Mar 302019

Content management software that I use, Joomla! and WordPress in particular, have been complaining for a while now that the PHP version that runs on my servers is outdated and potentially unsecure. Not exactly true, as PHP 5.4 remains part of the official Red Hat/CentOS release, but it would certainly be prudent for me to attempt an upgrade.

I tried to do just that last night, on a test server. And it was a miserable failure, a waste of many hours that I will never get back, to make no mention of the heightened risk of cardiovascular disease due to my elevated blood pressure caused by all that frustration.

The relatively easy part? PHP 7 complaining that its just-in-time compilation feature ran out of memory. Easy-peasy, I can disable JIT. Check.

But then: several of my Joomla! sites refused to run, with a cryptic and ultimately meaningless error message and nothing in the logs. And at least one Joomla! site just got itself into an infinite redirect loop. But why?

I tried many things. I kept looking for answers on Google. Nothing worked. Eventually I took two of my Joomla! sites that are very similar in nature, and began comparing their settings, side-by-side. One worked, the other didn’t. Why?

I then stumbled upon a custom Joomla! module, one that I wrote to support some ads that appear on my sites. This module was installed on the site that failed, but not used on the other. I disabled the module and, presto, the site was working with PHP 7. I re-enabled the module and the site was dead again. So… why?

Well, the module contains some PHP code. Which, after some preamble that allows it to connect to the internal data structures of Joomla!, begins the real work by accessing the MySQL database that contains the actual ads:

$conn = mysql_connect("localhost");
$res = mysql_query("SELECT PAGEID,ADTEXT FROM ...


You see, mysql_ calls have been deprecated and REMOVED from PHP starting with version 7.

And I have hundreds, if not thousands of lines of legacy code* (including, e.g., my calculator museum at that rely on this old library.

So I guess that PHP 7 upgrade will have to wait a while longer. Looks like I have no choice but to rewrite the affected pieces of code everywhere, as there is no other long-term solution. (Even if I find a third-party PHP plugin that re-enables mysql_ codes, how long will that continue to work? How reliable will it be?)

What a muckup. Grumble. And I do have other work to do.

 Posted by at 10:40 am
Mar 292019

Listening to Donald Trump again and again reminds me of the late days of the Roman Republic, notably Octavius, also known as Augustus, first Roman emperor.

Here are a few interesting, especially relevant passages from the Wikipedia article on Augustus.

Recall the debate about whether or not a sitting president can be indicted? “Octavian had the Senate grant him, his wife, and his sister tribunal immunity.

Or how about the funding of Trump’s wall? “Octavian made another bold move in 44 BC when, without official permission, he appropriated the annual tribute that had been sent from Rome’s Near Eastern province to Italy.

Last but not least, all those concerns about the “deep state”, and all those uncanny conspiracy theories promoted mostly by folks who are the most likely to be hurt by, and least likely to benefit from Trump’s authoritarian ambitions: “Many of the political subtleties […] seem to have evaded the comprehension of the Plebeian class, who were Augustus’ greatest supporters and clientele. This caused them to insist upon Augustus’ participation in imperial affairs from time to time. Augustus failed to stand for election as consul in 22 BC, and fears arose once again that he was being forced from power by the aristocratic Senate.

So there you have it: when the people believe that a dictator protects them against their own representative government, when the people believe that the dictator is above the law, when the people believe that the dictator has legitimate powers to appropriate public funds, democracy is under an existential threat.

 Posted by at 5:47 pm
Mar 292019

Today in the morning news, I heard about an Ottawa bartender was is about to stand trial for criminal negligence because two years ago, some young hockey players who got drunk at her bar ended up dead in a tragic car accident.

Later in the same newscast, I heard about plans by the Ontario government to start selling alcoholic beverages in more supermarkets, big box stores, and convenience stores.

In exactly what insane asylum do these two news items in the same newscast make any sense?

On the one hand, dragging a bartender, one who probably never earned much over minimum wage, to criminal court with the very real prospect of a prison term; on the other hand, making it easier for people to obtain one of the most potent psychoactive drugs known to humanity? Because, you know, the bartender is responsible for what her patrons do after they leave the establishment, but the provincial government bears no responsibility at all for making alcohol more readily available?

The mind boggles.

 Posted by at 3:03 pm
Mar 282019

Even as Facebook is battling white supremacism and fighting accusations of racial profiling, there is more nonsense going on.

In the past few days, I received several Facebook requests from accounts purportedly owned by young women, whose profiles contain sexually explicit, rather pornographic images and videos.

Here is one of the mildest ones (the majority of the images in this and other accounts from which I received friend requests were far, far more explicit in nature, including images depicting intercourse):

I do not wish to be a prude here; I am, after all, a middle aged male in relatively good health, and certainly not immune to, ahem, shall we say, visually stimulating images (though I admit I was never a fan of hard-core pornography. Not my cup of tea.)

But these Facebook accounts are obviously not accounts owned by bona fide young women trying to seduce older, happily married males like myself. They are probably overweight middle-aged male scam artists doing their shady business from their parents’ basements. Or worse yet, organized crime operating out of shady boiler rooms somewhere in Eastern Europe or Asia.

