Monday, February 25, 2013

Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators

Ever since high school when I learned about totalitarian states, I have been fascinated by dictators and their personality cults. I focussed my attention on North Korea and Albania, and would clip newspaper articles whenever these two nations made the papers. The articles were never long, mostly a single paragraph in length, yet I cut them out and stored them into two large manilla envelopes entitled "Articles on North Korea" and "Articles on Albania". It was my way of documenting these extremely secretive societies with current information. In the pre-Internet age, and when books on these two countries were few and far between (not to mention, sorely out of date), current newspaper articles were all that I had.

When I read the preface to Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators by Riccardo Orizio (translated by Avril Bardoni), it was like going back in time. Orizio did the same thing. He clipped articles on countries such as Equatorial Guinea and Togo, tiny African nations that rarely made the news and whenever they did make the papers, it was always bad news. And in the case of Equatorial Guinea in the 1970's, it was really bad news.  

Talk of the Devil features interviews Orizio conducted with Idi Amin of Uganda, Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic (later the Central African Empire):

Wojciech Jaruzelski of Poland, Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti and Mengistu Haile-Mariam of Ethiopia. He also interviewed the widow of Enver Hoxha of Albania, Nexhmije Hoxha, and the wife of imprisoned Slobodan Milošević of Yugoslavia, Mira Marković. In choosing which dictators to interview, Orizio states:

"I encouraged them to voice their thoughts, these one-time tyrants. But I deliberately chose those who had fallen from power in disgrace, because those who fall on their feet tend not to examine their own conscience."

Enver Hoxha however does not belong in this category. He died after being in power for well over forty years, and the cult of Hoxha only grew following his death. It was only after the downfall of communism in Europe, last of all in Albania, that Hoxha and his legacy were reinterpreted through the eyes of revisionism. Thus only in the years following his death might he qualify as disgraced. That his iron-fisted "Black Widow" Nexhmije Hoxha was imprisoned by the new democratic regime also taints his legacy.

When given the opportunity to talk, some of the dictators, especially Amin and Bokassa ramble on as if they were still in power. Once a screwball dictator always a screwball dictator. Amin still seemed to want to invade South Africa. Duvalier can't seem to keep his story straight, for when he talks about his earliest memories in the national palace in Port-au-Prince, he claims:

"The very room allocated to me when I was seven years old and my family moved into the Palais on my father's election to the presidency."


"I was four and a half when I witnessed the first attempt to overthrow my father: I saw the armed policemen running into the palace and François Duvalier wearing a helmet to protect his head."

So when did he move into the palace? When he was seven years old or four and a half? And doesn't he mean he witnessed the first attempt to overthrow his grandfather? Duvalier seems insecure and uncomfortable during the interview and leaves most of the answers to his common-law wife, Véronique Roi:

"Véronique is the organising brain behind the refurbished image of Baby Doc...
"Sitting at the low table in the Métropole, removing papers from her bag and using the first-person plural, Véronique looks and sounds like a successful company executive. 'We're very busy at the moment. One meeting after another.' She smiles reassuringly. 'But don't worry, the president will be here any moment now.'"

No one Orizio speaks to regrets anything, although it is only Jaruzelski and the wives of Hoxha and Milošević who express this. Whatever their husbands, and often they themselves, did, it was all par for the course. Nexhmije Hoxha seems the most unrepentant and would do it all over again if she was back in power. Duvalier and the African dictators just seem too wacky to bother asking whether they regret anything.

After stating his fascination with Equatorial Guinea in the preface, I was surprised Orizio did not include an interview with anyone associated with president Francisco Macías Nguema, surely the worst African dictator in history. Orizio included Enver Hoxha and Slobodan Milošević in Talk of the Devil, yet had no access to interview either (because of death or imprisonment, respectively). Macías Nguema may have been executed, but why not talk to his relatives, including his own nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who overthrew him (and is still in power as president, since 1979)? I shudder at the possible answer to that question: Macías Nguema had all opponents murdered, including members of his own family. It is highly possible that Orizio simply couldn't find anyone in Equatorial Guinea to talk to.

