May 052018
 

In the late 1960s, early 1970s, Hollywood responded to social upheavals and perceived lawlessness by creating a series of renegade, vigilante cops, played by the likes of Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood.

Today, perceived changes, threats to “us”, fear from “them”, seem to be bringing about another result: the rise of political strongmen around the world. This is the topic of a new article in TIME, also featured on the cover of their upcoming issue.

Pictured are Putin, Duterte of the Philippines, Orban of Hungary and Erdogan of Turkey. Not shown but extensively covered in the article are Xi Jinping, Egypt’s al-Sisi, and, of course, Donald Trump. Other strongmen are also mentioned.

What is this world coming to? Why are people who benefited the most from liberal democracy so keen to reject its values?

And in particular, why do we let the free Internet, one of the greatest inventions of liberal democracy, become a tool of state propaganda, a conduit for fake news? Why do we let the powers-that-be censor it or, worse yet, use it as a tool of oppression, as a means to build a totalitarian surveillance state?

Nor do I believe that Canada is immune. We are about to elect our very own strongman here in the province of Ontario. Doug Ford, brother to the scandal-plagued former mayor of Toronto, the late Rob Ford, is destined to become the next premier of this province. And who knows what will happen next… I am sure Doug Ford’s ambitions do not end with Queen’s Park.

In the end, it becomes a test of the strength of democratic institutions. In the US, Trump cannot ignore the courts, and may soon face a hostile legislature. In Canada, the Prime Minister may control Parliament, but the court system is strong and the press, too, remains independent. Even so, I’d rather not stress-test our democracy.

 Posted by at 3:10 pm
Apr 172018
 

This stunning young lady is none other than future First Lady of the United States, Barbara Bush, back in 1943.

Alas, Barbara Bush is no more. She passed away today after a prolonged illness.

She was genuine, she was funny, and she was noble. Her husband for more than 70 years, George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush were clearly a loving couple until the very end.

And she even appeared on The Simpsons.

May she rest in peace.

 Posted by at 8:10 pm
Apr 112018
 

A couple of statements from the past 24 hours:

If there is a strike by the Americans, then…the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired.” – Russian Ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin, on Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV.

Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!” – United States president Donald J. Trump, on Twitter.

Suddenly, I have this almost irresistible urge to grab a shovel and start digging a fallout shelter.

While I still can.

 Posted by at 9:18 am
Apr 042018
 

A headline on Euronews caught my attention earlier today: Syria: A bigger role for the EU?

Good, thought I. The Russians might not like it though, thought I. But that’s okay, as a matter of fact, it might help bring rogue EU countries like Hungary in line, thought I. It might help presenting a united front against an increasingly ill-behaved Russia.

And then I caught myself, as I realized that I just rediscovered a truth that is as old as civilization itself: how conflict, the threat of war, or war itself can unite a people.

You know what? Much as I like the great European experiment, much as I cherish the fact that my once worthless Hungarian passport grants me European citizenship, if the price of keeping it together is more involvement in conflicts like Syria, it might not be worth it.

 Posted by at 12:18 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
Mar 202018
 

Every once in a while, my hopes, or perhaps delusions, that we live in a less dark world, are crushed.

This was the case moments ago, when I watched this undercover report by Channel 4 about Cambridge Analytica.

The company’s excuses, shown at the end of the report, are especially pathetic. “No, Mr. Policeman,” says the petty thief, “I wasn’t trying to steal that item when you caught me red-handed, I was just testing the security of the merchant.”

Yeah, right.

 Posted by at 5:38 pm
Mar 202018
 

Breaking news on CNN: Another school shooting in America.

My only problem with CNN’s reporting is… why do they call this “Breaking News”?

That label should be reserved for news that is, well, unexpected and breaking. School shootings happen with such regularity, they should be part of CNN’s regularly scheduled programming.

 Posted by at 10:09 am
Mar 052018
 

Saturday evening, the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump talked to some Republicans behind closed doors. But a recording has been leaked.

Here is what Mr. Trump said, among other things, in response to Xi Jinping turning China back to strongman rule by removing term limits from China’s constitution: “He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great,” Trump said. “And look, he was able to do that. I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day.

Having read, and then heard, these words, I was filled with a combination of dread, disgust, despair and revulsion.

Fuck you, Trump. Fuck you, Republican cheerleaders who sacrifice everything sacred for party loyalty and for power.

