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
Sep 242020
 

Reading about Trump’s refusal to commit to the peaceful transfer of power, I suddenly felt the urge to read up on the history of our Canadian provinces during the US Civil War.

As it turns out, Canadian provinces did well economically. And some of Canada’s enduring institutions, seemingly undemocratic yet serving as effective guarantees of political stability and safeguards against excessive partisanship, such as the appointed Senate, were born in the wake of the lessons of that conflict.

Even so, I worry about the future. US elections this November will be unlike any other in living memory, I fear.

 Posted by at 2:06 am
Aug 302020
 

One thing follows another…

I’m listening to old MP3 files on my computer, one of which contains this once popular song by Paper Lace, The Night Chicago Died.

I once read that the band knew nothing about Chicago’s geography; I checked again on the Wikipedia page dedicated to this song.

The page mentions, among other things, how then Chicago mayor Daley hated the song. Daley? The same Daley who demolished Meigs Field airport, the island airport serving downtown Chicago that was the starting location of Microsoft Flight Simulator for many years?

Indeed. (Well, almost. There were two Daleys, father and son, Richard J and Richard M.) And Wikipedia tells me that the island has indeed since been turned into a park and nature preserve. But there are few pictures, so I figured I’d check it out using Google Maps.

So I typed Chicago into Google Maps and was greeted with this message in response:

I don’t know but this seems… a tad embarrassing isn’t it. Unless of course Chicago actually did die last night, and was promptly removed from Google Maps in response.

But no, Chicago is still there. The Google Maps thing was just a glitch. As is Northerly Island, which once hosted that ill-fated airport, its future as uncertain as it has always been in the past century or so.

 Posted by at 5:21 pm
Aug 292020
 

My mind just got blown.

The reason? Photographs like this one:

No, it’s not photoshop. Nor is it a movie prop.

Back in the 1950s, 1960s, early 1970s there really was regular bus service connecting the city of London, United Kingdom, with Calcutta (now Kolkata), India.

It really blew my mind. What a ride! Traveling through Belgium, West Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, West Pakistan (now Pakistan), and finally, India.

I think what really blew my mind was not that the roads were there. Of course. But that a bus, obviously from a Western capital, carrying unarmed passengers, could safely travel through this route. Sure, passengers needed a multitude of visas, even crossing the Iron Curtain (twice!) but nonetheless, the route had to be safe enough, roadside services had to be reliable enough, and the authorities along the route had to be trustworthy enough for a bus operator to be able to offer this regularly scheduled service.

Of course things didn’t stay that way. The India-Pakistan border has become less open each passing year. Afghanistan went to hell in a handbasket with the Soviet occupation, the Taliban, the American invasion in the wake of 9/11. Iran turned into a theocracy with the Islamic revolution. Yugoslavia went up in flames in a bloody civil war. Today, it would be quite impossible* to organize reliable bus service from London to Kolkata.

I cannot help but wonder what it must have been like, for a child in Kolkata, Kabul, Lahore or Tehran, looking at this bus and imagining that faraway, fabulous city of London. I used to feel that sense of awe a little when, as a child in behind-the-iron-curtain Budapest, I saw trains departing the railway station for faraway, magical places like Vienna or Paris; but those were a lot closer, a lot more accessible to us in Budapest than London must have been to a 6-year old on Kabul or Lahore in 1969.


*Or maybe not: Apparently there is an effort under way to establish a bus route, with a gigantic detour through Myanmar, Thailand, China and Russia. I wish them luck.

 Posted by at 1:34 am
Aug 252020
 

I keep reading about ancient Rome. Part of the reason, of course, is that every so often, looking in particular at American politics, I wonder if we are witnessing history repeating itself.

But there was a lot more to ancient Rome than politics and palace intrigue.

Take their roads. They knew how to build roads! Holy Roman macaroni, some of the roads built two thousands years ago are still in use!

I don’t know if Roman roads represented the first properly engineered road network in history, but they certainly were properly engineered.

And there were a lot of roads in ancient Rome. Apparently, they had some 80,000 km of paved roads, and several hundred thousand kilometers of additional roadways criss-crossing the realm.

An Internet data scientist and cartographer, Sasha Trubetskoy, created a fantastic map of the major Roman roadways in the style of modern subway maps.

It truly is amazing that two thousand years ago, it was possible to circumnavigate the Mediterranean via paved roads and regular service stations, making it possible for a determined traveler to travel several hundred kilometers in a day.

