100 years later, on the Eastern Front

Romanian soldier at World War I battle of Marasesti

To me, Remembrance Day has always emphasized World War I. That was the struggle where the Canadian casualties were so heavy, and where our little colony earned the right to be taken seriously as a country. And moreso this year, as 100 years after some of the great battles, we have seen footage of the battlegrounds and the Canadian monuments in Europe.

But there was also an Eastern Front. Especially worthy of note in our household as my grandfather, Nicolae Homorodean (c1897-1957), fought in the Romanian army in these battles when he was about 20  years old.

My mother’s family never had a great sense of history, so there were few stories passed down. One story I recall, however, that my grandfather was wounded in a mustard gas attack, and that it permanently damaged his lungs. My mother once mentioned that he would go for a walk in the back yard, gasping for air, coughing and spitting, like a heavy smoker with severe lung problems. Except that he had never smoked.

So, 100 years later, it was time to do a bit of basic research to try to put this story in context.

(There is one picture of my grandfather together with me [as a baby-in-arms] and it is posted elsewhere.  The picture above is of an unidentified Romanian soldier, working with his rudimentary rifle, before the battle of Marasesti, in August of 1917.)

The comforting news perhaps for us Canadians is that Romania was fighting on the side of the Allies.  Both my grandparents came from Transylvania, the province that was still at that time under the control of the Austro-Hungarian empire, even though the majority population was Romanian-speaking.   Romania came into the war in 1916, to open an Eastern Front, with a pretty explicit understanding from the Allied countries that at the end of the war, Romania would be rewarded with control of Transylvania.  It’s a bargain that was kept, still celebrated every December 1 in Romania as its national Unification day.

While the army was run by the Romanian government based in Bucharest, there was no shortage of ethnic-Romanian volunteers from the Transylvanian province that was administered out of Vienna/Budapest.    Volunteers like my grandfather, whose hometown was Orastie.

There isn’t much material readily accessible on-line about the Eastern Front.  For that reason, I bought a text, delivered only yesterday, entitled “Prelude to Blitzkrieg:  The 1916 Austro-German Campaign in Romania”, by American academic Michael B. Barrett.  It’s a type of military history that I generally don’t warm to, which pulls apart the x’s and o’s of battlefield tactics.  But it goes into detail about several battles in Transylvania, one of them close to my grandmother’s home town of Medias.  One could picture a 20-year old soldier meeting the 16-year old daughter of a prosperous land agent?

As the title of the book suggests, the Eastern Front was quite different than the stalemated Western Front.  After the initial Romanian attack, the German army moved in with quick moves, using cavalry and horse-drawn artillery.

And it’s clear that poison gas was also used in the Eastern Front.  There is some evidence it was used at the battle of Marasesti, for instance.  Apparently the types of gas used varied during the war, and there was quite a bit of uncertainty as to how best to defend against gas (with some types of gas-masks found out to be useless).  The Romanian army was poorly equipped in general.

If it had happened more recently, we would have concluded that my grandfather was slowly killed – over almost forty years — by that mustard gas attack.

Marasesti was a victory for the Romanians and their (Tsarist) Russian allies, marking the eastern limit of the German advance.  But generally the Romanians were soundly outgunned by the German armies, and once the Russians pulled out of the war subsequent to the Bolshevik takeover, were completely surrounded as the only country in the region opposed to the “Central Powers”.

While I plan to keep on digging, I do understand a bit more today.  I understand how my mother’s family was quite proud on November 11 to stand side-by-side their Upper Canadian neighbours in Strathroy Ontario.  Lest we forget their sacrifice.



Language Training in the Cloud


I’m going to suggest that the language training business might give a clue as to how businesses might change in the future.

The insight comes from my project of learning the Romanian language, and you can see the Duolingo.com screen has me at a 145 day streak, at level 24.  I will be reaching their highest level of 25 shortly, and I will admit I don’t know exactly what will happen then.

Learning languages is still a booming business out there.  There is a group of travellers, businessfolks, language hobbyists [more in Europe than in North America], who for fun or profit are working away at a host of different languages.  And a range of different language training companies, courses, programs — and now, apps — helping to meet the need.

