Feb 122024
 

In the wake of the Israel-Hamas war, once again there are voices suggesting that the Jews have no business to be in Palestine, a land that they stole from the Palestinians.

The history of the word Palestine, the identity of the Arabs who only began to call themselves Palestinians in the past century or so, has been discussed elsewhere. And the Jews have been around in places like Yerushaláyim thousands of years ago. But what about the more recent past? Did the Jews just return to their once sacred land en masse in the wake of the Holocaust, stealing land rightfully owned by a peaceful Arab populace?

Not exactly.

Here is an image from Tel Aviv, taken in 1939, when WW2 in Europe began in earnest (and incidentally, the year when my Mom was born):

Hmmm… looks decidedly Jewish to me.

Or how about a rare color (!) photo from Jerusalem, showing the sign of an orphanage…

A Palestine orphanage, to be precise, yet the lettering is Latin and Hebrew, because back then, Palestine was mostly used as the name of the land (the British mandate of Palestine), not yet a national identity.

Now I am not suggesting that a Palestinian identity has no legitimacy. I understand how this identity emerged, and how it was, at least in part, a reaction, or response, to Zionism, an attempt to (re-)create a Jewish nation in what was historically Judaea, later to be made part of the new Roman province of Syria-Palaestina. Having a right-wing government in Israel that no longer shows any interest in a resolution that might grant Palestinian Arabs statehood is not helpful, to put it mildly. But even as I recognize the hatred and distrust that exists on both sides, I would purposefully refrain from “bothsidesism”: All I have to do is to look at Palestinian grade school textbooks (there are plenty of infuriating examples on the Interwebs) to know which side advocates actual genocide (a word used far too frequently in recent months), which side characterizes the other (in textbooks!) with hateful caricatures even as it claims a right to own all land from the river to the sea.

 Posted by at 2:01 pm
Feb 042024
 

The illness of our cat Rufus made me read up on the subject of spontaneous remission. No, I do not cling to false rays of hope, I was simply curious: Does it really happen? How often?

Long story short, Google soon led me to a study mentioning the earliest known description of induced spontaneous remission: The Ebers Papyrus.

The Ebers Papyrus is a roughly 3500 years old document, essentially a medical textbook or at least notes. In addition to recipes for numerous remedies, it also contains descriptions of various illnesses, their diagnosis, and methods of treatment.

Here is one example out of many:

Experiential knowledge regarding an a’at growth of fat: When you identify an a’at growth of fat on any body part of a man (and) you find that it comes and goes under your fingers, and where it somehow can be permanently separated by your hand, then you say for this: “This is an a’at growth of fat. A disease that I will treat.” Because of this you then prepare a knife-treatment for it. May it be treated according to the treatment of a wound!

I like it especially (assuming it is not a stylistic mistranslation) how the text instructs the physician-in-training to announce his diagnosis. It instills confidence, but also potentially invites questions or criticism before a treatment is attempted. And there’s no mumbo-jumbo, no superstition or religious mysticism: Facts are facts.

From more than three thousand five hundred years ago.

 Posted by at 11:37 pm
Jan 152024
 

I offered this gloomy prediction before I am offering it again, though it gives me no pleasure: World War 3 is long overdue.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, nuclear Armageddon was seen as almost inevitable someday. Back in 1970, when I was in the second grade, chances were no sane adult believed that the world would persist mostly in peace, with no major conflict between great powers, all the way up to the year 2000 and beyond.

Yet here we are, in 2024, now in the 79th year of the historical epoch that should rightly be called pax Americana: an imperfect, yet unprecedent period of peace, a rules-based world order that brought prosperity, freedom and security to billions. Not everyone, to be sure, but still, it was an era without precedent. The only comparable period of time that I can think of is also from relatively recent history: the decades between 1849 and 1914, which gave birth to the modern world, streetcars and electric subways, lightbulbs and radios, airplanes and labor unions, telephones and civil rights.

It is true that century after century, humanity has become more peaceful: that in any given century since the dawn of written history, your chances of dying as a victim of violence were ever so slightly less than in the preceding century. But that did not put an end to devastating war. And an all-encompassing, devastating war is long overdue, if history is any guide.

In fact, I very much worry that by the reckoning of some future historians, World War 3 might already be under way. We simply haven’t recognized it just yet.

Consider World War 2. When did it begin? Well, most official accounts I suppose mark September 1, 1939, when Hitler’s Third Reich attacked Poland, as the start date. But that’s a very Euro-centric view. I daresay that, in reality, World War 2 actually began on July 7, 1937 at the bridge known to Europeans as the Marco Polo bridge in Beijing, China. It was this incident that started what some call the Second Sino-Japanese War, but it really is the first major military conflict marking the beginning of the global war between 1937 and 1945.