 Posted by at 4:15 pm
Aug 062020
 

I know, I know, the idea is far from original, and I feel compelled to apologize for turning tragedies into a form of dark humor but still, this calendar that I made last night accurately sums up how I feel about this glorious year of 2020:

And I didn’t even include everything (e.g., BLM protests and accompanying riots). But then, there are nearly five more months to go… plenty of time for more stuff to happen, even without aliens or killer asteroids. Or a massive second wave of COVID-19 infections.

Yes, let’s just say, I am mildly concerned.

 Posted by at 5:29 pm
Aug 052020
 

A tragedy took place in Beirut yesterday.

The actual power of the massive explosion is yet to be estimated accurately (probably not quite as large as the largest non-nuclear, accidental explosion that took place in Halifax, Nova Scotia 103 years ago though it comes close), but the images and videos are horrifying.

Reportedly, windows were shattered as far as 25 kilometers away from the epicenter.

The audio on one of the many videos showing the moment of the explosion accurately captures the event: “What the actual fuck?” asks a woman’s voice incredulously.

In light of the scope of the disaster, I expect that the final death toll will far exceed the 78 deceased that we know about for now.

It now appears that it was an industrial accident: welding work setting off a fire that in turn spread to a warehouse where thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate was stored.

Naturally, it didn’t prevent America’s “stable genius” from talking about an “attack”. When asked, he even referred to his “generals” who, according to him, told him that it was likely an attack.

I have no doubt that he made it all up on the spot. But his pronouncement had predictable consequences. It was like pouring oil on the fire, as it gave an excuse for every closet antisemite to come out and spread the conspiracy theory that it was an attack by Israel. Twitter accounts spreading this inflammatory nonsense include a Robert de Niro parody account; for a brief moment, I thought it was the real Robert de Niro, which would have been terribly disappointing.

Wildfires in Australia, locusts in Africa, a global pandemic, widespread racial riots in the United States, “murder hornets” spreading in North America… The Internet was already full of joke calendars for this year with disaster memes, as well as speculation that perhaps that infamous Mayan calendar was misinterpreted, as it referred to 2020, not 2012. In light of this catastrophe in Beirut, I am inclined to ask, what next? Alien invasion? The Yellowstone caldera? Global thermonuclear war? Giant asteroid impact? I won’t even try to guess, just note that we still have nearly five months left of this year.

 Posted by at 1:30 am
Jul 162020
 

Seventy-five years ago this morning, a false dawn greeted the New Mexico desert near Alamagordo.

At 5:29 AM in the morning, the device informally known as “the gadget” exploded.

“The gadget” was a plutonium bomb with the explosive power of about 22 kilotons of TNT. It was the first nuclear explosion on planet Earth. It marked the beginning of the nuclear era.

I can only imagine what it must have been like, being part of that effort, being present in the pre-dawn hours, back in 1945. The war in Europe just ended. The war in the Pacific was still raging. This was the world’s first high technology war, fought over the horizon, fought with radio waves, and soon, to be fought with nuclear power. Yet there were so many unknowns! The Trinity test was the culmination of years of frantic effort. The outcome was by no means assured, yet the consequences were clear to all: a successful test would mean that war would never be the same. The world would never be the same.

And then, the most surreal of things happens: minutes before the planned detonation, in the pre-dawn darkness, the intercom system picks up a faint signal from a local radio station, and music starts playing. It’s almost as if reality was mimicking the atmosphere of yet-to-be-invented computer games.

When the explosion happened, the only major surprise was that the detonation was much brighter than anyone had expected. Otherwise, things unfolded pretty much as anticipated. “The gadget” worked. Success cleared the way to the deployment of the (as yet untested) simpler uranium bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima three weeks later, followed by the twin of the Trinity gadget, which ended up destroying much of Nagasaki. The human cost was staggering, yet we must not forget that it would have been dwarfed by the costs of a ground invasion of the Japanese home islands. It was a means to shorten the war, a war not started by the United States. No responsible commander-in-chief could have made a decision other than the one Truman made when he approved the use of the weapons against Imperial Japan.

And perhaps the horrors seen in those two cities played a role in creating a world in which the last use of a nuclear weapon in anger occurred nearly 75 years ago, on August 9, 1945. No one would have predicted back then that there will be no nuclear weapons deployed in war in the coming three quarters of a century. Yet here we are, in 2020, struggling with a pandemic, struggling with populism and other forces undermining our world order, yet still largely peaceful, living in a golden age unprecedented in human history.

Perhaps Trinity should serve as a reminder that peace and prosperity can be fragile.

 Posted by at 12:52 pm