Aug 282014

There is no other way of describing it: Russia now engages in open aggression against Ukraine. Whatever one’s thoughts are about Ukrainian nationalism or the wisdom of breaking up the territory of the old Russian empire into semi-viable successor states, such open aggression should be condemned without reservation. Russia being a nuclear superpower, Puting can do whatever the hell he wants, but that doesn’t mean that we should stay silent.

NATO releases satellite imagery showing Russian combat troops inside Ukraine

Curiously, the NATO Web site where these pictures were published is intermittently unavailable. Given this morning’s breaking news about coordinated cyberattacks originating from Russia and aimed at US banks, I would not be surprised if NATO’s Web site itself were itself subjected to something like a DoS attack by Russia, which might explain the intermittent outages.

 Posted by at 1:13 pm
Aug 272014

Our Russian friends apparently lack accurate maps, as they accidentally cross the border into Ukraine every so often. No harm intended, I am sure. Just to make sure it does not happen again, here is a helpful map, courtesy of Canada’s NATO delegation, tweeted by them (and retweeted by thousands of others) earlier today:


 Posted by at 6:06 pm
Aug 192014

I received an e-mail today that reminded me of an old friend, Gabor Laufer, and his misadventures in his capacity as a medical doctor with the American system of medical insurance.

Gabor was our neighbor when I was a little boy, living next door to our apartment in Budapest, along with his mother. At that time, he was a medical student. He in fact removed one of my baby teeth when I was 7 or 8 or so, and then gave me the pair of dentist’s pliers that he used as a memento.

Not long thereafter, Gabor left Hungary, and eventually landed in the United States, where he began to practice as an obstetrician-gynecologist in the Washington, D.C. area. It was here that he had a disagreement with his insurance company, who opted to settle in a case that involved Gabor, despite Gabor’s objections. Gabor found it fundamentally unacceptable that the insurance company would pay a patient even though he made no medical errors. Unfortunately, his quixotic fight achieved only one thing: the insurance company dropped him, and other insurers were not willing to deal with him either. This made it very difficult for Gabor to continue his practice. This is how he ended up somewhere in Kentucky or Iowa I believe, where he was able to work again at a family clinic.

Gabor was immensely intelligent, and proud of it. In the early 1980s, he authored a computer game, the name of which says it all: Intellectual Decathlon. I had a few interesting discussions with Gabor, although, I admit, sometimes these were a little frustrating, as he had a tendency to conclude that if something was beyond his ability to understand, it could not possibly be right. (Explaining relativistic cosmology to someone who is not familiar with the math is a difficult task.)

I stayed in touch with Gabor intermittently over the years. In the late 1980s, after I moved to Canada, I was a frequent visitor to his computer BBS (long-distance dial-up to the Washington D.C. area at 2400 bps) called Elite Few. But then, the Internet led to the demise of most, if not all, dial-up BBSs, and the Elite Few BBS was no exception.

I once again got in touch with Gabor in the late 2000’s, and we exchanged several e-mails. We also became Facebook friends. The last e-mail I received from him, in 2011, was about an impending change of his e-mail address. I have not heard from him since, and his Facebook page also fell silent.

But now, as I Googled his name, I came across something else: an obituary of sorts, from one of his doctor friends. This is how I found out that Gabor was no longer among us. Perhaps I should not be surprised. Though he was far from old (only 65 when he passed away), he was a chain smoker. Still… it is really sad to learn, more than two years after his death, that he is no more. Gabor’s death was also commemorated on a news discussion site.

As I was going through old e-mails, I came across something else: Gabor’s photo albums on Flickr. It was here that I was able to locate a relatively recent picture of Gabor, made in 2009 I believe, when he was visiting Budapest.

Good-bye, Gabor. It was an honor, knowing you. May you rest in peace.

 Posted by at 3:32 pm
Aug 152014

The other day, I was watching The Tramp and the Dictator, a documentary about Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film, The Great Dictator, in which I came across this gem:

The speaker is Rep. Martin Dies from Texas, who later became known as the founder of the infamous House Committee Investigating Un-American Activities (initially nicknamed the Dies committee). A month earlier, Mr. Dies also presented his views to a radio audience.

Unfortunately, the words uttered by some anti-immigration politicians and activists today in the United States are little different from the words uttered nearly 80 years ago by Mr. Dies.

 Posted by at 7:38 pm
Aug 142014

Electronic mailing lists are a somewhat old-fashioned way to let a group of people stay in touch and communicate about a topic of interest.

Many mailing lists these days offer a “digest” service: instead of sending out each message individually to the list recipient, they receive one message a day, a week, or some other set interval, containing all the traffic from the mailing list during that time period.

Tonight, on a mailing list to which I subscribe, I saw yet another request to delete the original message from any replies, for the benefit of digest readers. I have seen such requests many times in the past, and every time I come across one, I get rather annoyed.

Including the original message is of course redundant for “digest” readers, as they probably have a copy of the original message right there, as part of the same digest. But for non-digest readers, including the original saves the time it takes to look up the earlier message.