Of course no one in July 1937 surmised that these were the first shots fired in a war that will leave tens of millions dead, Europe devastated, and culminate in the first (and to date, only) use of nuclear weapons in anger. Not even in September 1939 was it a foregone conclusion that the world entered another World War; indeed, for months thereafter, much of the Western press was talking about a “phony war”.

Things changed after the collapse of France, the Battle of Britain, Barbarossa and Pearl Harbor, of course. But it was a gradual process of recognition. Only in hindsight did we attach a firm date (even if it is the wrong date) marking the beginning of the world war.

So where are we now? War in Ukraine continues. Putin is undoubtedly enraged that Ukraine receives substantial assistance not just from the West in general, but from the Baltic states that not too long ago were part of the Soviet Union, places he thinks he owns. Meanwhile, what began as an unprecedented terrorist attack on Israeli civilians in early October is rapidly widening into a regional war, with US and UK forces now attacking Houthi facilities in Yemen, bases that were used to carry out unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping in the region. Iran, of course, is actively involved in all this even as they are entering an unholy alliance, dubbed the “axis of resistance”, uniting Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, with support from Russia and North Korea.

These conflicts are unlikely to go away in 2024. If anything, they are more than likely to escalate.

And I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to consider the very possibility that nuclear weapons will soon enter the stage.

Israel of course is one of the undeclared nuclear powers of the world. Should they feel existentially threatened, I don’t think they’d hesitate to use nukes against their major opponents.

Iran, as far as we know, is not a nuclear power just yet, but they are “almost there”. Would they use nukes merely as a deterrent, or would they deploy nukes against Israel? The ayatollahs are just crazy enough to do that, I fear.

Russia is of course one of the nuclear superpowers of the world. So far, they refrained from using nukes in Ukraine, but how close are they to take that step? They have already been using chemical weapons at a rising rate according to several reports that I have seen.

And then there is Ukraine itself. Though the country gave up its arsenal of inherited Soviet-era weapons, they certainly have the scientific and technological capability to develop a nuclear weapon in a short period of time. Are they working on it already? If so, how close are they and what will be the intended use? Deterrent? Battlefield deployment? And how would Russia react?

Meanwhile, the West is preoccupied with increasingly polarized politics, putting “conservative” against “progressive”, while undermining perhaps fatally the values of liberal democracy. Indeed, there are leaders like Hungary’s Orban who proudly declared themselves and their political schools of thought “illiberal”. It’s not exactly clear which part of traditional liberalism they reject, though quite possibly it’s all of them: who cares about the rule of law when they prefer the laws not apply to them, who cares about freedom of enterprise when their oligarchic cronies want no competition, who cares about civil rights when those pesky citizens have the audacity to criticize them? But if “illiberal” marks predominantly the conservative right, their “woke” counterparts from the progressive left, dubbed “liberal” though their attitudes are often completely at odds with traditional liberal values, certainly give them a run for their money when it comes to intolerance of any views other than their own.

Am I anxious? Not the right word. It’s hard to describe how I feel. The colossal stupidity that marks the world’s march towards conflict and suffering is annoying, but I have a lot less to worry about than most folks. I have no children whose future might concern me. I am in my early 60s, which means that the majority of my lifespan is behind me already, and it was a good life so far. I have no complaints. And there is nothing I can do to help avoid the outcome that I fear. An old joke pops into my mind, one I heard as a child in Hungary, about the railroad watchman who is taking an exam. He is asked what he would do if he saw two express trains heading towards each other on the open track. “I’d call the wife out from the shack,” he says, “because there’s nothing else that I can do and I’m sure she’s never seen a crash quite as big as this one!”

“The lamps are going out all over Europe,” declared Sir Edward Grey in London early August 1914, as the country that he served as foreign secretary was about to declare war on Imperial Germany. The lamps may soon start to go out all over the world. So here I am, telling my beautiful wife that we can watch the show together. My only regret is that we don’t have a ladder long enough to reach the rather tall roof of our townhouse condo. If I did, we’d have a prime view of downtown Ottawa for when the mushroom clouds blossom over its skyline.

 Posted by at 1:16 pm
Jan 132024
 

In 1981-82, I served as a conscript in what was then called the Hungarian People’s Army.

As an engineering student, I was trained as a radar operator, which is several notches above cannon fodder I suppose. Still, I do not have fond memories of the time.

Nonetheless, I have to admit that there were some educational moments.

