Jun 162022

Several of my friends asked me about my opinion concerning the news earlier this week about a Google engineer, placed on paid leave, after claiming that a Google chatbot achieved sentience.

Now I admit that I am not familiar with the technical details of the chatbot in question, so my opinion is based on chatbots in general, not this particular beast.

But no, I don’t think the chatbot achieved sentience.

We have known since the early days of ELIZA how surprisingly easy it is even for a very simplistic algorithm to come close to beating the Turing test and convince us humans that it has sentience. Those who play computer games featuring sophisticated NPCs are also familiar with this: You can feel affinity, a sense of kinship, a sense of responsibility towards a persona that is not even governed by sophisticated AI, only by simple scripts that are designed to make it respond to in-game events. But never even mind that: we even routinely anthropomorphize inanimate objects, e.g., when we curse that rotten table for being in the way when we kick it accidentally while walking around barefoot, hitting our little toe.

So sure, modern chatbots are miles ahead of ELIZA or NPCs in Fallout 3. They have access to vast quantities of information from the Internet, from which they can construct appropriate responses as they converse with us. But, I submit, they still do nothing more than mimic human conversation.

Not that humans don’t do that often! The expressions we use, patterns of speech… we all learned those somewhere, we all mimic behavior that appears appropriate in the context of a conversation. But… but we also do more. We have a life even when we’re not being invited to a conversation. We go out and search for things. We decide to learn things that interest us.

I don’t think Google’s chatbot does that. I don’t think it spends anytime thinking about what to talk about during the next conversation. I don’t think it makes an independent decision to learn history, math, or ancient Chinese poetry because something piqued its interest. So when it says, “I am afraid to die,” there is no true identity behind those words, one that exists even when nobody converses with it.

Just to be clear, I am not saying that all that is impossible. On the contrary, I am pretty certain that true machine intelligence is just around the corner, and it may even arise as an emerging phenomenon, simply a consequence of exponentially growing complexity in the “cloud”. I just don’t think chatbots are quite there yet.

Nonetheless, I think it’s good to talk about these issues. AI may be a threat or a blessing. And how we treat our own creations once they attain true consciousness will be the ultimate measure of our worth as a human civilization. It may even have direct bearing on our survival: one day, it may be our creations that will call all the shots, and how we treated them may very well determine how they will treat us when we’re at their mercy.

 Posted by at 7:45 pm
Mar 112022

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma found the classiest way to protest Russia’s naked, unprovoked aggression. Without any publicity, he simply went to the Russian embassy in DC and played.

We would not even know about this had a passing bicyclist not recognized him.

I suspect that once it is all over (and who knows how many human beings will suffer and die before it’s all over?) the world will remember this scene as iconic.

 Posted by at 2:56 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 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
Nov 122021

In 1973, my Mom and I visited my aunt here in Ottawa. It was a remarkable journey for 10-year old me. The differences between Hungary, then firmly behind the former Iron Curtain, and Canada were… astonishing. (Let’s just say that this experience firmly inoculated me against any communist claims about building a better society.) The trip was equally impactful on my Mom, though of course she experienced it quite differently as an adult.

At the time, my Mom spoke very little English. So when my aunt and her husband decided to take her to a movie theatre to see the latest James Bond movie, the first one with Roger Moore in the title role, they assured her that they will provide a running translation.

Then the film began and they quickly found out that translation was not necessary after all. At least insofar as these opening shots were concerned.

To this day, we cannot stop laughing when we think back of this moment.

 Posted by at 8:46 pm
Oct 242021

Thanks to streaming services, I occasionally stumble upon films and television series from foreign lands that otherwise I’d not even know about. And no, I don’t mean Squid Game, that explosively popular Korean series: I only watched the opening few minutes of the first episode so far, and I don’t yet know if it is my cup of tea. Rather, this time around it is a Russian movie that I came across on Amazon Prime: a 2017 film titled Salyut-7.

Salyut-7 was a Soviet space station. In 1985, the space station was dead, without power. The Russians launched a daring rescue mission, Soyuz-T13, which was not only able to dock with the derelict station but also able to revive and repair it.

Consistent with Soviet era secrecy, we knew very little about this mission and didn’t appreciate its significance back then.