But the business is changing.

Not long ago, people were spending serious dollars loading up on tapes and compact discs.  Companies like Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur were charging several hundred dollars, and the results were mixed at best.  Each program had its own method and strengths.  I had dabbled with Pimsleur some years ago, and I believe that it could have been the best approach at teaching the skills at hearing the different sounds, as long as you had the patience to stick with the program.

Along come the online programs.  Memrise, Duolingo, babbel and many others.  Most of them are free, funded by advertising, or with a optional premium subscription for more features.

What I find most interesting is that most of these sites work on a model that minimizes the amount of paid staff needed to make the site run and improve itself.  Some of the sites are almost completely crowd -sourced.  Memrise, for instance, depends on volunteers to put up the vocabulary and the recorded sounds.  Sure, there was obviously a developer who built the site, and some pros who figured out the algorithms that suggested how many times you need to get an answer right to ‘learn’ it, and how many days later you need to be reminded in order to keep it in your memory.  But once that model was built, the replication into more languages and more words in each language is all done by volunteers.  Sometimes it is clear that you get what you pay for, and especially in the lower traffic parts of the site there are some pretty obvious errors and the route to fix them is not always clear.

The best of these sites are the ones that channel the enthusiasm of their user base — those of us learning the languages — to improve the quality of the program.

Take Duolingo, for example.  Their Learn Romanian (for English speakers) program is still in beta.   As you move through the various levels, you are translating sentences from Romanian into English, and many times it will reject a response I suspect must be correct.  For example, the program is looking for  “He is the most proud boy”…. where I am told that my answer (“He is the proudest boy”) is incorrect.  Duolingo gives me the opportunity to click a box that “My answer should be accepted.”  And a few days later, a QR guy working (or volunteering?) for Duolingo comes along and gives me a little email directly, saying that they have accepted my answer, meaning that all future users of the program will have the benefit of this change, and thanking me for contributing to a better program.

What the Cloud has permitted here is that my (volunteer) contribution is now part of Duolingo’s learning.  And for the psychic satisfaction of receiving emails from their QR guy, I am obediently clicking that box and improving their Romanian course every time I hit a roadblock that I don’t view as justified.  And about 60 times, the Duolingo people have thanked me for improving the program.

My observation is these companies are finding a way to replace the folks that one day would have been employed by a Rosetta Stone, by a much smaller group of computer developers — plus the expertise of crowdsourced volunteers/users.

Ah, but some of you may have noticed that I haven’t touched much upon one rather important variable:  do these cloud-sourced programs actually work at teaching languages?  And the truthful answer is that I really don’t know.  In my case, while I am clearly a lot better after a few months of intense work, I really don’t know if I am ‘good enough’.  There are some language pros who say that Duolingo is pretty useful (although a bit weak in the conversational side).

But every student is a special case…based on how they learn and what they already knew.  Personally, I am not bad at taking a language to some type of an intermediate level…but have difficulty getting over the hump to fluency.  That will likely take an immersion experience — something more persistent than me sitting in front of my computer screen.  And, possibly, a better answer to the question:  “Exactly why am I doing this, again?”












The Economist, and its coverage of Romania


Grindeanu Economist.jpg

I’ve been a subscriber to The Economist “newspaper” for much of the last few decades.  It has thorough international coverage, and I appreciate its editorial perspective, which favours free enterprise and an open democracy.  It’s written with a dry wit throughout.

Its sense of humour might be the reason why The Economist is one of the few publications to give regular coverage of the political goings-on in Romania.  How better to have a funnies section alongside those interminable stories about coalition-building in the EU?

And sure, we all get it.  Dracula, werewolves, and until 1989 communist cult-worship almost as crazy as the North Koreans.  But, in Romania, all delightfully harmless.

But is it possible that the rigid style guide of The Economist might cause it to miss some real news?  Take the article, pictured from their recent June 24, 2017 number — covering the defeat and removal of the Social-Democrat PM by members of his own party.  Starts The Economist:   “In ordinary politics, it is opposition parties who attempt to bring governments down.  But politics in Romania is rarely ordinary.”

