Saturday, August 22, 2015

All Monsters Must Die: An Excursion to North Korea

All Monsters Must Die: An Excursion to North Korea by Magnus Bärtås and Fredrik Ekman (translated by Saskia Vogel) is about two Swedes' visit to the DPRK in 2008. Bärtås and Ekman spent eight days in the North and this is their brief travel diary. I recalled everything about their trip from my own time there. Since I spent eighteen days in the North I feel spoiled by the things I got to see that the authors didn't, and while I certainly shared laughs over the same experiences (and I am convinced the authors and I encountered some of the same officials and tour guides on our respective trips) I felt I could have done a better job writing a travel story. An eight-day trip was too short to get into because it's over before you know it.

Bärtås and Ekman and I shared the same experiences with disobedient fellow travellers threatening the travel plans for the entire group. In my small group of sixteen, there were four who were under the watchful eye of the guides for taking unauthorized photos. Most of us, however, had proved our obedience to the rules, and were able to photograph whatever we wanted. However, when Bärtås and Ekman's group left the DPRK:

"The agents rummage through our luggage. Our camera is inspected. The customs officers look at all the pictures on the digital cameras. Pictures that are not suitable are deleted, but it happens randomly. No one gets to keep pictures of ox-drawn carts--that might imply the country is behind in its development."

So I suppose no one got to keep a picture such as this one that I took:

The authors raved about Guy Delisle's graphic novel Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea and I'm glad they gave a plug for his book. It is a must for anyone interested in the DPRK, and especially for anyone planning a trip there.

The authors and I visited Mount Paektu, the ancestral home of the Korean people. It is a beautiful mountain with a blue crater lake. Bärtås and Ekman must have seen it on a cloudless day. I thought the reference to Iceland was quite striking, seeing as I have just returned from there:

"Baekdu is the highest point on the entire Korean peninsula. The rusty red and orange streaks of lava on the volcanic rock remind us of Iceland's landscape. The haze between the distant, bluish ridges of Manchuria creates a depth of field like stained glass."

One highlight of All Monsters Must Die was the authors' interview with Choi Eun-hee, a South Korean actress who was kidnapped under the orders of the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il. Her former husband, film director Shin Sang-ok was also kidnapped and they were held captive for eight years, undergoing indoctrination and imprisonment, all for the sake of producing movies for the Dear Leader and the DPRK regime.

The translation was fine yet there were numerous instances where the English definite article was missing. Such is the case with Swedish definite articles: they get tagged on at the end of the noun and thus might be missed in translation. Vogel made one translating error, calling a man's wife's father his stepfather instead of his father-in-law. The authors made references to several books about North Korea that I had never heard of before, especially memoirs, so I will investigate these.

For the link to my own North Korean travel blog, which also includes reviews of the books I bought while over there, go here (travel blog and book reviews) and here (for more recent book reviews only).

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Few books cover such a vast sweep of time. Harari in his book Sapiens begins at the very beginning, the coming into being of our universe, and moves along at a brisk pace all the way to the future, that is, approximately 200 years into our future.

Harari comes from the Jared Diamond school of big history (for example, see Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel). Harari doesn’t shy away from the truly large, meaningful questions that non-specialist and popular readers of history and philosophy often criticize academic professionals for ignoring, question such as does history have any overall meaning? What is so special about human beings? What is the same and what is different about us compared to other biological organisms? Are we humans becoming happier with the passage of historical time? Any one of these questions could easily fill several monster thick volumes of deep and erudite analysis. Harari addresses all of them in a mere 400 pages.

And there are heaps of topics addressed—many with refreshing novelty.  For example, most people think the agricultural revolution that turned our ancestors from hunter gatherers into farmers was a great boon for civilization. Harari argues otherwise suggesting that people became less happy when they exchanged the bow and arrow for the plow; in fact he calls this transformation history’s biggest fraud. Harari makes equally compelling observations about the forces at work unifying sapiens around the world: money, imperialism, and religion. Sociology aside, Harari hits his stride in shocking the reader with his take on how evolutionary processes shape history. He very startlingly and accurately reminds us that if you turn the clocks back 100,000 years (give or take a year) you would encounter not one but many different species of humans. That’s right, homo sapiens were just one of several humanoid creatures (the Neanderthals being another famous example—but there were others!). We eventually squeezed out our cousins and became the only remaining sapiens. The distant past is not the only place full of surprises. When Harari turns to the future things get really weird. Homo sapiens have only another 200 years left of existence. Yep, 200 short years. What is going to happen to us? Well, in a word, evolution. Science and technology are advancing so rapidly that within a few centuries we will have the power to essentially design the universe. It turns out that religious types were right about the universe being designed—only they thought it happened in the past and by the hand of God. In fact the designing of the universe is something our descendants will do in the future. Let that thought sink in. What it means is the end of evolution because we will take hold of the process rather than allow blind genetic/quantum processes to rule.

I find this book totally fascinating even though I disagree with many of the premises advanced. Let me explain.