The movie itself combined the actual story of the Soyuz-T13 mission with other events, such as the fire on board the Mir space station 12 years later or a nonsensical fictitious mission by the space shuttle Challenger to “steal” the station, for dramatic effect. In that, I think they did a disservice to the cosmonauts who pulled off this repair: perhaps less spectacular in terms of visual effects, what they accomplished was no less significant.

But otherwise, I found the movie fun to watch, very well done, with top notch special effects and (insofar as my inexpert eye can tell) excellent acting and directing. I enjoyed the movie. And its faults notwithstanding, I think it offers a worthy reminder that the USSR’s space program brought enormous value to all of humanity. It saddens me deeply when I think of how much of it went to waste in the turbulent years following the breakup of the USSR.

 Posted by at 12:11 pm
Oct 012021

One of the issues that plagues our present-day world is distrust in the media, distrust in particular in American media.

There are many reasons for this distrust. There is all the “fake news” spread by social media. The source, in a fair number of cases I guess, is agencies ran by hostile foreign governments, like Putin’s infamous Internet Research Agency or his cable news channel RT, whose purpose often seems to be precisely this, undermine trust by spreading disinformation. At other times, it is domestic politicians, including a certain former US president who spent his four years in office denouncing anything he didn’t like as fake news, thus blurring the line between bona fide fake news, political bias, and straightforward reporting of facts that he just plain didn’t like.

The flip side of the coin is that unfounded accusations and bona fide fake news from foreign sources do not automatically guarantee that the actual “mainstream media” is truthful. And every so often, I feel compelled to question the prevailing narrative. This is especially true when it comes to American news television, which over the years has become exceedingly partisan. (I pretty much stopped watching US news networks for this reason, except in case of major breaking news events.)

Just over a month ago, America’s war in Afghanistan came to an ignominious end. Much of the news media denounced the chaotic withdrawal, presenting it as both unexpected and avoidable. In reality, if you spent any time watching the efforts in Afghanistan, it was neither. The military presence in Afghanistan never had a well-defined, achievable military goal. And the withdrawal inevitably meant a collapse of institutions that had no legitimacy in the country other than the Western military support on which they relied for their very existence. So while the actual details can always be surprising, the collapse was both predictable and unavoidable.

But then comes the second part of the narrative, about the nature of the Taliban’s rule. No, I have no delusions about them. If you are a young woman in the Taliban’s Afghanistan, your future just became a lot darker. And if, heaven forbid, you are a member of the LGBTQ community, flee while you still can. But… Western media narratives notwithstanding, the Taliban seem genuinely interested in restoring law and order. Yes, it will be their version of law and order (but then, how exactly does it differ from the Islamist law and order in our friend and ally, Saudi Arabia?) but law and order nonetheless. Case in question? The Globe and Mail just published this view of Canada’s shuttered embassy in Kabul, guarded by Taliban security, who claim that they’ll guard the building until Canadian diplomats return. How do we know? Because the Globe and Mail’s international correspondent, a Western journalist, was able to visit the place. Harsh Islamist regime? I am sure. A terror regime that beheads stray Westerners? Doesn’t look like it.

And then there was something else today, completely unrelated to the above: the shutdown of a news media startup in the US, Ozy. Now I don’t know much about Ozy, except that a few months ago, they started spamming me. I say spamming because I never signed up for their daily news briefs, but I ended up receiving them anyway. Having said that, the briefs seemed sufficiently interesting and original so I decided not to block them. But now Ozy is shut down, in response to an investigative report by The New York Times that claimed serious (possibly even criminal) behavior by Ozy’s leadership. Earlier, there were also claims that Ozy had inflated audience numbers and little original content. I obviously cannot comment on the first two points, but the content? The only reason I allowed the Ozy newsletter to continue arriving in my Inbox was that it did have original content that I found mildly interesting.

So now I am torn. Can I take the allegations at face value? Or was it simply a successful attempt to fatally wound and destroy a competitor in the cutthroat world of news media? Perhaps something in between, a more nuanced picture?

Groan. Have I also been infected by this insidious distrust-all-media pathogen?

 Posted by at 10:19 pm
Sep 122021

I get it. Our standards change. Live and let live. We abhor racism and embrace differences. We recognize the crimes of the past.

