Sep 112021
 

A few hours from now, it will be exactly 20 years since that fateful morning when, instead of going to bed after working through the night (I was very much a night owl in those days), I ended up spending the day glued to the television window on my old PC, running Windows XP and cable TV in a window, courtesy of a long obsolete ATI All-in-Wonder video card combining graphics with an analog TV tuner.

I had no doubt that the events of the day would change the world that we live in. What was not clear was how.

The good news: America’s “war on terror” by and large has to be considered a success. There have been no large-scale terrorist acts on US soil by militant Islamists since 9/11. But that’s pretty much where the good news end.

The bad news: Where should I begin?

First, the misguided occupation of Afghanistan. Yes, I know, hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but it was pretty obvious even back then that it is not possible to do an occupation on the cheap. There is one way to occupy a hostile country: put a sizable garrison in every town and a guardpost at every intersection, maintain order, and respond ruthlessly to attacks on your forces. Now the thing is, not even the USSR was willing to make this level of effort, which is why their Afghanistan venture was a fiasco. As for America, whoever came up with the idea that you can bomb a country into democracy need to get their heads examined.

Second, the criminally insane war on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. No, Hussein was not a nice fellow. But removing him created a regional power vacuum that the theocracy in Iran was all too eager to fill. The one good outcome of this is that it created a previously unimaginable rapport between Iran’s enemies, namely Israel and the Gulf states. Otherwise, all the Iraqi venture accomplished is a destabilization of the region, the consequences of which we still reap.

And speaking of places like the Gulf states, this is another one of the unpleasant consequences of 9/11: Perhaps more than ever, the “land of the free”, the United States, loves cozying up with despots and dictators. This was especially prevalent during the Trump era, as Trump seemed unnervingly comfortable with the likes of Putin or MBS, even as he denounced democratically elected leaders committed to the values of liberal democracy.

Thankfully, the misguided military ventures are over. Chaotic last few days notwithstanding, US troops are finally out of Afghanistan. There are very few things for which Trump deserves praise, but his decision to pull out of Afghanistan, his reluctance to start new wars, are commendable.

If only the United States could overcome its internal partisan division, it could again resume its role as “leader of the free world”, a free world that now faces the dual threat of rising authoritarianism in many Western democracies, and the rise of a leader more authoritarian than anyone since Mao in a China that is now an undisputed economic superpower.

But for that, millions of Americans would first have to abandon scary conspiracy theories about a stolen election or a COVID vaccine that is an attack on their rights and freedoms; and other millions of Americans would have to abandon their commitment to impose their increasingly intolerant “woke” values, their “cancel culture” on their neighbors. And their lessons would have to be repeated elsewhere, throughout the Western world. In short, we have to somehow relearn some basic ideas of a liberal democracy, such as the notion that our neighbors whose political priorities differ from ours are not inherently evil, they are not the enemy. Can this happen? Will this happen in an era of social media bubbles, bubbles often controlled by foreign adversaries and their divisive propaganda, turning us against each other?

But before I get too pessimistic, I look at the long term trends. Here we are, in 2021, 76 years after one of the most devastating wars in human history ended with the use of two atomic bombs. When I was a child in the late 1960s, early 1970s, no sane person in the world would have predicted that we would live to see 2021 without another great war, without nuclear Armageddon. Yet here we are, worrying not about mushroom clouds but about climate change, not about Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare but about microplastics hampering efforts to clean up rivers and wetlands, not about famines and “Soylent Green” but about lithium or rare earth production for our batteries and high tech gadgets, not about hostile AI running our lives but about semiconductor shortages hampering the automobile industry.

Still I have to wonder, was 9/11 a wasted opportunity? Could the US and the world have responded better? Undoubtedly, I think.

 Posted by at 1:12 am
Aug 152021
 

I promised myself not to blog much about politics, but this one deserves an entry.

In my all time favorite movie, Cloud Atlas, while reading some decades-old letters, a protagonist remarks: “Just trying to understand why we keep making the same mistakes… over and over.”