Sapiens is a grand narrative of the universe looked at through the lens of science. When the analysis turns to our species the lens comes from the evolutionary biology tool kit. I read the book cover to cover and when I was done I reread certain sections of it, and all the while I felt something was missing. That something, I realized later, was ethics or perhaps a better way to describe it is the moral paint that colours all of our experiences. How do you write a book about sapiens (us) and mention, only in passing, a facet of life that every person who has ever lived has grappled with and confronted at every turn? No one to my knowledge has ever escaped the all-embracing nature of ethical demands. The answer, of course, is that from the standpoint of evolutionary biology morality equals brain chemistry. Homo Sapiens it turns out are not special in any way from anything else in the universe and chemistry (not to mention physics and mathematics) can prove it. So it must be asked, is morality simply a human brain quirk? Is it something we can alter at our whim? Can we—indeed should we—create a pill to become better people? Whether you answer yes or no to these questions, think about what it suggests about the objective (i.e. independent of biology and brain chemistry) nature of ethics. 

The book, which you can surmise from this brief critique, is packed with lots of thought provoking ideas. This observation extends all the way to the final few paragraphs of the book. I have read few works with a more harrowing end than the one presented there. I’ll let you judge for yourself.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World

I process the new books in my department at the library and just days before I left for Iceland we received Island on Fire: The Extraordinary Story of a Forgotten Volcano That Changed the World by Alexandra Witze and Jeff Kanipe. The volcano in question is Laki, which erupted in Iceland in 1783. Since I was leaving on vacation in a matter of days I did not want to read it then, but started it the day after I got back. I saw Island on Fire for sale in Iceland's bookstores, and knew it would be waiting for me when I got back. Now with the closing of all Black's photography stores in a couple of weeks, I have worked like a maniac processing all of my, and Mark's, photos before the company's on-line photo processing website is shut down. All Black's stores are closing on August 8 yet their photo processing website is scheduled to close two weeks before that, on July 24. I thus had only twelve days to edit close to two thousand photos, and have done nothing but editing since I got back. No gym, no Scrabble Club, no catching up on "Coronation Street". With my photo processing preoccupying all my free time, I could only read during my lunch or dinner hours at work. Island on Fire was a fascinating book and I could have finished it in four days. Instead, it took me ten days to read it. I looked forward so much to my hour of reading each day at work. 

Laki, unlike Krakatoa, seems to be, as the authors claim, a forgotten volcano. Laki erupted exactly one hundred years before Krakatoa, and a century can make a world of difference in the development of technology and the diffusion of news via transportation and media outlets. Iceland was still a sparsely inhabited island in the late eighteenth century and the eruption's effects on the island may have gone unnoticed in the rest of the world, however, the effects on the European mainland were profound. When Laki erupted it blew a cloud of thick, dry fog all over Europe that obscured the sun and moon. The fog lingered for months, and rain could not dissipate it. The result was that in Europe in 1783, it was known as the summer without sun. While the sun shone like a dull rayless orb behind the dense haze, it still produced soaring temperatures:

"The heat blanketed northern, western and part of central Europe. A letter from Vienna, published in London's Morning Herald in September, claimed that 'we have experienced here the greatest heat ever remembered in this country'--as high as 31 degrees Celsius."

The winter that followed produced its own extreme temperatures:

"In Vienna, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who had just completed his Piano Concerto no. 14 in E-flat major, found himself distracted by the bitter cold. In a letter to his father dated 10 February 1784, he writes: 'I have just one more question to ask, and this is, whether you are now having in Salzburg such unbearably cold weather as we are having here?'"

But that is nothing when compared to the effects the eruption suffered at home. Census figures show Iceland's population in 1783 at 48.884, yet three years later this figure fell to 38.363, a loss of 22%. What killed ten thousand people? It was certainly not by the immediate consequences of the eruption. Lava flows, landslides and earthquakes did not kill so many people at once. What the authors claim is that the official cause of death--famine--may only be partially to blame. Fluorine poisoning, or fluorosis, may have been responsible for more human and animal deaths. The symptoms of fluorosis are haunting: weakening teeth and bones, bone deformities, inflamed and putrefied organs, gaping open sores, even the loss of the tongue. Animals grazed and ingested fluorine particles. No one could avoid fluorine getting into the water. The low dry haze was poison in the air and it was poisoning the population; 

The authors devoted chapters to discussing the overall Icelandic volcanic record, including more famous (or notorious) volcanoes such as Hekla and Eyjafjallajökull. They also branched out and discussed other volcanoes that had cataclysmic effects throughout world history. They did not rely on eruptions that shook the earth only in the last two thousand years, but used the earth's geological record to write about eruptions from millennia ago to show how the most violent volcanoes have rocked the world. Island on Fire also looked at the science of predicting volcanic activity and what we can do in advance of an eruption. 

I shall be giving a photo presentation documenting my sixteen-day tour around Iceland at the Mississauga Central Library on Tuesday, September 29 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m. in meeting room CL3. Please call 905.615.3500 extension 3589 to register. Admission is free but registration is required. Come see my photos of volcanoes, waterfalls, glaciers and the most beautiful green scenery on this remarkable island.