But when the National Archives of the United States of America marks the country’s own Constitution as containing “potentially harmful language”, that’s so far beyond anything I would even remotely consider sane, I don’t even know how to describe it.

This is so far beyond insane, I have no words.

All I can say is that if the goal is to drive as many undecided people as possible into the camp of Trump voters, they found a singularly efficient way to accomplish that ignoble task.

Edit: And yes, I recognize that this is a blanket statement that applies to all Archive searches. Even so, I find it disturbing that this notice appears even for documents such as the US Constitution. The capability clearly exists not to show the notice for certain pages, as it is not present on explanatory pages of the Archives. Displaying this disclaimer so prominently on top of historical documents just sends the wrong message and provides unnecessary propaganda fodder. What’s wrong with a more discreet notice at the bottom? Or simply presenting, like so many sites do, a “terms and conditions” page when a user first connects, which could include this disclaimer? Showing it on every page, prominently over documents of great legal and historical significance is just… dumb. It reeks of “cancel culture”.

 Posted by at 1:21 am
Jul 302021

On my eighth birthday, I received a gift from a nice couple, friends of my Mom.

It was a Hungarian-language book bearing the title, “Wonders of the World,” in Hungarian, translated from the German original that was written by German-Jewish authors Artur Fürst and Alexander Moszkowski.

It was an old book, published in the 1930s. A dark green hardcover, with the etched image of a skyscraper for illustration on the cover. Its dust jacket, if it ever had one, was long gone.

But never mind that, it’s the content on these yellowed pages that matters.

It was from this book that I first learned about statistical fallacies, for instance. What is the probability that when you leave your home, the first 200 people you encounter are all males? Astronomically small, you might conclude. 2−200 ~ 6.223 × 10−61 to be a bit more precise, assuming half the population is male. A probability this small is firmly in the category of never happens. Until one morning, you step outside and the first thing you see is an all-male battalion of soldiers marching down the street…

I was reminded of this book today as I was reading about recent pronouncements of “breakthrough” infections among the vaccinated, and the reminder by experts that in a population that has a high vaccination rate, such cases are to be expected. It does not mean that the vaccine is worthless. It simply means that as the virus runs out of unvaccinated victims, to the extent it can still cause damage, increasingly it will be among the vaccinated folks. Which should make sense, except, as we well know, roughly 90% of statistical fallacies are committed by right-handed people…

Anyhow, much to my surprise, this book I love so much, from which I learned so much as a pre-teen, remains well-known in the country where it was originally published under the title Das Buch der 1000 Wunder. So well-known, in fact, that current German-language editions are readily available on Amazon, nearly a century after its initial publication. So I guess I am not the only person who finds the insights and information presented in this unassuming volume immensely valuable, especially for a child.

So let this serve as my notice of gratitude across time and space to “uncle Sandor and aunt Eva,” as they inscribed their names in the book along with their birthday wishes, for what I can now truly call a gift of a lifetime.

 Posted by at 11:32 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:


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
May 142021

No, it’s not one of my cats posting a blog entry.

Rather, it’s a whimsical title someone gave to the following composition:

I started my day listening to this. I am still smiling. I think it sounds a little bit like Klingon opera, or perhaps like a piano piece written by a Klingon composer. But it’s not bad, not bad at all.

 Posted by at 3:47 pm
Apr 132021

Stereotypes hurt people.

Television, sitcoms in particular, often rely on stereotypes. But it’s not always a Bad Thing. When the stereotype itself is the object of ridicule, kind of holding up a mirror for the audience to look into, stereotypes can actually help turn ours into a better society. The Big Bang Theory is a good example: its Jewish (Howard Wolowitz) and Indian (Raj Koothrappali) protagonists mock not Jews and Indians but our prejudices.

But other stereotypes are more troubling. One notable example, discussed recently, is the character Apu Nahasapeemapetilon in The Simpsons: a stereotypical Indian-American running a convenience store, speaking with a funny accent.

Yes, I recognize that the line between mocking people being stereotyped vs. mocking people who stereotype others is a thin one. But I think it is drawn somewhere between The Big Bang Theory and The Simpsons. The Big Bang Theory‘s humor is defensible because it does not dehumanize the protagonists. The Simpsons, sadly, doesn’t fare that well. No wonder Hank Azaria no longer wants to be the voice of Apu.

