Apr 012022
 

With apologies to the late Dr. Seuss (indeed I have no delusions about my talents as a cartoonist), I felt compelled to make a few, ahem, creative adjustments to one of his classic caricatures, as the message appears just as relevant today as it was more than eight decades ago, when some overly “patriotic” Americans were trying to be BFFs with another murderous tyrant.

The original was published on June 2, 1941. The lessons of history should not be forgotten.

 Posted by at 12:22 am
Mar 312022
 

Very well. I have now become convinced that Putler’s army in Ukraine is led by criminally incompetent clowns whose expertise is limited to cruelty and wholesale murder.

So they decide to occupy the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. It’s an Exclusion Zone for a reason. Not because Ukrainians are fond of the Strugatsky brothers’ amazing novelette, Roadside Picnic, which describes similar Zones (albeit zones left behind by visiting, “picnicking” extraterrestrials.) They might be; the story really is good (and it formed the basis for Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, as well as the amazing S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series of video games. Scenes from which, incidentally, now bear alarming resemblance to the ruined cities of Ukraine.)

No, it is called an Exclusion Zone because it contains, you know, radioactive fallout from the world’s worst nuclear disaster: the explosion at reactor 4 of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station that happened in 1986.

Fallout that, until now, was mostly safely buried under fresh soil, causing relatively little harm. That is, until Russian conscripts, led by the aforementioned nincompoop murderers, dug it up with trenches. Soldiers who are now ill with signs of radiation sickness. With generals like the ones leading them, they need no enemies. They are perfectly capable of defeating themselves even without Ukrainian help.

 Posted by at 2:34 pm
Mar 182022
 

Today, we saw President Putin in public, at a celebration commemorating the annexation of Crimea 8 years ago.

Suddenly that reminded me of something else: Germany celebrating the Anschluss, the annexation of Austria that occurred in March 1938.

But Putin, it seems, had eclipsed Hitler as the all-time genius of national greatness. After all, he managed to accomplish in mere three weeks what took Adolf more than three long, painful, blood-soaked years.

Putin managed to get from his equivalent of the Polish border to his Stalingrad in just three weeks.

That is, what initially began as a form of Blitzkrieg, or lightning war, rapidly deteriorated into an unwinnable war of attrition, with long, unsustainable supply lines, fighting against a much better motivated, better led, better supplied foe.

Ukraine is paying an incredibly heavy price, but by their fierce resistance, they might just be saving the world from global thermonuclear war.

Of course, rather than losing (which will likely see him hanged, just like other incompetent autocrats before him, with Mussolini serving as a relevant example) Putin may well decide that burning much of the world is preferable. At that point, I hope that those around him, however subservient or corrupt, will find the moral courage, the spirit of true patriotism not to carry out orders that would amount to much of humanity (including Russia) committing a form of collective suicide. That they won’t let this murderous sicko, this petty KGB thug turn our magnificent civilization into ashes and dust, into radioactive mushroom clouds.

 Posted by at 11:57 pm
Mar 112022
 

Several years ago, while playing one of the computer games from the renowned Fallout series (to those unfamiliar with it: the games are set in an alternate retrofuturistic world, centuries after the apocalypse of the Great War of 2077 that ended civilization — in-game radio stations, however, play music mostly from the Golden Age of American radio, from the 1930s to the 1950s, including the iconic I don’t want to set the world on fire by The Ink Spots) I put together a “doomsday” playlist of songs I want to listen to while I await the fateful flash. (Here in Ottawa Lowertown, chances are that we will see the flash but won’t live long enough to hear the kaboom.)

Unfortunately I have no public links: the MP3 files reside on my computer along with the playlist itself. But I thought I’d share the list nonetheless, as most of the songs are easy to find. In any case, I think the titles alone tell a story.