I was wondering the same thing moments ago when I came across the cover page of tomorrow’s edition of USA Today:

The editors of USA Today of course knew exactly what they were doing when they elected to use a picture that is almost like a copy of another iconic photo, this one from 1975:

Many think that it is a mistake for the US to exit Afghanistan. I respectfully disagree. The mistake was starting an unwinnable war. Compounded by the mistake of staying there for 20 years, perpetuating a conflict, causing many more deaths. Wasn’t Vietnam a good enough lesson? Didn’t the collapse of the Saigon government teach the US that military occupation cannot build a nation? Was there nothing to learn from the USSR’s failure to pacify Afghanistan? Or for that matter, their failure to suppress the Baltics and the nations of Eastern Europe, which chose to escape the Soviet Bloc at the first opportunity, with their domestic politics often resuming exactly where it left off decades earlier when it was interrupted by the arrival of Soviet troops?

So here we are, 46 years after Saigon, and yet another helicopter departs yet another roof with some of the last lucky few who can thus escape an uncertain future, possibly death, in a besieged city.

 Posted by at 9:52 pm
Aug 132021
 

I was so busy yesterday, it was only after midnight that I realized the significance of the date.

It was exactly 40 years ago yesterday, on August 12, 1981, that IBM introduced this thing to the world:

Yes, the IBM Model 5150 personal computer, better known simply as the IBM PC.

Little did we know that this machine would change the world. In 1981, it was just one of many competing architectures, each unique, each incompatible with the rest. A program written for the Apple II could not possibly run on a Commodore VIC 20. The Sinclair ZX81 even used a different microprocessor. Between different processors, different graphics chips, different methods of sound generation, different external interfaces, each machine created its own software ecosystem. Programs that were made available for multiple architectures were essentially redeveloped from scratch, with little, if any, shared code between versions (especially since larger, more complex applications were invariably written in machine language for efficient execution).

The PC changed all that but it took a few years for that change to become evident. There were multiple factors that made this possible.

First and foremost among them, it was IBM’s decision to create a well-documented, open hardware architecture that was not protected by layers and layers of patents. The level of documentation provided by IBM was truly unprecedented in the world of personal computers. An entire series of books were offered, in traditional binders characteristic of technical documentation of the era:

As to what’s in these volumes, here’s a random page from the XT technical reference manual:

This level of detail made it possible, easy even for a hardware ecosystem to emerge: first, companies that manufactured novel extension boards for the PC and eventually, “clone” makers who built “IBM compatible” computers using “clean room” functional equivalents, developed by companies like Phoenix Technologies, of the machine’s basic software component, the BIOS (Basic Input Output System).

But the other deciding factor was the fateful decision to allow Microsoft to market their own version of the PC’s operating system, DOS. IBM’s computers came with the IBM branded version called “PC-DOS”, but Microsoft was free to sell their own, “MS-DOS”.

Thus, starting in 1984 or so, the market of IBM compatible computers was born, and it rapidly eclipsed IBM’s own market share.

And amazingly, the architecture that they created 40 years ago is still fundamentally the same architecture that we use today. OK, you may not be able to boot an MS-DOS floppy on a new machine with UEFI Secure Boot enabled, but if the BIOS permits you to turn it off, and you actually have a working floppy drive (or, more likely, a CD-ROM drive with a bootable CD image of the old operating system) you just might be in luck and boot that machine using MS-DOS 2.1, so that you can then run an early version of Lotus 1-2-3 or WordPerfect. (Of course you can run all of that in a DOSBox, but DOSBox is a software emulation of the IBM PC, so that does not really count.)

And while 64-bit versions of Windows no longer run really old 16-bit software without tools such as virtual machines or the aforementioned DOSBox, to their credit Microsoft still makes an effort to maintain robust backward compatibility: This is how I end up using a 24-year old accounting program to keep track of my personal finances, or Microsoft’s 25-year old “Bookshelf” product with an excellent, easy-to-use version of the American Heritage Dictionary. (No, I am not adverse to change or the use of newer software. But it so happens that these packages work flawlessly, do exactly what I need them to do, and so far I have not come across any replacement that delivers the functionality I need, even if I ignore all the unnecessary bloat.)

