stood for “Trusted, Tolerated and Treasonous”. The second category represented works of art and literature that received no support from the state, but if they survived in the open market, they were tolerated and not censored. It was the existence of this category that allowed a cultural life in Hungary that was thriving relative to other East Bloc states.

As a young “star” programmer, I was asked to help this team with developing a manuscript database application (for the Commodore 64, no less). I was paid well, too. And on account of this assignment, I even met Mr. Aczel in person on one or two occasions. Yes, lucky me and all.

All of these are now memories from a distant past but somehow, one set of documents managed to stay with me inside a file folder over all these years. And yesterday, when I came across that folder, I decided to scan the sheets, and to do so, I removed this paperclip.

This paperclip was last handled by someone in 1984 or so, probably in the home of Mr. Aczel in the 13th district of Budapest, in a rental apartment building.

If only objects could speak and tell their stories.

 Posted by at 6:15 pm
Oct 142015
 

Short answer to the question in the title: No.

Refugee_crisis_in_Europe_Q1_and_Q2_2015.svg

It is eminently possible to discuss issues concerning immigration and refugees without resorting to racist, dehumanizing language. What are the problems that the refugees are facing? Where are they coming from? Where are they really coming from (in light of news about widespread forgery of Syrian passports)? Are they genuine refugees? What about the transit and host countries? How can they handle a flood of migrants Europe has not seen since the end of WW2? Was it wise for Angela Merkel to suggest that Germany will accept all refugees with open arms? Are European citizens really evicted from their homes or lose other forms of assistance as local governments rush to help refugees? Are EU nations that have no external borders hypocritical in their condemnation of countries on the front line, like Hungary?

All legitimate questions, which can be discussed using facts and rational arguments.

But that is something I rarely see.

Instead, I see photographs that show the refugees in the worst possible light, with accompanying language that implies that these pictures are representative. That this is a “horde” coming to “occupy Europe” as they yell “Allahu Akhbar”. That they are phony refugees because a real refugee does not want a better life. That they will destroy Christian civilization or European culture. That they are, simply put, dirty, smelly subhumans. Untermenschen.

To all my friends and family: If you use such language about your fellow human beings, I will not leave it unchallenged. I will not be a silent accomplice. If this means risking our friendship, so be it. There are times when decent human beings must speak up; not speaking up is not an option.

Meanwhile, I thank those friends of mine who have not abandoned their core values during this crisis from the bottom of my heart. Simply knowing you is a privilege.

 Posted by at 12:50 pm
Sep 272015
 

There is an unforgettable line in one of my favorite movies, Cloud Atlas: “You have to do whatever it is you can’t not do.” Or another quote from the same movie, same character: “Just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes… over and over.”

I am reminded of these lines regularly these days as I feel compelled to respond to the occasional (but sadly, ever more frequent) hateful, xenophobic memes, videos or articles shared by friends or family online, mainly on Facebook. Shares that perpetuate the message that the current (truly unprecedented) wave of immigrants in Europe represents an existential threat to European civilization; that the migrants themselves are frauds, uncultured, unruly, uncivilized subhumans. Untermenschen.

No, my dear friends and family members, it is not my intent to insult anybody but when I am confronted with such propaganda, I just cannot stay silent anymore. I will not be a silent accomplice. I can’t not speak up. I do not wish to anger you, but these thoughts must be challenged.

These propaganda pieces are becoming ever more sophisticated. Whether they ridicule the immigrants’ religion (let them it pork cracklings!) or their mysery and exhaustion (they are dirty! They leave trash everywhere!) the basic message remains the same: these people are somehow lesser human beings, who should be feared, despised and shunned but better yet, turned back to wherever they came from.

The memes and videos are reminiscent of the Nazi-era propaganda masterpiece, Der Ewige Jude, a full-length “documentary” movie from 1940 that similarly dehumanized Jews, presenting them as a threat to Western civilization. The message must have had some traction: after all, it was enlightened Western nations who turned away ships carrying Jewish refugees, ultimately sending them back into the arms of the Nazis.

I don’t expect to change anyone’s mind, no matter how carefully I craft my words. But I cannot stay silent. I hope I am not losing any friends, but if it happens, happens: I reached the point where staying silent is no longer an option.