  • I don’t want to set the world on fire – The Ink Spots
  • Bad Moon Rising – Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Is That All There Is – Peggy Lee
  • Yesterday – The Beatles
  • C’est la vie – Emerson, Lake and Palmer
  • Non, je ne regrette rien – Edith Piaf
  • I did it my way – Frank Sinatra
  • 99 Luftballons – Nena
  • Here is the news – 21st century man – Electric Light Orchestra
  • Mother – In the flesh – Pink Floyd
  • Rejoice in the Sun – Joan Baez
  • Adios Nonino – Astor Piazzolla
  • Blondie – Philip Glass remix – Daft Beatles
  • November – Tom Waits
  • Brazil – Geoff Muldaur
  • Strange fruit – Billie Holiday
  • Sway (from Dark City) – Anita Kelsey
  • Kurt Weill’s Ballad of the soldier’s wife – P. J. Harvey
  • Sweet Dreams – Eurythmics
  • Round midnight – Thelonious Monk
  • We’ll meet again – Vera Lynn

There you have it.

 Posted by at 12:23 pm
Mar 102022
 

World War Z used to mean a fictitious war with zombies. Not anymore: the Latin letter Z apparently became a symbol for supporters of Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine.

What prompts people to support Putin? What makes a religious leader declare unconditional loyalty to a decidedly un-Christian murderous dictator, even as a 91-year old survivor of the Nazi siege of Leningrad is struggling to remain alive in Kharkiv, besieged by Russian troops?

Is it the success of propaganda and disinformation? Russian nationalism? Self-deception, being able to convince oneself that it’s the rest of the world who act as blind “sheeple”? Being blinded by the charisma of the strongman, the macho warlord?

Meanwhile, decisions are being made with consequences that will fundamentally change the world in which we live, and quite possibly result in untold numbers of death and suffering.

History is no guide. Things can go either way. In 1914, the world opted to intervene when one of the “sick men of Europe”, Austria-Hungary attacked a much smaller neighbor. Had the world stayed idle, limiting its contribution to material help only, the Serbs would have won against the demoralized, badly led, ill-trained troops of the Monarchy. But the world felt compelled to step in, and the result was decades of devastating war and totalitarianism.

But in 1938, the world opted not to listen to political have-beens like a certain Winston Churchill, a warmongerer who was advocating war with Germany. This clown would plunge the world into another World War, they argued, as they celebrated the diplomatic triumph of Neville Chamberlain, who returned from Munich with a document signed by Adolf Hitler, representing “peace for our times”. Of course we know that Churchill was right all along, and had the world opted to confront Hitler in 1937 or even 1938, the resulting war would have been much less severe, much less devastating than the one that actually ensued.

Then again, a less devastating war would have meant no US involvement in Europe, no Marshall plan, no post-war golden era that characterized much of the world in the past 77 years. Be careful what you wish for, I guess.

All that is my way of saying that I don’t envy those who need to make these decisions. We are at a historical crossroads: These decisions may determine the fate of our civilization for decades to come, and a wrong move can very possibly result in hundreds of millions of lives lost.

What can I say? I am worried. Scared even. We go about our business as usual, planning to do things next week, next month, next year. But will the world as we know it still be around next week, next month, next year? With the end of the pandemic in sight, we again contemplate travel, such as my wife visiting her Mom later this year. But Hungary is right there on the border with Ukraine. Will it still be peaceful? Will it still be safe?

It’s easy to blame individuals for the ills of the world, and Putin deserves a lot of blame. But I think it’s naive to expect that things would go back to normal if only some sane Russian with access had the presence of mind and the courage to get rid of him. There are historical processes at work here, and the past 77 years already represented an exceptionally long, exceptionally (perhaps uniquely) prosperous period in human history. And if there is one lesson that history consistently teaches us, it’s that nothing lasts forever, not even a golden age.

 Posted by at 11:23 pm
Mar 042022
 

Hitler mocked it. For Colin Powell’s 2003 speech announcing the war in Iraq, they covered it up.