Monday, February 18, 2013

102 Minutes: The Definitive Account of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers

102 Minutes: The Definitive Account of the Fight to Survive Inside the Twin Towers by Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn tells the stories of firefighters, police officers and the people themselves who were inside both towers of the World Trade Center on the morning of 11 September 2001. The authors interviewed survivors and the relatives of those who died and compiled their narrative from all forms of communication coming into and going out of both towers that day. Police radio reports, helicopter recordings, 911 calls, E-mails, cellphone conversations and even announcements made in the towers picked up on saved cellphone conversations all capture the sense of the unknown, then the horror of what it was like to be in the World Trade Center as terror rained down.
The workers at 1 World Trade at first believed that a bomb had gone off, a repeat of the act of terrorism that first struck the WTC in February 1993. Unlike the bombing, the disaster that struck the tower this time left no escape route for those who were above the impact zone. Phone calls home filled with confidence that a rescue would soon be underway soon turn into desperation then resignations of imminent death and final "I love you"'s as the people in the highest storeys are choked into breaking windows for fresh air. The authors describe the feelings of the firefighters on duty that day:

"Worst of all were the thunderous, percussive claps as bodies hit the building canopy. So many people from the upper floors were jumping, even now, just minutes after the crash, that the chief went over to the public-address system, not realizing it had been rendered inoperable by the plane.
"'Please don't jump,' he spoke into the dead microphone. 'We're coming up for you.'"

Those who were in the second tower immediately after the first tower was hit received mixed messages from the Port Authority Police Department whether or not to evacuate. Dwyer and Flynn documented recordings made by officers working in the same department, instructing people either to remain on their floor or to leave the building immediately. Your life depended on whom you spoke to. Most tragic of all were the stories of those who evacuated to the lobby only to be told that the building was secure and that it was safe to return to one's office. Those that did, even if their office was below the impact zone, had a hellish second descent down dozens of flights of smoke-filled stairs.

A monumental failure that cost hundreds of lives was the poor and in some cases nonexistent level of communication between the police and fire departments. Each department regarded itself as its own island, ignoring the efforts of the others even while fires were raging and chunks of the tower were falling upon them. No system of shared information was in place, and even when crucial information was known (such as the collapse of the south tower) it was impossible to deliver such a message to those most in harm's way. The authors relate numerous stories where police officers race down the north tower stairs, passing groups of firefighters gathered together on different floors.

102 Minutes tells the stories of those trapped above the impact zones who tried to make it to the roof. Helicopter rescues were in fact considered by the pilots circling the towers but landing atop the blazing, smoking towers was impossible, as was the idea of lowering rescue crews down on ropes. The intense heat alone could compromise the ability of the helicopters to stay aloft by weakening the updrafts if they got too close. The doors to the roofs were locked anyway, however I wonder if there might have been an attempt by any would-be rescuers who landed on the roof to break them open from the outside.

Many heroes lost their lives that day. 102 Minutes has a photos section and it is sad to see photos of these firefighters, police officers and WTC employees in the midst of rescuing people, only to read their names at the end of the book marking those who died in the collapse. Moira Smith from the New York Police Department is in a photograph escorting a man from 2 WTC. Sadly, she died inside the tower, no doubt in her attempt to rescue more people. Frank de Martini and Pablo Ortiz, who worked on the 88th floor of the first tower which was right below the impact zone, rescued people from offices up to the 91st floor, before being blocked by damaged staircases taking them any further. Both men lost their lives in rescuing others.

In 102 Minutes your heart will race, your hands will sweat and you will not pay attention to anything else other than the page you're reading. It was a harrowing read.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back

I process the new books that come into my department at the Central Library and The AIDS Conspiracy: Science Fights Back by Nicoli Nattrass caught my attention. The gay press sometimes devotes space to articles on the "AIDS conspiracy", which Nattrass defines as:

"AIDS conspiracy theories range from the claim that the HIV is a man-made bioweapon, to the 'AIDS denialist' assertions that HIV is harmless and antiretroviral drugs themselves cause AIDS."

Neither of these claims holds any scientific water, and Nattrass, the director of the AIDS and Society Research Unit at the University of Cape Town and thus a qualified scientist, is more than competent to refute the allegations.

The AIDS Conspiracy doesn't just address the issues raised by the conspirators and denialists then prove them wrong with scientific data, but goes deeper in trying to understand what makes conspiracies believable, how the AIDS conspiracy got a foothold and never let go, and how conspirators and denialists make their points by deception, attack and convenient ignorance. When AIDS broke out in the early eighties, I was in high school and remember the three main targets of the disease: gay men, intravenous drug users and Haitians. All three at that time in their own way were marginalized, or considered less desirable or even expendable when compared to straight white Americans. That none of those people were dying of the disease cast suspicions on the etiology of AIDS. It is understandable that questions would be raised about its demographic body count.