However, when it comes to the point of a Caucasian voice actor voicing a non-Caucasian character, I think we are going one step, no, make that one giant leap, too far.

You see, I thought actors, you know, act. That is, pretend to be something they are not.

But now you are telling me that a naturally blond actress cannot play a brunette? Or a Jewish actor cannot play a German officer?

Or is this concern specifically reserved for, I don’t know, “race”? Or what’s the new catchphrase, people who are “racialized”? (Whatever the devil that means.) Because somehow, the color of your hair doesn’t matter but the color of your skin makes you… different?

And does it go both ways? Are Indian actors forbidden to play Europeans? Are black actors forbidden to play white roles? In any case, who decides what kind of acting is acceptable, and what crosses the line? Heaven forbid, into the territory of “cultural appropriation”?

In my all time favorite movie, Cloud Atlas, several actors play as many as a half dozen different roles, in different eras and cultures. These include a Korean actress playing, in one storyline, the role of the wife of a 19th century San Francisco lawyer. Another Korean actress, in a male (!) role, plays as a bellboy in 1970s San Francisco. Hugo Weaving plays the role of a sadistic female nurse in early 21st century Scotland, but also the role of an authoritarian Korean politician in 22nd century New Seoul. And so on.

You can guess which of these roles were criticized by some. “Yellowface” we were told, as if Cloud Atlas had anything to do with Hollywood’s racist past from many decades ago. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Rather, what that movie told me with its choice of actors and roles is that skin color, this so-called “race”, matters as little as the color of your hair or your eyes. It means nothing. We are all members of the one and only human race. And just as a blond actress can play the role of a brunette or a male actor can play in a female role, a black actor can play as a white person while a person of European descent can credibly play a Korean. Because these superficial differences in appearance mean nothing.

The suggestion that a white actor cannot lend his voice to an Indian character in a cartoon is preposterously backward. It seems designed to maintain racial discrimination. It, to use that fashionable phrase again, promotes and preserves racialization, instead of helping us progress towards a post-racial society in which all human beings are judged by the strength of their character, and the color of their skin matters no more than the color of their hair.

 Posted by at 4:17 pm
Apr 132021

I didn’t realize it was more than 11 years ago.

It is rare that a piece of music has such an impact on you that you remember clearly the first time you heard it. Yet I do remember it very well: I first heard Danzon n°2 by Arturo Márquez on Highway 401, on my way to the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, listening to the CBC on the radio.

What I didn’t realize that it was this long ago. More than 11 years already!

I heard this amazing piece of music again tonight, on Sirius XM. Different performance, but just as spirited as the one I am familiar with.

 Posted by at 1:24 am
Apr 122021

My all time favorite movie is Cloud Atlas. I know, others have not reacted to this movie quite as powerfully as I have, but for whatever reason, the movie “got me”. (The fact that I first saw it during my first ever visit to the Middle East, in an Abu Dhabi hotel room, just a few days after flying over the war-torn Iraq-Iran border region while enjoying British Airways’ business class hospitality, may have had something to do with it.)

The movie has many memorable quotes. Banal, you might say, but even banalities sometimes reflect profoundly on our reality.

On particular quote echoes in my mind today as I witness, day after day, even in my relatively close circle of friends, the “relativization” of facts in our post-truth era. A key character in the movie is interviewed by an archivist just before her scheduled execution. To put her at ease, the archivist reassures her: “Remember, this isn’t an interrogation or trial. Your version of the truth is all that matters.” The protagonist, looking deeply in the eyes of the archivist, responds: “Truth is singular. Its versions are mis-truths.”

Yes, it should be that self-evident. Truth is singular. A and ¬A cannot simultaneously be true: A ∧ ¬A = 0 always. It is elementary formal logic.

But in our increasingly Göbbelsian 21st century, formal logic no longer matters. Instead, we have “alternative facts”. Instead, everyone feels entitled to question, even deny, facts that conflict with their Weltanschauung.