Another friend (one I haven’t lost yet!) told me a while back that unless I am ready to welcome refugees into my own house, I should keep my mouth shut. Well… nope. That’s like saying that back in the 1930s, the only Germans who earned the right to speak up against the regime were the ones who were sheltering Jews. This is an obviously phoney argument. I will not keep my mouth shut.

Yet another friend suggested that this is all the Hungarian government’s fault, that their propaganda is indeed far-reaching if it can jeopardize friendships on another continent. If only… but no, xenophobia and hate propaganda are not a uniquely Hungarian thing. Long before the present migrant crisis, I was already engaging in lengthy arguments, e.g., with American friends who told me that any apparent racism I see is the blacks’ own doing, they’re the ones who perpetuate racial conflict for whatever nefarious reasons. Or that Islamophobia is justified as Muslims would oppress us with Sharia law if only they were given the chance. Needless to say, I could not possibly agree.

Go ahead, think what you want. Conclude if you wish that I am just being naive, blinded by political correctness or confused by drinking too much from the jar of liberal kool-aid. That is your prerogative. Still… I can’t not speak up.

Again, forgive me. I am not trying to be a contrarian. It is not confrontation that I seek. It is my conscience that compels me to react: some thoughts just cannot go unchallenged, even if I have no real hope of achieving anything.

 Posted by at 11:55 pm
Sep 082015
 

It is true that my country of birth, Hungary, is under unprecedented pressure as a wave of immigrants Europe has not seen since the end of WW2 is sweeping through its borders.

But the Hungarian government’s response is nothing short of despicable, and sadly, they have all too many supporters among nationalists or political opportunists.

Here are a few gems from recent days.

The Guardian decided to call prime minister Viktor Orban simply “Orban the awful“, referring specifically to the treatment of refugees at the Keleti train station in Budapest, but more generally, to Orban’s policies that have been consistently undemocratic, contrary to European values, and downright undermining a united European response, e.g., to the Ukraine crisis as he is cozying up with another dictator in the making, Vladimir Putin. To their credit, The Guardian do point out though that Orban’s policies find support among other Eastern European leaders (leading to a possibly widening rift between Eastern and Western Europe) and meanwhile, many well-meaning Hungarians decided to step in where the government wouldn’t, offering significant help to the refugees flooding the country. They did so despite the fact that sometimes, they received death threats from other “proud Hungarians”.

The Guardian also commented on the Christian duty to help the unfortunate, and how this duty is neglected by Hungarian Cardinal Peter Erdo. Erdo declared that helping refugees would amount to breaking the law on human trafficking. This happened two days before Pope Francis declared that it is the duty of every Catholic to help refugees… I wonder if the Pope and the Cardinal had a conversation since.

Meanwhile, Hungary’s prime minister made another astonishing statement. Referring to Western European plans to introduce a refugee quota system, he declared that: “Hungary is not requesting the relocation throughout Europe” of the country’s Roma population. Rather, “when they begin a journey to Canada, we ask them to stay.” Sadly, I have a feeling that humanity can be clearly divided into two groups: some people understand clearly that only a racist bigot says such things, whereas others feel that Orban is speaking the truth and that only brainwashed liberal retards don’t see the obvious. So while I belong firmly to the former group, I have a feeling that convincing the latter is a lost cause already. Very few racist bigots actually know that they are racist bigots… most take offense when you tell them that they are. But I feel that the time for mincing words is over.

Finally, to top off the list of events from these last few wonderful days, here is a glorious video of a reporter working for a far-right Hungarian television station, tripping a refugee father carrying a child:

Bravo. Must be a proud day for Hungary.

 Posted by at 5:53 pm
Aug 082015
 

I was startled by this photo that appeared in today’s Globe and Mail:

zavikon

I’ve heard about this bridge! Many decades ago, in Hungary. It was described to me as an international bridge between two islands, both owned by a Hungarian family who then declared the “no man’s land” in the middle of the bridge Hungarian territory.

Well… almost. The flag in the middle is indeed the flag of Hungary, but as for the rest…

The islands together are called Zavikon island (I guess the smaller island is just considered an appendage of the larger one) and they are indeed in the Thousands Islands region. They are indeed owned by a Hungarian family. However, both islands are north of the international border, i.e., they are both in Canada. So the flags on this footbridge are really symbolic, they do not reflect political reality. And no, you cannot claim the “no man’s land”, even if it exists along the international border between two states, in the name of a third.

