Saturday, December 29, 2012

Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder

Bloodlands. Europe between Hitler and Stalin. Timothy Snyder. Published in 2010.

I have been trying to finish the review of this book for over two weeks now. It is hard for me, because it is personal. I am Polish. I grew up in a small town which, like most towns in Poland, had a significant Jewish population before the war. I knew nothing about it at the time. For me the 'ghetto' was only a geographical location in the centre of the town, where the farmer's market was. There were no orthodox Jews anywhere to be seen and I did not know anybody who was Jewish.

I also lived in the eastern part of Warsaw, called Praga, which was not razed to the ground after Warsaw Uprising of 1944, because it was already under Soviet control. In Praga, even now, almost 70 years after the war, you can find pre-war buildings ridden with bullet holes from 1939 or 1944. In all of Warsaw, if you look, you will find plaques and monuments commemorating places where people had been executed or where battles had been fought. Every year on August 1st, the city stops for a minute to commemorate Warsaw Uprising of 1944. The 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is remembered as well and Generalplan Ost is part of the national psyche. The last war is hard to forget if you live in Poland.

This book, however, is not really about the war. This book is about 14 million murders committed before and during the war, by the regimes of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, on the lands that they both controlled. Timothy Snyder wants us to think about the victims as 14 million "times one" so we don't forget that they were individuals, with names and stories to tell.

Bloodlands provides context and factual corrections to the national stories, which tend to be one-sided, skewed, or exaggerated. Hundreds of millions of children were "educated" about these events to fit the communist or national version of history.
"What begins as competitive martyrology can end with martyrological imperialism. The wars for Yugoslavia of the 1990s began, in part, because Serbs believed that far larger numbers of their fellows had been killed in the Second World War than was the case. When history is removed, numbers go upward and memories go inward, to all of our peril."
This book uses statistics extensively. For example, to illustrate the point that generalisations are often wrong, and context and individual circumstances are important:
"A non-Jewish Pole in Warsaw, alive in 1933 had about the same chances of living until 1945 as a Jew in Germany alive in 1933."
It is a balanced book, and it doesn't try to agitate one group against another. It tries to dispel some myths using hard historical facts. The above statement, for example, is quickly followed by:
"[...] a Jew in Poland was about fifteen times more likely to be deliberately killed during the war than a non-Jewish Pole."
Timothy Snyder in 500 pages describes so many stories of mass murder that the descriptions sometimes are very succinct. Longer works have been written, and movies made about events that take only a few sentences in Bloodlands - like the story of the Bielski partisans.

If you quickly divide people into good and bad, this book may slow you down a bit. For example, it explains that in the areas of the current Belarus, if you wanted to live, you often had to join Soviet partisans or German police, and you often did not have much choice about who to join - it could be a matter of which forces "visited" your village first. The extreme form of "collaboration" or negative opportunism, was the Judenrat and the Jewish police in the ghettos. Before you accuse somebody of "collaborating" with the enemy, think what you would do in the circumstances. But to do that, you need to know about the circumstances, and that's where Timothy Snyder helps.