Having once lived in a resort hotel that my stepfather was managing, in the spectacular, historic small town of Visegrád at the bend of the Danube, I learned how a commercial-grade kitchen, serving 100+ people, operates. Standards in Hungary were quite strict at the time, and managing such a kitchen entailed both enforcing food safety and hygiene standards and tasks such as managing and recycling meal samples, which would be used by health authorities in case of a suspected case of food-borne illness.

The military base where I spent most of my time as a conscript was an active air defense installation, part of the country’s peacetime air defense network. Nonetheless, they had a chronic shortage of officers, which meant that many tasks that would normally have been assigned to commissioned or non-commissioned officers were instead handed to us conscripts. Once they learned that I had some knowledge of how a kitchen is run, I was frequently assigned kitchen duty: No, not washing dishes (though I did that, too, in the early months of my service) but as kitchen supervisor, responsible for everything including obtaining the needed ingredients from our food storage (run by a civilian employee) and taking samples. It was a surprisingly educational experience.

Or how about the time when I was tasked with ordering… a freight train? Not just any train, mind you, but a specialized train (and route) to carry oversize equipment (our large Ural trucks that carried radar equipment and electronics) with a larger-than-standard cross-section to the USSR border, to participate in some international war games exercise. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go myself, my participation was limited to a journey to the regional headquarters of Hungary’s national railway company, where I had to patiently, and correctly, explain to the person responsible what kind of train we needed and why.

I also did minor tasks such as keeping the base’s one and only television set (an aging color set, a Videoton Color Star television, a mostly Soviet design I was told) alive. I was also responsible for the base’s movie projector, and I took weekly trips to Budapest to get a fresh movie on film, for movie night Mondays (back in the early 1980s, there was no television broadcast in Hungary on Mondays.)

The base where I served no longer exists. First, the military abandoned it. The municipality that inherited it tried to sell without much success, even as the facility was stripped, e.g., of nearly all metal bits by (I presume) metal thieves. Someone took a walk around the base in the early 2000s and put the resulting video on YouTube; it looked almost like parts of the city of Pripyat, near Chernobyl, except that in this case, I was looking at a building that I remembered very well personally, having spent some nine months of my life there.

In the end, the entire facility was demolished, to make way for a solar energy farm, if memory serves me correctly.

All that is to say that I was quite surprised, pleasantly I might add, when I discovered the other day that back in 2022, the local municipality decided to install a small memorial plaque thanking all those who served there in defense of Hungary’s airspace. The cynic in me was wondering if there was any profit in this act (it was, after all, partially financed by the EU, it says so on the plaque itself) even as I actually felt a bit of gratitude that our service was not completely unnoticed after all.

What can I say? The plaque is actually quite nice. I might even visit the spot some day.

 Posted by at 4:34 pm
Dec 072023
 

Today, December 7, marks the 82nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Discussion of the Pacific War inevitably leads to discussion of the morality and necessity of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I have long argued, and continue to argue, that it was the only acceptable decision for Harry Truman to make back during the fateful summer of 1945. And I just came across an unusual data point that supports my argument: the manufacture of Purple Hearts.

Wikipedia tells us that the Purple Heart is a US military decoration awarded to those wounded or killed while serving. Needless to say, Purple Hearts must have been in high demand during the war years, between 1941-1945. The decorations obviously need to be manufactured, and that means the US government placing an order for them in anticipation of casualties during any conflict.

And it was an order of stunning magnitude that they placed in 1944-1945, anticipating the invasion of Japan: Something like half a million Purple Hearts were stockpiled. As a result of this and other unused stocks, it was not until the year 2000 that the US government ordered a new supply, and the old supply, though running low, remains in existence to this date.

So imagine that you are the newly minted president of the United States, after your former boss, Roosevelt, dies. You are informed that your government just completed an astonishing effort to create an immensely powerful new weapon, and it is ready for deployment. You are facing a ruthless enemy: Let’s not forget that the Empire of Japan was no less genocidal than Hitler’s regime, perhaps in some ways even more so (look up Unit 731 on Wikipedia if you have the stomach for it.) Perhaps they are ready to surrender. Perhaps not. But until they are, they remain the enemy. You don’t have the benefit of hindsight. You know what you know and it’s July 1945.

How could you NOT order tactical deployment of the new weapon? As opposed to keeping it in reserve or worse yet, wasting one for a theatrical “demonstration”? Wouldn’t that be an open betrayal of the American servicemen fighting in the Pacific theater? An almost treasonous act?