I was nonetheless astonished to see that this bridge actually exists and that at least the part about the flags is, indeed, true.

 Posted by at 11:59 am
Aug 082015
 

This iconic photograph was snapped 60 years ago today from the window of a Boeing 707 prototype.

In case it’s unclear, that airplane is flying upside down. And no, it is not about to crash. It was just in the middle of an aerobatic maneuver called a “barrel roll”.

It was, at least for its test pilot, Alvin “Tex” Johnston, a perfectly normal demonstration of what his new airplane is capable of doing. His company’s CEO, Bill Allen, rather disagreed, but the 707 went on to become a great commercial success and the famous Seattle barrel roll became a matter of legend. I first heard about this barrel roll incident more than 30 years ago from my long gone friend Ferenc Szatmári, physicist, private pilot and storyteller extraordinaire.

Reportedly, Allen never really got over this incident; decades later, when he received a framed copy of the photograph above at his retirement banquet, the memento was accidentally left behind. Then again, if someone gave me a minor heart attack like that (after all, for Allen, the future of his entire company was at stake), I, too, may be inclined to hold a grudge.

 Posted by at 10:35 am
Aug 042015
 

A young Hungarian woman from Transylvania, Zsuzsa Nágó, who recently became a citizen of Hungary (the political calculation behind the citizenship regime of Hungary that allows ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries to acquire Hungarian citizenship easily is another story altogether) decided to renounce her Hungarian citizenship in protest against Hungary’s policies towards refugee migrants, including the recently started construction of a border fence.

I can only admire her decision. She puts me to shame: I maintain my Hungarian citizenship, in part, to enjoy the benefits of an EU passport. But I am also a citizen of Canada. For someone whose only other passport is Romanian, this step is a significant sacrifice.

Sadly, I agree with her reasons. And the comments she received from “patriotic” Hungarians (here is one of the milder ones: “Let her move to Afghanistan so that she can sell her pinko-liberal stories to the Muslims there…”) only reinforce my conviction that it is not just the politics of the day: racism and hatred are deeply rooted in Hungarian society.

Thankfully, there are exceptions. A commenter named Gabor wrote:

“I would not connect this with the presently reigning government although the fence was their idea. (And it may not even be the biggest issue.) What has been taking place here for decades is enough for many people to not want to be Hungarian citizens or sometimes even renounce their ethnicity. Anyway, the leadership is what the people deserve. On my part I mostly met decent and kind people in the countryside, ever since I’m alive. Here in the capital most people are selfish, narrow-minded, envious, ill-intentioned, petty and calculating. Just like the ones described by Attila Jozsef [pre-eminent 20th century Hungarian poet; translation is mine, I found a translation online but it was less than mediocre, completely gutting these lines of their real meaning]:

Oh, this is not how I envisioned order,
my soul is stranger here.
I did not believe in existence so easy
for those who sneak.
Nor a people that fears to make a choice,
eyes cast down, furtively ruminating,
finding cheer in plunder.

“Many fail to notice that this is the source of all problems. There is for instance Trianon [location where the Paris peace treaty was signed in 1919, depriving the Kingdom of Hungary of two thirds of its historical territory.] It’s not as if they divided a unified Hungarian people. That would not have been sustainable. They adjusted the political make-up of a divided, splintering country to match reality. True, perhaps they went a little too far, but fundamentally this is what it was. If it wasn’t, then Trianon would not have happened, or it would have been reversed long ago, not just in the imagination of the far right. And those who do not feel comfortable here leave, thus sustaining, even strengthening the present situation.”

Unfortunately, people like Gabor represent a minority. (No, I don’t agree with his characterization of the people of Budapest vs. the countryside, but other than that, I could have used very similar words.)

Meanwhile, Zsuzsa Nágó is heading back to Turkey, to continue helping those who are the most in need.

 Posted by at 11:51 pm
May 192015
 

When good people don’t speak up, bad things happen. That, if anything, is the most important lesson from the history of the 20th century.

So I spoke up today, after reading two alarming articles about Canada’s treatment of would-be Roma travelers from Hungary.

