Mon Oct 5th, 2015 at 03:38:44 PM EST
After Gravity two years ago and Interstellar last year, the recently released The Martian is the third big-budget hard sci-fi movie with an ambition to show more than escapist fantasy. The more so as this story of a Martian Robinsonade and an interplanetary rescue mission was based on a hard sci-fi novel in which the calm application of the scientific method is the key to survival. So I watched with even higher expectations on scientific realism. But, while the film is spectacular and relatively well-acted, and there was plenty of applied science – from growing plants to establishing communication with Earth –, unfortunately, director Ridley Scott played more fast and loose than the creators of the previous two films.
Sat Sep 12th, 2015 at 06:43:57 PM EST
Let's interrupt our witnessing of Europe's self-destruction with austerity and xenophobia (well unless Corbyn, Podemos & co can turn the tide), with another update on a case study of what would be possible if our leaders would have real visions: China's rapid expansion of rail infrastructure.
I have no narrowly defined occasion to post this now, just that 2015 looks like the year the construction of high-speed lines peaks, and the finances of the operational network consolidate.
A CRH380CL (front) and a CRH380BL (back), which represent two successive stages in the domestic further development on the basis of Siemens's Velaro platform, meet at Beijing South in January 2014. Photo from Wimimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0
Thu Sep 10th, 2015 at 02:59:37 PM EST
If you think the Orbán regime's handling of refugees bottomed out morally with the situation at Röszke, wait until next week, when Hungary's recently passed tough anti-migration laws come into effect.
Until the late summer, Viktor Orbán's government had no migration policy: they only had a premature election campaign, a xenophobic drive aimed at the domestic population. But when reality struck back and not managing the situation resulted in a crisis (eventually shutting down the most important transport route of the country), the regime had to consider actual policy – and their policy of choice is deterrence. Some say the refusal of UN and EU help or the apparent total incompetence of authorities at the refugee gathering site at Röszke is a first conscious part of this. True or not, the real deal is the plan set in motion with a legal package adopted last week and coming into force on Tuesday next week. One that is both vile and impractical.
Stuff like the reinforcing of the border fence, sending down the army, and criminalising illegal immigration and any aid given to migrants reached the international media. But there is more: the practical negation of the right for asylum. To achieve the goal of turning away just about everyone, refugee processing camps are to be set up directly at the Serbian border, in front of (not behind) the border fence. There, Kafkaesque courts housed in containers are to go through the legal motions to arrive at a guaranteed rejection, on the basis that people can take refuge in Serbia which is a safe country.
This plan can easily turn deadly: if, like at Röszke, the government does little to feed and protect the heath of the waiting crowds, or if there is a crowd crush. Furthermore, the plan is way too optimistic about managing crossings of the fence and smuggling (not to speak of people running along the tracks when the gates are opened for a train). Finally, it guarantees even less cooperation from Serbia than before. IMHO the only way it can avoid becoming a total disaster is if the onset of cold weather throttles the refugee wave.
Thu Sep 3rd, 2015 at 08:12:27 AM EST
Back in 1989, around the time school started for me at the start of September, Budapest was full of East Germans hoping to leave for West Germany (for a mix of political and economic reasons), hopeful because Hungary started to dismantle the Iron Curtain a few months earlier. A large group camped out at the West German embassy, but there were makeshift camps around the city. The government finally opened the borders for them on 11 September, launching a mostly car-riding emigration wave (at least 70,000 people in three months). A few weeks later, East Germans camping out in Warshaw and Prague were taken to West Germany in sealed trains.
Yesterday, something similar happened, only this time the refugees are dark-skinned and faced much worse treatment. In line with both the government's xenophobic campaign and the EU's Dublin Agreement (whose main aim was to keep refugees from moving to the richer EU members), Hungarian authorities prevented the mostly Syrian refugees without EU visa from boarding trains bound for the west. Most of the stranded refugees who refused to be taken to Hungarian camps stayed in the underpass at main station Budapest Keleti (up to two thousand), in a makeshift "transit zone" lacking basic hygiene and only cared for by an NGO.
I don't know whether it was concern about image (to have such misery as the first sight of arriving Western tourists), or anger at the German foreign minister's denouncement of the anti-refugee wall built at the Serbian border, or anger at general Western hypocrisy; but yesterday, the government decided to withdraw police and let refugees board the trains. Without any plans about how to manage the thousands of extra passengers (all transit countries refused to send extra trains), entirely predictably, the result was utter chaos, from Budapest to Munich: ticket counters were (actually, still are) clogged, some trains left with an hour delay due to over-loading, the first train was stopped in the last city before Munich but local police didn't have the capacity to process more than half of the refugees on-board; other trains were stopped at the Hungarian–Austrian border station, but after the filtering-out of refugees who already filed for asylum in Hungary the trains still travelled on over capacity; on the parallel highway, Austrian police started checks of all trucks, causing a 50 km traffic jam.
For the hectic events since, especially today, check the comments.