And now the whole of Ukraine is beginning to look like Pablo Picasso’s masterpiece.

 Posted by at 8:02 pm
Feb 272022
 

This photo of a WWI/WWII memorial in Vácrátót, Hungary, just appeared in my feed moments ago in a group dedicated to historic photographs.

Yet it reminds me not of the past but the present: the observation that almost all the refugees streaming from Ukraine to Europe are women and children, as men stay behind to fight.

 Posted by at 4:02 pm
Feb 242022
 

These words, uttered by Putin, are the words of a madman:

Whoever tries to interfere with us, and even more so to create threats to our country, to our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history. We are ready for any development of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have been made. I hope that I will be heard.

Enjoy these good days with warmth, food security, functioning Internet and a working infrastructure. They may not last much longer, no matter where you live in the world. And when the nukes come, thank Putin.

 Posted by at 1:25 am
Feb 212022
 

There is an imminent possibility that Russia, a fossilized, sick regime, might attack Ukraine. The supposed reason? Ukraine is seen as a persistent national security threat bordering Russia.

There is a sobering historical parallel. A little over a century ago, another “sick man of Europe,” the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, faced a similar perceived threat by a much smaller nation bordering their empire, Serbia. After the assassination of the Crown Prince, Franz Ferdinand, by a Serbian nationalist who was supposedly supported by the Serbian state, the Monarchy decided to act. Committed to Serbia’s defense, Russia entered the war; committed to their allies, but also fearing an emerging Russia, Imperial Germany soon followed suit. And as they say, the rest is history.

But what history books don’t often detail is what happened to the Monarchy’s armies in Serbia. Surely, the great armies of a major European power just crushed the defenses of a much smaller, less well-developed neighbor?

Er… not exactly. First, in August 1914, Serbian forces won the first Allied victory, when they pushed back the armies of the Monarchy in northwestern Serbia. Later that year, in December, the Serbian army launched a successful counteroffensive and pushed the troops of the Monarchy out of Serbia.

In other words: with sufficient material help from France and Russia, plus support on the diplomatic front, Serbia could have bloodied the nose of the Monarchy and won the war, without Russia or Germany (or France, or Britain) ever entering into the conflict. The Great War, arguably, was both avoidable and in the end, completely unnecessary.

I wonder what things will be like in the Ukraine. Should Russia attack, will other powers enter the conflict, risking a wider war, perhaps a world war? And if they do so… will it be just as unnecessary as it was in the case of Serbia a century ago?

I hope we won’t get a chance to find out. Meanwhile, I cannot help but wonder what Europe would be like had events in 1914 unfolded without the Great Powers entering the fray. An embarrassing military fiasco in Serbia might have done to the Monarchy what the Falklands war did to Argentina, ending authoritarianism, forcing the Habsburgs, if not to abdicate, then to enact reforms that would have transformed Austria-Hungary into a modern, constitutional monarchy. Similar developments might have taken place in Russia and Germany, following the British model, and avoiding bloody communist revolutions. Just imagine a united Europe emerge by the 1920s, 1930s, without the rise of fascism, Nazism, Bolshevism, without the devastation of two world wars?

Instead, 1914 ended a golden era.

PS: I wrote much of the above last night, less than 24 hours ago, but before Russia’s announcement that they now recognize the “independence” of two regions of Ukraine that their irregular troops “liberated” a few years back, and before they announced that they will send “peacekeepers” there. History, here we come…

 Posted by at 8:53 pm
Jan 262022
 

World War III is long overdue.

Back when I started grade school, more than 50 years ago (yikes!) no sane adult expected the world to survive through the rest of the 20th century in one piece, without another major war. Recall that even Star Trek, for all its optimism, assumed that World War III (sometimes called the Eugenics Wars) would break out in 1992.

Yet here we are, the year is 2022, and the world is still largely peaceful. But for how much longer?