Numbered streets, Miskolc. (Source: HVG.HU)

Numbered streets, Miskolc. (Source: HVG.HU)

Here is what I wrote:

To: <Minister@cic.gc.ca>,
<rob.nicholson@parl.gc.ca>,
<mauril.belanger@parl.gc.ca>,
<cbcnewsottawa@cbc.ca>
Cc: <Chris.Alexander@parl.gc.ca>
Subject: Canada humiliating Hungarian Roma travelers at Vienna airport?
Date: Tue, 19 May 2015 11:45:54 -0400
 

Dear Mr. Nicholson:
Dear Mr. Alexander:
Dear Mr. Belanger:
Dear CBC Ottawa:

I am a Canadian citizen, born in Hungary. In recent years, I have watched in dismay how my country of birth is increasingly embracing xenophobia and racism, to the extent that U.S. Senator McCain recently accused the Hungarian government of having neo-Nazi tendencies. Having lived almost my entire adult life in Canada, this is not a value system that I can embrace; rather, my values are the Canadian values of multiculturalism, tolerance and inclusiveness.

Which is why I am deeply alarmed when I read about Canadian immigration authorities acting in a manner that, if the accounts are true, can only be described as racist and xenophobic.

I am specifically referring to two articles, published recently (May 11 and May 18) in the Hungarian weekly newsmagazine HVG, about a Roma researcher and a Roma family who were denied entry into Canada in a manner that (if the accounts are to be believed) was humiliating, racist, and wholly contrary to Canada’s values.

I am providing my partial translations of the two articles below. The Hungarian originals can be found online at

http://hvg.hu/itthon/20150511_Cigany_ezert_nem_repulhetett_Becsbol_egy

and

http://hvg.hu/itthon/20150518_becs_austrian_airlines_romak_kanada

I realize of course that our authorities face the very difficult task of preventing abuse of our generous refugee system, and that these articles present only one side of these stories. Indeed, I sincerely hope that this is the case, as otherwise, the only possible conclusion is that Canada’s immigration authorities willfully and routinely violate some of our core values when it comes to legitimate Roma travelers to this country.

For this reason, I’d like to bring these two articles to your attention, in the hope that you can investigate what actually took place and, should it turn out that our authorities or individual officials acted contrary to our country’s values and regulations, take the necessary steps to ensure that we do not humiliate would-be travelers to Canada solely on account of the color of their skin.

Sincerely,
Viktor T. Toth
3-575 Old St Patrick St
Ottawa ON K1N 9H5
613-789-0510
https://www.vttoth.com/

————————————

First article: HVG.HU, May 11, 2015

[head] Hungarian Roma researcher not even allowed to board the plane

[lead] You thought that all you need to travel to a visa-free country is a passport, valid ticket and enough money? If your skin is a little darker, you may be in for a surprise. We tell a frightening tale, in which a researcher heading to Canada was not allowed to board her plane but instead, was humiliated and shouted at at the airport.

Eva’s travel on April 8 began like anybody else’s: as she already purchased a ticket to Toronto, on this day she was ferried to Vienna, where the direct flight was to depart. Eva was heading to Canada to do a survey on the generational relationships of Roma immigrants there. Hungarian citizens do not need a visa to travel to Canada since 2008, that is, in theory, there are no limitations on travel so long as the traveler has a valid passport, ticket, and is able to support himself financially during the trip. Eva had all these, so she was very surprised when the officers of Austrian Airlines and the airport pulled her aside after a passport check.

According to Eva, the conversation soon acquired the tone of an interrogation, in which officers of Immigration Canada also began to participate through the telephone. A guard kept an eye on Eva, they asked her where, why she was planning to go to Toronto, who she planned to visit. They checked her details, but they stated that they were unable to check with the person who was supposed to provide Eva with a place to stay. (In contrast, this person later stated that there was no sign on his phone of any attempt to call.)

At this point, Eva felt that it would be better to ask for a translator, as things were getting interesting. They were also interested about the amount of money she had on her, but did not ask her to show the cash. Eva had 1000 Canadian dollars, which was supposed to be enough for three weeks; as her lodging was secured, it did not appear insufficient. Eva was beginning to feel desperate, she asked them to check her, her family, as they would see that they have significant scientific and artistic accomplishments – her daughters are actresses, her husband is a musician and director, she doesn’t understand why there would be a problem.

The problem was that they viewed Eva as an illegal immigrant, a potential asylum seeker. A person who might want to abuse Canada’s immigration system. That’s because Eva is a Roma.

[subhead] Immigration Office Instructing the Airline?