14,000,000 x 1 is a well researched, but conservative number. Active soldiers, and others whose death cannot be attributed directly to a deliberate act of murder by Hitler's or Stalin's policies are not counted:
"I therefore generally exclude from the count the people who died of exertion or disease or malnutrition in concentration camps or during deportations, evacuations, or flight from armies. I also exclude people who died as forced laborers. I am not counting people who died of hunger as a result of wartime shortfalls, or civilians who died in bombings or as a result of other acts of war."
They are excluded from the main count, but their stories and numbers of victims, although not the main theme of Bloodlands, are noted. The count, in approximate chronological order, is as follows:
"[...] 3.3 million Soviet citizens (mostly Ukrainians) deliberately starved by their own government in Soviet Ukraine in 1932-1933; three hundred thousand Soviet Citizens (mostly Poles and Ukrainians) shot by their own government in the western USSR among the roughly seven hundred thousand victims of the Great Terror of 1937-1938; two hundred thousand Polish citizens (mostly Poles) shot by German and Soviet forces in occupied Poland in 1939-1941; 4.2 million Soviet citizens (largely Russians, Belarussians, and Ukrainians) starved by German occupiers in 1941-1944; 5.4 million Jews (most of them Polish or Soviet citizens) gassed or shot by the Germans in 1941-1944; and seven hundred thousand civilians (mostly Belarussians and Poles) shot by the Germans in "reprisals" chiefly in Belarus and Warsaw in 1941-1944."
Bloodlands describes reality that is complicated and soul crushing. Reality of state lies, betrayal, fear, and torture. Reality created by two strongly minded people who had millions of followers, who believed that they were doing good, that they had noble goals, and that means justify the ends.
"To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them."
Enough Germans liked Hitler and the Nazi party to vote them into a political stronghold from which they could not be removed peacefully. Hitler wanted to unite and protect all Germans, so they could never again be humiliated by the French, or overran by the Slavs. He wanted Germany to be ethnically pure, economically strong, providing decent living conditions and stable employment to all workers. He wanted to expand the living space for the quickly growing "noble" race of Aryans. He hated Jews, because he thought they were immoral, used manipulative rhetoric tactics, and were loyal to other Jews rather than to the state. A large part of the society didn't mind... Would you?

Communists had initially the support of millions of Russian peasants and workers, who benefited from the overthrow of the capitalist regime by seizing private and church land, and by getting shorter working hours and higher wages. Stalin, at least publicly, followed Lenin's goal of building a paradise on earth, where everybody would give to the society as much as they could, and everybody would get from the society as much as they needed. All income from land distributed for public purposes, progressive taxes, no inheritance, free education for children, equality... Isn't that nice?

Is this book relevant today?

I think it is. Definitely not to scratch old wounds, maybe even not to correct our national memories. The message for all of us, but particularly Jews, Poles, Germans, Russians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Belarussians, and any other group touched personally by the story of Bloodlands, is that we should be vigilant, so such atrocities do NOT happen again, anywhere, to any group. We should never again ignore, or worse, follow people who think that their group is better than another, or who incite hate against another group, or torture and kill people, or start wars under false pretences

If you think that these things could not occur today, then how do you explain that, less than 10 years ago, we let one strongly minded leader start an unprovoked war which resulted in at least 109,032 deaths? Because the goal was noble?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Made in America by Bill Bryson

Made in America was published in 1994. In principle, it is a book about English words that originated in the area that is now the United States of America. However, it is much more than that. It is a book about people, places, customs, and languages. The history of words is often a pretext for Bill to tell an interesting story about a person, an invention, about immigration, film making, aviation, advertising, sex, or car manufacturing.

Here is a sample of Bill Bryson's style from chapter 15, The Movies:
"It is a curious fact that this most American of phenomena was created almost entirely by non-Americans. Apart from Mack Senett and Mary Pickford (who were in any case both Canadian), the early studios were run by a small band of men who had begun life from strikingly similar backgrounds: they were all eastern European Jews, poor and uneducated, who had left Europe in the same decade (the 1880s), and had established themselves in the New World in the mostly lowly trades before they all abruptly - and instinctively, it seems - abandoned their careers in the first decade of this century and became seized with the opportunities to be found in the nickelodeon business." 
This introduction is followed by detailed stories of many men, among them Samuel Goldwyn, whose name makes the middle part of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and who was born Schmuel Gelbfisz in Warsaw. Goldwyn's memorable contributions to the English language include 'Gentlemen, include me out', and 'You've bitten the hand of the goose that laid the golden egg'. :-)

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Vicky Cristina Barcelona by Woody Allen

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a Woody Allen film about our search for a fulfilling relationship. Shown from the point of view of two young American women spending summer in Europe. Not very believable, but still delightful to watch.