Thanks but no thanks. I have presently no desire to break my marital vow, but even if I did, there are better, safer ways.

As for these friend requests, I just block them and report the accounts to Facebook.

 Posted by at 2:08 pm
Mar 272019

It was just three days ago that I boldly predicted that either after a successful, orderly Brexit or a cancellation of the Article 50 letter, Theresa May will resign. This prediction just came true, with the announcement that this is indeed Theresa May’s intent.

Here I am, hoping that the rest of my predictions also come true: that there will now be an orderly process one way or another, and that over time, people will come to recognize her efforts to make it happen.

 Posted by at 2:40 pm
Mar 252019

The other day, I started listening to Google Music’s personalized music stream.

I am suitably impressed. The AI is… uncanny.

Sure, it picked songs that I expressed a preference for, such as songs from the golden age of radio that I happen to enjoy. But as I continue listening, it is presenting an increasingly eclectic, enjoyable selection. Some of it is quite new, from artists I never heard about, yet… it’s music I like. For some reason (maybe because I am in Canada? Or because it knows that I am trying to improve my French? Or was it a preference I once expressed for Édith Piaf?) it started presenting a whole bunch of French music, and again… some of it is quite likable. And now that I purposefully sought out a few classical composers, the AI realized that it can throw classical pieces at me as well, which is how I am suddenly listening to Schubert’s Ave Maria.

As a matter of fact, the eclectic choices made by Google’s AI remind me of two radio programs from the CBC’s past, long gone, long forgotten by most: Juergen Goth’s Disc Drive and Laurie Brown’s The Signal. Both these shows introduced me to music from excellent artists that I would otherwise never have heard about.

And now Google’s AI is doing the same thing.

I am also getting the sense that the more I listen, the bolder the AI becomes as it makes its choices. Instead of confining me to a bubble of musical genres of my own making, it is venturing farther and farther away from my presumed comfort zone.

Which is quite impressive. But also leaves me wondering how long before our machine overlords finally decide to take over.

 Posted by at 7:27 pm
Mar 252019

The other day, before the Mueller report came out, I described the political present throughout the Western world by comparing it to “history flashback” chapters in dystopian science-fiction novels.

But then, the next day, I saw someone present a Venn-diagram not unlike this one:

Apparently I am not the only one with this concern.

Then the Mueller report came, exonerating Trump at least on the issue of collusion. Not unexpected. I may have hoped for a different outcome but really, it wasn’t in the cards. Trump wasn’t conspiring to become president: he was conspiring to get a Trump Tower built in Moscow. He is not Putin’s co-conspirator; he’s at best Putin’s pawn.

But that’s the least of America’s problems, when the US Senate is increasingly behaving like another senate two millennia ago: the Senate of the Roman Republic, when it (for various reasons, all having to do with the politics of the day) became the enabler of Gaius Julius Caesar and his successor, Gaius Octavius Thurinus.

As the US Senate basically let Trump get away with usurping their power, allocating funds for his phony wall emergency, a line in the sand was crossed. This is precisely the Roman prescription: Using a variety of real or phony emergencies, the leader of the Republic first acquires and then holds on to an ever increasing number of emergency powers, until one day, he becomes emperor in all but name. Even if he is then assassinated, the new reality becomes normalized, and one of his successors will eventually declare himself ruler for life. The process may take decades, but the outcome is the end of democracy.

Any American who thinks it “cannot happen here” needs to be mindful of the fact that Romans were just as proud of their republican traditions as Americans today.

The crisis goes beyond the United States. Liberal democracy is in trouble throughout the Western world. Take Europe: Brexit, the rise of the far-right on the western side of the continent, the emergence of semi-authoritarian governments on the eastern flanks make one wonder if Europe can both remain united and retain its liberal democratic values.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, Democrats are drawing precisely the wrong lesson. Instead of working to preserve rational, fact-based governance, they decided that their problem has been all along that they are not ideological enough! And sadly, opposition forces throughout the Western world are following suit.

But ideology will not solve rising inequality, the stagnation of the middle class, the re-emergence of blatant racism. Excessive political correctness is no solution either. The antidote to rigid ideology is not more, or more rigid, ideology.

Recently I saw someone on Facebook describe the state that the world is in as an “extinction level event” threatening liberal democracy. And that’s precisely what I fear.

 Posted by at 1:10 am
Mar 242019

Yes, it can get cold in Toronto. Usually not as cold as Ottawa, but winters can still be pretty brutal.

But this brutal, this late in the season?

Yes, according to The Weather Network earlier this morning, the temperature overnight will plummet to -59 degrees Centigrade next weekend.

Yikes. Where is global warming when we need it?

 Posted by at 7:01 pm
Mar 242019

Watching the endgame unfold in London and Brussels, I have come to the conclusion that Brexit, first and foremost, represents a complete bankruptcy of British politics. (Yes, I know I am not the only one who had this revelation.)

Think about it. The main complaint about Europe is that it is an unwieldy, inflexible bureaucracy, an ungovernable assembly of 28 (soon 27) sovereign nations with conflicting interests. And the EU has its own internal problems, including the rise of the far right, increasingly authoritarian regimes on its eastern flank, and a weakened political center.