After the so-so investigation and even more interesting turn of events took place: the airline stated that the immigration office told them not to fly Eva to Toronto, even though the office asserted that they left the decision to the airline.

Subsequently they left Eva on her own, it took a while for her to find her way back. Her passport was checked once again, and when she had the audacity to request her luggage back, her Austrian attendant reproached her loudly in the presence of the several hundred people in the waiting room. It was not easy to get her luggage back, it took Eva’s son-in-law, who is fluent in German, two times half an hour to get back the suitcase, during which time their car was ticketed, too. “I never felt so humiliated,” recalls Eva who, although she is a well-known Roma intellectual, asked us not to reveal her surname when we wrote this article.

At least she was luck in that her children, who took her to Vienna, were still in town and therefore they were able to return to the airport for their mother. After a little consultation, they decided to visit the Canadian consulate in Vienna, where an interrogation similar to that at the airport followed. The official kindly suggested to Eva to request an immigration visa, so she tried to explain that she has no plans to emigrate. “Why would then want to travel to Canada?” was the question. “I am sorry I didn’t just tell him that I want to be a thief,” said Eva later. This is when they found out that supposedly Canada already penalized airlines because in recent times, 500 illegal immigrants arrived from Hungary. Thus, Eva was not allowed to fly.

[subhead] Canada: Everything was by the book

Although she suffered financial damages, as in addition to the cost of the trip to Vienna, she also lost her insurance (her ticket was refunded by the airline), this was primarily a humiliation. Eva is considering a lawsuit against the airline.

[…]

We also contacted Canadian authorities about this incident. The answer of Citizenship and Immigration Canada and Canada Border Services was that everything was by the book: Canada is fighting against illegal immigration and they cooperate with other countries’ border protection agencies as well as airlines.

[…]
————————————

Second article: HVG.HU, May 18, 2015

[head] “It was a test and they failed” – New scandal at Vienna airport

[lead] Another Roma family heading to Canada was returned at Vienna Airport. They say their legal rights were violated, they were humiliated, and to prevent their travel, Canada’s authorities ignored their own regulations. The government of Hungary remains silent about these cases.

Once again an outrageous incident concerning Roma took place at Vienna Airport, and again involving a flight to Canada. We recently reported about the case of Eva: the Roma researcher heading to Canada was turned back by the combined efforts of Austrian Airlines and Citizenship and Immigration Canada at the Austrian airport, when she was not allowed to fly to Toronto. As it turns out, Canada’s authorities may request a letter of invitation from the receiving party, and if the passenger does not meet requirements (doesn’t have enough money, doesn’t have an arranged place to stay) they can be turned back at the airport. However, Eva reported that neither her place to stay nor the money she carried were checked, and she felt she was singled out because of her Gipsy identity.

Now, hvg.hu received information about another incident that reinforces this suspicion. Vendel Orsos, resident of Hedrehely, and his family were taken to Budapest by his brother-in-law on April 29. They left Ferihegy Airport at 7 AM and were already in Vienna at 7:45. They planned a family visit to Orsos’s sister, a chartered accounting who has been living in Canada for the past 15 years. They were already having their passports checked when he noticed that they were being scrutinized by one of the officials. When they arrived there, the person asked if he spoke English. When he answered in the negative, the official switched to Hungarian and asked, “Where in Hungary do you live?” After he answered, they were removed from the line. Meanwhile Orsos saw that other passengers standing in line behind them were able to board without trouble after showing their passports and boarding passes.

[subhead] Canada’s story keeps changing

Orsos was then connected to a translator from Canada by telephone, who flooded the man with questions about, for instance, his home or his job. “I really didn’t understand why he was asking,” said the man whose background is perfectly respectable, and thus was able to answer both questions with an honest yes. The translator also asked why his children, traveling with them, had different surnames.

This outraged him, but he tried to explain calmly that they decided with his wife that their children should have their mother’s surname, as they hoped this would make it less likely for them to be subjected to anti-Roma prejudices. However, he was legally registered as the children’s father.

[…]

Orsos states that he was patiently answering every question, but after his answers the lady told him that “this was a test and you did not pass,” and thus they were not allowed to fly to Canada. This despite the fact that the family carried a valid letter of invitation.