Really?  This commentary coming from the United Kingdom, where Mrs Thatcher was ambushed by her own caucus, or where the current Prime Minister is more concerned by a rebellion of her own troops than being toppled by the rabble opposite?

More than a curiosity, last month’s tremors in Bucharest could be signs of growing weakness in the governing Social-Democrats, a party that maintains considerable continuity with the pre-1989 Communist regime.  The ouster of Prime Minister of Prime Minister Grindeanu, less than six months after his appointment by party president Liviu Dragnea, comes at a high cost.  This week, a popular former Prime Minister Victor Ponta, also complaining about the authoritarian style of the party president, announced that he will leave the Social-Democrats to form a new political party.

(And in the reasonably pure Proportional Representation system under which Romania operates, Mr Ponta is known well-enough to quite likely poll more than the 5 per cent minimum threshold that would give his new party seats in the next Parliament.  You could read my analysis of Proportional Representation in earlier posts.)

So, it’s not for the comedy section, but it’s been a bad few weeks for Romania’s governing Social-Democrats.  And if the opposition parties can manage to capitalize, Romania might just manage to complete the anti-Communist revolution that it started, but never quite finished, in 1989.




This doesn’t feel like my democracy


A blog about my Romanian trip last month may seem like an odd place to discuss the online survey about Canadian electoral reform.

But the launch of the mydemocracy.ca survey — and its subsequent ridicule — all happened during the two weeks I was out of circulation.  I even missed a prompt to participate myself, until I heard that today might be the last day the site is active.  For me, the survey is unfinished business from my trip.

So I went through it this weekend, with the benefit of some more perspective.  In addition to the fairly vicious media commentary about this initiative, I’ve seen proportional representation at work in another country.  Plus we’ve seen the Minister responsible for Democratic Renewal be shuffled out of her post.

Like others, I found the survey manipulative. I didn’t appreciate that we weren’t being asked about actual electoral reform models (except for ones that seem appalling ideas, like mandatory voting or reducing the voting age), and I found some of the tradeoffs between democratic principles quite forced.

I amused myself through the survey by trying to imagine what it was that the masters of this survey were trying to accomplish via each question.

And I suppose this is the real issue.  I don’t mind the federal government asking questions so much.  But I would be very wary about what it would tell Canadians about what they believe, based on this survey.

The answers to this survey seem to be highly dependent on the tradeoffs set up in the questions.

It would be one thing if the government releases the results of the questions, one by one, with the questions asked and the answers given.  That way, we all can see what people said, based on the rather odd questions that were asked.

But I think that Canadians would frankly dismiss any attempts to portray these results as support for one electoral system or another.  We don’t know how representative was the slice of Canadians who bothered to respond.  And we certainly don’t know the transmission mechanism between the principles in the survey to particular electoral reform proposals.

And one thing I learned in my trip to Romania, is that not every electoral system other than first-past-the-post generates a democratic panacea.  Recently in Bucharest we have seen sworn in a government with legislative representatives very accurately reflecting the proportion of votes cast, it is true, through the party-list Proportional Representation system.  But we also have low electoral participation, and a sense of profound malaise through the system.  The stability of the party list system helps perpetuate the corruption that is pervasive and a real barrier to Romania’s development.

Now, I’ve said before that a party-list proportional system doesn’t appear to be the first choice of Canada’s leadership either, and about that I am glad.  But I mention the Romanian point, as it’s important to get down to the brass tacks of actual electoral reform proposals.  For some reform proposals come with side-effects that might be worse than the pendulum of over and under-representation that we get from first-past-the-post.

So if we are to have electoral reform, let us talk about the actual proposals.  I’m enough of a junkie, that enjoyed filling out the survey just a little bit.  But if I start hearing stories built on this shaky foundation about what Canadians believe — as if the responses have the authenticity of a referendum result — it will not at all feel like my democracy.







2016. Good-bye, reluctantly.

Romanian border pic

It’s getting to be a ‘thing’, that 2016 has been a pretty awful year.

That story started with the death of David Bowie last January, deaths continuing through the year, combined on the political side by the June Brexit vote and November’s surprise victory of a spectacularly unsuitable and risky choice for US President.

