Nov 292015

The other day, I saw a curious full-page advertisement in the copy of Ottawa Life magazine that came bundled with my morning Globe and Mail.

It contained phrases and symbology that I am no longer accustomed to see. What caught my eye at first was the red background, complete with five-pointed golden stars and an image of a statue containing a group of heroic figures. Stuff once common on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain.

Presented by the Embassy of the PRC, it was an advertisement in commemoration of the “Victory of the World Anti-Fascist War” as well as the “Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression”. Symbology and awkward language notwithstanding, knowing what I know about the brutality of Japan’s failed conquest of the Middle Kingdom (including the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons), I believe China has every right to celebrate proudly. Western bias notwithstanding, arguably the true starting date of World War 2 is July 7, 1937, the beginning of Japan’s attempt at a full-scale invasion, and it took a full eight years for this nightmare to end (though not the Chinese Civil War).

 Posted by at 5:25 pm
Nov 292015

Everyone, meet the early 5th century saint, Christian theologian and philosopher, Augustine of Hippo. This is the oldest surviving portrait of him:

Why am I so impressed by Augustine? Well, some 1600 years ago he gave the perfect answer to anyone attempting to read science into holy texts. In his opus, The Literal Interpretations of Genesis, Augustine wrote:

Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about [science] and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics […] The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and […] the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men.

Of course, you could replace the word Christian with, say, Muslim and [Holy] Scripture with [Holy] Koran, and the meaning remains exactly the same.

As a curious footnote, when I checked my blog to see if I might have written about Augustine before (I haven’t) I noticed that the only other occurrence of “Augustine” here is in the context of the US space program, which was reformulated under the Obama administration in response to the recommendations by the Augustine Commission. Even more curious is that there were two Augustine Commissions, set up 20 years apart, chaired by the same Norman Augustine, former CEO of Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin. Nothing to do with St. Augustine, of course.

 Posted by at 9:52 am
Nov 272015

Fourteen years ago, I embarked on a small hobby project: A compiler for an ultra-simple programming language I called W, a language specifically designed to produce short 16-bit DOS programs. It has the distinguishing characteristic of having neither keywords nor types. The only data type on which it operates is a 16-bit machine word (hence the name, W).

I then wrote a few pages about this language that are still featured on my Web site.

Today (not for the first time) my project was rediscovered. Apparently not everyone realized that this was an old project (I now changed the configuration of the project page to make sure its creation date is visible.) The link went a little viral, as it was featured on both Reddit and Y Combinator. Which explains why, when I woke up this morning, I saw my server under a far heavier load than usual.

It was interesting to look at the comments on these two sites. Some liked what I have done. Others were critical, not sure why; it was a hobby project, after all, I wasn’t trying to win any accolades. But there was one particular comment on Reddit, by user MarshallBanana, that I really liked:

“What a bastard, making something for himself for fun. He sure deserves some shit for that.”

 Posted by at 7:18 pm
Nov 272015

Today, I tried to reach the Microsoft Developer Network support line to sort out an issue with my MSDN subscription.

After I made the appropriate touchtone selections, however, I was greeted with what sounded like an old Walkman on a nearly dead battery. Quite incomprehensible but certainly entertaining.

It went on like this for a couple of minutes, but then the call was disconnected.

I then tried to call the main Microsoft number, where a helpful lady tried to sort things out for me. She apologized and put me on hold several times while she talked to her supervisor; unfortunately, the last time she tried to put me on hold, she managed to disconnect the call instead.

So I called the MSDN number again (1-800-759-5474) and this time, I recorded the call. When I sped it up, suddenly it all made sense:

Technical difficulties indeed.

 Posted by at 3:18 pm
Nov 232015

A friend of mine reminded us on Facebook that the tragic events of Paris last week did not represent the worst massacre of civilians in the City of Light after World War II.

No, that title may belong to the events of October 17, 1961. It was on that day that Paris riot police, headed by former Vichy war criminal Maurice Papon, massacred up to 200 Algerians. (The actual numbers remain in dispute, as the French government only acknowledged more than three deaths in 1998.)

This fact raises so many questions. Foremost among them, why do those lives matter less? Is it only because 54 years is a long time and events were forgotten? Or would the ethnicity or religion of those massacred in 1961 have anything to do with it?

Whatever it is, I think it’s high time to come back from the hype and return to the plane of reality. Just this morning, I was listening to the CBC on the car radio and heard that Brussels remains under lockdown for the third day, with the subway not running. Which prompted me to shout at my poor, uncomprehending radio: “They didn’t even shut the London Underground down during the Blitz!”

 Posted by at 8:34 pm
Nov 212015

One of my favorite science fiction novels is A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr. In the distant post-apocalyptic future that is the setting of the novel, a piece of sacred memorabilia attributed to the founder of a monastic order, Isaac Edward Leibowitz, is in fact a 20th century shopping list.

As it turns out, something similar exists in real life. However, Gal Sal was no saint; he was the owner of two slaves, En-pap X and Sukkalgir. Their names are recorded on a more than 5,000 year old clay tablet that probably served as a receipt or title of sorts.


Though the dates are somewhat uncertain and there are other tablets of similar age, this trio may be the first people in history whose names have been preserved for posterity.

No heroic deeds. No epic battles. No dealings with gods or otherwordly spirits.

Just a receipt. Bureaucracy may, after all, be the oldest profession.

 Posted by at 11:36 pm
Nov 142015

The historical parallels are inescapable.

Three quarters of a century ago, the governments of the United States and Canada, in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, declared their own citizens of Japanese descent a threat to national security. This was demanded by a vengeful citizenry who could not tell the difference between the militant government of Tokyo and loyal Americans and Canadians of Japanese descent: they saw “slanty-eyed traitors” everywhere.