Orsos’s brother-in-law meanwhile contacted the family that was now stuck in Vienna and also called the relative in Canada, to find out if she was contacted to verify what the family stated at the airport. It turned out that the woman was not even contacted, even though they told Orsos that they were not able to reach her. Then the Canadian relative, Zsuzsa, called the airport in Vienna and asked why the family was not allowed to fly. She says they told her it’s because they did not carry enough money. This was not true, they didn’t even check how much money they carried, remembers Vendel Orsos.

Finally, Zsuzsa convinced them to allow the family to fly but then the airport informed them that they can no longer be found. But the family didn’t even leave the airport, they had no place to go, after the two-and-a-half hour ordeal they stumbled back to the waiting area but — like Eva — they received no help. When they found out from the man’s sister that they are allowed to fly after all, they tried to check in but were told that this was no longer possible. The adults were trying to restrain themselves but because of the humiliation and helplessness, Orsos’s wife began to cry.

[…]

They had no other choice but to return home. They could fly back but they were afraid that in that case, they’d not get their HUF 800,000 airfare back… they lost all trust in Vienna authorities. Therefore, they waited for a relative who drove from Hedrehely to pick them up. Thus they spent an entire day, with two children at the airport, from their early morning arrival until 1 AM. They satisfied every requirement to travel but Canada ignored its own strictly defined regulations, complained Vendel Orsos. Their dream vacation thus ended at 5 AM the next day. The family wrote down their story and even faxed a copy to the Canadian Embassy in Vienna but to this date, they received no answer.

[…]

 Posted by at 2:55 pm
Mar 042015
 

Five days ago, I was sitting on an Emirates Airlines flight from Dubai to Budapest.

Our flight took an unusual route. Normally (well, at least within my limited experience) such flights take a route north of Iraq, flying over Iranian airspace towards Turkey. Not this time: We flew across the Saudi desert instead, then turned north over the Sinai peninsula before entering Turkish airspace and turning northwest again. I was wondering about that kink in our trajectory: was it weather or perhaps some airspace over the Mediterranean was closed for military reasons?

As a service to business class customers, Emirates provides a limo service to the destination of your choice on arrival. I was wondering how I would find the limo pick-up location, but it was easier than I thought: the chauffeur was waiting for me at the customs exit, holding up a sign bearing my name. During the journey to my hotel, he told me about his son who wishes to become a particle physicist at CERN. So for a while, we were discussing the Higgs boson and teraelectronvolts, instead of more customary topics, like Hungarian politics.

I rented a car in Budapest, for my mother and I to take a short trip to southern Hungary, to visit my mother-in-law. As we had the car for a whole weekend, on Sunday we decided to take another small trip, this time to the north of Budapest, the small but historical city of Visegrád.

I used to live in Visegrád, from 1974 to 1977, mostly in this building:

At the time, this building served as a resort owned by the Hungarian Industrial Association. As a member of a crafts artisan cooperative, my mother was entitled to vacation in this place, which we did in the spring of 1974. This is how she came to meet my stepfather who at the time was the manager of this facility. To make a long story short, we lived in the manager’s apartment for several years, while my parents built a new house in the same town. I have fond memories of this place.

Today, it serves as a home for the elderly. It seems to be well taken care of. Much to my surprise, one of its terraces appears to have been converted into a chicken coop, complete with a rather loud rooster:

Other than these two excursions and a brief visit to a 91-year old friend who recently had a serious health crisis, I spent most of my time at my parents’ place, a small apartment on the Buda side, nearly filled by a giant dog and his favorite toy:

My parents are very fond of this animal. He is nice, but I remain committed to cats. They are quieter, smell nicer, and require a whole lot less maintenance.

And all too soon, I was on another airplane, flying “business class” on British Airways to London. I had to put “business class” in quotation marks, as there was ridiculously little legroom on this middle-aged A320:

At least, the middle seats were converted into an extra tray instead.

And the flight left Budapest nearly an hour late. The reason? The air crew arrived in Budapest late the previous night, and they had to have their mandatory rest. This presented a potentially serious problem for me: the possibility that I would miss my connecting flight, which, to make things worse, was purchased separately. I probably broke some records at Heathrow Airport as I managed to make it from the arrival gate in Terminal 3 to the Terminal 2 departure gate in only 32 minutes, which included a bus ride between terminals and going through security. I made it with about 10 minutes to spare. I checked and I was told that my suitcase made it, too.