Forgive my vulgar outburst but this crossed a line. This REALLY crossed a line. I grew up in a communist state, not on a freaking golf course courtesy of rich daddy, like this megalomaniac asshole who has no idea what he is idiotically blabbering about, cheering on a commie dictator because apparently he, too, would love to be president for life.

I think that with this statement, Trump abdicated the informal position of “leader of the free world”. A true leader of the free world would never cheer on a commie dictator, not even as a tasteless joke. He may be America’s President, but with these words, he has declared himself an enemy of the world that I call free.

 Posted by at 12:47 am
Mar 022018
 

To my American friends who believe Trump is doing a good job protecting the US economy: I think it is telling that US stock markets are hurting more today than their Canadian counterparts, despite the fact that Canada is the primary target of Trump’s proposed steel and aluminum tariffs:

What can I say. Be careful what you wish for. And we have not even discussed how Canada (or Europe) might retaliate. But in the end, we will all be losers, no matter what the narcissistic idiot in the White House thinks about the wonderful job that he is doing.

 Posted by at 12:05 pm
Mar 012018
 

I am playing with JavaScript and HTML5. Three-dimensional transformations.

33
CNN
Cable News Network

It's more fun than I thought. And gives a whole new meaning to the word, "spin", as I am listening to CNN.

 Posted by at 9:20 pm
Feb 202018
 

In an opinion piece, Globe and Mail contributor, lawyer Charles Lugosi argues that calls to reform Canada’s jury system in light of the not guilty verdict in the case of the death of Colten Boushie, who was shot by Gerald Stanley, are unwarranted and deeply harmful.

Mr. Lugosi speaks from personal experience. In 1994, he defended a young indigenous man who, fearing for the safety of his wife and child, struck and killed a white man with a tire iron and then turned himself in to police. Judged by an all-white jury, the defendant was acquitted. Despite the outrage of the victim’s family, no one suggested racism after the verdict.

So why the calls for reforming the jury system now? Lugosi argues that it is simply political intimidation. Having looked at news reports providing details of the case, I am compelled to agree. Lawyers back before the verdict warned that the Crown’s case was tenuous and that a not guilty verdict was very much a possibility. Portrayals of the victim and his friends as harmless teenagers looking for help with a flat tire just do not agree with the facts. In reality, this was a drunk, disorderly, armed (!) lot who already ransacked another farm and were attempting to steal a vehicle from Stanley.

So let me be clear. Mr. Colten Boushie, the victim, was “seen as a menace” not on account of his race but on account of his actions. I have no reason to doubt that the jury reached their conclusions on this basis. For populist politicians to then criticize this decision, even as the jury are legally barred from discussing the case or defending themselves against charges of racism, is unconscionable.

I am sure there are plenty of genuine cases of bona fide racism against indigenous people in Canada. In fact, the behavior of the RCMP that night appears to have been far from impeccable. It may very well be that, as some accuse, the justice system is stacked against indigenous people.

And yes, Mr. Boushie is a victim. A victim of his own and his friend’s actions. A victim of circumstances. I’d go so far as to concede that yes, very probably a victim of a system stacked against him, a victim of still existing systematic racism in Canadian society.

But this jury verdict is not outrageous. It is consistent the facts: very simply, the guilt of the defendant was not proven beyond reasonable doubt. That’s all. It does not mean Mr. Stanley is a nice guy. It does not mean Mr. Boushie deserved death. Calls for a reform of the jury system just because a verdict is politically unpalatable undermines the justice system for all. And fueling tensions with unwarranted, politically motivated charges of racism does a disservice to indigenous and white Canadians alike.

 Posted by at 9:08 am
Feb 192018
 

The more I learn about ancient China, the more my respect grows for the Middle Kingdom and its amazing history.

Here is something written by a 9th century Muslim traveler, Abu Zayd al-Sirafi, who visited China during the Tang Dynasty, in 850 A.D. or thereabouts. I found a modern translation that I first came across so incredible, I searched for corroboration. I then came across this 1733 English translation (if I interpret the cover page correctly, by an unnamed English translator using a French translation from the Arabic by Eusebius Renaudot).

Here is how this 1733 text describes China’s social safety net. (And if you are left wondering if perhaps the traveler mistakenly traveled into the future, visiting a late 20th, early 21st century welfare state, you are not alone):

“The Chinese have a Stone ten Cubits high, erected in the public Squares, and on this Stone are graved the Names of all sorts of Medicines, with the exact rates of each; and when the poor stand in need of any Relief from Physic, they go to the Treasury, where they receive the Price each Medicine is rated at.

“There is no Land Tax in China; they only levy so much per Head, according to the Wealth and Possessions of the Subject. When a Male Child is born, his Name is immediately entered into the King’s Books, and when this Child has attained his eighteenth Year, he begins to pay for his Head; but they demand it not of the Man who has seen his eightieth Year; on the contrary he receives a Gratification, by way of Pension, from the public Treasury; and in doing this, the Chinese say, That they give him this Gratification in his old days, in acknowledgment for what they receiv’d of him when he was young.

“There are Schools in every Town for teaching the Poor and their Children to write and read, and the Masters are paid at the public Charge.”

This text was written nearly 1,200 years ago. It took another millennium before public education become the norm in more developed European nations, and at least another century before various forms of social security and public health institutions took root.

I am beginning to appreciate more and more why the Middle Kingdom viewed the period loosely demarcated by the Opium Wars of the 1850s and the Japanese occupation of the 1930s and 1940s as the Century of Humiliation; and why it might appear to many that the recent rise of China as an economic superpower only means a return to the way things were always supposed to be, the way things have been for several millennia preceding the rapid rise of Europe a few centuries ago.

 Posted by at 8:21 pm
Jan 072018
 

Not too long ago (OK, well, 30 years… it doesn’t feel that long anymore) there was another genius on the news: the Genius of the Carpathians, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

Here is a joke from that era that, no doubt, could be adapted to fit the “very stable genius”, too.

The US president, the General Secretary of the Soviet communist party, the Pope and Ceausescu are flying somewhere on a plane. Suddenly, the pilot enters the compartment and says, “Gentleman, I have bad news. This airplane is about to crash and we only have four parachutes.”

Immediately, the US president yells, “I am the leader of the free world, I must survive!”, grabs a parachute and jumps.

He is followed by the Soviet leader, who yells, “I am the leader of the worldwide socialist revolution. I must survive!”, grabs another parachute and jumps.

Next comes Ceausescu: “I am the Genius of the Carpathians! I must survive!”, grabs the next parachute and jumps.

The Pope and the pilot remain. The Pope looks at the pilot and says, “My son, I am old and lived a full life. Your whole life is ahead of you. Please take that parachute. I’ll pray for your survival.” The pilot responds, “No need to worry, Holy Father, we have two parachutes left. The Genius of the Carpathians grabbed the fire extinguisher.”

 Posted by at 11:17 am
Jan 062018
 

 Posted by at 9:08 am
Dec 222017
 

So our American friends south of the border have a new tax legislation. I’ve seen many discussions of how it affects people in various income brackets, but all too often, these are more confusing than helpful.

So instead, here is a handy chart that shows how the federal tax rate decreases as a percentage of taxable income for individuals, joint filers and heads of households (based on tables provided by CNN):

While most folks will enjoy a tax break, it is interesting to see that some individuals and heads of households will actually see a tax increase:

Married couples benefit the most (mainly as a result of some arcane tax brackets that were in effect before the new legislation), which is probably a Good Thing; I am not so sure about the 2.6% tax break offered to the wealthiest, however.

Anyhow, I pay my taxes in Ontario, Canada, so it really doesn’t bother me one way or another, I just wanted to understand a little better what actually is going on.

 Posted by at 7:18 pm
Dec 162017
 

Fair warning: This post contains some adult language.

In case there has been any doubt: Republicans have gone completely bonkers, and it is now official.

According to The Washington Post, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, America’s leading public health institute, is no longer allowed to use the following terms in its budget documents:

  • vulnerable,
  • entitlement,
  • diversity,
  • transgender,
  • fetus,
  • evidence-based,
  • science-based.

Dear Republicans, dear followers of the orange person in the White House: Are you out of your fucking minds? Have you gone completely bonkers? Truly gone fishing? Are you bat shit crazy? Totally demented?

I mean, what kind of an idiot does this childish shit? You are worse than Soviet political commissars from the Stalin era. OK, you are not sending anyone to the Gulag (yet?) but your retarded drive for ideological purity is like a caricature of itself.

I mean… you are insane. Certifiably. This is not politics anymore. This is not left vs. right, transgender rights vs. traditional families. You are clearly deranged psychopaths.

I am secretly hoping that the news turns out to be false, but despite accusations of “fake news” and the like, I know The Washington Post to be a responsible news organization and I think it is a safe bet that this story was vetted.

 Posted by at 7:57 pm
Nov 102017
 

I’ve seen several news reports commenting on the fact that Donald Trump was using Twitter while visiting China. That despite the fact that Twitter is one of those Western services that are blocked by China’s “Great Firewall”. Some even speculated that Trump was using a military communications network or some other exotic technology to circumvent Chinese restrictions. (As if the US military was foolish enough to let this idiot of a president’s unsecure smartphone access their network.)

But reality is much more mundane, as I know quite well from personal experience in China.

When you are traveling with a phone registered to a foreign service provider, your Internet connection initiates from that provider’s network. So insofar as the Internet is concerned, you are not even in China. Your connection initiates from your home country. In my case, whenever I used my phone in China for Internet access, I accessed the Internet from an IP address registered with my Canadian cellular service provider, Rogers. I had unrestricted access to Google, Facebook, CNN and other news sites, with no Chinese restrictions.

Trump probably did exactly what I did, except that he probably worried about international data roaming charges and data caps a little less than I. He grabbed his phone, turned it on, and used it without a second thought. (OK, that’s not exactly like me. Trump was probably not surprised to see Twitter work on his phone in China, because he probably knows very little about the Great Firewall. I was mildly surprised myself, especially as I went there prepared for the worst, with multiple overt and covert VPN options prepared just in case I needed them. Which I did… but only when I was using the hotel Wi-Fi instead of the cellular network.)

 Posted by at 9:21 am
Nov 072017
 

In between being sick with a cold and being hopelessly behind with my TODO list, I almost forgot. Today was an remarkable anniversary.

It was 100 years ago today that the Great October Socialist Revolution (which happened on October 25 according to the Julian calendar, which was still in use in Russia in 1917) achieved victory in St. Petersburg and the Utopian communist Soviet state was born.

Sadly, the Utopian dreams did not last very long. In between its inability to govern without violence and the threats, both internal and external, that the fledgling communist state faced, it quickly turned to a less Utopian interpretation of Marx’s dream: The “dictatorship of the proletariat”, one-party rule in a totalitarian police state.

Nonetheless… when I was little, growing up in then-communist Hungary behind the Iron Curtain, the Soviet Union seemed eternal. Its successes were spectacular, including how it prevailed against the Nazi war machine in the Great Patriotic War and also how it rushed to the forefront of many areas in engineering and the sciences, including the first orbital spacecraft and the first manned spaceflight.

Alas, the Soviet Union proved less eternal than anyone thought. It was done in by an incompetent, ultraconservative octogenarian leadership and the inherent failures and weaknesses of its command economy. Less than 75 years after it was created, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. The red flag over the Kremlin was taken down, and the Soviet federation itself broke up into its constituent states.

And now here we are, on the 100th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, and barely anyone remembers. There are no broadcasts of military parades from Moscow’s Red Square. Not even a brief commemoration in the evening local news on the CBC, or on CNN in between their analysis of Trump’s Asia trip and the results of tonight’s interim elections. If Russia is mentioned at all, it’s only in the context of the Mueller investigation. The revolution that shook the world in 1917 and shaped the world for three quarters of a century afterwards seems mostly forgotten.

Heck, I almost forgot to blog about it.

 Posted by at 10:54 pm
Oct 212017
 

Yes, my Canada includes Quebec. It includes Quebec’s unique culture. It includes the French language. It includes Quebec’s different legal system, different traditions. It includes the brave, righteous struggle of Quebecois against being treated as second-class citizens of this country.

Protest against Bill 62 along a bus route on Montreal’s Parc Avenue Friday. (Sudha Krishnan/CBC)

But… My Canada does not include populist intolerance. Nativism. Xenophobia. Political opportunism, the willingness to awaken demons for the sake of winning elections.

Quebec’s Bill 62 is a solution to a non-existent problem. I have not heard of any issues arising from Muslim women in traditional clothing boarding a municipal bus. Or for that matter, from a member of the staff at a hospital wearing a face covering. (Don’t they often wear surgical masks anyway?)

Bill 62 is clearly divisive. I sincerely hope that sooner rather than later, it will be declared unconstitutional by a Quebec court. And that finally, there will be Quebec politicians who will have the guts to go against the majority and educate them against the hate and intolerance that they are so willing to embrace.

But if it remains the law of the land in Quebec… then you know what? I hope Quebec will hold a referendum soon and secedes from Canada after all. Because my Canada does not include a shameful law like Bill 62. Get out of Canada and take your xenophobia with you.

Mind you, I remain hopeful that it’s the law that goes away, and Quebec remains. Because… mon Canada comprend le Québec… un Québec sans loi 62, sans xénophobie.

 Posted by at 12:31 pm