As a result, one of the worst atrocities in North American history took place, depriving several ten thousand Canadians and over a hundred thousand Americans of basic rights, and herding them into places that, while more civilized than their counterparts in the Third Reich or the Japanese Empire, were nonetheless concentration camps. Their internment ended in the United States in the wake of a Supreme Court decision in early 1945; in Canada, it lasted until 1949.

In the wake of the Paris attacks, many European citizens wish to follow the same road. They blame the attacks on an open immigration policy. They blame all Muslims immigrants and call those who support them “traitors”. In this case, the determining factor is not race but religion, but it amounts to the same thing: Discrimination against millions for the crimes committed by a few.

You would think that the so-called “civilized world” is better than this. But all it takes is one heinous attack for the old formulas of racism and xenophobia to surface. We are no better than our ancestors.

This is what the ISIS bastards fail to realize by the way. They think they shock us with their snuff films on YouTube. Just as the Japanese generations ago, they will realize too late that when it comes to wholesale murder, we may be the biggest bastards after all.

 Posted by at 1:22 pm
Nov 132015

According to CNN, at least 60 153 127 128 people are dead in Paris tonight, as a result of multiple attacks. I am sure militant Islamists are rejoicing.

But here is some food for thought. You do this often enough and soon, the voices of moderates like myself will be drowned out. Soon our protests, “But most Muslims are not like that! Most Muslims just want to live in peace like anyone else!” will fall on deaf ears. Nationalism, xenophobia, racism will prevail. And do you know what will happen then?

Simple. Dar al-Islam will be turned into a radioactive desert.

Seriously. If you doubt what Westerners are capable of, learn about the two World Wars in Europe. Look what they did to their own kind. Learn about the Holocaust. And then check the number of active-service nuclear weapons in the arsenals of the world’s two greatest nuclear powers, both targets of militant Islamism. Here is something to think about: The only reason we are not the worst murderous bastards on this planet right now is because we’ve been to the abyss and looked down, seeing our own selves staring back.

Do not mistake the West’s restraint for weakness. For now, people like myself have a voice. Soon, we will be branded traitors or worse, and then the unscheduled sunrises will follow.

 Posted by at 5:50 pm
Nov 122015

I almost forgot: The International Space Station just celebrated fifteen years of continuous occupation.

Continuous occupation by humans, that is. I wonder if they’ve had the same ship’s cat all this time.

 Posted by at 10:01 pm
Nov 022015

Today, someone sent me a link to a YouTube video of an old Hungarian language television program that featured one of our Commodore 64 computer games, Save Me Brave Knight.

Except that the program featured a lot more than just the game: It also featured Viktor Zámbó and myself talking about the game. (I am second from the right; Viktor Zámbó is on the right.)

I remembered this program vaguely, but I couldn’t even recall its title. My past attempts to search for it were in vain; in fact, I doubted that it even made it online.

But here it is, the two of us, being interviewed at length (starting at 16:48) about the art and craft of game programming.


I’m saving a copy of this video on the odd chance that it is removed or muted by YouTube for copyright reasons.

 Posted by at 11:37 am
Nov 012015

The other day, the current American ambassador in Budapest, Colleen Bell, gave a speech in which she offered some strong criticism of the authoritarian tendencies of Mr. Orban’s government. Needless to say, supporters of that government denounced the speech and also questioned the moral authority of the United States in light of that country’s less than perfect history.

This reminded me of Ms. Bell’s predecessor, Eleni Kounalakis, who recently published her memoirs.

Her tone is very diplomatic, but she retells some interesting incidents, including one that occurred during the visit of Eric Holder to Budapest. It was a brief exchange between the the first African-American Attorney General of the United States and his Hungarian counterpart, Peter Polt. It speaks volumes about the differences between the way top government officials think in Hungary vs. the United States:

I could see that Holder was disturbed by the description of the Magyar Gárda, the Hungarian radical nationalist militia, as well as by its politics and methods. Polt told his counterpart, ‘I want to assure you that we go to great lengths to ensure that they are not able to march in our streets. We have outlawed their uniforms and will not allow them to gather. It would be as unacceptable as if you were to let the Ku Klux Klan march on the steps of Washington.’ At these words, I saw Holder’s face flinch almost imperceptibly.

“‘I didn’t think I would find myself in Hungary defending the rights of the Ku Klux Klan,’ Holder replied slowly and carefully. ‘But we do, in fact, allow them to peacefully demonstrate in our country.’

 Posted by at 6:23 pm
Nov 012015

Here is a perfectly ordinary object. A paperclip.

But this particular paperclip has a bit of history.

It was attached to a typewritten document dating back to the early 1980s. It was written by some young Hungarian researchers who were entrusted with cataloging the manuscript collection of Hungarian Communist Politburo member Gyorgy Aczel. Aczel was arguably the best educated in the Politburo. He was also known as the architect the “three T-s” cultural policy of the goulash communist state. The T-s stood for “Trusted, Tolerated and Treasonous”. The second category represented works of art and literature that received no support from the state, but if they survived in the open market, they were tolerated and not censored. It was the existence of this category that allowed a cultural life in Hungary that was thriving relative to other East Bloc states.

As a young “star” programmer, I was asked to help this team with developing a manuscript database application (for the Commodore 64, no less). I was paid well, too. And on account of this assignment, I even met Mr. Aczel in person on one or two occasions. Yes, lucky me and all.

All of these are now memories from a distant past but somehow, one set of documents managed to stay with me inside a file folder over all these years. And yesterday, when I came across that folder, I decided to scan the sheets, and to do so, I removed this paperclip.

This paperclip was last handled by someone in 1984 or so, probably in the home of Mr. Aczel in the 13th district of Budapest, in a rental apartment building.

If only objects could speak and tell their stories.

 Posted by at 6:15 pm