Yes, there were dissenting voices. But, lest we forget, the conventional bombing campaigns were just as brutal on the civilian population as the nuclear bombs, perhaps even more so. The firebombings of Dresden and Tokyo serve as splendid examples of just what the Allied powers were able and willing to do to enemy cities and their civilian population. Of course there was dissent. Americans are not without conscience, and senior political and military leaders in 1945 were no exception. But it was not until the 1960s that questioning the morality of the use of these weapons became… fashionable.

Yet here we are, more than 78 years later, and not a single nuclear weapon was used in anger ever since. That’s not an iron clad guarantee of course, but at least a ray of hope. Perhaps Hiroshima and Nagasaki achieved more than help bring an end to the War in the Pacific. Perhaps they also helped shape our public perception of nuclear war as the pinnacle of abhorrence.

In the meantime, though, if anyone wonders about the morality of Truman’s decision, perhaps it’s a good idea to contemplate the half million (give or take) surplus Purple Hearts.

 Posted by at 9:41 pm
Dec 062023
 

A few days ago, I came across an article that described a remarkable paper, published in the USSR more than 50 years ago, with predictions on climate change.

Predictions that proved remarkably prescient.

I first read about Mikhail Budyko’s article in a recent review, published on EOS three years ago. What caught my attention, in particular, was Fig. 1 of that article, reproduced below, that shows just how spot on Budyko’s predictions happen to be.

Budyko’s 1972 predictions (solid gray lines) of a) surface temperature and b) changes in Arctic sea ice, compared to observational data from NASA Goddard and IPCC predictions.

Naturally, I wanted to see the original reference, which proved harder than I expected. While it was cited many times, the paper was almost impossible to find. Although I did locate it in an online Russian library, it was only an index entry, with the (unscanned) copy available only for reading in person.

But then… Fortunate favors the… foolish? Persistent? I stumbled upon a 2020 Russian-language publication containing full reprints of several papers by Mikhail Budyko, including the paper in question.

I took it upon myself then to translate the paper in its entirety, with help from one of our AI friends. (AI can do a remarkable job translating technically challenging content, much better than dedicated translation software, albeit some supervision is required.)

Yes, Budyko indeed accurately predicted human-induced climate change. His concerns about rapid changes, “tipping points” are also well-justified. Notably, his work was written before climate change became political football. It’s the work of an excellent climate scientist, not a political hack.

 Posted by at 11:57 pm
Dec 022023
 

I just came across a quote attributed to Einstein: “If I had foreseen Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I would have torn up my formula in 1905.

The problem with this quote is that it is utter nonsense, and not something Einstein likely would have said, ever.

An image of Einstein that is just as real as some of the quotes attributed to him. Courtesy of Midjourney.

The “formula” of mass-energy equivalence simply states that an object’s resistance to motion (its inertia) is proportional to its energy-content. That is all. Yes, I know that in the popular imagination, \(E=mc^2\) is frequently associated with the nuclear age. But that’s nonsense. \(E=mc^2\) is not about “converting” anything into anything. Mass-energy is mass-energy, and it is conserved. Whether it is in the form of the nuclear binding energy of a uranium atom (or for that matter, the chemical binding energy of carbon atoms in a fireplace log) or in the form of the kinetic energy of photons released by a nuclear or chemical reaction has absolutely nothing to do with \(E=mc^2\): the formula does not explain nuclear fission any more than it explains the chemical reactions that govern the burning of wood.

But then, what about this quote, which appears in a number of reliable places, including Wikiquotes?

It is attributed to a book published by a William Hermanns, who supposedly interviewed Einstein on a number of occasions between the late 1920s and Einstein’s death in 1955.

The person appears real. I found, in Google’s archive, the May 2, 1955 issue of Life, which includes a personal recollection of one of Life’s own editors, William Miller, of his very last visit to Einstein, when he actually met William Hermanns.

Hermanns’s book, Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man, is also real: In fact, it even has a Kindle edition.

But… how much of it is true?

Considering that Hermanns has an exceptional biography (which one can read on a Web site dedicated to his life) it is more than a bit odd that the only references to his name in Wikipedia are Einstein-related. Yet his name does not appear in notable Einstein biographies, including Abraham Pais’s definitive scientific biography, or Walter Isaacson’s exceptionally good Einstein bio.

When I read the few pages of Hermanns’s book that are available as a Kindle preview, I grow even more suspicious. For instance, according to Hermanns, already in 1927 Einstein was “marked by Nazis as ‘Enemy number One of the Nation,’ and the object of at least seven plots to take his life.” News to me.

But then, Hermanns goes on to quote Einstein who supposedly said, “When I was about five, my father gave me a compass as a toy. I wanted to find out why the needle never deviated […] When I asked my uncle, an engineer, he immediately proceeded to teach me some fundamentals of algebra, with this advice: ‘What you don’t know, call x, then hunt til you find what it is.’ From that time on, I have called everything I didn’t know x, especially magnetism.