I have to say, while I like both Air Canada and British Airways, their service doesn’t even come close to the quality of service I enjoyed on Emirates or Etihad. And I am not just referring to legroom or the age of the aircraft (the Emirates flight to Budapest was a really aged A330 and the seats, while a great deal more comfortable than these British Airways seats, were nonetheless a little cramped) but also the attentiveness of the staff on board.

Still, the flight was pleasant (except for some rather severe turbulence near the southern trip of Greenland), and some eight hours later, I was back in sunny snowy Ottawa. The land of deep freeze, where the Rideau Canal is breaking all kinds of records, having been open for well over 50 consecutive days already.

 Posted by at 9:06 am
Jan 042015
 

Courtesy to a two-part article (part 1 and part 2, in Hungarian) of the Hungarian satirical-liberal magazine Magyar Narancs (Hungarian Orange), I now have a much better idea of what happened at Hungary’s sole nuclear generating station, the Paks Nuclear Power Plant, in 2003. It was the most serious nuclear incident to date in Hungary (the only INES level 3 incident in the country.)

At the root of the incident is a characteristic issue with these types of Soviet era nuclear reactors leading to magnetite contamination of the fuel elements and control rods. To deal with this contamination and prolong the life of fuel elements, cleaning ponds are installed next to the reactor blocks, where under roughly 30 feet of water, in a specially designed cleaning tank, fuel bundles can be cleaned.

As the problem of contamination became increasingly acute, the power plant ordered a new type of cleaning tank. On April 10, 2003, this cleaning tank was used for the first time on fuel bundles that were freshly removed from the reactor. The cleaning of the fuel bundles was completed successfully by 5 PM in the afternoon; however, the crane that was supposed to replace the fuel bundle in the reactor was used for another task and was not going to be available before midnight. The situation was complicated by language issues, as the technicians attending the new cleaning tank were from Germany and could not speak Hungarian. Nonetheless, the German crew assured the plant’s management that the delay would not represent a problem and that cooling of the fuel bundle inside the cleaning tank was adequate.

Shortly before 10 PM, an alarm system detected increased radiation and noble gas levels in the hall housing the cleaning pond. Acting upon the suspicion that a fuel rod assembly was leaking (the German crew suggested that the fuel bundles may have been incorrectly placed in the cleaning tank) the crew proceeded with a plan to open the cleaning tank. When the lid of the cleaning vessel was unlocked, a large steam bubble was released, and radiation levels spiked. Indeed, the crane operator received a significant dose of radiation contamination on his face and arms. The hall was immediately evacuated and its ventilation system was turned on. However, as the system had no adequate filtering systems installed (despite a regulation that six years prior mandated their installation) some radiation was released into the environment.

As it turns out, the culprit was the new type of cleaning tank. A model that, incidentally, was approved using an expedited process, due to the urgency of the situation at the power plant. The fact that the supplier was a proven entity also contributed to a degree of complacency.

Both the new and the old tank had a built-in pump that circulated water and kept the fuel bundle cool. However, in the old tank, the water inlet was at the bottom, whereas the outlet was near the top. This was not the case in the new tank: both inlet and outlet were located at the bottom, which allowed the formation of steam inside the cleaning vessel near the top. Combined with the lack of instrumentation, and considering that the fuel bundle released as much as 350 kW of heat, this was a disaster in the making.

And that is exactly what happened: due to the delay with the crane, there was enough time for the heat from the fuel bundle to cause most of the water inside the vessel to turn into steam, and the fuel elements heated to 1,000 degrees Centigrade. This caused their insulation to crack, which led to the initial detection of increased radiation levels. When the cleaning tank’s lid was opened, a large bubble of steam was released, while cold water rushed in causing a minor steam explosion and breaking up the fuel elements inside, contaminating the entire pond.

It took another ten years before the last remaining pieces of broken-up fuel elements were removed from the power plant, taken by train through Ukraine to a reprocessing plant in Russia. The total cost of the incident was in the $100 million range.

As nuclear incidents go, Paks was by no means among the scariest: after all, no lives were lost, there was only one person somewhat contaminated, and there was negligible environmental damage. This was no Chernobyl, Fukushima or Three Mile Island. There was some economic fallout, as this reactor block remained inoperative for about a year, but that was it.