Tue Aug 11th, 2015 at 03:30:08 AM EST
After the surrender of the Syriza government in the Eurozone vs. Greek democracy battle, the focus of European public opinion shifted to the new wave of refugees. And it gets even uglier than in the case of Greece. Especially in Germany, where xenophobia in public speech is fast on its way to catch up with and surpass Britain or the Netherlands, now going into terrorism territory. Last week, the outspoken commentary of a German TV journalist triggered a debate on on-line racism:
German TV presenter sparks debate and hatred with her support for refugees | World news | The Guardian
Anja Reschke used a commentary slot on Tagesthemen, the nationwide news bulletin of German public broadcaster ARD,to lambast hate-filled commentators whose language she said had helped incite arson attacks on refugee homes.
She said she was shocked at how socially acceptable it had become to publish racist rants under real names.
"Until recently, such commentators were hidden behind pseudonyms, but now these things are being aired under real names," she said.
Tue Jun 23rd, 2015 at 03:16:36 PM EST
The latest insanity of Hungary's right-populist government is an anti-refugee campaign copying the worst of Western European far-right parties. The campaign itself is quite bizarre, and prompted some push-back from unusual quarters.
Sun Jun 21st, 2015 at 06:29:18 AM EST
In this fourth instalment of my series on the state railway of the Swiss canton of Graubünden, the metre-gauge Rhaetian Railway (RhB), I show the two shortest lines of the network, both of which provide access to winter sports centres and are famous for landmark viaducts.
After traversing the Langwieser Viaduct and stopping at station Langwies, ABe 8/12 No. 3512 "Jörg Jenatsch" (a powerful mountain-fit member of Stadler's Allegra family) continues its descent to Chur
Sat Apr 11th, 2015 at 08:05:52 AM EST
In this third instalment of my series on the state railway of the Swiss canton of Graubünden, the metre-gauge Rhaetian Railway (RhB), I follow the line to winter sports centre Davos. This is both the oldest part of the network at 125 years and one of the most heavily modernised (due to rising traffic in recent years). It is also the first in my series to leave the valleys and climb up into the mountains.
ABe 8/12 No. 3507 "Benedetg Fontana", a powerful steep-mountain version of Stadler's "Allegra" electric multiple unit family, just left the Cavadürli horseshoe tunnel on its way to Klosters Platz, high above the valley of the Landquart river
You can actually see three levels of the line: I stood on the highest, which threw the shadows at bottom left, and the lowest runs next to the road visible deep below in the valley
Thu Mar 19th, 2015 at 02:31:59 AM EST
On the national holiday today [15 March], it was another day of grim protests in Budapest. For the first time in five years, hecklers attended the speech of right-populist prime minister Viktor Orbán, and there were some fights between pro- and anti-Orbán protesters. However, what I want to tell more about is a new low in authoritarian behaviour preceding the protests, and the fate of an acquaintance I ran into at the main opposition protest.
Sat Mar 14th, 2015 at 08:20:22 AM EST
In the last few weeks, I made excursions to two castles that have been in ruins since Ottoman times, both of them destroyed in somewhat inglorious fashion. So here is a light diary that is a bit of travelogue, a bit of history, and a bit of train blogging.
The partly rebuilt northern bastion and the remains of the exploded main tower of the castle of Nógrád, with the Börzsöny mountains in the background
Thu Mar 12th, 2015 at 02:56:50 AM EST
It's an all too common story across the world: a government tries to boost its green credentials with a support scheme for renewables, but when it proves an unexpected success and established power companies see a serious market share threat, the nascent industry is choked to death one way or another. Stark examples include the ceiling for total wind power introduced in Austria and Hungary about a decade ago, or the end of the support scheme in Bulgaria just recently. Under the cover of austerity, the transition to renewables can be killed even when they already reached a high penetration, as demonstrated by the example of Spain's retroactive elimination of subsidies.
So is it possible to create a momentum for renewables that carries on even when facing opponents with the worst intentions?
One can argue that Denmark comes close: while Anders Fogh Rasmussen's government did manage to bring new wind power installations to a near-stop over a decade ago, that was only temporary as they found the two big utilities became supporters and off-shore wind took off. Now, looking at the latest numbers from Germany, I see something similar at work.
Sat Mar 7th, 2015 at 04:27:04 PM EST
Back in December I told that I embarked on a quest to watch some movies I missed over the last few years. At some point this changed into a quest to view recent classics of Japanese cinema.
I present short critiques grouped into four comments. Which ones have you seen (especially of the Japanese ones)? What were your impressions? What relatively recent movies would you recommend? (I mean especially the not most recent which I can no longer capture in the cinema.)
Sun Feb 22nd, 2015 at 04:20:54 PM EST
Here is a short update on politics in Hungary: the right-populist government of Viktor Orbán lost its two-thirds qualified majority in parliament.
Orbán's Fidesz won its first two-thirds majority in 2010 with 52.3% of the vote (thanks to its non-proportionality), then, although its share of the vote dropped to 44.9% in 2014, it retained its power to change any law and the Constitution at will (thanks to changes to the election system making it even less proportional). However, the second two-thirds was secured just barely, and when Orbán's up to then faithful foot-soldier Tibor Navracsics was made European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, his seat was up for grabs.