So here we are: 40 years. It’s insane. Perhaps it is worth mentioning the original, baseline specifications of the IBM 5150 Personal Computer. It has a 16-bit processor running at 0.00477 GHz. It had approximately 0.000015 gigabytes of RAM. The baseline configuration had no permanent storage, only a cassette tape interface for storing BASIC programs. The version capable of running PC-DOS had four times as much RAM, 0.000061 gigabytes, and external storage in the form of a single-sided, single-density 5.25″ floppy disk drive capable of storing 0.00034 gigabytes of data on a single disk. (Be grateful that I did not use terabytes to describe its capacity.) The computer had no real-time clock (when PC-DOS started, it asked for the time and date). Its monochrome display adapter was text only, capable of showing 25 lines by 80 characters each. Alternatively the user could opt to purchase a machine equipped with a CGA (color graphics adapter), capable of showing a whopping 16 colors at the resolution of 160 by 100 pixels, or a high resolution monochrome image at 640 by 200 pixels. Sound was provided through a simple beeper, controlled entirely by software. Optional external interfaces included RS-232 serial and IEEE 1284 parallel ports.

Compare that to the specifications of a cheap smartphone today, 40 years later.

 Posted by at 4:24 pm
Jul 152021
 

I wrote an answer today on Quora that, I realized, belongs in my blog.

The question was about once significant medieval towns in Europe that have since faded into obscurity.

And I had the perfect answer, on account of having lived there back in the 1970s: The town of Visegrád in northern Hungary (known these days on account of the Visegrad Four, the informal alliance of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia which began with a summit in this town held in 1991).

Once the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary, and also home of the Summer Palace of King Matthias Corvinus during the heyday of said kingdom, today the town (really, a village; it gained the legal status of town only because of its historical significance, not on account of its population, which numbers less than 2,000) is just a minor settlement at the Danube Bend, where where the river Danube makes a 90-degree turn towards Budapest.

I used to live in a building just at the base of the stocky Salamon tower near the center of this image. Image from Wikipedia.

Visegrád is a fascinating town, full of history. Unfortunately, because of said history, most of it is in the form of barely recognizable ruins. Ruins of a citadel at the top of Castle Hill, its last functioning remains blown up by the victorious Austrians after the failed struggle for Hungarian independence in the early 18th century. Ruins of the sprawling Summer Palace complex, used by locals as a source of building material for centuries until very little of the original buildings remained. Ruins of the tower of Salamon, part of the lower castle, rebuilt decades ago using modern materials and housing a museum, but badly in need of repairs. And more ruins, ruins going back to Roman times, everywhere.

The name of the town itself is of Slavic origin (literally means high castle I believe) but many of the town’s present-day inhabitants are of German descent. I recall names of classmates like Gerstmayer or Fröhlich, and it was not uncommon to hear family members talking to each other in German on the streets of the town when I lived there as a child.

I have fond memories of the place; I attended school there from grades 6 to 8 before moving back to Budapest. I still visit Visegrád from time to time when I am in Hungary, albeit only as a tourist, as I no longer really know anybody there. It is, to be sure, a very popular tourist destination: the Danube Bend is spectacular, and the hills surrounding the area are crisscrossed by well-marked, well-maintained tourist trails. And, well, ruins or no ruins, the history of the place is absolutely fascinating.

But looking at the tiny village, its single church, small school, its sole tiny movie theatre, the few narrow streets with mostly single-story buildings, you’d never guess the rich history of the town.

Church of St. John the Baptist, in the center of Visegrád. Lovely clock. Google Street View image.

 Posted by at 11:53 pm
Jun 302021
 

Yesterday, I saw an image of a beautiful altarpiece, Dutch painter Rogier van der Weyden’s Santa Columba triptych from 1455.

It was described as the biggest spoiler in history. Look at the center panel depicting the classic Nativity scene. Now look more closely at the center column:

Oops.

And then, I saw another image, a 1958 photo from Pál Berkó, courtesy of the Hungarian Fortepan photo archive, depicting the crowd greeting Khrushchov on account of his visit to Budapest. Greeting him with… smartphones in hand, taking selfies?

Not exactly. Those are actually mirrors that many used to be able to see over the crowd. But the resemblance is…

I guess it’s true: The more we change, the more we remain the same.

 Posted by at 8:03 pm
Jun 262021
 

Recently, it felt at times almost like a fad: Questioning the legacy of past celebrities, removing statues, renaming institutions.

Often, it seemed like these denounced heroes of the past are held to an impossible standard: Not living up to the changing values of the present.