So why am I am reluctant to write off the year just past?

Personally, for me the year has been pretty positive.  The first full year of ‘retirement’ included consulting with some clients I genuinely like, making some progress on a third language, plus travelling to places like Iceland, Bermuda and Romania.  And the cottage.  The family was healthy and happy.

But the political problems?  I cannot say good riddance to 2016 because the problems are still building.  Still storm clouds.  It hasn’t even started to rain yet.  I can’t imagine exactly how the Trump years will turn out, because there has been no coherent plan.  What I can be sure of is that the next few years will be turbulent.  And given the polarization in the US, there will be many different people blamed and lessons learned.

I also see signs of tone-deaf style of American politics creeping north.  Our federal Conservatives might next year also see a leadership candidate made famous by reality TV.  Ontario’s politics seems even more polarized.  The political environment will get worse before it gets better, and it may not be long until we look back fondly on 2016.

My decreasing tolerance for politics on our continent must be one of the reasons driving me to fascination with Romania, the land of my mother’s family.  I’m checking the Bucharest news in the morning before the Globe and Mail.  The need in Romania seems greater, the solutions more obvious.

The grimy photo above?  It’s one of the border crossings into Romania, from Hungary.  Not a pretty picture.  The massive queue of trailer transport trucks, waiting there for days to get into the Shengen zone of border-free Europe, represents the most tangible symbol for Romania of the eventual benefits of integration with the continent.

I can only hope that the EU lasts long enough for Romania to make it into the border-free area.  That Romanians find a way to maintain their rapid growth, to improve their social services, to bring their incomes closer to the European average.

Over there, I see a fair bit to hope for in 2017 — and I will continue to look for ways to contribute.  But as for those of us closer to the American orbit, I see in the New Year fewer grounds for optimism.


I’m just about done

Sundown in Bucuresti, 2015.JPG

Like this discovery trip to Romania, the daily posting on this blog is coming to a close.

To give you an idea as to what I’ll be saying good-bye, here is a picture of perhaps my favourite building in “Little Paris”, the CEC bank headquarters.  Over on the right side is the patio in front of the Caru cu Bere, one of the most famous restaurants in town.

This picture was taken last year in May, actually.  Before I take any implicit credit, I should admit it was likely taken by our daughter Jenny, who shares some of my fascination with my mother’s home country.

I suppose that one of my objectives in writing was to encourage some of you to be brave and to travel over here some time in the future and sample the excitement of what I sometimes call the Wild East.

I had some other objectives to my trip, to be sure.  To make the first connection with some of my mother’s relatives in about thirty years.  To see how far my newly-acquired Romanian lessons would go.  To understand a bit more about the political situation here, by being on the ground for the last ten days of their election campaign.

And it has been a great trip, that ends tomorrow morning with a 7:05 a.m. departure time.  My toughest job today is to try to discourage my relatives from pulling out one more gift to carry home for the family in Canada.

Right now, I am watching a scrum of the winner in Sunday’s election.  In Romanian, of course.  I am  thankful that that they have a habit of putting little CP24-style subtitle messages below, because my reading in Romanian is a fair bit stronger than my ability to pick out nuances from those speaking quickly.

The post-election horse-trading is still underway.  The President has still to ask someone to form a government.  It is difficult to consider a government led by anyone other than a few senior figures in the leading centre-left PSD party.  But the President (from the centre-right Liberal party) is still proceeding to invite representatives of the various parties to consultations as to how to proceed.

How can I leave all this excitement, you ask?  You’re right, it’s not easy.

And the road is not straight….

Election results cropped.jpg

You would have been disappointed if I didn’t report on the election results?

Several exit polls were released when the polls closed at 9:00pm Bucharest time, to give a sense of the results, as it takes a few hours for the actual results to filter in.

However, the consensus is that the next Prime Minister will be leading a government of the PSD (Social Democratic Party), the centre-left party that arguably has inherited the old Communist patronage machine.  Support for the PSD appears to be in the 42 to 45 percent range, and one of the little parties appears to be above the 5% threshold and willing to join in a coalition.

