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
Jan 012020

A year ago today, I was looking forward to 2019 with skepticism. I expressed concern about a number of things. Not everything unfolded according to my expectations, and that’s good news. What can I say, I hope 2020 will continue the trend of defying pessimistic predictions.

  • The political crisis in the United States continues to simmer with Trump’s impeachment, but it remains less dramatic than I feared;
  • NATO and the EU remain intact for now, though unresolved issues remain;
  • An orderly Brexit is now possible with Johnson’s election victory; I still think the Brits are shooting themselves in the foot with this idiocy, but an orderly Brexit may be the best possible outcome at this point;
  • Sliding towards authoritarianism in places like Hungary and Poland remains a grave concern, but there is also pushback;
  • Russia continues to muck up things in untoward ways, but there was no significant (e.g., military) escalation;
  • China is ramping up its campaign against the Uyghurs with an ever widening system of concentration camps but there was no significant escalation with respect to their neighbors;
  • Japan, sadly, resumed whaling, but so far I believe the impact is minimal;
  • Brazil continues to wreak havoc in the rain forest, but there is pushback here as well;
  • Lastly, Canada did have elections, but populism was crushed (for now at least) with the defeat of Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party.

And now here we are, entering the roaring twenties! A decade that will bring things like Prohibition and organized crime in the United States, institutionalized antisemitism in Hungary, the rise of fascism in Italy, the Great Depression… no, wait, that was a century ago. Here’s to hoping that humanity got a little wiser in the past 100 years.

Speaking of that century, my wife’s Mom and mine can now both tell us that they lived in every decade of a century, having been born in the 30’s and now living in the 20’s.

 Posted by at 12:33 pm
Mar 242018

I just read that Elon Musk nixed Tesla’s and SpaceX’s Facebook pages.

Much as I admire Musk, I will not follow his example. I am not planning to delete my Facebook account.

Facebook is not the problem. It is a symptom.

The actual problem is much broader. The Internet that brought us together is also responsible for creating fragmented communities, echo chambers if you wish. When our primary source of news is like-minded people, memes and links we exchange with each other, often uncritically, without checking their veracity, there is a problem. It makes no difference if the content delivery vehicle is Facebook, Twitter, plain old e-mail or anything else.

I am not going to give up the opportunity offered by Facebook to stay in touch with old friends, with classmates I have not seen in years if not decades, with other people I would not even know were it not for the Internet. This is priceless.

But when I want to get informed about the world, I do not turn to Facebook. I do not forward memes. I might give a perfunctory “Like” to something that appears in my feed, but I do not believe it without checking first. And most importantly, I use other sources to keep myself informed.

Yet I fear the problem is even greater than this, and once again, ditching Facebook may be precisely the wrong answer. I recall what it was like when I was growing up in Hungary in the 1960s, 1970s. We had one national television channel. (OK, make that one-and-a-half, because there was a Channel 2, but with only a very short broadcast day in the evenings, initially, only a few days a week. And on Mondays, both channels were off the air.) This means that we all watched the same things. No matter which part of the country, which walk of life you came from, you knew the same television personalities I knew, you heard the same jokes, you watched the same drama.

It was probably never quite like this in North America, where there were always a multitude of channels since the dawn of television. Still, back in the old days, “multitude” meant maybe a half dozen choices if you were in a major metro area. So the shared cultural experience was still there. Not anymore. And never mind television, with hundreds of cable and satellite channels and numerous online alternatives. On top of that comes social media, with its propensity to create microcommunities.

Again, the problem is not that you stay in touch with your circle of friends. That’s great! The problem is that your circle of friends becomes your primary source of news and views about the world. You reinforce each other’s beliefs, making it harder and harder to contemplate alternative viewpoints.

So keep Facebook. Do stay in touch with old friends or distant family members. But for heaven’s sake, don’t use Facebook to inform yourself. Ditch the memes. Stop sharing anything other than cute cat pictures. And be the most suspicious when you see something that you are inclined to believe. It’s not the lies and deceptions you hate that are the most dangerous; it is the lies and deceptions that you are most likely to believe that will fool you. This is something state-sponsored Russian trolls know all too well.

 Posted by at 8:54 am
Jul 042016

Not sure how I landed on this page (maybe I was reading too many gloomy assessments of the post-Brexit world?) but here it is anyway: An incredible collection of dioramas by artist Lori Nix, titled The City, depicting a post-apocalyptic world:

A world without humans. Scary visions. Real life examples exist, of course, in places like abandoned sections of Detroit or the Zone around Chernobyl, to name just a couple of prominent ones.

Recently, someone on Quora asked where one would place a time capsule to survive a trillion years. Yes, a trillion. Ambitious, isn’t it? Meanwhile, we have yet to learn how to build things that survive a mere thousand years or less. There is nothing, absolutely nothing that humans constructed, or can construct, that will survive in any recognizable form for a trillion years, be it on the Earth, in space, or on another planet.

 Posted by at 10:26 pm
Aug 152015

The more I watch Donald Trump’s performance as an American presidential candidate, the more I admire him.


Don’t get me wrong. I don’t identify with his views. I don’t want him to become President of the United States; in fact, I am quite certain that it would be a disaster for both the US and the world as a whole.

But I admire his performance, intellectually speaking, the same way one admires the flawless performance of a professional athlete or performer.

Trump’s performances are perfect. He radiates an “I am in it to win” attitude, making it clear that coming in second is not an option he would even contemplate. (Recently, a reporter asked Trump if he would consider a vice-presidential nomination should his bid for the presidency fail. Instead of answering, Trump just dismissed the journalist and moved on to the next question.)