Yet throughout the Brexit process, it was Europe that was able to present a unified front. It was Europe who responded to increasingly desperate British requests with flexibility. And each and every time, Europe showed decisiveness, even when the unanimity of 27 nations was required.

Britain, on the other hand, was unable to make a deal with itself. Never mind that, even Britain’s major political parties demonstrated an utter inability to come to terms with themselves. Both the Tories and Labour remain split, and as a result, Britain has a dysfunctional Parliament: No option has the support of a majority of MPs, but they delegitimized their own inability to act, too, when they voted against a “hard” Brexit.

If this is not a complete bankruptcy of the British political system, I don’t know what it is.

Theresa May may still pull off a miracle. She may yet convince MPs to vote for an orderly Brexit. Or perhaps she will get them to vote to withdraw the Article 50 letter. After all, already more than five million (as of the evening of March 24) Britons signed an online petition to revoke the Article 50 letter and remain in the EU.

Either way, if May pulls off either an orderly Brexit or a cancellation, I suspect that she will promptly resign as prime minister, and quite possibly retire from politics. And for many years, she will be despised by millions and loved by few.

But over the years, she will be recognized as one of the greatest statesmen in British history; the captain who never left the bridge of a sinking ship and (depending on the outcome) either saved the ship against all odds, or at least ensured all the survivors’ safety.

I am hoping, however, that those who created this crisis for no reason other than reckless political adventurism and a sociopath’s willingness to exploit the worst demons of racism and xenophobia in British society will be ultimately remembered among the most reviled figures of modern British history, listed on the same pages as, say, Oswald Mosley.

 Posted by at 6:49 pm
Mar 022019

Almost forgot: There was some incredulity when Michael Cohen mentioned, during his Congressional appearance on Wednesday, that he “started” Trump’s campaign. In response, Cohen mentioned the Web site,, which he claimed to have created.

It is true. Here is the earliest capture of this site from (I highlighted the date and Cohen’s name):

Unfortunately for Trump, it appears that Cohen and his associates stopped paying for, and it has now been taken over by others, who quickly turned it into a parody site. Lots of fun memes there, worth checking it out.

 Posted by at 10:40 am
Mar 012019

There is a Washington Post article today about the frightening possibility of a new Civil War in the United States.

But this is not new. You could hear such talk from certain conservative circles from years. Their view is that the US already reached the point of no return.

By way of example, here is a quote from an e-mail from an American friend that I received a few months ago: “We are already in […] low grade civil war […] but it is definitely hot. […] If we are really lucky, you will only randomly hear about ‘right wing death squads.’ More likely, it will be total war.

Though they blame it on the other side, they basically view a government that accepts viewpoints other than their own as corrupt and broken beyond repair. They are not interested in pluralism or fact-based governance. (Just look at the ban on gun-related research funding by the Federal Government, or the politicization of climate change, with ideology put far ahead of the facts.) In other words, these “patriotic Americans” essentially are declaring war on a democratic, republican form of government because it allows viewpoints other than theirs.

And Democrats are quickly sliding down that same slope nowadays, as they elect increasingly outspoken ideologues with increasingly militant attitudes. The folks who rejected Hillary and were proud to support Bernie (with his unrealistic plans that make no fiscal sense, placing ideology ahead of the facts) are increasingly the folks who determine policy.

Still, I don’t think that the result will be civil war, even if there will be violence in the future. Rather, I fear that it will be a rapid erosion of republican values in favor of an imperial presidency, following the example set by the dying days of the Roman Republic over two millennia ago. Blame, in part, the primary system that supports the ultrapartisan polarization of American society; and the switch from a largely unelected Senate to one that is elected, subject to the politics of the day, and thus unable to fulfill the function that Canada’s Founding Fathers once called “the chamber of sober second thought”.

Trump’s emergency declaration is a dramatic step in this direction. All indications are that he will get away with it. The Senate is unwilling to stop him. The courts might, but they will likely recognize (technically correctly) that it is not up to the courts but up to the President to decide what constitutes an emergency.

And mark my words: I think we will see at least 1-2 more emergency declarations under Trump. And by the time his successor (Democrat or Republican, doesn’t matter) occupies the White House, such emergency declarations will have been normalized, as a standard form of politics. And supporters will cheer whenever a declaration is made in favor of policies they approve.

The next step will take place when a particularly uppity congress shoots one such declaration down with a veto-proof majority. The result of that may very well be a constitutional change that defangs the Senate; e.g., requiring unanimous consent for a veto override.

And when that happens, the transition will have completed in all but name: the President will be Emperor who can rule by decree, with neither Congress nor the Courts serving as effective counterbalance anymore. One more change, elimination of term limits, and there: you will have emperors. And as someone remarked, Trump didn’t even have to spend money on an accelerant to stage a Reichstag fire.

I never thought I would live to see the day when all this turns from speculative fiction into tangible possibility, but here we are: we may yet see a de facto Emperor of America within my lifetime.

Not something I look forward to see, mind you.

 Posted by at 10:05 pm