Nonetheless, this incident is yet another example how inattention by regulatory agencies, carelessness, or failure to adhere to regulations can lead to catastrophic accidents. Despite its reputation, nuclear power remains one of the safest (and cleanest!) ways to generate electricity but, as engineers are fond of saying, there are no safeguards against human stupidity.

 Posted by at 4:25 pm
Nov 142014
 

Kim Lane Scheppele is a professor of sociology and international affairs at Princeton University. She is also an expert on constitutional law in Hungary. Her writings frequently appeared in publications such as The New York Times.

A few days ago, Dr. Scheppele gave a video interview to an English-language Hungarian newspaper, the Budapest Beacon. In the interview, she explains how, in her opinion, Hungary can no longer be considered a constitutional democracy: how the system of checks and balances has been gutted and a constitution more resembling the country’s 1949 Stalinist constitution than the supposedly “communist” 1989 constitution it was intended to replace, was enacted unilaterally by a ruling party enjoying a two-thirds parliamentary supermajority.

Dr. Scheppele is not some liberal hack. She is an internationally renowned scholar. Her opinions are not arbitrary. Unfortunately, I do not expect to see meaningful change to happen anytime soon in the country of my birth, and I don’t think anything Dr. Scheppele says can alter this sad fact.

 Posted by at 8:24 pm
Nov 082014
 

Once again my country of birth, Hungary, made it to the cover of both the North American and Asian editions of The New York Times.

And not for a good reason.

The article laments that, 25 years after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Hungary, which was back then at the forefront of the transition from communism to democracy, is now turning away form Western values. That the prime minister, the same Mr. Orban who once played a leading role in that transition, now rejects Western values and preaches “illiberal democracy”, citing countries like Russia or Turkey as worthy examples.

Such criticisms are routinely rejected by supporters of Mr. Orban as “misguided”, a product of a Western media that “only listens to liberal critics”. And this plays well with an audience that is accustomed to the notion of national victimhood. Hungary is seen by many Hungarians as a victim throughout history. The country was a victim of the Paris-Versailles peace treaties. A victim of Germany and national socialism. A victim of communism. And now, a victim of Brussels’ new “colonialism”.

Even the national anthem is all about victimhood: “Fate, who for so long did’st frown / Bring him happy times and ways / Atoning sorrow hath weighed down / Sins of past and future days.”

Maybe one day the focus in Hungary will shift from victimhood to responsibility. For being accountable for one’s actions. Maybe that day, Hungary will no longer be easy pray to populist demagogues like Mr. Orban.

But I am not holding my breath.

 Posted by at 9:41 am
Oct 312014
 

The once famous Hungarian language broadcasts of Radio Free Europe ceased more than two decades ago, shortly after the end of communism in my country of birth.

Now, however, Radio Free Europe joined the growing choir of voices concerned about the policies of Hungary’s current government, and the country’s slide away from the values of Western-style liberal democracy.

This article, which will no doubt be dismissed by supporters of the ruling FIDESZ party as misguided and uninformed, misled by “liberal propaganda”, provides a nice summary of the events that unfolded in the country in recent years. It is also accompanied by a video report, which details the rising popularity of the ultra-right in Hungary and the dangers that it represents.

I just feel compelled to repeat the famous quotation by the Spanish-American poet, writer and philosopher George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

 Posted by at 11:53 pm
Aug 052014
 

In the 1980s there was a joke I heard on the streets of Budapest. It was in the form of an official-sounding announcement: “In Soviet Union is no illiteracy… on written record.”

Well, there is no racism in Hungary either. At least not on the record. Everything that happens, happens for a sound, sensible reason. When Hungary’s Minister of Human Resources announces that there was no Roma Holocaust in Hungary, as Hungarian Roma were only deported from Austrian territory, he of course speaks the gospel truth. When the third largest city in Hungary begins a systematic eviction of mainly Roma residents, it is just an eminently reasonable attempt to clean up a bad, run-down part of town. And when a state-sponsored film festival in the same city declines to show films on the subject of the Roma, it is an entirely logical decision, aimed at avoiding controversy just before municipal elections.

Everything is based on sound reasoning, everything makes perfect sense. Just as it was entirely reasonable when a small town mayor in Hungary this weekend presided over a symbolic hanging of an effigy of Benjamin Netanyahu, in protest against the “Freemason Jewish terror state’s efforts to rule the world.” No, there is no racism in Hungary. How could there be?

 Posted by at 5:40 pm