The by-election was held today, and an independent candidate (who left Fidesz a decade ago) supported by the centre-left and centre-right opposition parties (who got 42.7%) easily defeated the Fidesz candidate (33.6%, against the 47.2% Navracsics carried last year). This is only the second defeat of significance for the Fidesz government, after Orbán was forced to withdraw an internet tax last autumn.
Thu Feb 12th, 2015 at 05:14:04 AM EST
Inspired by the discussion of a Europe after the EU, the war in the Ukraine, and Michel Houellebecq's deplorable new book Soumission, I put myself into alt.history.what-if mode.
Let's start the annals two years from now:
22 May 2017. On the day after the second round of the French presidential election, the winner, Marine Le Pen of the Front National, announced France's exit from the EU.
1 July 2017. After the exit of all Southern European countries from the EU, Great Britain, the BeNeLux countries, Germany, Austria, the Visegrád countries, the Baltic states and the Scandinavian countries agree on re-launching the EU as a free-trade zone. Bulgaria and Romania protest at their exclusion.
Tue Jan 20th, 2015 at 03:20:45 AM EST
In this second instalment of my series on the state railway of the Swiss canton of Graubünden, the metre-gauge Rhaetian Railway (RhB), I introduce the Engadin Line, which runs along the upper valley of the Inn river (in the local Romansh language: En). Although less well-known to foreign tourists than the rest of the RhB, it runs in scenic landscape with castles, and experienced a traffic surge in recent years thanks to a tunnel that was a mega-project by narrow-gauge standards. The vegetation is rather different from the upper Rhine valley: the dominant tree is the European Larch, so I scheduled my visit there for the Golden Autumn in October. I had no luck with the Sun, though.
Receding up-valley, RhB Ge 4/4 II No. 632 "Zizers" is about to pass station Cinuos-chel-Breil with a south-bound limited-stop RegionalExpress (RE) push-pull train
Fri Jan 2nd, 2015 at 05:25:39 AM EST
Even among the many magnificent metre-gauge mountain railways of Switzerland, the Rhaetian Railway (Rhätische Bahn, RhB) is a special spectacle: a network spanning the upper valleys of three major rivers, climbing passes with innumerable bridges, tunnels, spiral and horseshoe curves, instead of rack sections. No wonder that riding the RhB is the one trip everyone with access to railway employee free tickets is advised to do. I had an inkling that I might soon lose that privilege in yet another company restructuring (though I didn't think I might lose my job along with it), so I "did the RhB" this year.
In one one-week holiday each in July and October, I travelled pretty much the entire network. Now that I had time to go through my photos (a bit over 1,850 of them), I start a mini-series portraying the RhB lines, roughly in the order of increasing spectacularity. In this first part, I show the line following the Anterior Rhine.
RhB Ge 4/4 II No. 613 "Domat/Ems" with an eastbound Glacier Express is about to reach Versam-Safien station in the Rhine Canyon
Sun Dec 21st, 2014 at 11:00:51 AM EST
In this first train blog in a long time, I bring two disparate stories only connected by the theme of renewal and their closeness to me.
First, after more than two decades, there is a change at the helm of international trains between Prague and Budapest. Both the old and the new loco type was noteworthy for matching or exceeding the performance of contemporary Western products.
Czech Railways (ČD) 380 020 with an EC train to Budapest runs along the Danube on its last kilometres in Slovakia
Fri Oct 3rd, 2014 at 02:12:25 PM EST
When the expanding transcontinental railroads completed the conquest of Native American lands in the Western USA from the 1860s, the owners of these exclusively private companies weren't exactly popular. The public's view was that they are selfish money-men seeking to cash out fast while they provide a crap service on shoddily-built infrastructure, seek monopolistic power and blackmail farmers, and buy politicians: the perfect example of the excesses of unfettered capitalism. The public backlash against the railroad Robber Barons led to anti-trust laws (Sherman Act, 1890).
More than half a century later, philosopher and cult leader Ayn Rand sought to re-interpret the Robber Baron era of US railroads by blaming those excesses of capitalism on state meddling, in the form of land grants. Her counter-example was one of the most successful railroad barons in the West: James J. Hill, nicknamed "The Empire Builder", who built his empire without directly receiving any land grants.
Reading up on the history of the transcontinental railroads another half a century after, I drew the conclusion that neither of the two views was entirely correct, and see the importance of a different key factor: a general shortage of capital of these private companies. In this respect, the railroad baron I see as most noteworthy and significant is one of the last: E. H. Harriman, nicknamed the "The Railroad Czar", whose legacy lasts to this day.
Mon Jun 23rd, 2014 at 09:49:07 AM EST
In this last photo diary based on my two holidays in Switzerland last year, I show the northern side of the Alps, where the north-south Gotthard railway passes big lakes and dangerous mountain-sides.
A Swiss State Railways (SBB) RABDe 500 on a southbound InterCity-Neigezug (ICN) service tilts into the big curve below Wassen
Thu Jun 12th, 2014 at 03:41:54 PM EST
Which are your picks for group winners and second-placed?
What about the knock-out round?