Their opposition fell short.  The Liberals (PNL) appear to have won only around 20 percent of votes, and the new anti-corruption party (USR) received approximately 10 per cent.  The Liberals had greater goals for this election, and their leader Alina Ghorghiu, may soon be forced to announce her resignation.  The new anti-corruption party had set a goal of 10 per cent of the vote, and its leader Nicusor Dan reacted that the results were a victory.

Unless the exit polls are shockingly wrong,  tomorrow morning the discussion will be about the identity of the new PSD Prime Minister.  Given the very high incidence of corruption charges against sitting PSD politicians, and the fact that the President has said that he will not appoint as Prime Minister an individual who has been so charged or convicted, the PSD was coy as to whom was its candidate for Prime Minister.  This way, the Anti-Corruption prosecutor would not have an opportunity to prepare a dossier on the new Prime Minister before s/he develops some immunities that come with the office.  So as the PSD leader, Liviu Dragnea, has had previous legal issues, he was clear during the campaign that he was unlikely to be Prime Minister.

This legal hide-and-seek is how politics will look in Bucharest for the next few years.  For while the PSD appears to have won today’s elections, it will be — to use the term first used by the French to describe Presidents of one party being forced to deal with legislatures controlled by another party  — “co-habiting” with President Iohannis, who is aligned with the Liberals.  Plus the Anti-Corruption directorate is also a very strong counterweight to the power of the Legislature and government.

While centre-left in fiscal policy, the PSD is pro-NATO, pro-EU, reflecting the Romanian consensus towards western integration.  Yet a persistent system of corruption has been widely identified as a barrier to Romania’s development, and running with a “chicken in every pot” type of platform, the PSD is clearly not strongly committed to cleaning it up any time soon.

But a new very Western anti-corruption party will for the first time have a strong group of members, about 10 per cent of both houses of the legislature.

Hence while Romania has come a long way, the road to its fuller potential is not straight.  It was an unusual election with none of the major parties putting forward a Prime Minister to lead its campaign, surprisingly low-key by most of the participants.  The next few days may see some further twists and turns.

Romanians flock to polls

I’m writing this about 4 1/2 hours before the polls close. This morning, I accompanied my relatives to the polls held in the elementary school across the street.

I can report that business was brisk in that school, with several polls held there and a steady stream of couples and elderly folk.

There were lots of polling officials, and even police. They were there to enforce a few regulations, including a ban on pictures of the actual voting process.

So you wouldn’t be too surprised that I managed anyway to take a quick bad picture. It shows officials on the right, the ballot boxes in the middle (one for the lower house, one for the senate), and the private booths on the left, covered in flag coloured banners, where people try to figure out which party list to vote for. Each ‘ballot’ is a booklet of about a dozen pages.

Of interest is that every Romanian is issued an identity card, which must be shown in order to vote. It is scanned, and the fact that you have showed up to vote is stored centrally. And if you try to show a second time to vote, you are prevented. No wonder the international organizations are not keen to spend money to monitor the election process here…the Romanian election process seems to have some better safeguards than some countries countries we know.

As far as hard news goes, on election day before the polls close, there is really nothing to say. I can’t really tell if turnout is higher than normal, and exit poll results are banned until polling closes.

While the absence of content doesn’t prevent the news channels from yammering all day long, I will sign off until there are results!


Perhaps Proportional Representation shouldn’t always get good PR


I was greeted this morning with a leaflet dropped off by the largest party in Romania, the PSD (Social Democratic Party).  The inheritors of the old Communist machine, the PSD credits itself in the document with everything good that has happened since 1989, and equally gets blamed for much of the persistent corruption and inertia that impedes Romania’s progress.  The election takes place tomorrow!

Two parties (including the centre-right Liberals and the anti-corruption USR) are lining up to challenge the PSD, and if their combined proportion of seats adds up to a bigger number than the PSD and its allies, could prevent the PSD from winning the election and installing its choice as Prime Minister.