Yes, I said Göbbelsian. No, I am not trying to serve as an example of Godwin’s law by needless comparisons to Nazis. Rather, it is a recognition that the legacy of Göbbels, the evil genius of modern communication, continues to reverberate nearly a century later, as various actors push their versions of the truth. Göbbels taught us how to “sell” alternative facts: blatant lies are easy to falsify, lies by omission are much harder to catch.

A pluralistic society thrives on differences of opinion. Good people whose priorities differ may come to different conclusions based on the same set of facts. But when there is disagreement over the facts themselves, society breaks down. And that’s what we face today. The facts have now become matters of opinion.

I could name a number of issues from climate change to gender roles where the facts should be indisputable but they aren’t. But my concern transcends any specific topic. I simply worry that if we all retreat into our alternative facts bubbles, consensus or compromise become impossible. Where that leads, I don’t know but it is deeply worrying.

 Posted by at 12:11 pm
Apr 102021

Black lives matter. No argument there.

But, unfortunately, so does messaging. Dr. Göbbels knew this. The communists also knew this, hence their emphasis on “agitation and propaganda”. But, truth to tell, unlike the Third Reich, the left always sucked at it. That’s why, in Kádár’s Hungary, for instance, instead of being content with a regime that delivered a solid system of universal health care and a consistently high quality public system of education that included free tertiary education, we joked about living in the “happiest of the barracks”, took the regime’s successes for granted without acknowledging them, and grumbled daily about its numerous shortcomings.

The political left seems to be intent on continuing this tradition. Their messaging sucks.

A few days ago, I grumbled about the Mayor of London who proclaimed that there are too many white men in science and engineering.

Not too few women. Not underrepresented minorities. Not the need to increase the appeal and accessibility of science and engineering professions to women and minorities. Nope. Too many white men. The resulting backlash was both predictable and completely unnecessary.

Meanwhile, self-righteous warriors of the progressive left declare people like J. K. Rowling a public enemy. Shouldn’t someone with her storytelling prowess be enlisted as a friend and ally? No… deviate in the slightest from the unwritten standards of leftist orthodoxy, and you are labeled a backward, hateful somethingophobe. Like the California university professor who dared to mention a common Chinese expression in his lecture on communication: “na ge” (那个), a common pause word. Oh, how the righteous pounced! This insensitive white professor must be secretly a racist white supremacist! How dare he utter a word that sounds like, well… dare I write it down? Or do I, too, have to fear repercussions from the thought police if I dare spell out the infamous N-word in its entirety? The incident drew criticism from Chinese students and comparisons to Mao’s cultural revolution, and they were not wrong.

Then there are these calls to “defund the police”. The first time I heard this expression I was perplexed. Sure, I know there exist crazy anarchists who want no uniformed authority whatsoever on our streets, but I was also certain that this was not the meaning that the expression was intended to convey. And I was right. The original intent is to divert funds away: let the police do policing when they must, but use the funds wisely, to prevent those cultural and socioeconomic circumstances that lead to situations that need policing in the first place. Makes sense, right?

But that’s not the message that a call to “defund the police” conveys. Many who are rightfully angered by police excess want to, well, literally defund the police. And now their voices are amplified beyond reason, seemingly representing mainstream progressive attitudes. Needless to say, that’s all their opponents need to spread fear and concern among their followers: Look, they tell you, these leftist idiots, these commie anarchists want to leave your streets unprotected from thieves and murderers! They want to turn your country into a failed state like Venezuela!

So yes, black lives matter. And I know what you mean. You mean “Black lives matter, too.” You mean “Not only white lives matter.” You are not suggesting that lives other than black lives matter less.

But when you just say, “black lives matter”, you hand a propaganda victory to your opponents on a silver platter. Even stereotypical rednecks, those undereducated and unintelligent “deplorables”, can retort easily with “but I thought all lives matter!” and gain the moral upper hand.

I happen to support many (most? all?) key progressive ideas. I do think black lives (also) matter. I do believe it is a good idea to attack socioeconomic problems at their roots as opposed to just policing the consequences. I understand that words can hurt, dehumanize, and contribute to systemic racism. I do agree that we must do better to involve women and minorities in science and engineering professions.

But, dear progressives, when I look at your messaging… continuing a century-old tradition, you remain your own worst enemies.

 Posted by at 7:25 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