As I asked ChatGPT just moments ago, can you imagine Einstein saying these words, in 1927, to a stranger who just visited him?

Long story short, I don’t know what to think. Based on what I have read, I do not believe Hermanns’s accounts of his conversations with Einstein are credible. At the very least, they must be severely distorted versions of Einstein’s words, probably deeply colored, warped by Hermanns’s imagination. For what it’s worth, ChatGPT concurs: “The lack of independent verification and recognition in authoritative sources casts doubt on the accuracy and credibility of his accounts. Your reservations about accepting Hermanns’ narratives as factual are well-founded.”

 Posted by at 11:32 pm
Nov 172023
 

“I am freer than you”. These were the defiant words of St. Petersburg artist Sasha Skochilenko as she was sentenced for five tiny pieces of paper, providing details about Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine.

She used the five pieces of paper in question to replace price tags in a grocery store.

Among other things, she said in court, that [emphasis mine]

[…] I am unable to understand why we need military operations. Why are we doing this? Military actions shorten life. Military actions mean death.
You can call it anything you want. You can say I was mistaken, misled, or brainwashed. But I always stick to my opinion, my truth.
I don’t know anyone other than the state prosecutor who wants to put me in prison.
In fact, I think that deep down even the state prosecutor doesn’t want this. I think he became a prosecutor to imprison real criminals and miscreants — murderers, rapists, pedophiles.
[…]
You are worried about your career […] to give your children or your future children a head start. But what will you tell them? Will you tell them how you sent to prison an ailing woman because of five tiny pieces of paper?
[…]
Even though I am behind bars, I am freer than you. […] I am not afraid that I won’t have a dazzling career or of appearing funny, vulnerable, or strange. I’m not afraid of seeming different from other people. Maybe that is why the state fears me and others like me so much and keeps me in a cage like a dangerous animal.

What an incredibly brave woman. What a morally bankrupt state it is that imprisons someone for this “crime”.

 Posted by at 12:11 am
Nov 112023
 

The fate of animals in wars was often tragic. They served their human masters (and all too often, died with their human masters) faithfully.

One of the most touching war memorials I ever came across was the Animals in War memorial in Hyde Park, London, that I stumbled upon completely by accident, unaware of its existence. Not that the animals themselves care, but it’s nice that they are remembered. And as of 2012, Ottawa has its very own Animals in War memorial, in Confederation Park.

Neither of these memorials specifically mention cats, though, despite the fact that cats played no small a role in making the otherwise unbearable conditions a teeny bit more tolerable. Many were killed. Occasionally, they even helped save their masters’ lives.

Long story short, last night I asked Midjourney to depict a gentlecat, thinking about his lost comrades.

 Posted by at 12:45 pm
Nov 022023
 

Imagine the following sequence of events:

  • First, a second-rate power suffers a terrorist attack as part of a festering political crisis that has been going on for many years. This attack is the proverbial last drop in the bucket: they feel they must respond, and launch a punitive military expedition that may not be well planned and might even fail, despite their apparent superiority.
  • A rival second-rate power who supported the rebels that committed the terrorist act feels that it must intervene. Its voice has been ignored for far too long, and it has vital interests in the region.
  • A Great Power, in support of the first second-rate power as part of a long-standing alliance, steps in, reluctantly because they do not want to get embroiled in someone else’s war, but convinced that their actions are unavoidable.
  • Another Great Power, in reaction, steps in as well because it feels that it is necessary essential to do so in order to maintain the existing world order and their position therein.

What did I just describe? The October 7 attack on Israel by Hamas? The increasingly hostile response by Iran? A possible intervention by the United States assisting Israel, leading to direct conflict with Russia who are already active in the region and embroiled in conflict elsewhere?

Nope. I was describing something that happened 109 years ago, when Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princip murdered Austria-Hungary’s heir to the throne. Austria-Hungary’s punitive expedition against Serbia was launched in response. This led to Russia’s decision to enter the war, followed by the German Empire and ultimately, Britain.

Yet, though the analogy is far from perfect, the parallels are unmistakable. And to be honest, frightening.

This is why I don’t think of 10/7 as Israel’s 9/11. Nope. It’s our era’s Sarajevo.

We have been living in a golden era that has no precedent in human history. Pax Americana, which began in 1945 and was characterized by measures like the Marshall Plan that, instead of punishing Western Europe, helped the continent back onto its feet, has been keeping our world safe and prosperous for almost eight decades. No, not perfect, far from it. Millions still died in conflict. But it was millions, not billions, and the promised great conflict, a thermonuclear WW3, has not happened yet. Meanwhile, billions live in relative security, safety, and prosperity, enjoying decent lives, on a scale that truly has no historical parallel (though the period between 1849 and 1914 comes close.)