I questioned the motivation: Was it true concern that we worship the wrong heroes, or just a cheap attempt at “virtue signaling”? I questioned the outcome: Exactly how does renaming a high school or removing a statue from a public park help an Indigenous community get safe drinking water, better jobs, better health care?

But more importantly, I questioned the wisdom of judging the past by the standards of the present. Standards that evolve and (thankfully!) improve, but which, for that very reason, would have been impossible for our past heroes to live up to, as those standards did not yet exist.

Faced with the discovery of the unmarked graves of many hundreds of Canadian children that is reopening the wounds of the despicable residential school system, I was wondering the same thing. Were these schools really the manifestations of evil? Or were they perhaps no different from other residential schools for the poor, for the children of immigrants, for other disadvantaged members of a society that, let’s face it, was quite bigoted by present-day standards?

But now I have my answer. What took place in those schools a century ago was not normal, not acceptable. It was criminal, even by the standards of early-1900s Canada. It’s just that nobody cared.

How do I know? From the accounts of someone who was in a unique position to critique the system: Peter Henderson Bryce, who at one point served as Canada’s Chief Medical Officer at the Department of Immigration.

For many years, Bryce studied the health of Canada’s Indigenous population, specifically the conditions at the residential schools. He was appalled by what he saw as an underfunded system of unsanitary, crowded facilities with shockingly high mortality rates. His report was suppressed and he was instead eventually pushed out of the Civil Service. Refusing to be silenced, he published his report himself.

The title says it all:

A National Crime

So there we have it. We are not misapplying our much improved, enlightened standards of 2021 to judge people and institutions that existed a century ago. What they did back then, how they treated the Indigenous population of Canada was A National Crime even by the standards of a contemporary member of the establishment, a dedicated civil servant who was already a teenager when the Dominion of Canada was established in 1867.

Dr. Peter Bryce, M. D., who passed away in 1932 at the age of 78, is buried not far from our home, right here in Ottawa, in the famed Beechwood Cemetery.

 Posted by at 7:56 pm
May 132021
 

I was watching a documentary on Netflix and a photo caught my attention. A beautiful, old photograph (shown in color in the documentary, but I suspect it was colorized, so I am including a black-and-white version instead that I found online) showing a young mother and her child, along with a stuffed toy animal:

This photo depicts the sister of Setsuko Thurlow (née Nakamura), a Japanese-Canadian peace activist, herself a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb.

Unfortunately, her sister Ayako was not that lucky. She and her young son Eiji were badly burnt and soon perished.

I get it why the atomic bomb was deemed necessary. With everything I know today, I still would not, could not have made a decision different from that made by Harry Truman back in July, 1945 even if it meant that I could not ever sleep soundly afterwards throughout the remainder of my life. Not with some 10,000 people, most of them civilians, dying in the Pacific theater every day of the war.

Even so… War is horrifying.

Strangely, it’s the toy animal that humanized this picture for me more than anything else.

 Posted by at 10:40 pm
Apr 192021
 

This morning, a drone took flight. It successfully took off from the ground, hovered for a few seconds, and then landed safely.

What, you ask? How is this supposed to be a big deal? There are millions of drones out there, kids playing with them and whatnot.

Oh, but this drone is special, and not only because it carries a small piece of fabric from the Wright brothers’ very first airplane.

It is special because it flew on Mars.

 Posted by at 11:42 am
Apr 132021
 

I am reading about the closure of an iconic grocery store in central Moscow.

What an amazing place. What amazing history: a store, opened in 1901, which survived the Communist revolution (though it was nationalized and renamed Gastronome no. 1), survived the collapse of the USSR, and even strived in the past 20 years before it began losing customers as a result of the changing demographic of the Russian capital. Depending in large part on tourists and already struggling to remain profitable, Yeliseyevsky’s was particularly ill-suited to survive a global pandemic that all but shut down the tourist industry.

And now apparently Yeliseyevsky’s is no more. It closed for good on April 11 after 120 years in business.

What a sad ending for such an iconic place.

 Posted by at 12:43 am
Mar 272021
 

Courtesy of Radio Free Europe, here are some images (yes, do click on the link for the full experience) of the city of my birth, Budapest, in ways you may never have seen before, superimposing images from 1945 and the present.