Nattrass, who backed up her 163 pages with hundreds of endnotes and 24 pages of references, never stated a point without backing it up in the scientific literature. The conspirators and denialists, however, are prone to emotional rhetoric, skewed data manipulation or, more often, simply cherry-picking facts out of context. It was most interesting to read about Christine Maggiore, a "living icon for the AIDS denialist movement", who although HIV+ disputed science and campaigned against the use of antiretroviral drugs. She herself never took them, nor did she practise safe sex, nor take precautions when her daughter was born (for example, by not breast-feeding her). When her daughter died at the age of three--due to AIDS-related pneumonia--Maggiore, ever the denialist, rejected the coroner's report and claimed that she had died as a result of an allergic reaction to an antibiotic. Maggiore herself succumbed to AIDS a mere three years after receiving her HIV+ diagnosis. Both mother and daughter most definitely would have had longer lives, and perhaps still be alive today, if they had taken antiretrovirals.

Maggiore had a role in one of Africa's most tragic cases caused by AIDS denialism. South African President Thabo Mbeki invited her among other AIDS denialists to a summit in 2000. This meeting would change the way HIV+ South Africans would live out the remainder of their lives. South Africa, the nation with the highest number of HIV+ and AIDS cases, was going to endure what is tantamount to a government-sponsored AIDS genocide. The Minister of Health at the time, Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, rejected the theory that HIV caused AIDS and believed that antiretrovirals were toxic. Thus she banned them from the country, promoting an organic, nutrition-based cure for AIDS instead. Over ten years it is believed that 343,000 died as a result of this denialist policy:

"In practice, Mbeki was not merely 'questioning' HIV science or simply attempting to foster debate: he was actively choosing sides by preventing the introduction of proven lifesaving drugs into a country in the grip of a rampant AIDS epidemic."

Some South African provinces wilfully ignored the policy and obtained antiretrovirals and no doubt saved thousands of lives.

Nattrass slams medical journals that are not peer-reviewed. It seems unthinkable that some journals can publish such articles uncontested, yet it is these very journals and their dramatic pronouncements that catch the attention of political figures such as Mbeki, and which remain in electronic library databases.

At times The AIDS Conspiracy was a slow read. I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I spent an entire hour on the first nine pages alone. The title and cover sure made the book seem exciting but the first chapter certainly wasn't. Having to flip back and forth--for the 634 endnotes--made the reading experience a loathsome chore. I understand why Nattrass needed to include so many notes, yet by chapter five (of eight) I got so sick and tired of it that I read the remainder of the endnotes all at once when I had finished the book.  

Monday, February 4, 2013

Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners

When I first heard about Babel No More: The Search for the World's Most Extraordinary Language Learners by Michael Erard, I knew that it was a book I would have to read. I have long been fascinated not merely by polyglots, but specifically by hyperpolyglots and the limits of language acquisition. When I was a child I longed to study a foreign language, and I didn't get my first exposure until French classes in grade six. At the same time, my 1977 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records stated, under the category "Greatest Linguist":

"According to some uncompleted and hence as yet unpublished researches, the most proficient linguist in history was Sir John Bowring (1792-1872), who was said to be able to read 200 languages and speak 100.

"The greatest living linguist is probably Georges Schmidt (b. Strasbourg, France, in 1915) of the United Nations Translation Department in New York City, who can reputedly speak fluently in 30 languages and has been prepared to embark on the translation of 36 others."

These extremes of hyperpolyglottery are known more to myth than science. Bowring isn't mentioned in Babel No More, wherein Erard travels the world to research those from the past and present who have claimed to know literally dozens of languages.

Before I even opened the book, I was intrigued by this comment on the back cover:

"Erard gets beneath the surface of the hyperpolyglot, piercing the myth of perfect competence, to show the actual landscape of motives, obstacles, and satisfactions that texture the world of long-distance language-learners."

The myth of perfect competence. What was Erard going to discover? Were these Guinness language champions all fakes?

Erard starts his investigation by travelling to Bologna where he researches the archives of Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a cardinal who claimed to speak 72 languages. While on the train en route to Bologna, he feels the limits of his own linguistic capabilities:

"And let me tell you, there's nothing like a trip on a European train to make a white American fellow realize that English, his cradle and this throne, has also been his prison. Sitting with a guy who speaks five languages (four of which he wasn't native to) was intimidating."