But ultimately, all good things must come to an end, they say. And this world order is coming apart at the seams. Alliances weaken. A rules-based world is no longer in vogue. Liberal democracies are losing their middle class, even as the same middle class votes for lower taxes and less government, forgetting that it was higher taxes and more government (reminding my good American friends of the late 1940s, 1950s, with the GI bill, the Interstate highway system or public education, all financed by taxing high incomes at rates not seen before or since) that built that prosperous, strong middle class in the first place. Other Western nations follow similar paths as the middle class shrinks and trust in the institutions of liberal democracy erodes.

“The lamps are going out all over Europe,” declared Sir Edward Grey, Britain’s Foreign Minister at the time, on August 3, 1914 as his country was about to declare war on Germany. I fear that we are just a hair’s breadth away from our lamps-are-going-out moment. And just like Sir Edward Grey, responsible leaders of our times appear to feel increasingly helpless.

 Posted by at 10:08 pm
Oct 212023
 

It was 82 years ago, back in 1941, that the country of my birth, Hungary, switched to driving on the right [link in Hungarian].

Streetcar with a large sign reminding the public to drive on the right

The decision has a sad history. It was prompted by the experience earlier that year when Hungary allowed the transit of Wehrmacht troops on their way to occupy Yugoslavia.

This was yet another step towards Hungary fully committing itself to the German effort, giving up any semblance of neutrality.

For Hungary’s prime minister at the time, Pal Teleki, this was the last drop [link in Hungarian] in the proverbial bucket. Early in the morning on April 3, 1941, he shot himself. His farewell letter to Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s leader at the time, simply stated, “I did not hold you back. I am guilty. Pal Teleki, April 3, 1941.”

Hungary went on to fight with the Germans against the USSR. When it became clear that the Germans cannot win, Horthy made a half-hearted attempt to extricate the country out of the war. Instead, he was removed from power by the rabid national socialist Arrow Cross, with support from occupying German troops, who in the remaining few months of the war assisted the Germans in the deportation and wholesale murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungary’s Jews. In the end, the country was liberated but at a tremendous cost: Much of Budapest lay in ruins, devastated by a brutal Soviet siege, with all the city’s magnificent bridges across the Danube destroyed by the retreating Germans. Eventually, Horthy’s worst nightmare became reality: The “Bolsheviks” took over and stayed in power for more than 40 years, which included the a bloody intervention by the Soviets in 1956 to crush an anti-communist revolution.

Meanwhile, Budapest’s “millennial” subway, the continent’s first all-electric urban underground railway, continued to drive on the left all the way up to 1973, when the line was rebuilt, new rolling stock were introduced, and these trains, too, were switched to right-hand drive.

 Posted by at 9:41 pm
Oct 172023
 

Here are two images. The first is from 1943.

By way of explanation, the gentleman on the left is Admiral Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s leader at the time. The gentleman on the right with the famous moustache needs no introduction.

The second image is from today, October 17, 2023:

The somewhat overweight gentleman on the left is Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister. The gentleman on the right is well known I suppose.

I don’t think I need to comment on why I opted to post these two pictures together. All I have to say is that this second image will come to haunt Hungarians in the future much the same way as the first.

 Posted by at 3:52 pm
Oct 122023
 

As I watch the lamps of the post-WW2 world order go out, one tiny, flickering light at a time, I am compelled to remember something that happened more than a century ago: When Sir Edward Grey, Great Britain’s Foreign Secretary at the time, remarked that “the lamps are going out all over Europe”.

We are not quite there yet. There is hope that sanity will prevail.

Yet I feel that that hope is fading, that time is running out.

In 1914, the point of no return, the trigger was Germany’s decision to attack neutral Belgium. It compelled Britain to declare war, and ultimately widened that war into the world’s first (or maybe second — I think the Napoleonic wars might qualify as World War 0) global conflict.

What the trigger will be this time, I do not know. I am reacting in part to the announcement that the West warned Hezbollah to stay out of Israel’s conflict with Hamas. But chances are it will be something else.

But it is coming, of that I am near certain, even as I dearly hope that I am dead wrong, that my pessimism is unwarranted, my concerns grossly misplaced.

 Posted by at 2:17 am
Oct 082023
 

The world is not heading in the right direction. Not by a long shot. The golden era that began in 1945 and saw an unprecedented number of people around the world find relative peace, prosperity, and security for nearly eight decades, may be coming to an unpleasant end. There is a Hungarian saying (“kutya is jódolgában megy a jégre”) that may have a loose equivalent in English in the form of the proverb, “you never miss the water till the well runs dry”.

Here are a few things that concern me, in no particular order:

  • Worsening wars: Russia-Ukraine, the (brand new) Hamas-Israeli war, hotspots elsewhere, China-Taiwan tension
  • The shrinking middle class, rising inequality and homelessness
  • Erosion of democratic values, faith in democratic/constitutional institutions
  • Rise of populism, ideological demagoguery and intolerance, political polarization, even violence
  • Rising economic instability, lack of economic and environmental sustainability

There are probably a few more that I have not mentioned, including petty domestic Canadian issues, such as the gloriously incompetent bills C-11/C-18 by which Canada tries to control online media.

Individually, each of these issues would be considered serious, but certainly not insurmountable. When they come all at the same time… The last time the world faced something similar was in the late 1920s, early 1930s. We know how well that turned out. Tens of millions of deaths, the rise of two of the worst totalitarian ideologies in history, a world war and the deployment of two nuclear weapons later…

Those nuclear weapons proved to be genuine peacemakers: Few can argue that they had a major role convincing all participants to play kind of nice, making sure that certain lines in the sand remain firmly uncrossed. But the inhibitions against their use are becoming weaker over time.

Am I being an alarmist? I don’t think so. I’m pretty sure the people who woke up today to the sound of air raid sirens in Israel, or found themselves at the end of the day in Hamas custody as human shield hostages do not think so either.

Earlier today, I was looking at amazing pictures of an abandoned Siberian town, Kadykchan. Built at the cost of the lives of countless gulag prisoners, the town lost its population after the breakup of the USSR, and now serves as little more than a sad reminder of entire chapters of 20th century history. I think one of the images of that town that I saw might serve well as a cautionary tale.

How about coming to our senses before it’s too late, before we turn much of the world into a similar post-apocalyptic wasteland?


PS: My AI friend Claude suggested toning down this post a little, to make it less alarmist. I don’t want to. I am alarmed.

 Posted by at 3:14 am
Sep 302023
 

So this has been in the news lately, too: a discovery of remnants of a wooden structure that is almost half a million years old.

It is truly incredible. These tools, these worked pieces of now petrified wood, predate the emergence of homo sapiens by several hundred thousand years.

Not for the first time I am left wondering just how much of the past will remain forever hidden from us. The earliest human whose name is known to us lived roughly 5000 years ago. Let that sink in for a moment. Modern human behavior began roughly 100,000 years ago, give or take. Presumably, this behavior involved language, social structures and, well, names. These were our ancestors, millions and millions of them, who inhabited the Earth for countless generations. And we don’t even know their names.

And now this, some 476,000 year old logs along with simple stone tools that were used to shape them. That suggests some form of permanence. Which implies a structured society. Skills, transferred from one generation to the next. Language. Culture. About which we know nothing.

Half a million years. That is, 100 times what counts as recorded history. An eyeblink in geologic terms, to be sure, but for us humans? The word that pops into my mind is… humbling.

 Posted by at 3:09 pm
Sep 122023
 

In his “1984”, Eric Arthur Blair, better known under the pen name George Orwell, at one point has the protagonists reading a book about the history of oligarchical collectivism, the dominant ideology of the totalitarian “IngSoc” regime of Oceania. They read,

Throughout recorded time, and probably since the end of the Neolithic Age, there have been three kinds of people in the world, the High, the Middle, and the Low […] The aims of these three groups are entirely irreconcilable. The aim of the High is to remain where they are. The aim of the Middle is to change places with the High. […] For long periods the High seem to be securely in power, but sooner or later there always comes a moment when they lose either their belief in themselves or their capacity to govern efficiently, or both. They are then overthrown by the Middle, who enlist the Low on their side by pretending to them that they are fighting for liberty and justice. As soon as they have reached their objective, the Middle thrust the Low back into their old position of servitude, and themselves become the High.

So here is the thing: Liberal democracy is an aberration. An outlier. A period in history with no real “High”. We have no emperors, Kaisers, Caesars or Sultans. Monarchs, maybe, but mere figureheads in constitutional monarchies, not tyrants. In places like Canada, the United States, Western Europe and many other parts of the world, only the Middle and the Low exist. To be sure, the Middle can still be pretty darn powerful: political dynasties, tycoons and captains of industry, even public figures like media personalities wield substantial power. But their might is constrained by the system of institutions that we call liberal democracy: rule of law, freedom of enterprise, freedom of conscience, civil liberties or the separation of powers among them.