It is incredible, what this beautiful city went through during that war. (Reminder to those who blame Stalin for the destruction: It was Hungary that declared war on the Soviet Union using a bombing that might have been staged, and which in any case was minor, as a pretext.)

The city is beautiful again. I visited just over a year ago, literally days before the world shut down on account of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whatever my thoughts about Hungarian politics and attitudes, it was a very pleasant trip with many pleasant encounters.

And looking at these horrific images of past devastation, I was reminded that even though I have not lived there since 1986, it remains the city where I was born and grew up: most places I recognized at a glance, in both the “before” and the “after” photos. Only Ottawa comes close as a place that I know this intimately.

 Posted by at 3:22 pm
Mar 262021
 

So I learned today that J. K. Rowling writes hate-filled drivel on Twitter (her last post is from December 4 but never mind), and that forgiving Einstein for being a man of his times when he wrote about the white and Chinese races in the 1920s is the same as forgiving the Nazis.

Makes me sympathize more than ever with Principal Skinner.

This intolerant cultural orthodoxy that is promoted by virtue signaling champions of progressive tolerance not only fails to protect those who actually need it most (last time I checked, capitalizing Black has not reduced violence against black people, introducing a multitude of made-up pronouns has not eliminated transphobia, and preaching against white supremacist mathematics education—yes, this really is a thing!—has not brought potable drinking water or meaningful jobs to indigenous communities here in Canada), it also creates a backlash by feeding the trolls who promote actual racism and hate.

Here is a recent example: a tweet by the Mayor of London and the reaction. The tweet said, in part, “There’s no good reason why 65% of people working in science and engineering should be white men.” In one of the responses, we read “Fixing it? That deems it to be broken, in an 85% white country I would have expected the white % to be higher.”

The commenter obviously doesn’t know how to use a calculator, otherwise he would have pondered how 42.5% (assuming half of that white 85% are males) of the population can have 65% of the science and engineering jobs, whereas the remaining 57.5% gets only 35%. Which means that if you’re a white man, you have a 2.5 times better chance to get a job in science and engineering. But aside from the obvious innumeracy, there is this greater problem: by his careless choice of words, the Mayor of London may have made things worse.

And unlike Principal Skinner’s dilemma, this should have been easy to fix. Just say, “There’s no good reason why only 35% of the people working in science and engineering should be women or come from a non-white background” and right there, he’d have avoided feeding the trolls who promote the idea, ever so popular among frustrated, unsuccessful white men, that they are the victims here of identity politics. More careful words would have helped keeping the focus on the second part of the message, which describes genuine action to address the problem in a constructive, dare I say progressive way: “So far we’ve helped 10,000 young Londoners learn these subjects so they can follow their dreams.”

So how about if we stop vilifying J. K. Rowling* and others who do not flawlessly conform to the ideals of some narrow-minded progressive orthodoxy, stop condemning historical figures who lived decades or centuries ago for having failed to live up to the standards of the present, end “cancel culture” and instead start supporting policies that actually help those in need, even if it means sacrifices such as (gasp!) higher taxes?

Naw, why bother. It’s so much easier to just condemn people as racist misowhatever somethingophobes. Makes you feel good!


*Since I wrote this blog entry, I also learned that Rowling is an anti-Semite. How do we know? Why, those gold-loving goblin bankers in Harry Potter, with their obviously Jewish appearance, hooked noses and all.

I kid you not.

 Posted by at 2:13 pm
Mar 192021
 

I remembered something today. A set of playing cards.

I never had a card deck like this but some of my grade school classmates did. This was the (very) early 1970s in communist Hungary. It was through these cards that I first learned of the existence of luxury sports cars, supercars like Ferrari, racecars like Lotus.

It was cards like these:

These were not some imports from the decadent West. Not subtle imperialist propaganda. These cards were produced by the state-owned Playing Card Factory (yes, that was the name of the company!) and they were much coveted by many 7-year olds. Like me.

But now that I think back, it makes me wonder: Exactly what were they thinking? I mean, this was a bleeping communist dictatorship (of the goulash variety, but still). What on Earth did they think they were doing, these self-appointed masters of agitprop, poisoning our young, impressionable minds with such blatant Western consumerist propaganda?

Ah, the sweet irony.