Ukraine is rapidly turning into a hot spot that might yet trigger a conflict the world has not seen in many decades. And it appears that we are on a collision course that resembles in some ways the events leading up to World War I. Nobody wants escalation; yet everyone believes escalation is inevitable and necessary.

Russia supposedly wants NATO to stop expanding, stop encircling their country. On the surface, this might seem like a valid concern. Russia, after all, has been one of the great losers of the past half century. The collapse of the USSR, the loss of its system of allied satellite states, internal strife, a struggling economy all add up. Of course having an increasingly authoritarian government serving a corrupt oligarchy doesn’t exactly help either.

On the other hand, Russia’s willingness to use force in the “near abroad”, including Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine rightly troubles other neighboring nations, especially the Baltic states that spent decades under Soviet occupation, incorporated into the USSR. Other Eastern European states also have not forgotten what it was like to be occupied by the Soviet Union. NATO is rightfully concerned that if it does not show resolve, its credibility as a defensive alliance will be destroyed.

And this sets up a tricky situation. Every step Russia takes to push back NATO actually strengthens NATO’s resolve. Every step NATO takes to deter Russia from aggression and to assist Ukraine actually strengthens Russian resolve. Moreover, NATO’s resolve helps Putin set the pretext for an almost certainly unpopular war, by presenting NATO actions as a threat to Russian security. Add to this that a war in Ukraine could do wonders to help Putin’s waning credibility, and that Russians, rightly or wrongly, see political discord in the United States as a sign of weakness and, for them, an opportunity, and we have a perfect storm.

Do I worry unduly? Is it not possible that even if Ukraine goes up in flames, it will remain a regional conflict on the geopolitical map, like Korea or Vietnam were many decades ago? Or perhaps a quick and decisive victory by Putin, like the one he enjoyed in Crimea, would settle this affair in his favor and the world will move on? Perhaps.

But it will also be the biggest military confrontation on European soil since 1945. And if that doesn’t scare the bejesus out of you…

And of course nobody wants a world war. Nobody wants escalating conflict that gets out of hand. That was true back in 1914 as well. But just as in 1914, political ineptitude, miscalculations, overestimation of capabilities, underestimation of opponents, a false sense of urgency to act, may all add up. And there may very well be parasitic opportunists, other nations who will join the circus sensing opportunities. I can easily imagine, unfortunately, Xi’s China entering the fray when they have reason to believe that the West’s attention is elsewhere. And that’s how a regional conflict becomes a global one.

 Posted by at 12:55 am
Jan 172022
 

Another week has passed in this amazing world of ours.

It is easy to lose perspective as we struggle with the pandemic and make our way through everyday problems. But we shouldn’t. These days, I must admit, I worry more often than ever that our world is heading towards conflict and upheaval, in some ways a repeat of the mistakes made back in 1914, ending a golden era.

A golden era I say? You bet. Yes, I recognize it’s not for everyone, far from it. Far too many people on this planet still struggle for the basic necessities of life; die in conflict; or live miserable lives under oppressive regimes. Yet it is also true that never before did such a large percentage of humanity live as well as today, with access (at least) to most basic necessities, some level of medical care, schooling, a degree of public safety, with at least some of their basic rights respected.

Meanwhile those of us living in luckier corners of the world enjoy everyday luxuries that not even the kings and queens of the past could dream about. Case in question: the other day, my beautiful wife visited a grocery store and came home with a package of assorted fruits, not perfectly fresh, which the store sold at a discount rather than throwing it away. One of the fruits was a kiwi fruit. As I was munching on it (yum!) it just hit me. Here I am, in Ottawa, in the middle of a very cold winter day (it was I think -26 C outside) eating a … kiwi fruit? Not a carrot. Not a potato. A kiwi fruit. Probably not all the way from New Zealand, “only” from California, but still!