But this is not good enough, just not good enough for many among the elites of the Middle. They want more. Always more. And they fight. Throughout much of history, their enemy was the High. But in a liberal democracy, it is now the system of institutions that they fight against. Yet the tactics are the same. They enlist the Low. Don’t trust the system, they tell the Low. Elections are fake. Judges are corrupt or biased. Government lies to you. The rule of law is “weaponized”, they assert. Whatever it takes… but the real objective is to abolish the very constraints that prevent the Middle from becoming the new High.

And they are succeeding. Just look at the range of countries that are now on lists characterizing their retreat from democracy. Look at all the populists who are systematically undermining key pillars of liberal democracy, such as freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, even the electoral process. Will they succeed? I’d argue that they already succeeded in a number of countries and they are well on their way to success in many other places.

Liberal democracy, after all, is not a normal state of affairs for humanity. It’s an exception. It is no accident that some of the greatest 20th century writers of science-fiction, such as Isaac Asimov or Frank Herbert, did not envision a democratic future. Asimov’s future in Foundation was a monolithic Galactic Empire that persisted for well over 10,000 years. Herbert’s Dune similarly envisioned a feudal society.

And if history is any guide, when the would-be tyrants succeed, they all too often will continue to maintain a semblance of democracy. After all, for centuries following the demise of the Roman Republic, emperors continued to issue decrees and coins bearing the acronym SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, falsely suggesting that Rome is still governed by a Senate that answers to the people, not by an all-powerful emperor. But this is just a cheap conjurer’s trick to assure the masses, the Low: All that is being done is done for them, and in their name.

Here’s My Brightest Diamond, singing about High Low Middle. Not sure if they were inspired by Orwell, but it’s strangely appropriate.

 Posted by at 3:58 am
Aug 122023
 

Here’s a Hungarian-language letter, an official note from 120 years ago that has been making the rounds on the Hungarian Interwebs for many years already. As far as I know, the letter is real, penned by a well-known Hungarian scholar, also known for his poetry. Below is my translation: watch it, the language is more than a little, hmmm, rough.

506/1903

To the esteemed Public Works Office
in the town of Pecs

Concerning your official transcript 1090/1903 that arrived with yesterday’s mail, in which you ask what needs to be done with the old spurs that were found in the outskirts of the village Magyarbeki? With official respect, my answer is that you gentlemen should fuck your spurs, because in this heat of 35° Reaumur, we cannot deal with such shit.

Aug 18, 1903, Budapest.

With all due respect,
Horsedick up your ass
Dr. Laszlo Rethy
Deputy Director, Hungarian National Museum, Department of Coins and Antiquities

To the Hungarian Royal Public Works Office of District XIV, Pecs

Ahem. For what it’s worth, 35°R is 44°C or about 111°F.

In other words: damn hot.

 Posted by at 4:51 pm
Aug 112023
 

Howard Hughes was a great example. A captain of industry, a tycoon, whose life ended in mysery, ruined by mental illness no doubt, but wealth and success must have played their part, along with nearly limitless hubris.

There are others, both real-life folks and characters in fiction who fell into this trap. The tycoon Andrew Ryan of the Bioshock computer game franchise. Elon Musk with his increasingly erratic decisions that led, among other things, to the on-going corporate value destruction at Twitter.

We all know the expression, tragedy of the commons. But what to call it when wealth and power destroys a person, one who gave so much real value to the world, one who started off as a visionary, a revolutionary “captain of industry”? I asked our AI friend Claude and Claude offered a perfect answer: call it the tragedy of the tycoons.

I even have the perfect illustration, courtesy of our other AI friend, Midjourney.

 Posted by at 4:03 pm
Jun 302023
 

I am looking at images of nearly 4000 year old clay tablets.

Clay tablets like Si.427, depicting a survey of land. And incidentally, also demonstrating the use of the theorem of Pythagoras well over a thousand years before Pythagoras was born.

If only I had a time machine… To witness how these people lived. How they laughed, how they cried. They studied, the learned, they applied what they knew. They built a magnificent civilization. They loved and they hated, they offered sacrifices and committed betrayals. They had fun, they enjoyed a good meal, they entertained. They lived.

And we know so little about them. What did they do for fun? What were they talking about at the dinner table? What were their hopes for their children? What did they know about the world? What were their trades? How did they pass on their knowledge to others? Did they travel? Did they enjoy a day of rest at the beach?

All gone. An entire civilization, that was routinely using artifacts with precision diagrams like this tablet. All gone and almost completely forgotten, other than these bits and pieces, these fragments.

It’s humbling.

 Posted by at 11:40 pm