The scientific record has shown that there are indeed limits to language acquisition, specifically the capacity to be fluent. Erard profiles many hyperpolyglots and while they may be able to read and translate dozens of languages, they cannot speak many of them. They thus have a level of fluency but it is not total fluency. When these hyperpolyglots are subject to rigorous linguistic testing, Erard encounters the same language limit time after time. When assessing the level of perfect competence, where one can slide effortlessly from language to language while maintaining the appropriate accent, without confusing words and without needing to stop to think of what to say, where one is conversing as closely as possible at the level of a native speaker, the language limit is six. Only six languages. A hyperpolyglot by definition can speak six or more languages fluently, and all of the people profiled in Babel No More do. So why set the limit at six? All of the hyperpolyglots study and review their languages. It is an ongoing process. Many of them intensify their levels of study prior to an exam in order to increase their levels of fluency. However well they may be able to speak these additional languages, they cannot speak them as well as their "first six". These hyperpolyglots will even be able to converse quite well in as many as twenty languages (which is the international extreme for any linguist subject to a battery of tests) but this is only a temporary result. Hyperpolyglots often file their languages away into their mental banks, taking them out to review as the need arises. They are not, however, fluent in these languages prior to such intensive review. In an interview with hyperpolyglot Gregg Cox, Erard learns:

"When Cox and I sat down to talk again, I asked him if there were any myths about hyperpolyglots. He immediately replied, 'That they can jump back and forth between all their languages. That's the biggest myth. I've met several other polyglots, and we've been able to bounce back and forth in seven or eight languages, but not further than that,' he said. 'The most languages that I've ever had back and forth with somebody was seven.'"

How does a hyperpolyglot do it? What skills must one possess in order to amass seven languages fluently, much less twenty? Erard has two theories:

"Possible explanations for talented language learning fall into two general areas. One view says: What matters is a person's sense of mission and dedication to language learning. You don't need to describe high performers as biologically exceptional, because what they do is the product of practice. Anyone can become a foreign-language expert--even an adult. In fact (the story goes), language learners run the gamut, and the successful ones represent the very, very successful end of this spectrum. Their native languages may be as jealous as anyone else's, but somehow these people aren't held back from hearing and producing new sounds, words, and grammatical patterns. Believing that language learning isn't easy and takes work, they commit themselves to using time efficiently."

In my own language studies after I left university, I sought courses that fulfilled certain requirements. In order to attain optimal results of the language at the level I was learning, I looked for courses taking place in locations where the language was spoken every day. Also, the language of instruction had to be the language I was in fact learning, thus it had to be a total immersion program. I was also looking for intensive courses, with many hours of study and lots of homework. In my Finnish and Romansch courses, I found exactly that. While one can certainly learn Finnish in Toronto, I did not want to opt for courses that were part-time and, if I enrolled at the University of Toronto, would have been offered only once every two or three years. I had to live in a Finnish environment where the classroom experience continued once the lessons were over. I got to apply the language on the streets of Helsinki immediately. When I started studying Romansch, I wanted to immerse myself in a Swiss community where this endangered minority language was still spoken as an everyday language. One can study Romansch in metropolitan Swiss cities like Fribourg, but once the lessons were over for the day, there wouldn't be anything in Romansch to read or anyone to talk to. I can't tell you how thrilled I was to go to the Swiss village of Laax to learn Romansch, then go to the post office and purchase stamps, all while speaking the local language. Erard even says:

"I admire people who were such fans of Japanese anime that they took up the language. Living and working in a context where multiple languages are used, and where learning and using them are socially and materially rewarded, are big assets, especially if that place respects a 'something and something' view of languages--where one's capacity in languages, at whatever level, is regarded as meaningful multilingualism."

Another reason I excelled in my Finnish and Romansch courses is that I was highly motivated. I took a leave of absence from work in order to study Finnish for three months. As such I did not get paid for this leave. I had a mission: to go to Finland to study Finnish, and I had better succeed as the trip was costing me a lot of time as well as money. As the only Canadian (ever) in the Romansch program, where the overwhelming majority of students were in fact Swiss citizens, I had invested a lot of money as well. Each of the four times I have been to Switzerland has been a working vacation. Motivation is a powerful force behind success or failure.