Let that kiwi fruit be a reminder of what we might be throwing away if we allow the politics of the day to radicalize us. If we allow politicians to choose conflict that might escalate and get out of hand. “We have no choice” is not an acceptable excuse. It was what the leaders of Europe said back in 1914 when they plunged the world into a conflict of unprecedented scale. But choices do exist.

The world in which I grew up was the world of the Cold War. Yet it was a world led by politicians who experienced war first hand, and for whom avoiding conflict (or at least, avoiding escalation) was a top priority. This was even true for the septuagenarian Soviet elite. Whatever their intentions were concerning the USSR and the spread of communism, plunging the world into another global conflict was not considered an acceptable outcome.

Today? I am not so sure. There are flashpoints we know about (Ukraine, South China Sea) and flashpoints that we may not even have considered yet. More troubling, the world is now led by my generation: a generation that takes peace and prosperity for granted, a generation that believes they have an inalienable right to munch on a kiwi fruit even in the middle of a harsh Canadian winter, and who take it for granted that kiwi fruits appear magically on supermarket shelves whenever they desire to eat some.

That, of course, is not true. But if we have to find it out the hard way, it will be too late.

This is what happened in 1914. No kiwi fruits or supermarkets just yet, but still, that fateful year was preceded by an unprecedented golden era that, in many parts of the world (especially in Europe and North America but not only there) brought about amazing progress. Then, myopic politics ended it all. And now I worry that there will be a repeat performance, and as the world plunges into chaos, just as in 1914, we’ll be told that “we have no choice”.

We do.

 Posted by at 2:15 am
Sep 302021
 

I have had it up to my eyeballs with misinformation about vaccines, mRNA vaccines in particular. People who up until 2020 could not tell the difference between acronyms like “RNA” and “WTF” suddenly became experts on molecular biology, capable of evaluating the professional literature and arriving at profound judgments, telling us that the vaccines are “fake” and such, or worse yet, they amount to “gene therapy”.

With all due respect, I first encountered the acronym “mRNA” (or its Hungarian equivalent, mRNS) not in 2020, not in 2019, but in 1980 or 81, from a Hungarian translation of Watson’s book on molecular biology of the gene.

Now granted, even if I had read that book cover-to-cover (I didn’t) it would not make me an expert on molecular biology. But I knew enough for the expression “mRNA vaccine” to make sense to me right away when it first showed up in news reports. In short, I know enough to spot the bullshit. Such as all that anti-vaccine scaremongering that has become ever so popular on the Interwebs lately.

Something similar happened 20 years ago, in the wake of 9/11. Many folks, especially Americans, who previously couldn’t tell Mohammed the prophet from Mohammed Ali, and who have never been in the same room with a textbook on comparative religion previously, suddenly became experts on Islam, making grand pronouncements about it being the religion of terror and all that. I first read a textbook on comparative religion back when I was 10 or so, from a 1927 2-volume tome on religions of the world:

This is volume one, titled “Primitive and cultural religions, Islam and Buddhism”. As with the Watson textbook, the images in this blog entry are of my own making, done just moments ago using my phone camera, of the actual books I have in my personal library.

Again, reading this book did not make me an instant expert. But it did give me enough background to spot the flood of bullshit that permeated the discussion after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Coming from a family and personal tradition that values learning, values impartial knowledge, it almost feels like physical pain, being confronted with such gross ignorance and outright lies each and every day. Enough already. Don’t listen to me, but don’t listen to the bullshit artists either. Listen to the actual experts (and not a cherry-picked subset of so-called experts who say what you want to hear). That’s what experts are for in an advanced scientific-technological society in which no human can be a master of all trades, and in which we rely on each other’s knowledge and experience.

Someone on Quora recently compared the anti-vaxxer movement to a hypothetical scenario on an airliner in distress: instead of following the crews’ instructions and donning oxygen masks, passengers stage a revolt, led by an “expert” who already knows better than the pilots how to fly the damn plane because he played with Microsoft Flight Simulator!

Groan.

 Posted by at 1:10 am
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