Made in 2008, the movie is starring beautiful actors (Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall) and beautiful cityscapes and landscapes of Barcelona and Catalonia.

"Life is the ultimate work of art".

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Byron Bay, NSW

Welcome to Byron Bay, a beautiful little place in northern NSW, about 1 hour south from Gold Coast.

Walking towards Wategos Beach, which like most in Australia, is also a park, with benches, barbies, and public toilets:

Wategos Beach, looking south:

There is a 3.7 km walking trail from the beach, up Cape Byron, to the light house, and then down to Clarkes Beach:

Cape Byron. We saw a couple of dolphins swimming along the coast. Often, during their migration period, you can see whales from here.

Approaching the light house: 

And here it is, built in 1901, still operating today. The cycle of Cape Byron lighthouse is 15 seconds. If you get lost in the Coral Sea and see a light appearing every 15 seconds, you will know that is a lighthouse at Cape Byron. If you see a red light, watch out, because you are close to the rocks:

Oh, you can drive up to the light house too, but the parking is scarce, and there is a fee:

Scheduled guided tours of the light house are available for a donation.

The lighthouse currently uses two electrical light bulbs, 1000W each, of which only one is on at any time and the other one is an automatic backup. The base for the rotating lightbulbs and mirrors weighs over 4 tonnes, and is turned by two small electric motors. This is possible, because the base floats in mercury, the same toxic metal used in the past in thermometers:

Going down the trail, a view towards Tallow Beach:

You are here:

Clarkes Beach:

Native vegetation planted on a steep hill: 

A road block:

Back at Wategos Beach:

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Google Speaks by Janet Lowe

On 300-odd small pages of "Google Speaks" Janet Lowe tells the story of Google and the key people who run it: Sergey Brin, Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt.

This book was published in 2009 - only 3 years ago - and it already shows signs of age: Facebook, which is the biggest danger to Google's dominance of Internet, is not mentioned even once.

A few gems:

Google makes money from advertising, however, initially Page and Brin didn't want to go that route. They wrote: "[...] we expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers."

The book contains a guess of Google having 1 million servers back in 2006. This was probably an overshot. Google may have about 2 million servers currently.

The ultimate goal of Larry and Sergey is to create AI. Larry Page: "Google will fulfill its mission only when its search engine is AI-complete. You guys know what that means? That's artificial intelligence." 

Sergey Brin: "It’s not enough not to be evil. We also actively try to be good." Despite the many controversies mentioned in the book, this guiding principle is clearly visible when you compare the history of Google with the history of Facebook. Google may be first to create AI and bring an end to the human rule on Earth, but it will do so with good intentions.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Karate My Life

Written by Kanazawa Hirokazu in Japanese, translated into English by Alex Bennett.

Apart from Chuck Norris, Kanazawa Hirokazu is probably the most famous karateka alive.  Sensei Kanazawa worked all his life to popularise Karate around the world. He organised clubs, wrote books, travelled, performed in public and on TV. "Karate My Life" contains detailed account of that work.

"In the world of budo everybody is of equal standing regardless of race, creed, or religion. Good people stand shoulder to shoulder within the great family that is the dojo. Even if the dojo is small, the way pursued is great and it links the whole world together."

The book is very personal. It details Kanazawa's childhood, talks about his reasons to start practising martial arts, reveals thoughts on family, and on getting old.

Kanazawa was born in 1931 and started travelling in the early 1960s, when the memories of  Japanese atrocities were still strong. In Britain he overcomes initial hostility of a British woman whose husband was a POW killed by the Japanese, and of a chinese restaurant owner whose whole family was slaughtered by the Japanese Imperial Army in Imphal.
"I realised then that we are all put on this earth inextricably linked to our past. There is a thread that links parents to their children, and then their children. If one generation is careless, the repercussions will be felt for generations to come. We all have a responsibility to prevent such things from happening." 

You can see sensei Kanazawa performing various kata, for example Heian Godan - the fifth basic kata, on youtube.