But one thing will be certain after the election.  Because Romania has a Party List Proportional Representation system, the most senior members of the PSD, the ones tarred with perpetuating a system of corruption, will have a paycheck on Monday morning as members of the legislature.  For in a party list system, voters are asked to choose which party they prefer.  When the seats are allocated according to the parties’ share of vote, the people who get to fill those seats are determined by the “Party List”, and I suspect that Liviu Dragnea, the Leader of the PSD is at the top of the list.  With the PSD likely to win between say 35 and 45 percent of the vote, there is effectively no way that voters could rise up and deprive Mr Dragnea of his job.

It’s a system which perpetuates incumbents’ control of the main parties.  Mavericks inside the parties, if they challenge the leadership, have a difficult route to rise up the party list.

And the operation of the system can be complex for voters to understand.  PR makes it generally easier for minor parties to win representation (above a mininum 5% threshold). And in fact, there are three parties now hovering in the 3 to 8 per cent range.  As these parties are likely to have different preferences for coalition partners, the ultimate winner in the election will depend on which parties cross that minimum 5% threshold.

Confused?  Just think of whether the fine old folk in northern Transylvania without the benefit of the Globe and Mail are pondering the effect of their minor-party vote on the construction of the post-election coalition.

And I suspect that turnout is low in countries where people don’t understand what is happening, and feel powerless to turn out the people with whom they are unhappy.

While I fully understand that Canada’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) system has its pendulum of disproportionality, there is something cleansing about the Canadian elections that can dispense with governments so cleanly. Somebodies in the Cabinet can become ‘nobodies’ (to use the term coined by our Prime Minister’s father) as the ballots are counted.  It’s something that just might do Romania a world of good.

The ideal type of electoral system is a not something to settle in a travel blog, I agree.  And Lord knows that Romania has a long set of problems of which Proportional Representation is far from its greatest.   I suppose all I want to suggest is that the country I am visiting reminds us that certain types of Proportional Representation do present some issues. Party List PR systems, in my opinion, have the effect of perpetuating power in the hands of party leaders, and hence are resistant to change.   A problem in a country like Romania, that needs some changes to happen soon.

There will be some back in Canada who are keen on changes to Canada’s FPTP system, and I have time to talk about improvements.  But we have to be careful to understand the effects.  And to be fair to our new Canadian government, I believe that our current Prime Minister also does not have a preference for (fixed-list) Proportional Representation systems.  We just have to be careful how we run our elections.  Because in Canada we have accomplished a few things that other countries would love to replicate.


Toronto, I hate to break it to you…

img_20161209_095136I hate to burst Toronto’s sense of complacency, but Bucharest’s Metro system seems to offer much more than ours.

The picture shows one of about five lines, heading into the downtown at about 9.30 am earlier today. The people sitting in the large quiet cars are all intently staring at their smartphones, because of course all the cars come equipped with WiFi, and not just in the stations.

Fares are only about $1 a ride. Stations are spacious. Most impressive of all, the construction continues.  They are building two new lines, one through the downtown and another up to the international airport.

Now, I wouldn’t want to suggest that Bucharest has it all figured out in terms of urban transportation.  For Bucharest’s (car) traffic situation is quite critically awful.  Rush hours are nasty, brutish and long-lasting.  Mixed in with a healthy disregard for the finer points of traffic signals and a fairly aggressive driving style, and you have one of the reasons that Romania has been called the ‘Wild East.’

I wouldn’t want to pretend to be an urban planner, but it just appears to me that too many people take their cars into the downtown.  Thirty years ago, the shortage of consumer goods and petrol kept the traffic volume down.  But the number of cars has mushroomed in the last decade especially.

You would hope that the availability of transit would lure people out of their cars.  But it appears that the tramway system is lightly used, and neither are the subways at capacity. It’s just too easy to dump their cars for free roadside or even on sidewalks.  The streets are a jumble of cars strewn in every direction.

It seems to this observer that there are two sides to taming the traffic beast.  A great subway system is part one of the solution, and Bucharest is ahead of Toronto here.  But the second part involves making it less possible for cars to dominate the downtown, starting with some meters and parking enforcement.  Toll roads/congestion charges and pedestrian-only sections of the city would be more controversial tools towards that goal.

No easy solutions.  In the meantime, I’ll just write this blog and send it, while I’m heading back out of town on the Metro.  Toronto had better get with the program.