 Posted by at 9:28 pm
Mar 152021
 

The cartoon series The Simpsons is into its 32nd season this year. It has been picked up for at least another two seasons by Fox.

The Simpsons depicts a “typical” American family of five: Homer the breadwinner, with only a high-school diploma, holding a dead-end but secure job as a safety inspector at the Springfield Nuclear Plant, Marge the housewife, mother of three children and the three kids, two of them school-age, one still a toddler. The Simpsons live in a detached house in a suburb and own two cars. They are not rich, but they do have disposable income: Homer spends his evenings gulping down beer as Moe’s Tavern, Marge never seems to have a problem paying for groceries.

In other words, The Simpsons live the American dream: a comfortable North American middle class lifestyle from a single income.

A dream that, as lamented in a recent opinion article in The Atlantic, is no longer attainable.

This, I think, really explains it all. The polarization of American politics. The emergence of extremism. The appeal of slogans like “Make America Great Again”. The “we have nothing to lose” attitude that led many to vote for Trump, despite their misgivings.

And it is by no means a US-only phenomenon. Income inequality may not be as bad in Canada as it is in the US, but the middle class is not doing spectacularly well here either. Europe, too, is not heading in the right direction.

Lest we forget the lessons of history, this is precisely what provides fertile ground for totalitarian ideologies like fascism and communism. When liberal democracy fails to deliver on society’s most basic promise, the ability to provide a life as good as, but preferably better than your own for your children, people turn to other ideas. That was just as true a century ago as it is today.

 Posted by at 10:52 pm
Jan 262021
 

Today, I had to widen a column in an Excel spreadsheet in which I record some numbers.

It is a spreadsheet that I use to keep track of confirmed COVID-19 cases.

The actual number of cases is likely much higher, since systematic testing is not available everywhere, and even where it is, people with milder symptoms or no symptoms at all may not get tested.

This number is also accompanied by the number of known COVID-19 fatalities: well over 2 million and counting, with the end nowhere in sight. COVID-19 may yet put the Spanish Flu to shame, despite a century of progress in medical science, despite the scientific miracle of rapidly developed, engineered I should say, mRNA vaccines.

 Posted by at 12:24 pm
Jan 172021
 

Coups d’état don’t succeed without support from the armed forces. That’s a historic given.

So when strangely clad “warriors” wearing fur hats and tattoos storm the Capitol Building in Washington DC, the sights are unsettling, people may die, but the stability of the United States government is not in any way in question.

But what happens when the troops who are supposed to prevent it from happening again themselves come under suspicion?

Just read the headline from the following Associated Press news release from minutes ago:

Defense officials fear possible inside attack at inauguration, will have National Guard troops vetted.

Just how the bleep do you vet over 20,000 troops hastily sent to Washington in less than 72 hours?

And what will that vetting do to their morale?

I am beginning to feel truly frightened.

 Posted by at 9:50 pm
Jan 152021
 

Tens of thousands of military personnel in Washington. Troops quartered in the Capitol building, reportedly for the first time since the US Civil War a century and a half ago. Establishment of a “Green Zone” like the one the US set up in Baghdad in 2003. An inauguration ceremony that is closed to the public, and not because of the raging pandemic. Threats of violence in every one of the 50 state capitals. News of rioters planning to assassinate public officials, including quite possibly the Vice President of the United States. News of lawmakers who feared that their lives might be threatened by… their fellow lawmakers, who are also conspiracy theory activists. News of other lawmakers who were afraid to vote to impeach the President because they felt that their lives were at risk if they did so. And law enforcement responding with not one but both hands tied behind their backs: not only are many of the insurrectionists themselves part of law enforcement, but they are cheered on by none other than the sitting President of the United States of America.

Can someone please tell me that this is just a bad dream, perhaps I got lost in one of Harry Turtledove’s alternate history novels, or perhaps a Netflix science-fiction series set in an alternate present, and that in reality, all is well?

Because if that’s not the case, I have to ask… Can someone please tell me what the bleep is happening?

 Posted by at 1:18 pm
Dec 012020
 

The giant Arecibo radio telescope is no more.

Damaged by a broken cable just a few weeks ago, the telescope completely collapsed today.

Incredibly sad news.

Completed in 1963, the telescope was 57 years old, just like me. I hope I will last a few more years, though.

 Posted by at 9:52 pm