His presence on the television screen is mesmerizing. He is not a politician reading a prepared speech in which he himself does not believe at some nondescript campaign location. He is having a conversation with you, the viewer, and he is passionate about everything he says. And he doesn’t care if his words are misunderstood or twisted.

In a certain way, Trump reminds me of Adolf Hitler. Not the Hitler of wartime or postwar caricatures, but the Hitler of the 1920s or 1930s, admired even by some of his opponents for his charisma, his abilities as a public speaker, the manner in which he almost hypnotized his audience. This is precisely what Trump does and oh, is he ever good at it!

And he is fearless and made of Teflon. It seems that no criticism can harm him. He even uses his billionaire status to his advantage (notably, his supporters are predominantly low-income) when he explains that because he is loaded, his campaign or for that matter, his presidency, will not be held hostage by lobbyists.

I have begun to consider seriously the possibility that not only will Trump be the Republican candidate but that he will actually beat Hillary Clinton in the general election. I like Clinton, but next to Trump, she will look like a junior apprentice in TV debates.

What will Trump’s America be like? I don’t know, but I expect the worst.

 Posted by at 12:47 pm
Jul 282012

I am so not into sports. But the Olympic opening ceremony is something else. It can be spectacular, it can be inspiring even, and these adjectives certainly applied yesterday.

Except for the way it was presented on CTV to Canadian viewers.

I missed the first 15 minutes of the original broadcast, so by the time I started watching, most of the huge smokestacks were already standing. No problem, I thought: I quickly checked the TV schedule and sure enough, a repeat broadcast was scheduled later in the evening.

So I waited patiently for the repeat, eager to see how a pastoral landscape transforms itself into an industrial heartland (arguably the most spectacular part of the show). Indeed, the leaders of industry arrived in their Omnibus, Sir Kenneth Brannagh had his speech and then… and then CTV decided to have a commercial break. A really long commercial break. So long, in fact, that by the time they returned to the broadcast, most of the huge smokestacks were already standing.

I was irritated but then I thought, maybe I can watch the video on CTV’s Web site. There is no reason for a Web broadcast not to include those 5-6 minutes even if they do insert commercials.

Guess what: the same 5-6 minutes were missing from the Web video version, too.

This morning, I decided to check again to see if perhaps the missing segment was restored. The site is now different, with many more videos available. Too bad I cannot watch any of them… the Silverlight player employed by CTV just shows a grey rectangle regardless of which browser I use (tried another computer, too). Yes, Microsoft Silverlight. I guess that’s CTV’s way of saying “screw you” to Linux users… But even that does not explain the grey rectangle on Windows.

Boneheadedness from CTV aside (eventually I found the missing segment on YouTube, albeit with some completely inappropriate Russian pop music as a substitute soundtrack), the opening ceremony was amazing. Perhaps not the kind of extravaganza produced in Beijing four years ago, but I actually found this one warmer, closer to the heart. Yes, weird at times (I almost thought I’d see Doctor Who appear at one point, chased by some Daleks, but what did I expect? They are Brits, for crying out loud) yet funny and human. In short, I will remember it. I’ll remember this show (and not for the wrong reasons, like I remember the dancer with the ridiculous glowing belly in Athens in 2004) much more than I remember the Beijing ceremony, however extravagant it might have been.

And now I am watching a bicycle race. One of very few sports that I actually enjoy watching.

Update: CTV’s video player is working again, and the version they currently have on their Web site no longer has that 5-6 minute gap at the beginning of the industrial revolution segment. There is still a brief commercial break but I’m not sure if any footage from the opening ceremony is actually missing.

 Posted by at 8:53 am
Sep 032011

I am reading an article in Science about the efforts of people like planetary scientist David Morrison to allay fears concerning a prophesied collision between the Earth and the mythical planet Nibiru. Apparently, some folks are taking this pseudoscientific hogwash so seriously, they are even contemplating suicide. Good people like Morrison are trying to talk sense into them.

Perhaps they shouldn’t. Here is my message: go ahead, kill yourself. That means that for the rest of us, 2013 will be a happier year, because fewer idiots will roam the Earth.

But just to demonstrate that I am not all arrogant and cruel, here’s another option: you can always choose to come to your senses before December 21, 2012, realize that stuff in Hollywood movies should not be confused with real life, and go on living.

 Posted by at 2:28 pm
Jul 112009

Hah! I just happened upon the blog site of my favorite British writer, actor, and tall person: John Cleese.

I especially enjoyed the video interview with him made shortly before last year’s American presidential elections.

 Posted by at 2:32 am
Mar 152009

I’m watching a horrible movie (“Recon 2020“) and in an attempt to find out what it is about, I happened upon a Web page where I read this:

“Action packed lots and lots of monster killing. You know all the stuff sci-fi fans love.”

No. That’s not what sci-fi fans like. Or, at least, that’s not what this here sci-fi fan likes.

I grew up on the sci-fi of the likes of Asimov, Clarke, the Strugatsky brothers, Lem, or for that matter, Verne and Wells. Science fiction that contemplated the future of humanity, the role of science and technology, our destiny, the dangers we face, our chance of survival, our responsibilities. THAT’s what science fiction means to me. I don’t mind action and monsters, if well done it can even be fun, but no action or monster killing can make up for the absence of a credible plot and a meaningful story.

 Posted by at 3:38 am
Dec 222008

This is not what I usually expect to see when I glance at CNN:

CNN and integrals

CNN and integrals

It almost makes me believe that we live in a mathematically literate society. If only!

The topic, by the way, was a British Medical Journal paper on brain damage caused by a dancing style called headbanging. I must say, even though I grew up during the disco era, I never much liked dancing. But, for what it’s worth, I not only know how to do integrals, I actually enjoy doing them…

 Posted by at 1:25 pm