Erard however has a second explanation for hyperpolyglot language acquisition:

"The other view says: Something neurological is going on. We may not know exactly what the mechanisms are, but we can't explain exceptional outcomes fully through training or motivation."

Two substantial parts of Babel No More are devoted to brain mechanics and neurolinguistics. I found all the brain talk quite boring, as Erard discussed which parts of the brain served this or that function. Erard likened the brain to a globe and annoyingly referred to certain parts or lobes by their corresponding geographical land mass. I really didn't find it amusing whenever he'd refer to temporal lobes as "India" or elsewhere in the brain as "the Gulf of Mexico". He discovered patterns among the hyperpolyglots he profiled in the book as well as in many of the others he interviewed. In an interview with hyperpolyglot Alexander Arguelles:

"'I don't know many women who collect stamps or coins,' Alexander said to me on one of my visits. He wanted to know if I had ever considered polyglottery as a kind of collecting behavior, perhaps an obsessive one. Maybe it would explain why so many hyperpolyglots were men."


"Why are there more male hyperpolyglots? One answer is that speaking a lot of languages is a geek macho thing."

The first quote could have been said by me. How many times have I told people that "I collect minority languages"?

The majority of the profiles in Babel No More are indeed of men. Why then are there so few women who pursue, and sometimes obsessively study, dozens of foreign languages?

One of the most striking observances was:

"For instance, people who reported knowing six or more languages and who said that learning foreign languages was easier for them were more likely to report homosexual behaviors, preferences, and/or orientations than would be predicted. This finding was statistically significant."

When I attended language courses in university I was often the only male in class. Most of the other men, what few there were, were gay. This was also my observance in my Romansch courses in Switzerland. What is it that draws gay men to languages, or specifically in this case, to wanting to learn many languages? Does gayness precede avid language acquisition, or rather, since my belief is that no one is born gay and that homosexuality is entirely an acquired, learned, or "nurtured" orientation, could multilingualism be one of no doubt many environmental causes of homosexuality? Does a mind that is more adaptable to language acquisition bend itself towards homosexuality? Would I become straight if I was monolingual?

Some of the hyperpolyglots mirrored my own life to eerie proportions. Many of them exhibited Geschwind-Galaburda traits of being gay as well as being spatially limited and, if I do say so myself, verbally gifted. At least two of the hyperpolyglots in Babel No More do not drive because they feel they would be utterly hopeless behind the wheel. I myself would not be the first language student who didn't know how to drive a car. I have tried projecting myself into the driver's seat on many occasions and all I do is cause accidents. I have often said that the only way I would learn to drive a car is if I won one, but even then, if I won a lot of money in addition to the car, I'd hire a driver.

Successful language learners adapt teaching methods to their own personal styles. I was laughing out loud as I read of Erard's technique in his attempt to learn Russian:

"I wanted to be studying Russian. So I invented some games to make the best of it--which, I realize now, is what a prisoner does. It's common sense that when you teach the words for family members, you ask students to bring in photos of their real families, to tap into one's emotions as a pedagogical aid; I've taught it myself that way, when I taught English in Taiwan. Because Bombastic [Erard's nickname for his Russian teacher] did not exert such effort, we sat pointing to imaginary photos. This is my mother, she is a doctor. This is my father, he is an architect.
The best solution: outdo the absurdity. "This is my mother," I said to Elizabeth, pointing at an imaginary photo, reciting aloud to the class. "She is a woman who works on asphalt."
"So is mine!" Elizabeth said.
"This is my father." I said. "He is a veterinarian of elephants."
"So is mine!" Elizabeth said.
Some classmates chuckled. Others were astonished. Bombastic let fly a smirk."

In my later years of high school, and throughout university, whenever I engaged in conversation classes or group tutorials I always turned the tables on my topics of discussion. Whenever we had to prepare a dialogue to recite later in class, I opened the floodgates to all the sick humour I could muster, which made the exercises fun--imagine poring over a German dictionary researching terms to describe gangrenous corpses--and I can still remember to this day how one would say "I have a horrific cancerous growth on my face" auf deutsch.

No matter who the hyperpolyglot is: male or female, straight or gay, immersed in a multilingual home or not, all of the subjects profiled in Babel No More are intense studiers who pursue languages primarily for the love of it. These men and women love to study, they love learning new words, new grammars and discovering literary treasures hidden by the veneer of language. I am inspired by their stories, and know from personal experience as well as their own, that it is never too late to learn a new language.