A few karate terms:

sensei - teacher
sempai - senior student
budo - martial arts
dojo - training hall and the people who train there

kata - form
kumite - sparring
kihon - basics

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Geeks Bearing Gifts

Geeks Bearing Gifts v.1.1, subtitled How the computer world got this way, is a collection of thoughts and notes about people and events of the computer revolution. Written in 2008 by Ted Nelson, a legend himself, the man behind Xanadu.

This book is great, because we get an insider's view into the fascinating history of our biggest invention - the computer.

This book sucks a bit in how it is delivered: proofreading could have been done better, the text in low-res illustrations is barely readable, the disjointed style feels more like reading notes, or encyclopaedia, and finally, the chapter summaries are completely unnecessary. The 200 pages of Geeks Bearing Gifts are divided into 50 chapters numbered from -27, through 0 (UNIX®), to 22. Each chapter starts with a summary, which I started skipping after a few chapters, because a half page summary in a two page chapter means re-reading the same information shortly after reading it for the first time. Irritating.

Still, for a computer geek, this book makes an interesting read. Let me end with an unusually succinct summary of the last chapter "Why We Fight", which contains Ted's manifesto:
"Today's computer world is a godawful mess, ghastly for many people. But there yet may be hope."

Saturday, July 21, 2012

In the Land of Israel

In the Land of Israel, Amos Oz shows us a glimpse of "a few places and a few people" in Israel in Autumn 1982. This interesting, but difficult to read book throws us into the complexity and diversity of political views, religious beliefs, economical situation, history and present of various inhabitants of the land of Israel at that time.

Amos's journey starts where he grew up, in the Geulah quarter in Jerusalem, now taken over by the Hasidim, and ends in the port city of Ashdod. In between, we travel with the author and listen to his conversations with people of Bet Shemesh - a stronghold of Likud west of Jerusalem, Tekoa - a Jewish community in the West Bank (historical provinces of Judea and Samaria), Ramallah, an anonymous veteran village, Ofra - a Jewish settlement in West Bank, the East Jerusalem office of Al-Fajr Al-Arabi - The Arab Dawn, and the city of Zichron Yaakov.

In Ofra the author presents his views on statehood, which I will sum up here with these two excerpts: "Nationalism itself is, in my eyes, the curse of mankind", but "[...] existence without the tools of statehood is a matter of mortal danger [...]".

About the author: "Amos Oz was born in 1939 into a family which, as he has said. 'dreamed in Yiddish, conversed in Russian and Polish, read books in German and English', but taught him one language only: Hebrew."

And on a lighter note, since I live in Oz now, "oz" in Hebrew means courage or strength, but be careful how you spell it. :-)

Monday, July 9, 2012

History's Greatest Deceptions

The full title of this book by Eric Chaline is History's Greatest Deceptions and the People Who Planned Them.

Surely you have heard of the Ponzi scheme, but do you know the history of Carlo Pietro Giovanni Guglielmo Tebaldo Ponzi himself?

A woman cannot be the leader of the Catholic Church? ...unless she can hide as well as pope Joan did. According to legend, she was exposed when she went into labour public ...riding a horse.

These two cases are among fifty deceptions grouped into religious, military, financial, scientific, and three other categories. The stories are short. More like teasers than full biographies. Nevertheless, you may find something interesting. For example, I learned that long before East Germany became notorious for its strong woman athletes, there was a Polish woman Olympic medalist Stanisława Wałasiewicz who turned out to be a fraud when an autopsy was made on her after being accidentally shot dead in a Cleveland shopping mall.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Springbrook National Park and Fingal Head, Australia

When people think about Gold Coast, they often see Surfers Paradise, beaches, bikies, gambling, sky scrapers. Yes, it is all there, but for me Gold Coast is a magical, warm place where both civilisation and nature are within an hour's drive: libraries, universities, international airports, theatres, museums, amusement parks, botanical gardens, city beaches and wild beaches, national parks, mountains, lakes, forests, old volcanoes, colourful and loud parrots, kangaroos in my front yard.