In other words, what these helpful volunteer “list police” folks are really saying amounts to this: If you are one of those idiots who actually bothers to read messages individually, your time is less valuable than the time of those who already decided that the list is not worth that much attention in the first place.

Why, thank you for putting me in my place.

 Posted by at 10:49 pm
Aug 132014

Last night, as I was watching the latest episode of Tyrant (itself an excellent show about a fictitious Middle Eastern dictatorship and its ruling family), I happened to glance at the TV during a commercial break just at the right split second to see this:

This was part of an ad, a Subway sandwich commercial, with an animated monkey handing this exam sheet back to a student (also a monkey). What caught my eye was the equation on this sheet. What??? Einstein’s field equations?

Yup, that’s exactly what I saw there, the equation \(G_{\alpha\beta}=\dfrac{8\pi G}{c^4}T_{\alpha\beta}\). General relativity.

Other, easily recognizable equations on the sheet included an equation of the electrostatic Coulomb force, the definition of the quantum mechanical probability amplitude, and the continuity equation.

What struck me was that all these are legitimate equations from physics, not gibberish. And all that in a silly Subway commercial. Wow.

 Posted by at 4:48 pm
Aug 092014

The sweetest cat my wife and I have ever known, will ever know, is gone.

Our kitty cat Szürke, who used up at least ten of the usual allotment of nine cat lives while he fought kidney disease and anemia in the past ten months, could no longer cope. The combination of worsening kidney failure, a serious heart and lung condition, and severe ulceration in his mouth was just too much… acting on the veterinarian’s best advice and keeping the animal’s well-being foremost on our minds, we accepted the inevitable.

Szürke finished his journey on this good Earth at 11:56 PM EDT last night, August 8.

Good-bye, Süsüke.

 Posted by at 7:58 am
Aug 082014

This is our kittycat Szürke two days ago.

He looks okay. What is not evident in this picture is that he is suffering from severe pain, due to open sores and ulcers in his mouth. This now makes it pretty much impossible for him to eat, and giving him pills is torture.

And I certainly don’t want to continue torturing him just to prolong the inevitable. But Szürke still has a fighting chance. His kidney are ill, but not that ill. If we can control the pain in his mouth, he may still spend some time on this Earth as a reasonably happy cat.

Having consulted with our veterinarian specialist along with Dr. Google, we therefore decided to accept the doctor’s advice: today, Szürke will get a feeding tube.

I hope we will not have reasons to regret this decision.

 Posted by at 11:09 am
Aug 072014

I know, I know. Non-existent weapons of mass destruction. The War on Terror used to “rendition” innocent people to tyrannical third countries for “enhanced interrogation”. The TSA sniffing travelers’ shoes at American and select foreign airports. Waterboarding. Guantanamo. And behind it all, American exceptionalism.

All of these are valid points. The record of the “last remaining superpower” has been far from impeccable. Sometimes they go to far. Sometimes they succumb to some idiotic ideology. Sometimes they place profit ahead of people’s rights. Sometimes, their behavior on the world scene is governed not by altruism but by petty domestic politics.

All of that is true. Still… When I look at the end result, I still prefer Pax Americana over any of the possible alternatives. Much prefer. (What would those alternatives be anyway? Pax EuropaePax SovieticaPax Islamica? Pax ChristianaPax Sinensis?) When I look around the world today, at places like Ukraine. Iraq. Syria. The Gaza strip. Egypt. Libya. Mali. Somalia. Iran. Afghanistan. I much prefer the peace imposed by the United States, even if it is done by imperial decree. Even if it means more missteps and misdeeds.

Tonight, as he announced that he authorized the United States military conduct air strikes in Iraq to protect refugees from ISIS/ISIL, President Obama said, among other things, the following words: “America has made the world a more secure and prosperous place.”

And it has. Even after all the missteps, all the misdeeds, all the wrongdoings are accounted for. Even after I accept that Iraq was their mess to begin with, they broke the place, the least they can do is to fix it. Moreover, the United States is probably the only major power in the history of the world that has repeatedly deployed its might and risked the lives of members of its military, not to serve its own imperial interests but to help fix a broken world.

 Posted by at 10:42 pm
Aug 052014

In the 1980s there was a joke I heard on the streets of Budapest. It was in the form of an official-sounding announcement: “In Soviet Union is no illiteracy… on written record.”

Well, there is no racism in Hungary either. At least not on the record. Everything that happens, happens for a sound, sensible reason. When Hungary’s Minister of Human Resources announces that there was no Roma Holocaust in Hungary, as Hungarian Roma were only deported from Austrian territory, he of course speaks the gospel truth. When the third largest city in Hungary begins a systematic eviction of mainly Roma residents, it is just an eminently reasonable attempt to clean up a bad, run-down part of town. And when a state-sponsored film festival in the same city declines to show films on the subject of the Roma, it is an entirely logical decision, aimed at avoiding controversy just before municipal elections.

Everything is based on sound reasoning, everything makes perfect sense. Just as it was entirely reasonable when a small town mayor in Hungary this weekend presided over a symbolic hanging of an effigy of Benjamin Netanyahu, in protest against the “Freemason Jewish terror state’s efforts to rule the world.” No, there is no racism in Hungary. How could there be?

 Posted by at 5:40 pm
Aug 052014

I am reading posts on Facebook and elsewhere, using heated language to advocate either the Israeli or the Palestinian cause in the current conflict.

I don’t think calling Israel’s actions “mass murder” is any more helpful than calling Hamas “terrorists”. They are both inflammatory terms that are designed to create the impression of no moral ambiguity (i.e., whichever side happens to be your side, they will be “right” and the other side will be “wrong”) in what is really in many ways a morally ambiguous situation.

On that front, I am equally appalled by Israel’s apparent indifference to the Palestinian civilian death count and by Hamas’s apparent determination to harm anyone on the other side of the Gaza border so long as it is a Jew. But while moral outrage may be used to fire up the troops, wars are not about moral outrage. They are about tangible things such as land or resources.

Fact: Israel’s physical security demands that Israel do not relinquish military control over Palestinian territories. Hence, an independent Palestinian state, potentially hostile to Israel, is unacceptable.

Fact: Israel’s water security also demands control over the resources of the West Bank. Once again, this means that an independent Palestinian state, potentially hostile to Israel, is unacceptable.

Fact: Israel defines itself as an ethnic/religious Jewish state, but it also maintains the institutions of a representative liberal democracy. Thus, its very existence as a Jewish state hinges on it maintaining a majority Jewish population. There are already concerns voiced about the higher rate of population growth among Arab Israelis. Annexation of Palestinian territories would create an instant Arab majority in Israel; maintaining a Jewish state would then necessarily mean giving up on the notion of democracy, replacing it instead with an apartheid regime, which is clearly abhorrent to most Israelis. Hence, annexing Palestinian territories is an option that, for Israel, is unacceptable.

Which leads to the sad conclusion that politically for Israel, the least undesirable of all possible options is the status quo. No Palestinian state but no outright annexation either, and if it keeps a few million Palestinians forever in limbo, well, that’s just too bad. And they’ll continue to use their military to ensure that the occupied territories never get too far out of hand, never pose an existential security risk to Israel.

Of course I’d argue that the status quo itself will eventually become unacceptable to Israel in the long run, but I am not sure what that means other than the fact that at that time, Israel will have run out of options.

Mind you, Israel could give up on the idea of being a sovereign Jewish ethnic/religious nation state and instead, accept the notion of a Jewish-Arab federal republic. Could it work, especially considering the enmity between Jews and Palestinians after decades of struggle (and I am of course just counting the time since the establishment of the modern state of Israel)? Unlikely. Yet even this unlikely option may be preferable to no option at all, as that would ultimately lead to the destruction of the state of Israel, the loss of countless Jewish lives, and a new diaspora for whom the words, “L’Shana Ha’ba’a b’Yerushalayim” would once again represent an unattainable dream.

 Posted by at 12:48 am
Aug 042014

One hundred years ago, the British Empire (and, by extension, Canada) declared war on the German Empire. The War to End All Wars began in earnest.

This reminds me that we have in our possession this small hand-sewn notebook which belonged to my wife’s great-grandfather. He served in the Great War, as a conscript in Austria-Hungary’s army. He fought in the trenches against Italy, alongside the Isonzo river.

His notebook was his diary, written mostly in the form of poetry, during some of the heaviest fighting in the summer of 1915.

I have not (yet) made an attempt to translate any of it into English; the content that is linked above is in Hungarian. But pictures are worth a thousand words: here is my wife’s great-grandfather, with his wife, photographed some time before 1914.

 Posted by at 7:15 pm
Aug 012014

A few days ago, Mr. Viktor Orban (hey, it’s not my fault that we share a first name), Hungary’s prime minister, gave a speech in a Transylvanian town. In this speech, he declared his intent to create an “illiberal” Hungary. His role models: Turkey, China and Russia. No wonder the speech raised alarm bells throughout the Western media, including the not exactly left-wing Wall Street Journal. The Huffington Post described it as a headline that could have come straight from a European version of The Onion.

While it is clear that this speech was primarily intended for consumption by his followers, among whom Orban’s anti-West, anti-Brussels, anti-capitalist, xenophobic populism resonates, Orban is not stupid, and he is choosing his words carefully. The fact that he used this particular phrase makes it clear that his struggle is about more than just preventing Hungary from becoming a “colony” of the EU. He really does want to tear down all the remaining checks and balances of a liberal democracy, in order to enjoy unconstrained power.

In light of this, while others describe Orban’s plans the “Putinization” of Hungary, Newsweek was perhaps not unjustified in borrowing a description of Mr. Orban from the Hungarian left-wing daily Népszabadság: “Hungary’s Mussolini”.

 Posted by at 12:47 am