The name "Gold Coast" was officially adopted only in 1958, and in my opinion it was a mistake. I wish it was still called South Coast. I can only come to terms with "gold" in the name when I think it refers to the colour of sand and sun, not the precious metal.

Our visit to Springbrook National Park in Gold Coast hinterland started with a look at a monument to bad planning:

Springbrook National Park has many lookouts, and to make life easier for tourists spoiled with choice, we proudly present "Best of All Lookout":

It is a truly great lookout, starting with Mt Warning to the south:

And ending with this view to the north:

After checking the lookouts, time to set up the tent. Red skies over Settlement camping area:

At night we went to Springbrook Glow Worms to see the "glowing worms", which turned out to be larvae of an ancient fly. While there, my suspicions about killer Australian leaves were confirmed:

Our guide, Garry Maguire, is a scientist. He discovered a number of glowing mushrooms in Springbrook:

While checking the forest floor for new kinds of glowing things 16 years ago, Garry was bitten by a funnel web spider. I thought that funnel web spiders were limited to Sydney. Another myth busted, they are in Queensland too!

The next day we checked out the Purling Brook Falls lookout:

And the Canyon lookout:

And then the Natural Bridge section, on our way out of Springbrook:

We left cool Springbrook and drove towards the coast. This is Fingal Head, just behind the border in NSW. Looking towards Queensland.

Nearly symmetrical stones of a Giant's Causeway. A brother of the Irish one.

Looking south. Mt Warning looming in the distance.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Currumbin, Gold Coast, Australia

First stop at a hill near Carrara. Looking east: towards the coast and Surfers Paradise. The blocks (plots of land) around the top are for sale with prices starting at $220,000 for the smallest 700 square meter block. You can get one with a view like this or towards the hinterland.

Currumbin. Looking north: a view towards Surfers Paradise. The cliff on the left is Burleigh Head National Park. The jet ski belongs to the life guards. 

Basia. Remember, it's almost Winter here, hence the attire. When the sun comes out it gets quite warm. It was up to 23 degrees Celsius today.

Basia and the big rock.

Tomek and the same rock.

Looking south: a view towards Coolangatta - the southernmost suburb of the city of Gold Coast, and Queensland. Collangata is practically one city with Tweed Heads in New South Wales. For half a year, the time is different between the two. Queensland doesn't observe Daylight Saving Time, NSW does. It must be quite confusing for the people living in Coolangatta or visiting at that time.

Looking west: houses on a hill and the parking lot of a popular beach restaurant located at Currumbin Beach Surf Club. Today it was empty, because recent storms deposited tons of sand and it is being pushed back to the beach by the city council.

Here is the city council bobcat cleaning the parking lot.

 Looking north.

Something alive in the sand.

A sculpture of Sun Spirit by Frank Miles, 2006.

Looking north.

Looking up. A Jet Star plane landing at Gold Coast Airport in Coolangatta.

Boiling water for visitors to make tea or coffee. Very useful when you have small kids and need to prepare a warm meal.

No Australian park/beach would be complete without a public BBQ.

A computer in a children's section at a public library in nearby Elanora. See the size and colours of the keys?

And a plaque in the sidewalk in front of that library commemorating Dashiell Hammersmith.   Funny, Google search on "Dashiell Hammersmith" brings 1 result about a fictional character. Nothing on the real person. Either the plaque is wrong or Google search is wrong.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Hinze Dam, Gold Coast, Australia

The Hinze Dam on the Gold Coast was designed to be built in three stages. Each stage made the dam bigger and increased capacity. Stage 3 has been completed late last year. 

This is the view from the top of the dam towards spillway - the only part of the dam made of concrete: 

The rest of the dam is made from rocks and clay:

The artificial Advancetown Lake:

The spillway seen from the bottom: